Moonwalk Ethics: One Small Word

Neil-Armstrong-on-the-Moon-in-1969July 20 will be the 45th anniversary of Neil Armstrong’s first step on the moon, a day of achievement, hope and pride for Americans that seems very long ago and far away in the bleak cynicism of 2014. As I was pondering how to note the landmark in an ethics context, I remembered a section of a post on the Ethics Scoreboard that dealt with the controversy surrounding Armstrong’s famous quote upon placing his foot on the moon’s surface. Here it is, my earliest foray into what has become a frequent theme on Ethics Alarms, “print the legend”  ethics:

“When the legend becomes truth, print the legend.”

This cynical endorsement of our culture’s preference for soothing fantasy over harsh historical truth was the intentionally disturbing message of John Ford’s film, “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence.” But rejecting Ford’s grizzled old newspaper editor’s warped ethic does not justify the equally objectionable modern practice of using spurious logic to substitute one dubious historical account for another. Even more ethically suspect is the common practice of replacing an accepted, well-supported version of an historical event with a “new improved” version that exists less because of its accuracy than because of its advocates’ biases….

An Australian computer programmer says he has discovered that Neil Armstrong’s first words after he stepped onto the moon in 1969, “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” were misquoted by NASA, misheard by millions of listeners around the world, and printed incorrectly in the history books. For decades, wags have criticized Armstrong for botching his iconic moment, since “man” and “mankind” mean the same thing, so the literal meaning of his famous words would be “One small step for man, one giant leap for man.” Armstrong has sometimes grudgingly acknowledged his gaffe and at other times maintained that he thought he included the elusive “a.” He hasn’t fought the consensus verdict very vigorously, as represented by NASA’a transcript:

109:24:48 Armstrong: That’s one small step for (a) man; one giant leap for mankind. (Long Pause)…

But Peter Ford claims that he found the missing “a” by analyzing the NASA audio through a special computer program. Armstrong is, of course, delighted, and corrections to all the accounts are now underway. Yet nobody actually heard the new version of his statement (“One small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind”), at the time he supposedly said it, which is the usual requirement for famous quotations. A notable exception, though fictional, is Charles Foster Kane’s last word “Rosebud!” which launches the plot in “Citizen Kane” that follows a reporter’s fevered search to find out what he meant. Kane utters the name of his cherished childhood sled as he dies alone. How did anyone find out what he said?

Listening to the tape, one is struck by the non-existent space between between “for” and “man,” as well as the long pause Armstrong takes after “man,” during which you can almost hear him thinking, “Rats! I said that wrong! Should I start again? No, that would sound terrible…maybe nobody will notice…” before he continues with “…one giant leap for mankind.”

Shouldn’t the quote that is preserved for history be what was said, rather than what the speaker intended to say or wishes he had said? The man was landing on the moon; he was excited and nervous and didn’t give the perfect quote. So what? Everyone knew what he meant; everyone knows today. If Armstrong had said, “One small step…Yippeeee! We made it!!!” would we record what he had planned to say?

I agree that ignoring the truth to “print the legend” is wrong, but before we discard an established historical account, it is only right to hold the proposed new version to a higher standard of reliability. Too often the primary virtue of a revised historical account isn’t that it is proven or well-supported, but that it serves someone’s agenda.

When that is the real motivation, Ford’s old newspaper editor is right.

“Print the legend.”

14 thoughts on “Moonwalk Ethics: One Small Word

  1. One of the things I have noticed, in conversation with others, is that the word “A” is generally said so quickly it is hard to discern (especially now, when my 69 year old hearing has trouble discerning ANYTHING!) I suppose it is possible that, over a staticey radio, then broadcast over a TV that the “A” was there and I just didn’t hear it. However, that’s NOT how I remember it, and I’m pretty sure I thought it was odd that he had said it quite that way. Personally, I like the “YIPPEE!! We made it!!! idea”

    • I had to watch that clip ten times just to settle down enough to type.
      I’m used to seeing Shuttle launches, not rocket launches.
      Those guys had some guts to sit on that candle.

      I was elated at first watching that but now I’m just sad.
      We were a nation of pioneers and now we’re a nation of crying bitches on the dole.

    • I reviewed I several times and analyzes the data you can clearly hear him say “That’s one small step for man, one biant leap for mankind.”

      What the hell is a biant?

      Also you can hear some other commentary from the director, “ok, ok, slowly, dramatically. Good good! Ok your line!”

      Then a stagehand can be heard knocking over a fold out table of refreshments and swearing while a microphone holder accidentally coughs.

      • “Biant” means that the leap is in two directions at once—forward,adding to human knowledge and wisdom, and upwards, evolving our civilization and species to a new level. It was unfortunate that Armstrong chose an archaic term that was universally misunderstood, but “giant” is not too bad. Fun Facts: Edna Ferber’s novel was originally titled “Biant,” but her publisher thought it was a typo. And early historians who referred to Charlemagne as a “biant” were similarly misconstrued, leading to the current misconception that the French leader was seven feet tall. He was really 4’10”, and his friends called him “Stumpy.”

      • From:
        DISSOLVE IN:


        Thompson and Raymond. Raymond has finished his beer.

        That’s the whole works, right up
        to date.

        Sentimental fellow, aren’t you?

        Yes and no.

        (getting to his
        Well, thanks a lot.

        See what I mean? He was a little
        gone in the head – the last couple
        of years, anyway – but I knew how
        to handle him.
        That “Rosebud” – that don’t mean
        anything. I heard him say it.
        He just said “Rosebud” and then he
        dropped that glass ball and it
        broke on the floor. He didn’t say
        anything about that, so I knew he
        was dead – He said all kind of
        things I couldn’t make out. But I
        knew how to take care of him.

  2. Without the “a”, the sentence actually becomes meaningless. BTW: I actually would have preferred what one of the Apollo 12 astronauts WANTED to say with his first step on the Moon. “I’m stepping off and… MY GOD- WHAT IS THAT HORRIBLE THING?? YAHHHHH… (click)”. There would have been a hundred thousand heart attacks all over the globe!

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