Amber C. Kerr

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“First Man” and the unglamorous side of exploration

first-man-2_poster_goldposter_com_1Last month my husband and I went to see “First Man” for our anniversary date night. If you’re not familiar with this film, it focuses on the career of Neil Armstrong (played by Ryan Gosling) as he rises through the NASA ranks from X-15 test pilot to world-famous moon walker. The movie’s viewpoint is up-close, almost too close: the cameras are unsteady, the rocket launches are bone-shaking, and the home scenes are realistically tense. Mrs. Armstrong’s outburst to the NASA ground crew that “You’re a bunch of boys making models out of balsa wood! You don’t have anything under control!” seems truer than anyone is willing to admit.

My husband wasn’t a fan of this movie. He thought it was too relentlessly gritty, too depressing, whereas he had been expecting something uplifting and inspirational. I fully agreed that it was gritty and depressing; in fact, I had to wipe away tears more than once. (A central theme is the death of Armstrong’s toddler daughter, which was especially hard for me to bear because the little girl looked so much like my three-year-old son). And, whereas I would usually not give a Friday night movie much thought beyond Monday morning, I am still thinking about this movie weeks later. Why?

There are four aspects of this movie that I think are really remarkable and make it well worth seeing for anyone, but perhaps especially for scientists and engineers:

(1) The progress of science depends entirely on teamwork – not only among peers, but across disciplines, across generations, and from non-scientists. Armstrong (in real life as well as in the movie) openly acknowledged this and sought to bow out of the spotlight as much as possible.  That first footstep on the moon built upon a vast foundation of research, technical innovation, and self-sacrifice from thousands of people over decades.

(2) Even the most glamorous scientific accomplishments, like landing on the Moon, are composed almost entirely of unglamorous details. Throwing up after too much spinning in the multi-axis trainer. Writing down lists of coordinates with a dull pencil on a yellow notepad. Struggling to find the right tool to open a jammed seatbelt. Being too tired to play with your kids when you get home from work. Any scientist, engineer, or even astronaut who expects their average day to be movie-worthy is in for a disappointment.

(3) Heroes can be remarkably imperfect, and sometimes that isn’t a contradiction to their heroism but rather a precondition for it. Armstrong, as portrayed in “First Man,” is almost pathologically stoic. The morning after his daughter’s funeral, he gets up and goes to work, leaving his wife alone with the empty cot next to her bed. He never talks about his loss and never lets anyone see him shed a tear. Years later, as he packs his bag for the Apollo 11 mission, he is planning to slip out the door without talking to his boys, until his wife forces him to wake them up to say goodbye. Not exactly a model husband or father. And yet his impenetrable emotional armor made him the perfect choice for this risky, stressful, terrifying, unprecedented feat.

(4) Whatever our daily experiences, whatever our differences, we are united by our shared planetary home. Although this theme isn’t put front and center, it is hinted at throughout the movie. In response to a skeptical reporter, the usually no-nonsense Armstrong reflects that “You’re down here and you look up and you don’t think about it too much. But space exploration changes your perception.” And when he is finally on the lunar surface – stepping out into that serene blackness that only a few humans have ever experienced – he gazes up at the blue half-circle of Earth on the horizon, and sees a summer day, a green meadow, his kids’ laughter at a family picnic. Earth. Home. Beloved and irreplaceable.

Because today (Nov. 9, 2018) would have been Carl Sagan’s 84th birthday, I will wrap up with some of my favorite words from his 1994 book Pale Blue Dot:

“Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. …There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”

It is absolutely astounding to me that we humans, as imperfect as we are, persisted and innovated and strove and sacrificed until we made it to the Moon. Let us never lose that spirit of exploration. The day-to-day work may not be glamorous, but look where it can get us in the end. There are so many urgent causes that need our intelligence and courage right now, not least of which is protecting the pale blue dot that we call home.

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