Neil Armstrong's Missing Word

>One of the most famous people alive has had to live for nearly 40 years with a lingering cloud over his head—all because of something he supposedly did not say. Recently, though, a technologist in Australia employing software that enhances speech for persons with disabilities stumbled upon a word that had been missing from the historical record for decades. When Neil Armstrong first stepped off the Apollo 11 lunar landing vehicle on 21 July 1969, he spoke the words that he had formulated only after landing on the moon and considering his role in an immensely human-intensive project: "That's one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind."

The problem with these words, of course, is that they were not what was heard back at NASA Mission Control in Houston and subsequently transmitted around the world. Those words were: "That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind." Strictly speaking, if you parse the latter statement, you get the rather banal construction: "One small step for mankind, one giant leap for mankind." Which is, essentially, nonsense. Armstrong believed he had pronounced the sentence correctly; but when he returned to Earth a few days later, he was apprised that his famous statement had been garbled, tainting what should have been one of the towering moments in human achievement. And language mavens and critics of technology have never ceased since to make the remark a subject of mockery.

Then along comes Peter Shann Ford, CEO of Control Bionics, in Sydney, Australia, who while working on software that allows disabled people to communicate through computers using their nerve impulses decided earlier this year to run a sophisticated program on an archival sound file from NASA. Ford, an admitted "space junkie" (and someone who had covered the space program for CNN and NBC during the Eighties), found the missing "a" using a graphical analysis tool. In a brief account on his firm's Web site, "That's one small a...", he relates the story of his discovery and offers several links to relevant information—including his paper "Electronic Evidence and Physiological Reasoning Identifying the Elusive Vowel 'a' in Neil Armstrong's Statement on First Stepping onto the Lunar Surface" on the science of it.

Ford soon contacted Armstrong with his findings, and two weeks ago he presented his analysis to the first man on the moon at a meeting at the U.S. National Air and Space Museum. According to Ford, Armstrong had a vivid recollection of the moment and of the equipment used to transmit his first words from the lunar surface. After reviewing Ford's presentation, the world-famous astronaut offered a statement that said simply: "I have reviewed the data and Peter Ford's analysis of it, and I find the technology interesting and useful... I also find his conclusion persuasive. Persuasive is the appropriate word."

NASA has all along maintained that Armstrong spoke the famous words correctly. In its World Book entry for Neil Armstrong, the space agency states clearly that the first words spoken by a human on the moon, amidst the static, were: "That's one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind."

Taken in context, and now proved by modern computer science, those words resonate through time and sound triumphant for all of us. A very humble man once spoke them on behalf of all of humanity. It's only fitting now that we finally give him credit for speaking them properly.


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