Just before 11pm, a six-year-old was gently roused from his sleep by his mother and carried into the living room where friends and family members were watching a flickering 26in black and white television.
Suddenly a fuzzy figure appeared on the screen as astronaut Neil Armstrong sealed his place in history, making the short jump from Apollo 11’s ladder and on to the surface of the Moon with the immortal phrase: ‘That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.’
For his son Mark – that sleepy six-year-old on July 20, 1969 – the pictures that captivated the world were a puzzling letdown. While those gathered at the Armstrong family home near
‘The quality of the images coming from the Moon was so poor, it was hard to tell it was Dad out there,’ Mark, now 55, explains in an exclusive interview.
But his youthful confusion was nothing compared to the emotions his mother Janet was feeling: ‘She must have been beside herself with worry. She held everything in to protect me and my brother Eric.
Neil Armstrong’s son Mark has praised Claire Foy’s portrayal of his mother in the new film First Man
‘The quality of the images coming from the Moon was so poor, it was hard to tell it was Dad out there,’ Mark, now 55, explains in an exclusive interview
‘We never felt Dad was in danger of not coming home. But Mum, of course, knew the risks. Dad was the first man on the Moon, but Mum was the unsung hero.’
Mark has just seen a special family screening of the new film First Man, which opened the prestigious Venice Film Festival last week to rave reviews. It stars Ryan Gosling as the publicity-shy astronaut and British actress Claire Foy – best known for playing the Queen in the Netflix series The Crown – is being tipped for an Oscar for her bravura performance as Armstrong’s long-suffering wife.
Janet died in June, aged 84, after a long battle with lung cancer. And for Mark, Foy’s tribute to the woman he describes as ‘the real power behind the throne’, is a fitting legacy that moved him to tears.
‘While Dad got all the fame and glory, my mum – and all the astronauts’ wives – were the ones who held it all together,’ he says.
‘It’s wonderful that, finally, these remarkable women are getting their due.’
Foy, in her first major Hollywood role, has been described as ‘outstanding’ by critics for her ‘heart-wrenching’ and ‘searing’ portrayal of Janet. It is a role in which she is almost unrecognisable from her glossy perfection as the Queen in The Crown. In First Man, her hair is cropped into a neat 1960s bob and she dresses simply in Janet’s ‘uniform’ of capri pants and no-fuss blouses.
The film was a labour of love for 34-year-old Foy, who was not able to meet Janet because of her illness, but she spent hours speaking to Mark via Skype to hone her every nuance and emotion: ‘She wanted to know the minutiae. Mum called me Marco and my brother Ricky. She wanted to know the balance and strength of my mother. What she was really like?
‘When I saw her on screen, I was overwhelmed with emotion. Mum only passed away recently so, to see her up there, alive and so real… it was incredible. Claire captured Mum’s essence. She communicates so many feelings without words. I got very emotional.’
Director Damien Chazelle, who was the youngest winner of a Best Director Oscar for La La Land, recreated the Armstrong family home down to the exact dining table where Janet forced her taciturn husband to address Mark and his elder brother Eric, now 61, on the eve of the Apollo 11 mission.
‘I knew something serious was up because it was weird being called to the dining room,’ Mark recalls. ‘We never sat there except Thanksgiving and Christmas. I knew Mum was worried, in a stressed state. But neither she nor dad passed those worries on.
‘Dad said he was going on a mission and he thought they had a 50-50 chance of actually landing on the Moon, but that he felt very confident in the spacecraft and support team, and while there was some risk, he was confident he’d come home. That was enough for me.’
While millions of words have been written about the Moon landings, First Man tells the story through the emotions of Janet – a doctor’s daughter who met Armstrong at Purdue University in Indiana in 1953 – as she struggles to cope with her husband’s long absences and frequent brushes with death.
Mark says: ‘She was swimming and Dad turned to a friend and said, “That’s the woman I’m going to marry.”’ But it took the quiet, bookish Armstrong three years to ask her out.
Mark said: ‘I like that the film tells Mum’s story properly for the first time. Dad wasn’t the only hero in the family.’ Pictured: Kan and Ricky Armstrong watching the historic mission
‘Mum said Dad was never one to rush anything,’ he adds. The pair married in 1956; Eric was born the following year, daughter Karen in 1959 and Mark in 1963.
The film also focuses on Karen’s death in 1962 from brain cancer – a shadow that always hung over the Armstrong family.
‘I don’t remember her death ever being discussed at home,’ says Mark. ‘There was a portrait of her which showed her just before she died. Dad treasured that portrait more than any other possession.
‘His way of dealing with grief was to throw himself into work. He was always away. That left Mum home alone to deal with it on her own.
‘My sister died on January 28, which happened to be my parents’ wedding anniversary. They never celebrated their anniversary for that reason. It was a wound that never healed.’
The film charts Armstrong’s meteoric rise, first as a Navy test pilot based at Edwards Air Force base in California and, later, as one of the first Nasa astronauts training in Houston after John F. Kennedy famously vowed to beat the Russians in the space race by putting an American on the Moon by the end of the 1960s.
