While Netflix’s The Crown seasons one and two followed Prince Philip’s journey from naval commander to reluctant full-time royal (and father and husband), season three details the monarch’s mid-life crisis…
In the new series, Prince Philip (played by Outlander’s Tobias Menzies) grapples with what he perceives to be his lack of personal achievement, feelings that are heightened when he watches on television the ‘heroic’ astronauts risking their lives as part of the Apollo 11 mission in 1969.
Here are all your questions answered about the real-life moon landing and the royal family’s reaction to it, as we separate fact from fiction…
When was the Apollo 11 moon landing?
Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin (Getty)
During the summer of 1969, three astronauts – Buzz Aldrin, Neil Armstrong and Michael Collins – became the first men to walk on the moon as part of the Apollo 11 mission.
The mission was the culmination of the US’s attempts to be the first nation to put a man on the moon and beat the USSR in the so-called Space Race, which began following the launch of the first Sputnik satellite by the Soviets in 1957.
On 20th July, Commander Armstrong became the first man on the moon, followed 20 minutes later by lunar module pilot Aldrin. It was Armstrong who said, “That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind,” words that were heard all over the world by the millions watching the mission on TV.
Was the royal family excited about the moon landings?
In The Crown, the royal family all follow the moon landing coverage avidly, even throwing a lunar-themed party with space hoppers for the two younger princes, Edward and Andrew.
The Queen also sends a congratulatory message to the astronauts, to be put on a disc along with other messages from world leaders, and taken to the moon.
The message read: “On behalf of the British people, I salute the skills and courage which have brought man to the moon. May this endeavour increase the knowledge and well-being of mankind.”
This is exactly the message sent by the Queen. But here’s a fun fact: the Queen was initially reluctant to write the message…
Michael Adeane, the Queen’s private secretary at that time, wrote in a note: “Her Majesty agrees that this idea is a gimmick and it is not the sort of thing she much enjoys doing but she certainly would not wish to appear churlish by refusing an invitation which is so obviously well intentioned.”
Did the astronauts visit the British royal family?
The three astronauts visited London in October 1969 during their whirlwind world tour. During their stop in London (sandwiched between visits to Germany and Italy) they attended a reception at Buckingham Palace and dinner at Number 10 Downing Street.
“The reception at Buckingham Palace was impressive,” Buzz Aldrin wrote in his memoirs, Return to Earth. “Queen Elizabeth, surprisingly small and buxom, was very friendly. Prince Philip, an aviation buff, was full of questions.”
Did Prince Philip have a private meeting with the astronauts?
Unlike in The Crown’s moon landing episode, the astronauts didn’t have a private audience with Prince Philip – he met them alongside the Queen. But as Aldrin wrote, the prince was enthusiastic about the meeting and had a lot of questions, as shown in Netflix’s series.
However, the inclusion of the meeting between the prince and the astronauts helps the viewer see the ageing Philip “through the prism of those events,” according to Menzies.
“That’s what’s interesting about the show: he takes surprising bits of history and then views the characters through the prism of those events. That was really fun to do.”
What happened at Buckingham Palace?
Buzz Aldrin once revealed on Twitter that fellow astronaut Collins “almost fell down the stairs trying not to turn his back to Queen Elizabeth II” — although in his book the same anecdote seems to refer to King Badouin and Queen Fabiola at Brussels.
In the extract, Aldrin wrote that “the king” took Collins by the arm up a flight of marble stairs.
“The queen fell in line directly behind Mike, escorting Neil. We all looked up with barely suppressed smiles as it occurred to Mike he had turned his back on the queen,” he continued. “Somehow, he managed to remain arm-in-arm with the king and still turn sideways. He walked up the entire stairway that way, looking like the kid who forgot his lines for the school play. ‘I think I broke my goddam ankle’ he said as we drove back to the hotel.”
American Apollo 11 astronauts with their wives at Heathrow Airport (Getty)
Aldrin also wrote about attending a reception at 10 Downing Street with his wife Joan and the other astronauts and wives: “Following the dinner we were all escorted to another, larger room and several hundred people were waiting as we formed a reception line. It was nearly impossible to move in such a large crowd and I noticed Joan wasn’t moving at all.
“No wonder. She was wedged in next to Sean Connery.”
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You can watch this British Pathé archive footage below, in which the voiceover narrator reveals that despite “reported laryngitis,” the astronauts still enjoyed their trip (in The Crown, all three of the astronauts are suffering with colds).
Real-life history behind The Crown season 3
If you’re curious about the stories and events that inspired Netflix’s The Crown, we’ve got all the big questions covered with these in-depth features…