Bitter rivalry of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin over making lunar history revealed in new movie First Man

DESCENDING to the moon’s surface, Neil Armstrong passed the plaque on the lunar module ladder declaring: “We came in peace for all mankind”.

If only that could have been true of him and his Apollo 11 pilot Buzz Aldrin.

Stars and gripes as rivals Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin deploy the US flag on the moon in 1969

Stars and gripes…  Rivals Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin deploy the US flag on the moon in 1969[/caption]

For there was little harmony between the two, amid a bitter rivalry over who would take that historic first step almost half a century ago.

Now the story of the lunar landing, as well as the astronauts’ frosty relations, is told in Oscar-tipped film First Man, starring Ryan Gosling as Armstrong and Corey Stoll as Aldrin.

As the film shows, the pair were totally different personalities and had clashed even before they were selected for the 1969 mission.

When the outspoken Aldrin blames fellow Nasa astronaut and test pilot Elliot See for causing his own death in 1966 by flying a jet “too slowly”, he is castigated by Armstrong for rushing to judgment.

Corbis – Getty

Neil Armstrong, left, was heroic, modest, quiet – and Nasa’s choice to take the first step, while Buzz Aldrin, right,  was pushy, arrogant, ambitious and obsessed with fame. Fellow astronaut Michael Collins, centre, remained in orbit during the landing[/caption]

Later, Aldrin is portrayed as an insensitive oaf who viewed the horrific explosion of Apollo 1 on the launch pad in 1967, killing its crew of three, as an opportunity for himself, by removing its commander Gus Grissom as a prime candidate for the lunar mission.

Armstrong glares at him because his best pal, fellow astronaut Ed White, had died alongside Grissom.

But what the film does not show is Aldrin’s pushy campaign to be the first man to step on to the moon.

Now 88, he has always insisted he made no claims on that honour — but fellow Nasa men have painted a very different picture.

Ryan Gosling as Neil Armstrong in new movie First Man
Ryan Gosling as Neil Armstrong in new movie First Man

The 2005 Armstrong biography First Man, on which the film is based, reports Apollo 11’s third astronaut, Mike Collins, saying of Aldrin: “I think his basic beef was that Neil was going to be the first to set foot on the moon.”

The Press too had initially reported that Aldrin would go out first as pilot because it was tradition for the mission commander — Armstrong — to hold back.

When Aldrin heard rumours to the contrary, he confronted Armstrong then stormed into fellow astronaut Gene Cernan’s office “like an angry stork” arguing that he was the man for the job.

Collins felt Aldrin was overcome with “gloom” on learning that he would only be the “Second Man”.

But Nasa chose Armstrong exactly because he was not obsessed with fame enough to chase the role.

Neil Armstrong leading Michael Collins and Edwin Buzz Aldrin (hidden behind Collins) during training for the Apollo 11 mission
Getty – Contributor

Neil Armstrong leading Michael Collins and Buzz Aldrin (hidden behind Collins) during training for the Apollo 11 mission[/caption]

His son Rick recalled: “My dad said of himself, ‘I am, and ever will be, a white-socks, pocket protector, nerdy engineer’,” while Nasa executive Christopher C Kraft Jr said: “Neil Armstrong, reticent, soft-spoken and heroic, was our only choice.”

Their decision proved to be correct. Mission commander Armstrong kept his nerve during the dangerous lunar descent, managing to land the module with just 15 seconds of fuel to spare as dust from the surface clouded his view.

For him, after the immense challenge of landing, walking on the moon was an anti-climax.

Armstrong, who died in 2012, once said: “Pilots take no particular joy in walking. Pilots like flying.”

More than 600million people had watched him take his “one small step” live on television.

Heroes... Ryan, Corey and Lukas as Neil, Buzz and Mike
Heroes… Ryan, Corey and Lukas as Neil, Buzz and Mike

But back on planet Earth this quiet man coped with the stress of being a global celebrity. He returned to the quiet of the Californian hills, shunning lucrative deals and rarely spoke about his endeavours.

In contrast, the once charismatic Aldrin — pushed forward as Nasa’s poster boy — became an alcoholic gripped by depression. Their frosty relationship never thawed over the years.