One of the most dramatic scenes in the film – and a startling tour de force for Foy – takes place during Armstrong’s Gemini 8 mission in 1966. Mark explains: ‘When the men were on a mission, those families had “squawk boxes” inside their homes. This was basically a hotline to Mission Control so the families could hear everything that was going on.
‘During missions our house was an open house. The whole neighbourhood had Nasa families living in it – everyone’s dad had something to do with Nasa – so when the men were on mission the wives would come over with potluck dinners.
‘Mum was vivacious, outgoing. The doorway was always open. She greeted everyone with a smile. We kids would all play together and swim in the pool and the men would stand around discussing the mission.’
Gemini 8, commanded by Armstrong, was to be the first time two manned spacecraft docked in orbit. But the procedure went disastrously wrong as the joined craft began to spin through space.
Armstrong managed to undock Gemini 8 from the other vessel to solve that problem, but inadvertently sent his own craft tumbling out of control.
Nasa responded to the crisis by cutting the live feed from Mission Control to the squawk box in the Armstrongs’ home – in the movie, Mark plays a cameo role as the Nasa aide who decides to ‘cut’ the audio signal.
In the film – as in real life – Janet was furious: ‘Mum got into her car and drove over there and banged on the door of Mission Control. They wouldn’t let her in.’
She screamed at boss Deke Slayton before the crisis was averted when Armstrong regained control of his spacecraft.
The experience of being locked out stayed with Janet, however, and before the Apollo 11 mission, she told her husband’s superiors: ‘If there is a problem I want to be in Mission Control and if you don’t let me in again I will blast this to the world!’
‘Mum had all of the work and none of the control,’ Mark recalls. ‘But she and the other wives were every bit the heroes. They served their country as much as the men did.’
Mark vividly remembers the Apollo 11 mission: ‘Mum, my brother and I were flown to the Cape [Cape Kennedy] for the take-off. We were on a boat on the Banana River [the lagoon next to the space station] with Dave Scott and his wife. Dave was dad’s crewmate from Gemini 8.’
At Janet’s instruction, there was no champagne after blast-off, which was watched by an estimated half a billion people around the globe: ‘Not until the men were safely back home.’
‘We saw the blast-off and then we flew straight home to Texas,’ Mark says.
It would be two and a half days before Apollo 11 made it into lunar orbit: ‘Mum came and got me and said they were getting close.
Janet died in June, aged 84, after a long battle with lung cancer. And for Mark, Foy’s tribute to the woman he describes as ‘the real power behind the throne’, is a fitting legacy that moved him to tears. Pictured: Ryan Gosling in the film
‘We had the squawk box next to the TV in the living room, but the images were really grainy. A lot of the footage has been cleaned up since using modern technology.’
Mark recalls seeing the lunar module touching down on the surface of the Moon at 4.18pm on July 20, 1969, and hearing his father’s voice come crackling over the radio to say his second most-famous quote: ‘The Eagle has landed.’
Mark then had dinner and was put to bed with his mother’s promise that he would be woken shortly before 11pm to watch his dad take his step on to the lunar surface.
Armstrong’s few steps made him one of the most famous men on the planet, yet after returning to Earth, he struggled to get back to leading a ‘normal’ life, not helped by a procession of ticker-tape parades, visits to the White House to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and endless speaking engagements and tours as the poster boy for the American space industry.
‘There were even more demands his time. Dad was the most famous man on the planet. He was getting 10,000 pieces of mail a day.
‘It was overwhelming and Nasa doesn’t prepare you for it. He didn’t like the fame. He just wanted to lead a normal life.’
Searching for someone who could share his experience, Armstrong struck up a close friendship with Charles Lindbergh, who made the first solo transatlantic flight in 1927, but whose infant son Charles Jr was kidnapped and murdered five years later.
Mark says: ‘Dad became reclusive. He moved away from fame because he didn’t want what happened to Lindbergh’s baby to happen to us. I know there were bona fide threats against us.’
The family moved first to Washington DC and then to a remote 200-acre dairy farm in Armstrong’s home state of Ohio, where he landed a job teaching at Cincinnati University and spent time with his sons, who both became soft-ware engineers.
‘We had a telescope and would look at the night sky. Dad knew all about the cosmos. We looked at the Pleiades, he would teach us about stellar navigation. But he never pointed at the Moon. We didn’t look at the Moon.’
Mark, who is married with three children, says it was ‘tough’ sharing his father with the world. It took a toll on his parents’ marriage, too. Armstrong and Janet slowly drifted apart, finally divorcing after 38 years: ‘I was sad but not shocked,’ Mark says. There were no screaming rows. Janet once said: ‘Silence is Neil’s answer. The word “no” is an argument.’
Armstrong remarried, but died, aged 82, in 2012 after suffering complications from heart surgery. His family funeral was, at his own request, small and strictly invitation-only to reflect his intensely private nature.
However, then-President Barack Obama ordered flags across the United States to be flown at half-mast as he paid tribute to the astronaut as ‘a hero not just of his time, but of all time’.
But for Mark, his mother deserves every bit as much recognition – which, thanks to Claire Foy’s performance, she is belatedly receiving after her death.
He says simply: ‘I like that the film tells Mum’s story properly for the first time. Dad wasn’t the only hero in the family.’
First Man opens in the UK on October 12.