The Missing Word from the Apollo 11 Moon Landing
Did Astronaut Neil Armstrong really forget a word in the message he sent back during the Apollo 11 moon landing 50 years ago?
Half a century ago, the world watched the moon landing as two United States astronauts walked on the surface of the moon.
The first man to jump from the last rung of the ladder leading to the surface was Neil Armstrong. The words he spoke at that historic moment are well known. But over the past five decades, there has been a bit of debate about what was said — and what might have been left out.
It was just before 11 p.m. on the evening of July 20, 1969. It was still a few months away from my birth, so obviously I wasn’t around to see it as it happened. But I’m reliably informed that as Armstrong stepped down onto the lunar surface, the world heard what he said:
That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.
That’s the way all of us remember it, even if we’ve only heard recordings of it after the event itself.
For most people, there’s nothing suspicious about the quote. The focus is usually on the incredible achievement being celebrated at that moment.
But for some, there’s something just a little off. That’s because the words man and mankind can be interchangeable.
Consider the last line of the opening from the original Star Trek series:
To boldly go where no man has gone before.
In that use of man, the word is really depending on its definition as mankind. They’re not talking about going where no man, but plenty of women have already gone before. It’s a generic use of man that means the entire human race.
When you look at “one small step for man” in that light, then Armstrong’s quote sounds oddly redundant: it’s both a small step for mankind and a giant leap at the same time.
That’s surely not what Armstrong meant to say.
There was no break in the audio. As far as can be discerned, what we hear is all that he said.
But Armstrong himself was convinced he said one extra word — a single letter — that everyone else missed. That single letter makes (or would have made) everything make sense.
What Armstrong was apparently certain he’d said was, “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.”
By specifying “a man,” himself, Armstrong was clearly delineating between what he was doing versus what the moment meant as a symbol for humanity.
But during the 30th anniversary of the moon landing two decades ago, Armstrong listened to the famous recording and acknowledged he couldn’t hear himself say what he thought he’d said.
“The ‘a’ was intended,” Armstrong said. “I thought I said it. I can’t hear it when I listen on the radio reception here on Earth, so I’ll be happy if you just put it in parentheses.”
KTRK-TV in Houston reported that a 2006 computer analysis of sound waves found evidence that Armstrong said what he thought he said.
Sound waves aside, we can’t actually hear that tiny article, but knowing the intent was there at least does help solve a mystery that many people marking the 50th anniversary of the moon landing never took the time to think about.