Are you getting tired of reading and hearing this phrase recently: "That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind"?
You are aware, undoubtedly, of its origin. For weeks, TV specials, documentaries, and newspapers have been reminding the world that Saturday (July 20) marks the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, and those words, originally spoken by U.S. astronaut Neil Armstrong as he stepped upon the moon, accompany virtually every retelling of this famous event.
Are you also aware, though, that what Armstrong uttered is also considered to contain the most famous grammatical error of all time?
Now, a grammar mistake might be thought to be of interest to only teachers, copy editors, or fussbudgets, but this one has to be considered in the context of the enormity of the event and its unprecedented exposure on live television.
That first instance of humans setting foot on another celestial body was viewed by an estimated 650 million slack-jawed fellow beings back on Earth.
In terms of North Americans of a certain age remembering exactly where they were when a history-changing moment occurred, Apollo 11 is right up there with JFK's assassination and the breaking events of 9-11.
Even though the Soviet Union had already beaten the U.S. to such landmark Space Race achievements as the first orbiting artificial satellite (Sputnik 1, 1957), the first human to orbit the Earth (Yuri Gagarin, 1961), and the first space walk (Alexei Leonov, 1965), the landing of the lunar module containing U.S. astronauts Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong immediately eclipsed for Americans all other space accomplishments because of its sheer audacity and technological know-how, unifying for a time a country divided over the Vietnam war, civil rights, and then-president Richard Nixon.
It also created a sense of unity in people worldwide who felt that the remarkable success of the Apollo 11 astronauts represented the first baby steps taken by the human race, collectively, in fulfilling its destiny of eventually spreading out from its home planet, Earth.
The heavy reponsibility of acknowledging that shared sentiment with words for the listening world fell to Armstrong, who was scheduled to be the first to step on the lunar surface and who had been long pondering what to say on that occasion.
(Although Armstrong insisted until his death in 2012 that he had come up with his famous phrase just minutes before he exited the Eagle spacecraft, his brother Dean admitted in a British documentary that Neil had written it down and shown it to him during a late-night board-game session months before the launch.)
Those words became revealed when he reached the bottom of the lunar module's ladder: "That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind."
The problem with his little speech was the fact that Armstrong left out an indefinite article, "a", before the word man. He should have said, "That's one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind." That way the distinction is made between man and mankind, which essentially mean the same thing, and the sentence reads as a declaration of both what the momentous occasion meant for the single explorer physically stepping off the ladder's last rung and what it represented, generally, for the entire human race.
Armstrong maintained soon after returning to Earth that he had said the word a and that listeners at home just hadn't heard him or it had been drowned out by space static, though he modified his story in later decades and said he "intended" to say the missing article. "I thought I said it," he declared in an interview.
Meanwhile, most media accounts faithfully adhered to the official transcript and followed along by putting a in parentheses.
In 2006, an Australian computer programmer, Peter Ford, attempted to prove Armstrong correct in his earliest protestations by analyzing NASA tape of the words and allegedly coming up with "evidence" that the astronaut actually did say the word but it was eradicated by transmission static. Armstrong said he found Ford's argument "persuasive", even though by that time he had been wavering in his denials to the point where he even told his biographer, James Hansen (First Man, 2005): "It doesn't sound like there was time for the word to be there."
Linguist David Beaver pretty much dismisses Ford's methodology and conclusions here.
Listen below and decide for yourself, at normal speed and half-speed.
Indeed, a close listen will demonstrate exactly what Armstrong admitted to Hansen: there is not even the slightest gap for static between for and man. Plus, there is, immediately following man, a pause for a couple of seconds as if Armstrong realizes he has flubbed his carefully rehearsed speech (understandably, given that his audience was an entire planet) but quickly rejects going back to correct (and, ultimately, ruin) it.
Armstrong went on to waffle mightily to Hansen: "So I would hope that history would grant me leeway for dropping the syllable and understand that it was certainly intended, even if it wasn't said—although it might actually have been."
Meanwhile, designers of a bus-shelter ad for a Vancouver Apollo 11 anniversary celebration (below) seem to have decided to clean up the sentence by including the missing word, and without the usual parentheses to indicate that it was missing/added.
Finally, here is a shot of a Apollo 11 moon-landing headline that most definitely did not appear anywhere except in a book of fake newspaper front pages published by the satirical paper/website the Onion about three decades after the fact.
It was so funny and became so popular that we publish it here as a kind of palate-cleansing glimpse into what might be if mainstream media didn't take itself so seriously and if the astronauts hadn't known they were on live TV.
Or if humankind didn't try so hard to take what was actually said and try to change it to what it wished had been said.