For those intrigued by stories of the so-called “final frontier” and our journey there as humans, Neil Armstrong’s trip to the moon could almost be considered a legend.
The story is finally coming to life in First Man, a biopic about the astronaut that hit theaters on Oct. 12, six years after Armstrong’s death in 2012. Beyond being a compelling story of heroism and a piece of American history, Ryan Gosling plays Armstrong. It’s a must-see for history buffs, space nerds and Gosling fangirls alike.
One aspect of the story highlighted by the movie that is often overlooked in discussions of Armstrong’s life is his relationship with his first wife at the time of the moon landing, Janet Armstrong (now known as Janet Shearon).
The events leading up to Apollo 11’s takeoff, the moon landing and the trip back were understandably high-stakes and stressful for both the astronaut and Janet. In the movie, she’s portrayed by actress Claire Foy as his rock, a main source of support. After all, the two experienced unbelievable tragedy together prior to the moon landing, so they needed each other’s support more then than ever before.
However, movies don’t always get every detail accurate. Hollywood tends to exaggerate relationships and events in order to intrigue audiences beyond a “normal” experience, and First Man is no exception.
Here are the true details about what happened to Janet, Neil Armstrong’s first wife.
1. She was a source of stability for Armstrong and the family.
As the wife of an astronaut, Janet needed to be emotionally tough to both keep herself afloat and set an example for her children.
The life of an astronaut is sporadic and dangerous; Armstrong was absent from the family’s home quite often in preparation for Apollo 11 and his adventures were death-defying. The family had to learn to prepare for the worst in regards to Neil’s career, and Janet made sure that their Houston, Texas home was in order and optimistic.
Recently, the couple’s son Mark, now 55 years old, described his mother as “the real power behind the throne,” as Armstrong has received somewhat of an American royalty status. He added that she held the family together through the pain and uncertainty that they all endured together.
2. Janet and Neil met in college at Purdue University.
On this day in 1956, Neil Armstrong married Janet Shearon. pic.twitter.com/tJbPbeslP5
— Armstrong Museum (@ArmstrongSpace) January 28, 2017
Neil Armstrong was an aeronautical engineering student, and Janet a home economics major. She was also a champion in synchronized swimming, which she was doing when Neil first saw her and became attracted to her. After graduating, the two got married in 1956.
They moved to Juniper Hills, California, where Neil Armstrong worked as a test pilot at Edwards Air Force Base. At this point, Janet was becoming accustomed to Neil’s daredevil career choice and the danger that loomed over their small family.
3. They endured unimaginable tragedy together.
— ABC2 (@BrainCancerCure) October 15, 2018
Neil and Janet went through a horrific, life-altering event as a young couple. Surprisingly, it had nothing to do with Armstrong’s dangerous career and the anxieties that came with it.
In 1962, their two-year-old daughter, Karen, passed away of a brain tumor. The devastating tragedy happened on Neil and Janet’s wedding anniversary, which they reportedly never celebrated again.
According to The Washington Post, the movie portrays Armstrong holding a bracelet engraved with Karen’s name on the moon in an emotional scene, crying while he throws it into a lunar crater. However, there is no evidence that this ever occurred. Armstrong was able to bring mementos on his lunar mission but notoriously did not bring any of his three children’s belongings — not even Karen’s.
This bothered Janet, who was appalled that he didn’t take anything on his mission to remember Karen or either of the couple’s boys.
Neil did, however, remember to bring a memento to remind him of Janet. Along with a piece of the Wright brothers’ plane and his college fraternity pin, Armstrong brought some of his wife’s jewelry to the moon with him. Although the scene with the bracelet isn’t known to have happened, other astronauts did commemorate their children; Armstrong’s colleague Buzz Aldrin brought photos of his children on the lunar mission, and later astronaut Eugene Cernan wrote his daughter’s initials on the moon’s surface.
4. The couple led a modest life after the moon mission.
My grandparents used to live in Wapakoneta, Ohio—Neil Armstrong’s hometown, the location of the Armstrong Air & Space Museum. When we were cleaning out their house I kept the glass they had commemorating Apollo 11.
Also, I liked ‘First Man’. https://t.co/D8os7IpHCv
— Angela Watercutter (@WaterSlicer) October 13, 2018
After Neil Armstrong returned safely, he and Janet moved to a farm in Ohio to live a quiet life outside of the spotlight and raise their two boys, Mark and Eric. At the time, astronauts had an almost celebrity status in the United States, so this was an unusual decision. However, Neil and Janet agreed that it was best for the family.
One notorious story from the couple’s time in Ohio occurred in 1979. While jumping off the back of a grain truck, Neil caught his wedding ring on a latch, ultimately tearing off his fingertip. He stayed calm, found the missing piece, and got it surgically reattached at a hospital.
5. They split in 1994.
"Silence is Neil Armstrong answer. The word 'no' is an arguement"
-Janet Shearon, Neil Armstrong's first wife
— Devi Oktavia (@AlwaysDevi) October 11, 2016
After almost forty years of marriage, Janet and Neil divorced in 1994. According to Neil’s official biography, the two grew apart because Neil was emotionally unavailable while Janet carried the burden of caring for the family.
While Neil remarried Carol Knight, who he met while playing golf in 1992, five years later (and stayed with her until his 2012 death), Janet found solace by starting a new life in Utah. There, she stayed in contact with others like her in the Astronaut Wives’ Club.
6. Janet passed away earlier this year.
Janet Shearon Armstrong's Obituary
— Stanley's Mom (@whenpigsflyyy) July 20, 2018
At age 84, Janet died in the summer of 2018 of lung cancer. She was beloved by friends and family and was a great-grandmother by that time.
“Janet received many awards and honors worldwide as a result of her courage and dedication during the American space program of the 1960s,” her obituary, published by the Houston Chronicle, reads. “By all that knew her, she will be remembered as a strong, willful woman that always reunited with a warm smile and parted ways with tears. We ask only that you honor her by standing up for that in which you believe.”
Emily is a freelance writer based in Colorado. She covers politics, feminism, and psychology and enjoys photography and outdoor activities in her spare time.