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Apollo 11 first moon landing receives royal treatment in 'The Crown'

November 18, 2019

— NASA's Apollo 11 mission lands its own episode in the new season of "The Crown."

Launched on Sunday (Nov. 17), the third installment of Netflix's historical drama about the reign of Queen Elizabeth II devotes an entire episode to the British royal family's reaction to and involvement in the first lunar landing 50 years ago. Titled "Moondust," the hour-long show stays mostly faithful to the events surrounding the July 1969 mission.

"Are those the astronauts?" asks Queen Elizabeth II (Olivia Colman) to Prince Philip (Tobias Menzies), as the episode switches from a recreation of the Apollo 11 pre-flight press conference to the royal couple watching the same on television.

The astronauts, Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins, are portrayed by Henry Pettigrew, Felix Scott and Andrew Lee Potts, respectively.

As the media briefing — which is famous for the quarantine "box" that enclosed the astronauts on stage — continues in the background, the queen recounts a request from the U.S. State Department, in the first of the episode's two nods to real-life events involving Buckingham Palace.

"They approached a handful individuals from around the globe, a cross-section of human civilization, to provide a message of a shared and common humanity," the queen says of her moon-bound tidings.

As accurately repeated in the episode, Queen Elizabeth II's message, inscribed along with 72 other world leaders' notes on a small silicon disc, read: "On behalf of the British people I salute the skill and courage which have brought man to the moon. May this endeavour increase the knowledge and well-being of mankind."

"The Crown," though, omits the queen's hesitancy to participate in the goodwill gesture.

According to the United Kingdom's National Archives, "Buckingham Palace thought the idea was 'a gimmick,' and added that it was 'not the sort of things [the queen] much enjoyed doing." Ultimately though, the queen took the advice of others in the government, as "'she certainly would not wish to appear churlish by refusing an invitation which is obviously so well-intentioned.'"

As the episode continues, the royal family gathers to watch the moon landing. Tuning into the BBC, the historic event is narrated by presenter Cliff Michelmore, science historian James Burke and astronomer Patrick Moore, portrayed in "The Crown" by Fred Broom, Jonathan Broadbent and Daniel Beales, respectively.

The broadcast is based on the real coverage, but differs in showing footage of the lunar module Eagle's approach to the moon, which was not available until after the Apollo 11 astronauts returned the 16mm film to Earth.

In the episode, Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins (Pettigrew, Scott and Potts) visit Buckingham Palace as part of their post-mission world tour. Unlike the astronauts' real-life visit on Oct. 15, 1969, the three crewmates are first greeted by the queen and other members of the royal family before meeting separately with Prince Philip. Though there was no private audience, the real Aldrin wrote in his 1973 book "Return to Earth" that "Prince Phillip, an aviation buff, was full of questions," just as on "The Crown."

During the (fictional) private meeting, all three astronauts are revealed to have colds. In reality, it may have only been Armstrong, according to the Paul Haney, a former NASA public affairs officer at the time.

"After meeting the little princes and princesses and sipping white wine for maybe an hour, Armstrong said he was close to the queen's ear as they were leaving. She knew he had a cold. He said he tried to say something like, 'Thanks — we had a great time.' Instead, he coughed in her face. Mortified, he again tried to mouth an apology and hit her in the face with another cough. She held up both hands in surrender," wrote Haney in his foreword to the 2007 social history "Into That Silent Sea" by Colin Burgess and Francis French.

As Prince Philip bids farewell to the astronauts in "Moondust," he watches as they run off for a photo with their wives. Rather than invoking real life, the scene evokes another dramatization of the moon landing — one with a direct connection to "The Crown."

The actress who portrays Janet Armstrong in the episode is uncredited, but Claire Foy was cast in the same role in the 2018 feature film "First Man." Foy previously starred as the younger Queen Elizabeth II in the first two seasons of the series.


The Apollo 11 crew, led by Neil Armstrong (Henry Pettigrew), meets Queen Elizabeth II (Olivia Colman) at Buckingham Palace following the astronauts' return from the 1969 moon landing mission in a third season episode of the historical drama series "The Crown." (Netflix)

The real Apollo 11 crew, Michael Collins (left), Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin met with Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace on Oct. 15, 1969. (Royal Collection Trust)

Prince Philip (Tobias Menzies) joins Princes Edward and Andrew watching the Apollo 11 moon landing. In real life, the footage being shown on the television would not be available until the astronauts returned the 16mm film to Earth. (Netflix)

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