Wednesday, June 24, 2009

One Small Misstep

We're coming up on 40 years since one of the most important, you-had-to-see-it-to-believe-it moments in world history. Heck, in the history of the universe.

Also, 40 years since Neil Armstrong blew his big line.

Neil whiffed on it, botched it but good. But he still ended up uttering a gem.

Kids from first grade, almost, know what Armstrong said on July 20, 1969, when he was the first human being to set foot on the moon.

"That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind."

Yeah, that's what he said, alright. Just not what he intended to say.


Armstrong, about to set foot on the moon and insert the other one into his mouth


What Armstrong wanted to say was close, but different. It was just one letter that was omitted, but had it been included, it would have changed the texture of the quote dramatically.

Here's what he not only intended to say, but maintains he did say: "That's one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind."

Armstrong, you see, wasn't nearly as philosophical as his bungled words made him appear.

From the website Scopes.com:
So instead of a statement linking the small action of one man with a monumental achievement for (and by) all of humanity, Armstrong uttered a somewhat contradictory phrase that equated a small step by the human race with a momentous achievement by humankind.

Got it?

But Armstrong's words still sounded good, and everyone thought they got the drift of what he was trying to say, so the quote became legendary.

Funny thing was, Armstrong and NASA made a big to-do out of his spiel, and maintained Neil hadn't omitted the "a" after all. Instead, the lack of hearing it was blamed on static.

The press was skeptical; they insisted that there was not enough space between "for" and "man" for him to have inserted the problematic "a."

There was quite a controversy for several weeks after the moon landing over Armstrong's actual words. But that ordeal has mostly been forgotten; the version that Armstrong said he said never grew legs; the supposedly static-marred one became one of the most famous quotations ever.

I'm no help in the matter. I wasn't quite six years old when Armstrong hit the moon's surface, and I must confess to not knowing until a year or two ago that there was even a controversy at all about his words.

But one thing's for sure. I still get goosebumps whenever I hear the recording of Armstrong's sentence, shrouded in mystery or not.

It wasn't until the 1980s that Neil Armstrong finally conceded that he did, indeed, misspeak.

A representative from the Grumman company, which had built the Eagle used by Apollo 11, played for Armstrong a 45-rpm recording of the flight. No matter how much they slowed it down, no "a" could be heard.

"I wrote it that way, and I rehearsed it that way, and I was sure I had said it that way," Armstrong said. But after hearing the recording, he fired off another juicy quote.

"Damn," he sighed to the Grumman people. "I really did it. I blew the first words on the moon, didn't I?"

Maybe, Neil. But you were the first man to walk on the moon, and that sort of trumps the words, me thinks. The pictures, as we all know, spoke pretty damn good for themselves.

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If my truncated telling of this historical tidbit just doesn't cut it for you, you can click here for a much more detailed version, courtesy the folks at Snopes.

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