Say What?:  “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”
As Neil Armstrong later observed: “I didn’t intentionally make an inane statement . . . certainly the ‘a’ was intended, because that’s the only way the statement makes any sense.”

The first words spoken on the Moon were either misstated or mistransmitted.

The now-famous phrase —“That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind”— isn’t what Neil Armstrong intended to say as he lowered his left leg onto the lunar surface.

“That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind”  may sound sort of stirring.  But, as the astronaut subsequently admitted, it makes absolutely no sense.

“Damn, I really did it.  I blew the first words on the Moon, didn’t I?” he is supposed to have asked NASA officials on his return to Earth.

What he intended to say, of course, was: “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.”

Depending on the version you embrace, it was either the excitement of the moment or the vagaries of radio communications that led to the dropping of the crucial “a.”

A couple of years ago, acoustics expert Peter Shann Ford put the 1969 Lunar tape through some modern testing and claimed to have found the missing indefinite article buried in the interspace static.  He met with Mr. Armstrong, who said that “I have reviewed the data and Peter Ford’s analysis of it and I find the technology interesting and useful.  I also find his conclusion persuasive.”

On further reflection, however, he was more conscientious and less certain than even this restrained endorsement indicated.  He told his biographer Peter Hansen:  “It doesn’t sound like there was time for the word to be there. On the other hand, I didn’t intentionally make an inane statement . . . certainly the ‘a’ was intended, because that’s the only way the statement makes any sense.”


Diagram illustrating Peter Shann Ford’s article “Electronic Evidence and Physiological Reasoning Identifying the Elusive Vowel “a” in Neil Armstrong’s Statement on First Stepping onto the Lunar Surface.”  The article’s Abstract stated: “Electronic voice signal analysis of Astronaut Neil Armstrong’s statement on first stepping onto The Moon reveals the presence of an ‘a’ sound after his words, ‘That’s one small step for’.  Physiological reasoning describes the expression of this vowel sound int he lingual-buccal-labial transition from the terminal consonant ‘r’ in ‘for’ to the initial consonant ‘m’ in ‘man’.”

This largely unheralded controversy is more interesting —and far less disturbing— than that surrounding NASA’s “loss” of the “original” Moon landing video.  People of Earth (and here, although I use Yoko Ono’s phrase,  I speak on behalf of all fellow Earthlings) were awed by Apollo’s achievement; but we were underwhelmed by the grainy substandard picture transmission and staticky audio.  “You can put a man on the Moon but you can’t send back a primetime quality picture? What’s up with that?” was a widespread attitude once the initial excitement had passed.

And at some point, the question “What’s wrong with this picture?” assumed literal as well as figurative meaning.  The ersatz quality of the event’s video undoubtedly fueled the conspiratorialist fires as, in at first surprising and then depressing numbers, many people decided that the whole thing was a hoax.

A survey reported in last Sunday’s Telegraph (London) revealed that one in four Britons don’t believe Apollo XI left Cape Kennedy much less went to the Moon.  A 1999 Gallup poll found that 6 percent of Americans shared that skepticism, and there’s no reason to think that number has decreased in the intervening decade.  (Although conspiratorialists no doubt wonder why a more recent survey hasn’t been taken.)  A Google search last week for “Apollo moon landing hoax” elicited 1.5 billion results.  (Admittedly some of them represented pure research —mine, for example, is now the one and a half billionth plus one— but still…..)

So NASA’s recent —and, dare I say it, convenient— discovery of the “lost” Moon Landing footage will serve to fan some flames of doubt even while it clarifies things for the rest of us.

In fact, the original footage hasn’t been “found.”   It is still lost and was probably erased or recorded over in the 1970s or ’80s during a tape-shortage at NASA.  (Talk about an explanation that raises more questions than it answers.)

The video images recorded by the camera the astronauts took to the Moon were in a superduper new non-standard format that couldn’t be transmitted over the air on Earth in any case.  So they were beamed back to a NASA station in Australia (which happened to be the nearest point on earth during the time of transmission) where they were reconverted into terrestrial quality and then rebroadcast.  Each conversion degraded the images and the rest is either history or conspiracy depending on your point of view.

For the last few years —in anticipation of the 40th anniversary—  a concerted search was made to find as much material as close to the original as possible.  Caches were discovered in NASA’s own vaults, in Australia, and at a CBS studio in Houston.  Lowry Digital, a Hollywood company that specializes in restoration (their work includes Citizen Kane) set to work restoring more than two hours of this material.  The complete work will be released in September, but excerpts of the critical moments were made available for the Anniversary:

The churlish will complain that the restored footage is better but still not very good.  And the conspiratorial will complain that the “restored” footage remains completely unconvincing: