Sask.'s role in Neil Armstrong story captured on silver screen

When it came to one highly emotional part of Neil Armstrong's story, filmmakers found themselves short on details, and so they looked to Saskatchewan for the answers.

On 50th anniversary of moon landing, author recalls Hollywood's plea for help

American astronaut Neil Armstrong steps on to the surface of the moon, the first human to set foot on another world. (NASA TV/Associated Press)

With NASA set to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the moon landing this weekend, one author is celebrating Saskatchewan's contribution to that story, a poignant chapter that made it to the silver screen in a biopic about astronaut Neil Armstrong.

First Man has already had its run in theatres, but filmmakers struggled with one aspect that ended up having a Saskatchewan connection.

Saskatoon writer Merle Massie helped Hollywood understand the details of the Cobalt-60 therapy used to treat Neil Armstrong's daughter, a therapy invented in Saskatchewan.

The Cobalt-60 connection 

Neil Armstrong's daughter Karen, who died from brain cancer, was treated with radiation therapy using a Cobalt-60 unit, a device created by Dr. Harold Johns at the University of Saskatchewan in the 1950s.

I believe that this is what Hollywood inserted as a way to give a nod to Saskatchewan.- Merle Massie

When it came to this highly emotional part of the Armstrong story, the filmmakers found themselves short on details. They looked to Saskatchewan for the answers.

Hollywood called Merle Massie.

"They were having trouble understanding the order of the procedure," said Massie, a local author who is currently researching the history of the Cobalt-60.

"Set designers were trying to figure out … what the machine looked like, what they needed the control panel and the dials to look like."

Massie is collaborating with Stuart Houston on a book about Sylvia Fedoruk, the Saskatchewan's former Lieutenant Governor. Fedoruk was one of Dr. Harold Johns' graduate students at the U of S and helped calibrate the original Cobalt-60 unit. Invented in 1951, the Cobalt-60 was the first machine to use radiation to treat cancer.

Sylvia Fedoruk, a graduate student in physics, moves the rotating head of the Cobalt-60 unit into position with the aid of a push-button control. (University of Saskatchewan Archives/Harold E. Johns Collection)

Changing the script 

Massie and Houston offered all the details they could muster, including schematics on how the original Cobalt-60 room was set up in Saskatoon. Then they waited.

Massie attended a screening of First Man at her hometown theatre in Biggar and breathlessly waited with friends and family nearby for any hint that the information they had to providers to filmmakers had helped bring this important part of Neil Armstrong's story to the screen.

When the moment came, Massie said she was drawn right out of her seat.

"They actually wrote into the script that Neil phoned the hospital and said, 'Well did you call Dr. Johns? Dr. Johns, the one from Saskatchewan who created this technology?' "

Massie doesn't think this scene is historically accurate, but said it may be a cinematic thank you note from the script writers and set designers for the help.

"I believe that this is what Hollywood inserted as a way to give a nod to Saskatchewan and Harold Johns."

Massie and Houston are still working on the book about Sylvia Fedoruk. Massie said it should be ready for the Christmas season in 2020.

With files from Saskatoon Morning


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