A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

Did astronaut Neil Armstrong muff his historic "one small step" line?

November 9, 1990

Dear Cecil:

Did Neil Armstrong muff his historic line or didn't he? When I along with half a billion others witnessed the first human step on the moon on July 20, 1969, I swear I heard Armstrong say, "That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind." What he meant to say, of course, was "one small step for a man." In leaving out the "a," he destroyed the sense of the statement and in essence said, "One small step for humans, one giant leap for humans."

OK, so we all make mistakes. Every encyclopedia I've consulted, however, corrects the error. In recent years I've even heard recordings of his famous line — purportedly from the original tape — that also include the "a," making sense of the statement. Did NASA or someone else doctor up the tape to save Armstrong's (and the U.S.'s) face in the eyes of posterity? Or am I going loony?

Cecil replies:

Can the lame puns, James, the honor of the nation is at stake. Fortunately, the latest in miracle technology has been brought to bear on the question. But let's take it from the top.

Most earwitnesses to the event, including newspaper reporters, thought Armstrong said "one small step for man." At least that's the way the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the L.A. Times (among others) reported it. Armstrong, however, has always maintained that he said "a man," and most encyclopedias have played along. But the skeptics have been, well, skeptical. Come on, would you admit it if you'd traveled a quarter million miles only to blow your big line?

Enter Al Reinert, the mad Texan. Al spent years prowling through NASA's vaults digging up forgotten lunar film footage to make what is said to be the muthah space movie of all time, For All Mankind. (Check it out if you ever get the chance — the visuals are said to be unbelievable.) After finding the original quarter-inch audiotape used to record Armstrong's words in a Fort Worth warehouse, Al and friends used a digital synthesizer to clean up the radio static so they could use it on the sound track. (Perhaps the cleaned-up version is what you heard.) This makes it perfectly clear that what Neil said was …

Well, to tell you the truth, we still don't know what he said. According to Reinert, "cleaning it up does not truly answer the question. He did not clearly say `a man.' But there's definitely a beat there. It's open to interpretation — maybe he was in the middle of a step when he said it. … I'm prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt." Armstrong, for his part, is willing to concede he may have mumbled.

My feeling is, why persecute the guy? I say we do what Chicago reporters were once urged to do with the tortured syntax of the late Mayor Richard J. Daley: don't write what he said, write what he meant. "A man" it is.

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