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What Made Neil Armstrong the Right Man to Be First on the Moon, as Told in 1969

6 minute read

Neil Armstrong’s stoic nature and personal challenges are at the center of Damien Chazelle’s new film First Man, in which Ryan Gosling portrays the legendary moon walker. As Armstrong, Gosling brings out the astronaut’s quiet side — one that his contemporaries couldn’t help but notice. A 1969 profile of the Apollo 11 crew in TIME calls Armstrong “tight-lipped and phlegmatic” as well as “an inscrutable loner.”

His wife Janet told LIFE at the time: “Silence is a Neil Armstrong answer. The word no is an argument.”

But beneath the quiet surface, Armstrong had a certain something that left him particularly qualified to make history.

As TIME noted in 1969, Armstrong, at first a civilian test pilot for NASA, did not initially have any intention of becoming an astronaut. But as other pilots were brought into the space program, he changed his mind. He was chosen to be an astronaut in 1962. And yet, in some ways, it was as if he had been preparing all his life:

Last spring, he spent two full days with his father and never once bothered to mention that the day after they parted he was going to be officially named as the first man to set foot on the moon. With his sandy hair, innocent blue eyes and boyish smile, he looks as though he has just stepped out of a Norman Rockwell painting. More than any other astronaut, Neil Armstrong epitomizes small-town America.

He was born in Wapakoneta, Ohio (pop. 7,500), the son of a career civil servant who is now assistant director of the state’s Department of Mental Hygiene and Correction. As a youth, Neil limited his social life mainly to school and church functions; when he went out with a girl it was usually on a double date to the ice-cream parlor. He played baritone horn in the school band. He studied hard, and while his teachers do not remember Armstrong as a particularly brilliant student, he impressed them all with the thorough, meticulous way he went about his work. Says Professor Paul E. Stanley, who taught Neil aerodynamics at Purdue: “He was a Boy Scout [in fact, he made Eagle Scout at 17], and he literally lived up to the motto ‘Be Prepared.’ ”

Armstrong first set eyes on an airplane at the age of two, and he made his first flight at six in an old Ford tri-motor. As a boy, he was forever assembling model airplanes, and while other youngsters were still scrambling for comic books, he went right for the aeronautical publications when the magazine shipments arrived on the stands. He worked part time in the drugstore (40¢ an hour) and as a grease monkey at the airfield to accumulate the money for flying lessons ($9 an hour), and earned his pilot’s license on his 16th birthday, the first day he was eligible. For a while, he had to bicycle the three miles between Wapakoneta and the field; Neil Armstrong was flying planes before he had a driver’s license.

At about the same time, the future astronaut was taking his first close look at the moon through a homemade 8-in. reflector telescope fashioned from a stovepipe and mounted on roller-skate wheels atop a garage. The wondrous device belonged to Jacob Zint, a neighbor of the Armstrongs and a draftsman in the Westinghouse plant. “I can’t recall that Neil ever said he wanted to go to the moon,” says Zint. But as early as 1946, Armstrong was regularly visiting the makeshift observatory and often, says Zint, “he looked right into the Sea of Tranquillity”—the prime site for next week’s landing.

The audience knows how Armstrong’s NASA story ends, but Chazelle imbues First Man with enough tension to make one remember that space travel, even when successful, is a pretty stressful process.

Prior to joining Apollo 11, Armstrong had some near misses as a pilot and proved himself capable of dealing with them. “As a civilian test pilot in 1962, he plummeted uncontrollably toward earth when the rocket engine in his X-15 failed to start, but it caught on just in time. As commander of Gemini 8 in 1966, he had to abort the scheduled three-day flight after ten hours when a short circuit threw the spacecraft’s thrusters out of control. Last summer he had to eject from a lunar-landing research vehicle at an altitude of only 100 ft. when it spun out of control and crashed,” TIME detailed.

The mission to the moon itself was also incredibly dangerous. TIME’s 1969 coverage of the moon landing noted the dangers of the flight:

At any point during the eight-day journey, a massive failure of the electrical or oxygen systems, or a collision with a large meteor would almost surely result in tragedy. But lift-off was the most nerve-racking part of the mission. If the ascent engine had failed to start, Eagle would have been stranded on the lunar surface. Too short a burn would have tossed the module into a trajectory that would send it smashing back onto the lunar surface.

Of course, as everyone now knows, the spacecraft was able to leave the moon and return to Earth without major issue. The moon landing was immediately hailed by TIME as a “stunning scientific and intellectual accomplishment for a creature who, in the space of a few million years — an instant in evolutionary chronology — emerged from primeval forests to hurl himself at the stars.”

It was an achievement that bowled over even the most reserved of people, including Armstrong, whose reputation for being quiet preceded him. As TIME put it, “Even the taciturn Armstrong could not contain his excitement” once he got there:

He began to bubble over with detailed descriptions and snap pictures with all the enthusiasm of the archetypal tourist … Even his geologic descriptions bordered on the rhapsodic “It has a stark beauty all its own. It’s like much of the high desert of the United States. It’s different, but it’s very pretty out here.”

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Write to Mahita Gajanan at mahita.gajanan@time.com