Our earthly problems amplified: Jordan Bimm on “First Man” and the creation of the astronaut [Video]

Damien Chazelle’s meticulously-realized film First Man (2018) follows astronaut Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) and wife Janet (Claire Foy) on the long and difficult path that led from the death of their daughter Karen in 1962 to his 1969 moon landing. While FIRST MAN has no shortage of thrilling astronautical sequences, Chazelle is less interested in the conquest of outer space than in the inner life of its protagonist. Grounded in universal human emotions and in the material realities of space flight, FIRST MAN transcends spectacle and myth to offer an intimate and original perspective on one of the most famous scientific achievements in history.

On February 18, 2023 The Block hosted a screening of the film with an  in-depth introduction by Jordan Bimm, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Chicago’s Institute on the Formation of Knowledge. Bimm discussed the military origins of “space medicine,” the psychological and physical ordeals sustained by test subjects and aspiring astronauts, and the cultural forces that shaped the image of the model astronaut in the 1950s.

The event was resented in conjunction with the exhibition The Heart’s Knowledge: Science and Empathy in the Art of Dario Robleto, and as part of the series Science on Screen: Inner and Outer Space exploring explores representations of the inner workings of the human body and the celestial mechanics of the cosmos throughout the history of cinema. Science on Screen is supported by the Sloan Foundation and the Coolidge Corner Cinema’s Science on Screen program

Watch the Introduction

Jordan Bimm on “First Man”

Neil Armstrong is easily the most famous astronaut and one of the most famous humans to ever live. And at the same time, he was notoriously reserved and shied away from the limelight preferring to put others into the focus. He was a reluctant hero by all accounts. And this dichotomy posed a problem for anyone looking to understand the man, the human behind the one small step mythos. What we have here today on screen, is the best attempt yet, to present a portrait of Armstrong, not as an all-American hero or a daredevil thrill jockey with the right stuff but as a real human being, a person with serious flaws, a person haunted by trauma. A person who, despite these challenges faced incredible danger and accomplished one of the most greatest technological feats in human history….

Chazelle wants to leave you contemplative and questioning, who was Neil Armstrong really? What made him so enigmatic and reserved? Are the kinds of people who historically excelled as astronauts, really who we want to emulate? Is space exploration the path to utopia or dystopia? As the philosopher Hannah Arendt worried, will our conquest of space require sacrificing what makes us human? My own work as a space historian also works against the master narrative of Apollo and the space race. My research focuses on the field of space medicine, as was mentioned, and who are the experts in charge of deciding who gets to go to space? Who can become an astronaut?…

First Man” is an extraordinary film that prompts a critical perspective on human activities in space. Is space really a transformative utopian place or is it a place where all of our earthly problems are reproduced or amplified?

Jordan Bimm

About the speaker:

Jordan Bimm is a historian of science at the University of Chicago’s Institute on the Formation of Knowledge. His research focuses on the human and biological problems of space exploration, especially the fields of space medicine and astrobiology. His forthcoming book, Anticipating the Astronaut (The MIT Press) explores pre-NASA studies and experiments with a surprising array of test-subjects to define an ideal spacefaring body and mind. His research has won the Sacknoff Prize for Space History, the History of Science Society’s NASA Fellowship, and a Guggenheim Fellowship at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. His work has been featured in The New York Times, National Geographic, Scientific American, and The Atlantic.

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