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‘First Man’ Fact Check: Was the Moon Landing Really That Close to Disaster?

Damien Chazelle turns the historic touchdown on the moon into a nail-biter

If you’ve seen the footage of the Apollo 11 lunar landing taken by NASA, you might think that the final moments before the Eagle landed on the moon’s surface were pretty tranquil. Damien Chazelle’s new movie “First Man” suggests it was anything but.

In their cinematic retelling of NASA’s greatest mission ever, Chazelle and screenwriter Josh Singer turned the final descent to the Moon into a dramatic race against the clock.

With Justin Hurwitz’s dramatic score playing in the background, Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) and Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll) grip the controls as they try to settle the Eagle spacecraft down on safe terrain while a fuel meter ticks down to zero. With the meter down to just two, the craft lands as the two astronauts exhale.

But did the Apollo crew really make it to the moon while running on fumes? The truth is that Neil and Buzz weren’t actually low on fuel…but they and NASA thought they were.

According to James R. Hansen’s official Armstrong biography on which the movie is based, post-mission analysis showed that the Eagle had more fuel than the computers had told mission control during the landing sequence. But while Neil and Buzz were flying down to the moon, the computers indicated that they had less than a minute to either land the craft or abort the mission.

For mission control, the codeword signifying 15 seconds left of fuel was “bingo,” and as the lander touched the ground, mission control was holding its breath waiting for either that signal to be given to Neil and Buzz or for the pair to inform them that “the Eagle has landed.” Fortunately, it was the latter.

“You got a bunch of guys about to turn blue. We’re breathing again. Thanks a lot,” flight controller Charlie Duke told Armstrong after the landing succeeded.

When Singer sat down to write the moon landing for “First Man,” he knew he wanted to convey to the audience how nerve-wracking it really was, even as NASA made it sound to millions watching around the world that everything was going as expected. But when he showed his first draft to NASA experts, his pages were covered in red ink.

“I wrote a first draft with all these made up lines where they’re screaming about the fuel…and I got beat up!” Singer told TheWrap. “I like to show my drafts to NASA experts and I got a lot of pushback on that scene specifically, so I knew I had to really hunker down to show how it really happened.”

The fuel gauge seen in the film wasn’t actually in the Eagle, but was added in the film as a way to show the stress of the fuel situation without having to explain what the mission control jargon meant.

“In the final script, I just had the fuel gauge shown and Buzz says, ’94 seconds to bingo,’ and that was enough to show what ‘bingo’ meant,” Singer said. “It’s one of those scenes where you know how harrowing the situation is if you understand everything that’s going on. Once we did the explanation, the sheer visceral nature of seeing this craft land on the moon did the rest.”

It’s one last armrest-clenching scene in a movie full of them, but it makes the chilling serenity of Armstrong’s moonwalk — shown in high-definition rather than the rest of the film’s grainy film quality — all the more powerful.