Old Wives' Tales
Radio & TV
Toxin du jour
Origins: English has no handy term for what the French call it esprit de l'escalier, and the Germans know as treppenwitz: the "wit of the staircase," those clever remarks or cutting rejoinders that only come to mind once it's too late for us to deliver them — literally, as we're headed down the stairs and out of the house. English also lacks an expression to describe the antithesis of treppenwitz, those occasions when one has a perfect remark carefully prepared in advance but fails to deliver it properly. If English did have such an expression, we could apply it to the words of the first man on the moon,
What Neil Armstrong meant to say as he descended from the ladder of
Neil A. Armstrong, the Apollo 11 commander, had said that one small word was omitted in the official version of the historic utterance he made he stepped on the moonPress reporters, however, were more skeptical about what Armstrong had actually said:
When Mr. Armstrong saw the quotation — "That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind" — in the mission transcript after his return to earth, he said he was misquoted, it was reported yesterday.
There should have been the article "a" before "man," the astronaut said.
The "a" apparently went unheard and unrecorded in the transmission because of static, a spokesman for the Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston said today in a telephone interview.
Whatever the reason, inserting the omitted article makes a slight but significant change in the meaning of
On July 20, 1969, Joel Shurkin was chief of the Reuters news agency's team at Mission Control in Houston, Tex. "When Armstrong landed, we all listened to the raw air-to-ground and when he said the part about the 'small step' it was fuzzy — this was the unenhanced version, live — and it was not clear if he said 'a man' or 'man,' " he says, sharing his experience publicly for the first time.The New York Times clearly didn't buy the "static" explanation (hence the "Whatever the
Nor were the words perfectly clear for the more than a billion people listening and watching the televised broadcast as the lunar module Eagle touched down, and
Months after the lunar landing, in the book First on the Moon, which was billed as an "exclusive and official
He notes that Mission Control missed the "a" in the first phrase, writing that "tape recorders are fallible."
However, for the dozens of journalists in Houston, the uncertainty left them feeling their own version of space sickness.
"It was one of the most important quotes in history and it wouldn't do to get it wrong and we didn't have time to pursue the matter," Mr. Shurkin wrote in a posting to a list-serv of the U.S. National Association of Science Writers.
"Worse, it wouldn't do to have me say one thing, and the Associated Press another, or to be contradicted by The New York Times."
The journalists from the major wire services and newspapers gave up watching the live broadcast and huddled in the press room debating what to do. They decided that they would agree on what they heard and all file the same quote.
"We concluded that he did not say 'a man' and that's the way it went out to the world," says
In the years since that historic
Later, a representative for the Grumman company (it had built the Eagle, essentially a high-tech aluminum can) presented Mr. Armstrong with a silver plaque bearing hisHappily for Neil Armstrong, the tremendous scientific and cultural importance of his achievement dwarfed his minor verbal
Mr. Armstrong insisted that they had left out an "a". Sure, he had been awake for
But he knew what he said. "There must be an 'a', " Mr. Armstrong says of the event in the 1986 book Chariots for Apollo. "I rehearsed it that way. I meant it that way. And I'm sure I said it that way."
Then the Grumman representative, Tommy Attridge, put on a commemorative
According to the authors, Mr. Armstrong sighed, "Damn, I really did it. I blew the first words on the moon, didn't I?"2
Update: In September 2006, Peter Ford of Control Bionics announced he had analyzed the historic
Note should be made of the debate that has existed almost from the time Armstrong uttered the famous saying. Did he actually say "One small step for a man," with the indefinite article a somehow lost in transmission? No, he did not, and to imply otherwise is revisionist history. Granted, it is possible, if not probable, that he intended to say "a man." From the tone and inflection of his voice it seems for all the world that Armstrong caught the mistake immediately. Following "That's one small step for man," he added another one, stopped again, then finished the statement with "giant leap for mankind." There's nothing lost in transmission, nothing at all, no matter what any super-scientific studies to the contrary might suggest.Additional information:
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