She was his only daughter, a short-lived bundle of joy whose birth made him a “different man” and whose death helped inspire him to a life of greatness.
Now, previously unshared home movie footage shot by Neil Armstrong of his daughter Karen, who died in 1962 at the age of just two, is being made public for the first time as part of a feature documentary that provides remarkable new insight into the life of the first man on the moon.
“This is a story about a man, not a mission,” stated David Fairhead, director of Armstrong, due for global release next week to commemorate the forthcoming 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 lunar landing.
“As well as Neil the pilot and astronaut, we also wanted to tell the story of the family man. One of our greatest strokes of luck was to get access to his Super-8mm home movies, which had previously only been seen by the family,” he added.
The documentary chronicles Armstrong’s life through the eyes of friends, former colleagues and relatives including his first wife Jan, who died in June last year, and their sons. The narrative also draws on the late astronaut’s own words, spoken by the actor Harrison Ford.
Footage from the family archive shows an uncommon glimpse into the personal life of the enigmatic spaceman – picking flowers, riding bikes and flying model aircraft with his children, throwing snowballs, hang gliding and bouncing Karen on his knee.
But in scenes shot by Armstrong himself as his excited daughter examined presents under the Christmas tree at a family gathering in Ohio in 1961, the heartbreak of the little girl’s fatal battle with cancer – a tragedy about which he rarely spoke – is on full view.
She struggles to stand upright, unable to keep her balance due to a rapidly advancing brain stem tumour diagnosed five months previously. As her mother gently props her from behind to help her look at the wrapped gifts, the child wobbles and her head lists. She crawls unsteadily on the floor, squinting into her father’s camera through eyes that can barely focus.
“He absolutely loved that girl and he paid all of his attention to her, like there was nobody else,” says his sister, June Hoffman. “She was a gift to both of them.”
Karen died a few weeks later, in January 1962, on her parents’ sixth wedding anniversary. Armstrong’s footage settles on her gravestone, bearing just her name, the years she lived and died, and the nickname he gave her from birth – Muffie. “Neil missed her dearly,” said Jan Armstrong.
A fire at the family home in Houston, Texas, 1964 destroyed some of the couple’s collection of photographs of Karen and their sons Rick and Mark as children, making the remaining footage now being showcased all the more precious.
On July 20, 1969, Armstrong became the first person to walk on the moon, making him a reluctant hero thrust into the glare of global fame.
A workaholic by nature, his marriage to Jan disintegrated over the years as his long absences from home – including as a member of the commission of inquiry into the fatal loss of the space shuttle Challenger in 1986, with seven astronauts aboard, took their toll. They divorced in 1994 after 38 years of marriage and Armstrong went on to remarry.
“We had been living separate lives for years…I think he just had his priorities and it depended where you were on the priority list – and the truth was, I was pretty low,” said Jan, in blunt interview footage included in the documentary.
“He said he would change. He had 38 years to change and I just didn’t see it would happen.”
Armstrong is in all UK cinemas nationwide for one night only on July 9, featuring exclusive added content from next week’s world premiere. It goes on general release in select cinemas on July 12.