Wait, What Did Neil Armstrong Say?
How journalists interpreted the most important quote in history.
I always hoped I would be alive to see the first man walk on the moon. I was, and I got to write about it.
I never thought I also would be alive to see the last man land on the moon.
I covered Neil Armstrong when he first stepped foot on the lunar surface, and even helped shape what history remembers as his first words (more on that later). I covered all the other lunar landings up until the last, Apollo 17, for both Reuters and the Philadelphia Inquirer. It never occurred to me at the time that the America that sent men to the moon would shrink back onto itself and that the spirit that pushed the frontier was a temporary aberration. Now we fire school teachers to save a dime.
Armstrong died last week at 82. Buzz Aldrin, who went with him to the surface, and Michael Collins, who circled above them in the Apollo command module, are still alive. We sent a total of 24 men to the moon, and 12 of them walked on the surface. One of them, Alan Shepard, even played golf up there. All the other living moon-walkers are now in their 70s or 80s. If anyone ever goes back, I’ll be long gone. Ten years from now there likely will be no one alive who walked on another world. I find that lamentable.
As Armstrong said, “that’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”
Or did he?
Let’s clear that up first. Except for the lunatics who think the whole thing was staged on a Hollywood set, that quotation is about the only controversy left. To be blunt, it doesn’t matter if he really said that. A small group of us said he did and that ends it.
Reporters covering the space program worked in a large room at the Manned Space Center in Houston, a public display hall converted into a press center. It was a time before computers or cellphones. Every desk was assigned and each had a telephone. We wrote the stories on portable typewriters (almost all, for some reason, light green Olivettis) and dictated to our offices over the phone, although those of us at the wire services had access to Teletype machines.
One of the perks was that we could hear the air-to-ground transmissions from the spacecraft on earphones. We could hear—at least in theory—every word spoken between the astronauts and mission control. (They could make the transmissions private if they needed to talk about bowel movements or impending death, but they didn’t do that often).
On July 20, 1969, we sat mesmerized at our typewriters, glancing up at television screens on the walls, hands poised. “The Eagle has landed,” announced Armstrong, and fingers flew. Reuters sent out a flash, bells clamoring: “Men on the moon.”
Eventually Armstrong climbed down the lunar module’s ladder and set foot on the surface, a step guaranteed to put his name in every history book ever. And then he said either “that’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” or “that’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.” The transmission was not clear and we were not sure we heard the word “a” before the word “man.”
Now we had problem and no time to think about it. Clearly, this was to be one of the most famous quotations in history and we had to get it right. More important at the moment, we had to be consistent. We could not have one news service say one thing, the other two something else, or have the New York Times have one version and the Washington Post another. Forget history, we had to deal with editors.
Joel Shurkin is a freelance writer in Baltimore and the author of nine nooks on science and science history. He has taught journalism at Stanford, the Univeristy of California at Santa Cruz, and the University of Alaska Fairbanks.