First Man

Last night we went to see First Man at the Gateway Film Center. The movie tells the story of Neil Armstrong, from his days as a test pilot flying the X-15 over the California high desert to his work as a NASA astronaut and, ultimately, to his step onto the Moon that indelibly wrote his name into the history books.

It’s a riveting tale, and the movie leaves a powerful impression as it follows two narrative threads — the arc of the lunar space program and the equally compelling story of the impact on families. The film presents the life of the astronauts with intense realism, as they wedge themselves into cramped spaces atop enormous rockets, are routinely shaken to bits even in a successful launch, and have to deal with technical malfunctions that, in Armstrong’s case, left him in a Gemini capsule spinning out of control above the Earth and on the verge of passing out before he discovered a fix. Tragedy and death are an accepted part of the job, and above it all is the sense that the astronauts were playing a key role in an essential national mission. You can’t watch the film without acquiring a new appreciation for the brave and resolute men who were part of the astronaut program.

But the home front tale is just as powerful. There, too, untimely death has a huge impact, and families struggle as husbands and fathers become increasingly absorbed in the mission and are frequently away. The wives shoulder the burden of keeping their families together and moving forward, listening worriedly to the mission control feeds in their suburban homes as TV crews and photographers and reporters jostle on the front lawns, and living with the oppressive reality that, at any moment, their husbands might be killed and there is absolutely nothing they can do about it. The grit and fortitude of wives and mothers were just as crucial to the success of the mission as the courage of the astronauts.

Ryan Gosling is terrific as Neil Armstrong, the buttoned-up and buttoned-down engineer who immerses himself in the mission and strives to keep his emotions in check, and Claire Foy is equally terrific as Janet Armstrong, the pillar of the family who holds it all together. The film is beautifully photographed and the sense of realism is total — from the buttons and switches and configuration of the spacecrafts to the shuddering rocket launches to the desolate lunar surface . . . and to the cans of Budweiser, the TV sets with rabbit ears, and the clothing that were part and parcel of suburban life in the ’60s.

First Man is the best film I’ve seen in a long time; I give it five stars. And as we left the theatre I was struck by the thought that once, this country could come together to try to do great things — and then actually accomplish the mission. I wish we could capture more of that spirit these days.

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Going To The Moon

Forty-nine years ago, on July 20, 1969, the Lunar Module carrying Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the Moon.  Neil Armstrong stepped off a ladder onto the lunar surface, spoke his famous words — “That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind” — and history was made.

6dd375de95e2dbaea454b6203379dd20I was watching on that day, along with probably everyone else on the planet who had access to a TV set.  I remember sitting with UJ and watching grainy black and white footage as the lunar module landed and then, later, Armstrong stepped into history.  I was 12 years old.  Even now, I still feel a little thrill just thinking about that day and that moment, when it seemed like anything was possible and it would be the start of a golden age of space exploration that would take human beings to Moon bases, Martian colonies, and on to the stars.  Of course, that didn’t happen . . . but I still remember that awed and awesome feeling.

Popular Mechanics has a great piece that steps through the various phases of the Apollo 11 mission, from liftoff to the descent to the Moon to the return to Earth, based on the recollections of some of the participants.  It’s well worth reading.  If, like me, you watched it live in amazed wonder, you can relive that experience.  If you weren’t around then, it’s worth reading just to get a sense of what it was like for the United States of America to invent spacecraft, land on the Moon, and return to Earth in an era when the most sophisticated computer used on the mission would now be considered a Stone Age relic.  It was an extraordinary achievement.

I hope our politicians celebrate this 49th anniversary, and finally decide that it’s high time that we return to the Moon — and venture farther still.  It’s long overdue.

Mitt’s Speech, And Some Big Election Themes

Mitt Romney finally got his chance to speak last night.  I thought he gave a good speech that sketched out who he is, what he believes, and where he wants us to go and also sounded themes that are likely to appeal to many Americans who are disappointed in their circumstances and our country’s current condition.

It’s got to be tough to be the nominee at one of these conventions.  You must sit there for days while the podium is occupied by others, hoping that no one commits a crippling blunder and the message you want your party to deliver is getting through.  Yet at the same time every viewer is moving inexorably toward a “convention fatigue” threshold.  You must hope that, by the time you step behind that podium, Americans aren’t so sick to death of speeches that they can’t bear to listen to yours — and you also must hope that you can meet the hour and live up to the accolades that you’ve been receiving over the past three days.

