One small step: Was Neil Armstrong misquoted?

The millions worldwide who watched the Apollo moon landing in 1969 heard Commander Neil Armstrong say, rather ungrammatically, "That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind." But a 2006 analysis of the audio indicates that the astronaut did not omit the definite article.

NASA/Andy Chaikin/collectSPACE.com
On July 20, 1969, Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong became the first man to walk on the moon. Armstrong is pictured here, shortly after collecting a sample of lunar dust and rocks. At his feet is the handle for the sample collection tool.

Upon taking a "small step" onto the surface of the moon in 1969, Neil Armstrong uttered what would become one of history's most famous one-liners. But strangely, what he actually said is far from clear.

Listeners back on Earth heard, "That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind." But Armstrong, who died Saturday (Aug. 25) at the age of 82, maintained afterwards that he actually said something slightly different: "That's one small step for man..."

"It's just that people just didn't hear [the 'a']," Armstrong told the press after the Apollo 11 mission.

That little indefinite article makes a big difference, semantically speaking. Without it, "man" abstractly represents all of humanity, just like "mankind." Thus, the quote is essentially, ''That's one small step for mankind, one giant leap for mankind." [Listen to 'One Small Step' Quote]

Despite his initial adamance that he got the grammar right by including the indefinite article, Armstrong acknowledged at a 30-year anniversary event in 1999 that he couldn't hear himself utter the "a" in the audio recording of his moonwalk transmission, according to the Associated Press.

But then, in 2006, computer programmer Peter Shann Ford might have vindicated Armstrong.

Ford downloaded the audio recording of the moon man's words from a NASA website and analyzed the statement with software that allows disabled people to communicate via computers using their nerve impulses.

In a graphical representation of sound waves of the famous sentence, Ford said he found evidence that the missing "a" had been spoken after all: It was a 35-millisecond-long bump of sound between "for" and "man" that would have been too brief for human ears to hear.

"I have reviewed the data and Peter Ford's analysis of it, and I find the technology interesting and useful," Armstrong said in a statement. ''I also find his conclusion persuasive. Persuasive is the appropriate word."

And so was "a," whether spoken or not.

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