I’d been 12 years old for one day, but I was old enough to realize there was something odd about the first words spoken on the moon.
Watching the grainy black and white TV image with my family (the one time it didn’t matter that we still had a black and white TV), I saw Neil Armstrong climb down the ladder and take the historic first step just before 8 p.m. local time.
“OK. I’m going to step off the LM now,” Armstrong said. Then, after a long pause, he said: “That’s one small step for man; one giant leap for mankind.”
As I said, barely 12, but I was pretty sure there wasn’t much difference between “man” and “mankind.” There had been lots of chatter beforehand about what Armstrong would say, as the first words spoken by the first human on the moon would go down in history, so everyone was paying attention.
The disconnect was short-lived, though, at least on that evening. We watched silently as Armstrong and then Buzz Aldrin went to work on the moon. Their mission was way too short, and after the tense liftoff from the surface the next day, they headed for Earth.
Armstrong, who died Saturday at age 82, claimed he said “a” man, as in this might be a small step literally but a giant step figuratively. That makes more sense though it seems overly formal for a plainspoken engineer and test pilot.
But NASA surely wouldn’t have let Armstrong craft his own first words on the moon, not with a billion people listening in.
Perhaps the word had been lost in transmission, Armstrong said upon his return. NASA initially blamed static and claimed Armstrong didn’t misspeak but was instead misquoted.
For the baby boomers and greatest generationers for whom the moon missions were a near-religious experience, however, those 11 words (or was it 12?) pass for scripture. The coverage of Armstrong’s death, a little more than 43 years since the landing, included hundreds of words about a missing word.
In its article on the debate titled “One Small Misstep,” urban legends debunker Snopes.com notes that reporters covering the landing from Houston had to quickly meet to decide whether to send out the quote as NASA claimed or as their ears (and a billion other sets of ears worldwide) had heard it.
They went with their ears.
In the book “Chariots for Apollo: The Untold Story Behind the Race to the Moon” by Joshua Stoff and Charles R. Pellegrino, the authors describe a ceremony years later at Grumman Co., the builder of the lunar module. There, Armstrong was given a plaque with the first words inscribed sans the “a.” At first, Armstrong protested. But after listening to a recording, the authors wrote that he said, “Damn, I really did it. I blew the first words on the moon, didn’t I?”
Those who wanted to believe their hero hadn’t messed up gave much attention to a 2006 claim by Australian computer programmer Peter Shann Ford who said he located the “a” in a waveform of the transmission. But NASA doesn’t buy it.
“Subsequently, more rigorous analyses of the transmission were undertaken by people with professional experiences with audio waveforms and most importantly audio spectrograms,’’ wrote Eric M. Jones in NASA’s “Apollo 11 Lunar Surface Journal. “None of these analyses support Ford’s conclusion. The transcription used above (which placed the “a” in parentheses) honors Neil’s intent.”
The rest of the summer of 1969 was eventful in other ways. The Friday after the Apollo 11 astronauts arrived safely home, I was watching Teddy Kennedy try to explain what happened at Chappaquiddick as I waited to ride to Seattle for one of two Seattle Pilots games I would see in their one season of existence (Boston 7, Seattle 6).
Neil Armstrong remained bigger than life, an icon of an era who is remembered for his courage and unflappability, as a pilot and astronaut if not as a public speaker.