Janet Armstrong Was Just As Independent In Real Life As She Is In ‘First Man’

Universal Pictures

By title alone First Man establishes focus on astronaut Neil Armstrong, but the film's look at the man behind the moon mission also gives an intimate portrait of a person barely seen in her own light — his wife of 38 years, Janet (played by Claire Foy in the movie). But what happened to Neil Armstrong's wife, as Janet was thought of for so many years?

According to The Telegraph, the Armstrongs divorced in 1994 after being separated for some time. But Janet still remained tied to NASA by bonds of friendship and suffering, going on to live her own life outside of the sudden public spotlight she'd found herself thrust into.

Janet was never a stranger to flights — her father owned and flew his own airplane — but even at that early age she remained firmly grounded. In James Hansen's definitive Armstrong biography First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong, which the film was based on, Janet is quoted as saying, "I've never learned to fly a plane, though I've always wanted to...My mother and oldest sister actually flew, but I never did because I was always too young." She expressed interest in getting a pilot's license as late as 1969, the very year of her husband's first moon landing, but never got one.

She was a founding member of the KIT (Keep-In-Touch) group of astronauts' wives, who in 2009 allowed the BBC to film their annual reunion, per The New York Post. But she told Life magazine in 1969 (per The Daily Beast) that she didn't define herself or her marriage by NASA's terminology." I’m not married to ‘an astronaut, 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," she said.

But even before being labeled an astronaut's wife, she'd founded something else that deeply affected her personally: per their website, she founded the El Lago Aquanauts in 1964. Janet herself had done synchronized swimming in college, and even participated in swim shows. As Neil prepared to head to the moon, Janet oversaw team training that led them to the 1969 Ohio Senior Finals.

After she and Neil separated she became a resident of Utah, according to her obituary, where she lived until she recently died in June 2018, just a few months before First Man was released. She passed away after a battle with lung cancer. Foy told Vulture, "I was never in a room with her. I’ll always regret that. But at the same time, she mused that for someone who was so very private about her personal life, that may have been for the best. "I didn’t want to put her in a position where she was having to talk to some random actress about her marriage," she added.

Talking with ComingSoon, Foy said of her own research into Janet's life, "I don’t think that she had a public and private self. I think she’s a very private person. I just think that she wasn’t going to be over expressive or anything like that, but she is very resilient."

Audiences will get to see that quiet strength for themselves in First Man, but there's no more fitting legacy for Janet than the one requested in her own obituary: "We ask only that you honor her by standing up for that in which you believe."