While Aldrin paid tribute to his “good friend” when Armstrong died from complications following a bypass operation, the heroes of space were still distant.

Aldrin said they did not “really” talk at Nasa’s 50th anniversary celebrations in 2008 and rarely communicated outside of such events.

He once commented that “Neil was not a person that was a back-slapping easy-to-get-on-with kind of guy.”

Ryan Gosling takes the lead as Neil Armstrong
AP:Associated Press

Ryan Gosling takes the lead as Neil Armstrong[/caption]

And that certainly comes across in Ryan Gosling’s often sullen portrayal of Armstrong in First Man.

But the film — directed by Damien Chazelle, who also made La La Land — explains why the 20th Century’s greatest explorer was so introspective.

We see how he never fully got over the death of his two-year-old ­daughter Karen from brain cancer.

He took time off from working as a test pilot to be with Karen, who he affectionately called Muffy, when the tumour was blasted with an X-ray at hospital.

His wife Janet said that Muffy “never, ever complained” during her treatment even though it left her unable to stand. It may have been her death in 1962 that persuaded Armstrong to apply for the lunar mission soon afterwards.

His sister June once said: “The death of his little girl caused him to invest those energies into something very positive and that’s when he started into the space programme.”

Apollo 11 mission lifting off on its historic 1969 flight to moon during which astronauts Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong walked on lunar surface
Getty – Contributor

Apollo 11 mission lifting off on its historic 1969 flight to moon during which astronauts Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong walked on the lunar surface[/caption]

The film paints Armstrong as a husband who is far from easy to live with. Before leaving home for the mission to the moon, his wife Janet — brilliantly played in the film by The Crown’s Claire Foy — has to force him to say goodbye to their two young sons Rick and Mark. Yet the story also makes it clear that he loved his children dearly — but just wasn’t able to express it openly.

The immensity of his achievement weighed on Neil and Janet more than they would ever admit.

The couple, who had spent 38 years together, divorced in 1994 after he began seeing Carol Knight, the widowed mother of two teenagers.

She and Armstrong married later that year. The huge demands placed on astronauts had a devastating effect on relationships.

Buzz Aldrin gets his moment on the Moon's surface
Getty – Contributor

Buzz Aldrin gets his moment on the Moon’s surface[/caption]

Thirteen of the 21 astronauts who went to the moon ended up divorced or separated. Aldrin has three ex-wives.

Not only did Janet Armstrong have to live up to the expectations of being the perfect all-American house- wife, she also never knew whether her husband would come home each night.

Landing on the moon was not the only time Armstrong’s ice-cool nerves had averted disaster.

Ryan Gosling playing the 'heroic' and 'modest' Armstrong
AP:Associated Press

Ryan Gosling playing the ‘heroic’ and ‘modest’ Armstrong[/caption]

During testing of the hypersonic X-15 US air force jet in 1962 he flew far too high into the Earth’s upper atmosphere, struggling to get the experimental plane back under control before missing his landing site. Ryan Gosling said: “Neil started as a test pilot before he was in the air force.


“And it’s the kind of person who will get into a plane that hasn’t been flown and will intentionally push it to its breaking point for the sole reason of pushing aeronautics forward.”

Four years later Armstrong almost died after completing the first-ever docking between two spacecraft in orbit.

Man on the Moon Neil Armstrong
Atlas Photo Archive

Man on the Moon Neil Armstrong[/caption]

Having successfully linked up with a target vehicle, the two ships started to go into an uncontrollable spin. Armstrong thought that undocking would stop his craft turning, but instead it just made matters worse. Only quick thinking by him, to turn on the re-entry control system, saved his life and that of his fellow crew member.

Today, with an ever-growing proportion of people having been born after Apollo 11’s momentous 238,855-mile journey to the moon, it is easy to forget the sacrifices made by astronauts.

First Man serves as a very timely reminder of how brave they were to strap themselves in experimental “tin cans” on top of 203,400 gallons of kerosene fuel.

As Gosling rightly concludes: “It’s a different breed of person.”

First Man opens in cinemas on Friday, October 12.



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