Neil Armstrong: How 'One Small Step' Became First Words on Moon

PHOTO: Apollo 11 Commander Neil Armstrong prepares to put on his helmet with the assistance of a spacesuit technician during suiting operations in the Manned Spacecraft Operations Building (MSOB) prior to the astronauts departure to Launch Pad 39A.
Share
Copy

In all of modern history, perhaps no man has ever been so much on the spot as Neil Armstrong. From Jan. 9, 1969, when NASA announced that he would attempt the first moonwalk, to July 20, when he actually did it, the world wondered what he would say to mark the moment.

We all know the answer now, sort of: "That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind." (He admitted after the flight that he was trying to say, "That's one small step for a man," and said the "a" got lost in static.) He told interviewers, the few times he spoke publicly, that he didn't settle on what to say until after the Apollo 11 landing ship Eagle was safely on the lunar surface and it was time to suit up for the moonwalk.

Now, in a BBC documentary, Armstrong's younger brother Dean is quoted as saying that Neil tried the line out on him months before the flight, one night during a family visit when the two were playing the board game Risk.

During the game, says Dean in the documentary, "He slipped me a piece of paper and said, 'Read that.' I did.

"On that piece of paper there was, 'That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.' He says, 'What do you think about that?' I said, 'Fabulous.' He said, 'I thought you might like that, but I wanted you to read it.'"

Dean then corrected himself: "It was, 'That is one small step for a man.'"

All this might be a curious little nugget for historians -- except that Dean Armstrong's interview has set the world's headlines ablaze:

"Neil Armstrong Lied About His 'One Small Step' Line," said Business Insider.

"Did Neil Armstrong lie about the origins of his 'one small step' speech?" asked the Daily Mail in the U.K.

"Did Neil Armstrong Lie About His Moon-Landing Speech?" is TV Guide's headline.

Where did all the stuff about lying come from? James R. Hansen, the author of Armstrong's authorized biography, "First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong," said, "I don't think his brother had any idea" he would set off such suggestions, though he said he wonders if Dean remembers correctly.

"I talked to Dean," said Hansen in a telephone interview, "and in 43 years the man never told that story." Hansen said he's now spoken to Neil's son Rick, who suggests there's a way to reconcile his uncle's recollection and his father's story -- perhaps that Armstrong thought about what to say but put it off until the last minute.

"Neil was not the kind of person who ever lied," said Hansen. "He could avoid certain questions, but he never outright lied."

It would, of course, have been very difficult for him not to have pondered his first words in advance -- Andrew Chaikin, in "A Man on the Moon," writes that he was pelted with suggestions, including lines from the Bible and Shakespeare. Esquire magazine, even before the Apollo 11 crew had been announced, ran a sneering cover: "What Words Should the First Man on the Moon Utter that Will Ring Through the Ages?" (Its first suggestion: "Er ... ah ... well, let's see now.")

Armstrong said many times he thought landing on the moon was a much greater challenge than walking on it. Here, for the record, is what Armstrong told Hansen on tape for "First Man":

"Once on the surface [after the landing] and realizing the moment was at hand, fortunately I had some hours to think about it after getting there. My own view was that it was a very simplistic statement: what can you say when you step off of something? Well, something about a step. It just sort of evolved during that period that I was doing the procedures of the practice takeoff and the EVA prep and all the other activities that were on our flight schedule at that time. I didn't think it was particularly important, but other people obviously did."

Much ado about one sentence? It is one of the most famous quotations of the last century. Armstrong, as you'll recall, died in August.

 
You Might Also Like...