Few Purdue alumni have an image, or a footprint, as iconic as that of Neil Armstrong. To preserve his memory, and the integrity of his likeness, if somebody wants to use Armstrong for marketing purposes, they first have to go through Marcus Knotts.
Knotts, senior associate vice president for planned giving with the Purdue Research Foundation, is a member of a three-person committee — along with Armstrong’s widow, Carol, and PRF Board of Trustees member Julia Hipps — tasked with determining whether requests to use the late astronaut’s image or persona would have satisfied Armstrong himself.
“We look at all those requests and we try to pair them with the instructions he left for us. While he really hoped we would use his image sparingly, he wants us to continue to encourage STEM education, and to celebrate discovery and ingenuity in science and education,” said Knotts, who holds Bachelor of Arts degrees from Purdue in English (1999), creative writing (2001), and psychology (2003). “These are the kinds of things that he would want to support, and the kinds of things he would lend his image to during his lifetime. He wants us to carry on that mission, as well.”
Prior to his death in 2012, Armstrong — who graduated from Purdue in 1955 before becoming the first man to walk on the moon in 1969 — signed an agreement with PRF to steward his personality rights along with a member of the Armstrong family. He is the only Purdue alumnus with such an arrangement, Knotts said.
When someone wishes to use Armstrong’s image or likeness for commercial or educational purposes, it is Knotts’ responsibility to review details of the request and present them to the committee, which collectively decides if the request is an appropriate usage.
Projects like film documentaries on space flight generally gain the committee’s approval. However, those looking to sell a Neil Armstrong bobblehead or to use a recording of his voice in a diaper commercial will probably be disappointed by the committee’s decision.
“And that diaper thing actually happened because of the ‘One small step for man’ statement,” Knotts said, referring to Armstrong’s famous words from the lunar surface. “They wanted to use the audio recording and pair it with the baby taking its first steps. Cute concept, but not within our guidelines.”
The committee is also in preliminary discussions with a group aiming to develop a museum exhibit where visitors interact with lifelike holograms of historic figures. The exhibit is not a done deal yet, but the potential educational value has intrigued committee members.
“Advances in AI have been amazing, and there are technological wizards creating experiences where you interface with an AI to answer questions about someone’s life instead of watching a short film,” Knotts said. “You can speak to an avatar, ask the questions that are important to you, and it responds back to you based on your questions. I have seen the technology at work and it is truly amazing. But I have questions about what this means for the future.
“Right now, if you want to interview somebody, ask the questions everyone wants to know, and shape that conversation to fit the program, you can do that. But it is impossible to sit down with Benjamin Franklin or George Washington or, in this case, Neil Armstrong because they’re not here to answer those questions specifically. We have archives of what other people have asked them in the past, but not something you can go ask now. This is one of those situations where technology has advanced quicker than the conversation about what is the right way – the ethical and respectful way – to apply the technology to our own history. It’s a thrilling, vexing conundrum.”
Every Armstrong-related project does not come before the committee, however. For instance, the Armstrong biopic First Man, directed by Oscar winner Damien Chazelle and starring Ryan Gosling, is based upon the biography First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong by James Hansen. The committee did not have any say-so in that project, although Carol and other Armstrong family members consulted with the film’s producers, Knotts said.
“Purdue did connect with them about some very specific items, for instance, but that was really more about Purdue itself and some items held by Purdue Archives,” Knotts said. “Personality law is relatively new, and not always easy to follow, but suffice it to say that they didn’t really need our permission to create the movie.”
Also a lawyer, Knotts describes his addition to the committee as a “happy accident,” following his review of contracts with CMG Worldwide, which markets and protects intellectual property rights for celebrity estates. Included on the Indianapolis-based company’s client list are the estates of Malcolm X, Mark Twain, Maya Angelou, Rosa Parks, Jackie Robinson, Dizzy Gillespie, and prominent figures from Purdue history like Armstrong and aviator Amelia Earhart.
With the 50th anniversary of Armstrong’s lunar landing approaching in 2019, Knotts expects the committee to be busy for the foreseeable future. In the coming months, he hopes to see something become of a rare interview Armstrong conducted with a group from Australia — currently stored away in a vault after its copyright expired — and for the astronaut’s estate to successfully launch an educational character Armstrong initially developed for a speech at the Cincinnati Museum Center.
He would also like to see more material that covers Armstrong’s pre-NASA life.
“It would be interesting to explore some of his early life a little further, too, because he was always a humble, yet fascinating, guy,” Knotts said. “But that’s the thing. He grew up in the Midwest like a lot of us, and his life story really demonstrates what happens when you set a goal and apply yourself. You aim for the stars and you can get there, and he really did.”
Regardless of what comes across the committee’s desk next, Knotts said he feels honored to be part of the group. As a Purdue graduate, he said, it is a privilege to play a direct role in protecting the legacy of the university’s most famous alumnus.
“There are people out there that are doing some cool things in education, making sure that younger generations don’t forget that our early space program and its daring missions were our baby steps into the great unknown. Apollo was the first time, and only time, we stepped on something other than Earth, so it is a tremendously important milestone,” Knotts said. “We support the efforts of educators that remind us where it all really started.”