I thought Romney did so, and I think part of the reason for that was that he gave a speech that was true to his character.  Romney doesn’t seem like an angry person or a bitter partisan, and his speech wasn’t sprinkled with inflammatory rhetoric or snide jokes about the President.  Instead, the tone was more of sorrow than anger, more of disappointment than diatribe.  Romney doesn’t want to assume the unnecessary burden of trying to convince people that President Obama is a bad person with evil intent, he just wants to help people understand that the President’s course has been misguided and unsuccessful — and that a different course will be more productive and also, incidentally, more consistent with the America we all have known and cherished.

Some of the themes Romney touched on run deep.  Americans are inveterate optimists who traditionally expect a better future for their kids and will work to make that happen — but how can you hold to that belief these days, where you can’t find that job that will allow you to move your family upward?  Americans are proud of their country’s accomplishments and heroes like Neil Armstrong — but what does it say when so many of those accomplishments are now decades old, and few new genuine accomplishments are being added to the ledger?  America is a land of many freedoms that its citizens hold dear — but how can we hope to continue to enjoy those freedoms when we are yoked to an increasingly insurmountable debt burden financed by foreign governments?

Time will tell, of course, if these themes find a receptive audience among the American people, or whether the themes that President Obama and the Democratic party sound next week win out.  That’s what elections are all about.

A Great Loss For Man . . . And Mankind

Neil Armstrong has died.  He was a native Ohioan, a fine fighter pilot, a Korean War veteran, a successful businessman — but he will forever be remembered as the first man to set foot on the Moon.

On July 20, 1969, millions of people around the world watched with hope and anticipation as Armstrong backed down the ladder of the Eagle landing craft, moving slowly in his bulky white space suit adorned with an American flag.  When he finally put his boot print on the lunar surface — and made his famous, crackly statement, “That’s one small step for man . . . one giant leap for mankind” — every American felt a huge rush of national pride.

It was a magnificent achievement, and Armstrong’s humble, moving words captured the moment, and the emotions, perfectly.  Those of us who watched that grainy broadcast live will never forget it.  The fact that Armstrong was an Ohioan just made the moment a little sweeter.

Neil Armstrong’s legacy cannot be separated from Apollo 11, its historic lunar landing, and the boot print he left on the Moon’s dusty surface, but he was an interesting, and estimable, person for other reasons.  A private person, Armstrong never tried to cash in on his fame or take advantage of the circumstances that made him the first man on the Moon.  When he returned from the lunar surface he worked for NASA, taught engineering at the University of Cincinnati,  served on corporate boards and investigatory commissions, and spoke out in favor of space exploration — and he did it all without fanfare.

Neil Armstrong was 82.  He will be missed.

Dayton Dissed

Dayton has not had an easy time of it lately, and today the folks in the Gem City got some bad news:  NASA denied the bid of Dayton’s National Museum of the U.S. Air Force to be one of the locations where the three active space shuttles, and one experimental model, will be housed after they are retired. Rather than Dayton (and other disappointed cities) the shuttles will be housed at Florida’s Kennedy Space Center, the National Aeronautics and Space Museum in Washington D.C., the California Science Center in Los Angeles, and the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum in New York City.

You can’t really argue with the selection of the Kennedy Space Center or the National Air and Space Museum — one has housed and launched the shuttles for decades, and the other is probably the premier American museum of its kind.  It probably also makes sense to have one of the shuttles on the west coast, and California is a logical location because Edwards Air Force Base was the landing site for some shuttle flights.  But New York City?  Does The Big Apple really need another tourist attraction?  And what is the connection between Gotham and the space program, really?  Proponents of other disappointed sites like Houston, where the Johnson Space Center and mission control are found, think politics played a role.

Dayton would have been a very good choice.  It would be nice to have a shuttle somewhere in flyover country, and the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force is an excellent facility that had terrific, well-funded plans for their proposed shuttle display.  Ohio, too, would have been a good site.  The two most famous American astronauts — John Glenn and Neil Armstrong — both hail from the Buckeye State, and Ohio also is home to the Glenn Research Center in Cleveland.

And it would have been nice to see Dayton get a break.