The story told in “First Man,” the Neil Armstrong biopic premiering Friday, is, by now, a familiar part of American history: a tale of the early Apollo program’s obsessive drive to win the space race and get to the moon.
A less familiar story for most viewers is a persistent urban legend about the first human to reach the lunar surface. I first encountered it in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, in the 1990s, when I was traveling alone for the first time. A Somali named Abdullah, who had come to Indonesia to purchase sarongs to sell in his store back in Mogadishu, was staying at the same guesthouse as I was. As we chatted one late afternoon, the muezzin’s call pierced the air, and I told Abdullah that I found it a very beautiful sound. He replied with barely constrained enthusiasm, “Is it true? Is it true about Mr. Neil Armstrong?”
Space fever had long quelled in the United States. I hadn’t even heard Armstrong’s name in years, so the inquiry struck me as coming from a distant left field. My response was, “Umm, is what true about Neil Armstrong?”
In response, he told me, matter of factly, that when Armstrong was visiting the Middle East several years after his Apollo flight, he heard the call of the muezzin and asked what it was. Upon being informed of the sound’s source, the story went, Armstrong said he had heard the very same sound on the moon. In the legend, he converted to Islam on the spot.
That was my first exposure to an urban legend that held sway in parts of the world for decades. Armstrong even addressed it in “First Man,” the biography by James R. Hansen that the new movie is based on: “I have found that many organizations claim me as a member, for which I am not a member, and a lot of different families — Armstrong families and others — make connections, many of which don’t exist. So many people identify with the success of Apollo. The claim about my becoming a Muslim is just an extreme version of people inevitably telling me they know somebody whom I might know.”
Over the years, Armstrong was inundated by requests to appear at Islamic religious observances around the world. He was so deluged that he worked with the State Department in 1983 to send a rejection of the claim to embassies and consulates throughout the Middle East, North Africa and Asia. It states: “While stressing his strong desire not to offend anyone or show disrespect for any religion, Armstrong has advised Department that reports of his conversion to Islam are inaccurate. … If Post receives queries on this matter, Armstrong requests that they politely but firmly inform querying party that he has not converted to Islam and has no current plans or desire to travel overseas to participate in Islamic religious activities.”
Though the joint State Department statement helped kill the story in actual newspapers, the myth lived on through word of mouth and was then amplified on Internet message boards, with new embellishments added as the legend continued to circumnavigate the globe. It didn’t help still the rumor mill that Armstrong’s denial was sent from Lebanon, Ohio, where he lived at the time. Some purveyors of the legend ignored the rebuttal aspect, and instead added a thread that Armstrong was so devoted to Islam that he had immigrated to Lebanon (the other one). Online posts even falsely claim that declassified NASA tapes made during the Apollo 11 mission recorded Armstrong and the other astronauts discussing seeing something that appears to be an open book just above the Sea of Tranquility, which proponents of the legend have taken to represent the Koran.
I have always been enchanted by the legend. Not because I believed the conversion story, but because it underscores the essence, for me, of Armstrong’s mythic place in our collective imaginations — a sense of awe and wonder at the beauty and mystery of the universe, coupled with a belief in the power of science to help unlock those mysteries. It also serves as a testament to the attraction that Armstrong’s actual exploits hold for the mere earthbound, who can only look skyward and ponder the bravery necessary to literally soar into the unknown, as well as the sheer exhilaration that must have been its reward. Everyone loves a winner, and it is a universal trait to want to claim a winner as one of our own. Perhaps, if a little bit of the winner is in us, then maybe we too might one day soar.
We are told that sound does not travel on the surface of the moon, but if you could hear a song on the moon, what would it sound like? That’s a question I probably would have never pondered had I not been on the island of Java that day sharing a conversation with a Somali traveler. It’s an illustration of the serendipity afforded by travel and I will always be grateful for having heard the story from someone who wanted to believe it.
Ultimately, belief in the legend represents striving for connection. On the day that Armstrong died in 2012, Twitter feeds around the Islamic world filled with messages repeating aspects of the myth and showing gratitude for his conversion. It was doubtful that any of the writers had ever met Armstrong; most were probably not even born at the time of the lunar landing. Yet they continued to repeat the improbable myth, perhaps in the unspoken hope that they, too, could be brave.