Janet Armstrong, the first wife of astronaut and hero Neil Armstrong, is prominently featured in the Hollywood movie, First Man, which chronicles Armstrong’s trip to the moon, juxtaposing it alongside his family life. Warning: There will be spoilers below for the movie as it is based so closely on real life.
In the movie, Janet, played by Claire Foy, is the rock who keeps the family together, including the couple’s two sons. She grounds him. Their toddler daughter, Karen Armstrong, dies of a brain tumor, leaving the parents bereft. Janet endures her husband’s long absences and uncertain, risky adventures and career with quiet stoicism, only really erupting with seemingly pent up anger and frustration when he initially refuses to sit down with their boys to explain that he might not come home. He is, after all, going on a trip to the moon. The movie is based on James Hansen’s 2005 biography of Neil Armstrong.
“I’m not married to ‘an astronaut,’” Janet said to Life magazine in 1969. “I’m married to Neil Armstrong. I knew he wanted to go to the moon, somehow, some way, when I married him. Knowing this hasn’t changed my life. To me he will always be Neil Armstrong, husband, father of two boys.”
What happened to Janet and her relationship with Neil Armstrong (played in the movie by Ryan Gosling) after his moon walk?
July 20, 2019 is the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon landing. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin set foot on the moon. According to Fox News, “just 10 more NASA astronauts would follow in their footsteps by walking on the lunar surface. The last human to set foot on the Moon was Apollo 17 astronaut Eugene Cernan on Dec. 14, 1972.”
Here’s what you need to know:
Janet Armstrong Died Only Months Before the Movie ‘First Man’ Was in Theaters
Janet Shearon Armstrong didn’t live to see the film of her life (or at least a crucial portion of it) in theaters. She died on June 21, 2018 at the age of 84, according to her obituary. What was her cause of death? Janet died after a “fierce-hearted” battle with lung cancer, the obit reveals.
“She was a loving mother, grandmother, great grandmother, friend, and a wife of test pilot and astronaut Neil Armstrong,” says the obit.
The obituary, which ran in the Houston Chronicle and on Legacy.com, reveals that Janet was born Janet Elizabeth Shearon in Wilmette, Illinois, “the youngest of three daughters of Dr. Clarence and Louise Shearon. A graduate of New Trier High School, she then attended Purdue University in the School of Home Economics and was a member of the Alpha Chi Omega sorority.”
Janet, called Jan, married Neil Armstrong in 1956. They lived in the San Gabriel Mountains near Lancaster, California at first. “From their home in Juniper Hills, Jan could see her husband flying experimental aircraft at Edwards Air Force Base in the distance,” the obit says.
As the movie shows, the Armstrongs moved to Houston, Texas to be closer to NASA and later settled in Lebanon, Ohio.
Neil Armstrong & His First Wife Divorced Later in Life
The movie hints at growing tensions in the marriage, caused by the stresses of the job and Neil’s withholding of emotions. In real life, Neil Armstrong and Janet divorced after they were married for 38 years. Josh Singer, who wrote the screenplay for First Man, told Vanity Fair that Armstrong responded to trauma by holding back his feelings.
“It was hard on his family,” said Singer. “Rick (the couple’s son) would say that oftentimes you’d ask him questions, and he just wouldn’t answer. Janet would say a ‘no’ was a long argument from him. ‘No’ was a forceful, long answer. As Jim describes him, he was incredibly tightly packaged emotionally.”
Singer told Vanity Fair that he based the scene where Janet angrily pressured Neil to tell their two sons that he might not return from the moon voyage on the boys’ later recollections of the moment.
A family friend told Neil Armstrong’s biographer that he immersed himself in work to deal with his daughter’s death, upsetting his wife. “That hurt Jan a lot. Neil kind of used work as an excuse. He got as far away from the emotional thing as he could. Jan was angry for a very long time,” the friend said.
According to Telegraph, the couple was separated for a “long” time before they divorced.
After their divorce, Janet moved to Utah, the obituary says. “Everywhere she went, she forged lifelong friendships and frequently attended reunions for not only her high school graduating class, but her kindergarten class as well,” according to the obit. She founded and coached a synchronized swimming team and was a founding member of an astronauts’ wives group called KIT (Keep in Touch.)
Her sons with Neil, Rick and Mark, survived her, as did her daughter-in-law Wendy, six grandchildren, and two great grandchildren. They called her “Cee Cee,” the obit says. As the movie demonstrates, she was preceded in death by her daughter Karen, who died before the age of 3 of a brain tumor.
‘…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,” says Janet Armstrong’s obit.
Neil Armstrong Married a Second Time
Neil Armstrong died in 2012 after complications from heart surgery. However, after his divorce from Janet, the famously private Armstrong married a second time.
According to Daily Beast, Armstrong’s second wife was Carol Knight, whom he married in 1999, five years after his divorce from Janet. He and Janet “remained cordial,” Daily Beast reported.
Carol and Neil married in Indian Hill, Ohio. She was 15 years younger than him and was a widow, Telegraph reports.
Many news stories have reported on the astronaut’s penchant for privacy in later years. A national celebrity, he did not act like one, rarely giving interviews and staying out of the limelight. His first wife Janet once said, in his biography, “He feels guilty that he got all the acclaim for an effort of tens of thousands of people.”
In later years, according to The New York Times, Armstrong settled into life as an Ohio professor of aeronautical engineering in Cincinnati and lived on a farm. The Times reported that he was also a “director for several corporations.”
He did disagree publicly when Barack Obama canceled the plan to send astronauts back to the moon in favor of private companies. Armstrong said to the U.S. House that NASA “must find ways of restoring hope and confidence to a confused and disconsolate work force,” The Times noted. However, such wading into contentious public issues was unusual for him.