How “First Man” Makes The Case For US Leadership On Climate Change — #CleanTechnica Interview

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Considering this week’s alarming report from the International Panel on Climate Change, the October 12 release date of the major motion picture First Man is about as neat a coincidence between life and art as you’ll ever see. After all, the film deals with the hair-thin line between existing and not existing, and, well, according to IPCC we better do something fast or we’re all going to end up on the not-existing side.

First Man is also about the good things that can happen when many people work together on a seemingly impossible challenge, which is also kind of relevant to today’s situation.

If you’re wondering how CleanTechnica is so sure these are major themes of the movie before it’s even released, that’s easy: we got to see a preview! It’s opening tonight, so go see for yourself.

No, really. Go see. Not to give anything away, but the opening sequence feels like you’re rocketing through somebody’s birth canal and emerging into a world of new and brilliant bone-rattling sensations. That pretty much sets the tone for everything that happens next.

Okay so it’s kind of difficult to recall what being born actually feels like, but the main point is that the experience doesn’t just change your geospatial existence, it changes your perception of what your existence is.

If that’s starting to sound familiar, you might be thinking of the Earth science series One Strange Rock, which unspooled on NatGeo TV last spring.

CleanTechnica got to speak with some of the astronauts who participated in that series, and the most consistent theme was having your perception of human existence changed by being up in space and looking down on a lone planet spinning through space, with only a thin layer of vapor to prevent itself from reverting to a lifeless rock.

Where were we? Oh right, First Man. The movie is based on the book First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong by James R. Hansen, Professor of history and Director of the Honors College at Auburn University.

Professor Hansen’s pinpoint attention to the details of aerospace technology and engineering is evident throughout First Man, and it’s a major factor in the film’s most riveting you-are-there sequences.

Hansen’s unique qualifications also give him a broad perspective on the human factor at work as Armstrong — and countless contributors — took on the famous challenge laid out by President John F. Kennedy in 1961.

Speaking of perspectives, Professor Hansen graciously spent some time on the phone with CleanTechnica last week to discuss First Man.

We asked him to comment on some aspects of First Man that would motivate readers of the book to go see the movie — and would motivate moviegoers to go read the book (following comments edited for clarity and flow):

The experience of reading is so different. In the book, I include how the astronauts felt but until you really experience those sensations it’s not as visceral.

The movie covers an eight-year stretch, while the book covers his entire life of 82 years, so there is a lot of backstory that readers would be aware of.

The movie focuses more on the personal side of the story, and the book is more heavily weighted toward technical and programmatic aspects.

Professor Hansen’s reputation as a NASA historian worked in his favor when he approached the notoriously resistant Armstrong with the proposal to write his biography:

In fact, the crucial factor in Neil agreeing to have me write the book is that he was confident that I would take the technical side very seriously. He would not want a book that’s only focused on the moon landing and the drama.

First and foremost he was an engineer. His mind is constantly working with things that are more technological in nature.

He lived and breathed the technical side of the aircraft and spacecraft with which he was involved. He was not just steering, he was an engineer in the cockpit and in some cases he helped to design the equipment.

In another mind-bending coincidence this week, an American astronaut and a Russian cosmonaut hurtled back to Earth shortly after their rocket launched, escaping death or serious injury by the slimmest of margins.

Our conversation with Professor Hansen occurred before the accident, and it foreshadowed this near-tragic demonstration that failure is a frequent and necessary element in technological progress:

In the movie — and it’s one thing I emphasized to Josh [Singer, the writer] and Damien [Chazelle, the director] — is that the the best definition of engineering is from [American scientist] Henry Petrofsky. He focused on the obviation of failure, in other words how much the analysis of failure is involved in engineering.

Petrofsky argues that the importance of failure is the essence of engineering, and that is built into the movie in a very direct way.

Hansen also discussed a couple specific scenes in the film that illustrate failure as an obviation in excruciating, jarring detail but we’re not giving anything away — go see the movie! — so let’s skip over that part of the interview and move on to a discussion of Armstrong’s perspective on the moon challenge.

Hmmm, actually that’s a really powerful scene, too. Let’s skip over that and move along to Hansen’s perspective on Armstrong:

[Armstrong] never really came across to people as a profound philosopher, but if you listen to him carefully he was very precise in how he expressed his thoughts, almost like he was scripted…he wanted to express things as precisely as he thought about them.

I think he did have a strong sense of the situation that our planet is in. In the book he talks about planet earth as a spaceship, a rather unusual spaceship because the crew is all on the outside, not the inside.

Our conversation also included a discussion about how to equip the next generation of engineers to take on the 800 pound gorilla in the room. Three guesses! Okay, so climate change.

If you caught the new documentary Science Fair, you can see the drive to solve urgent, human-scale problems in evidence at the high school level. However, as Hansen sees it, today’s engineering students at the college level are so challenged by course requirements that they have little time to develop a broader perspective that would help steer the world on a more sustainable path:

The interdisciplinary approach opens eyes to different ways of solving problems…Unfortunately, engineering students don’t have much liberal arts or social sciences. I’m not sure what all the ramifications are, but many of them are going to work for large corporations where there are all kinds of issues, including ethical issues.

Almost all of the engineers with whom I’ve spoken in retirement (including Neil) become more broad over time. They are more contemplative, and they are more self analytical in retirement.

In terms of his perspective on the world compared to later in life, Neil had seen a different world, and he opened up his mind in terms of the knowledge base of humankind.

The film teases out all of this — and more — lending the book’s broad perspective to draw a deeply personal and emotional portrait of a legendary figure in American history.

Not for nothing but the audio effects alone are worth the price of admission.

For just the smallest hint of what’s to come, catch the trailer online and imagine all that sound coming out of a theater-scale system instead of your little ear buds.

Just saying.

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Tina Casey

Tina specializes in advanced energy technology, military sustainability, emerging materials, biofuels, ESG and related policy and political matters. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on LinkedIn, Threads, or Bluesky.

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