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One small clarification for a man, one giant scene of drama for mankind
January 7, 2013 11:40 AM   Subscribe

Months after the death of Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon, a question arises: when did he think of the infamous quote "One small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind"? His brother Dean says, in a BBC documentary, it was not made up by Neil after landing on the moon, as the astronaut has said for 40+ years. Instead, Neil asked Dean for his opinion on the quote several months before Apollo 11 even launched.

Newspapers headlines asked "Did Armstrong lie", prompting protest, clarifications and remembrances from space historian Andrew Chaikin and longtime friend Dudley Schuler.
posted by Brandon Blatcher (32 comments total) 5 users marked this as a favorite

 
I vetted this comment months ago.
posted by mazola at 11:50 AM on January 7, 2013 [1 favorite]


But seriously, the big surprise here for me is that the quote was ever thought to be 'spur of the moment'.
posted by mazola at 11:55 AM on January 7, 2013 [9 favorites]


Newspapers headlines asked "Did Armstrong lie"

The World responded "Who. Fucking. Cares?"
posted by fullerine at 12:02 PM on January 7, 2013 [5 favorites]


But the shout out to his old neighbor was really all his own.
posted by NoMich at 12:02 PM on January 7, 2013 [4 favorites]


This is an awfully small teapot for that tempest. It's certainly of historical interest to know who might've coined the phrase, but I don't know if it'd be controversial even within historical communities.
posted by ardgedee at 12:03 PM on January 7, 2013


Anyway, everybody knows Armstrong's first words on the moon were actually "Holy living fuck... are you fucking believing this?"
posted by ardgedee at 12:06 PM on January 7, 2013 [8 favorites]


What's with these Armstrong's and their lies?
I think Lance Armstrong started this story about his long lost cousin Neil hoping to take the heat off himself - just like he started the Beyonce surrogate rumor, the Kim Kardashian baby rumor (whoops that's true), the Rhianna/Chris Brown rumor (oh, another fact) etc. etc.

and here's a thought - why do we care about any of this?
posted by incandissonance at 12:07 PM on January 7, 2013


I always assumed it was openly written for him by some pencil pusher in the Federal government somewhere. Slightly more charming to think it was his brother. (And yeah, either way, he botched it into meaninglessness, making it even more natural to assume he was trying to recall someone else's script. What he was probably thinking at the moment instead was more like this.)
posted by availablelight at 12:08 PM on January 7, 2013


In David Frye's fantasy version, the quote was written by William F. Buckley Jr. at the request of the White House. Because the best that the astronauts had come up with on their own were "Shucks" and "Hey, I'm on the moon!"
posted by Longtime Listener at 12:09 PM on January 7, 2013


Would have perhaps been the blooper of the century if he'd said "One small step for mankind, one giant.....oh FUCK IT!....it's one step for small man and kind giant steps... SHIIIIITTTT!!.....lemme try that again Buzz.......Buzz??....you still there...?
posted by gallus at 12:09 PM on January 7, 2013


and here's a thought - why do we care about any of this?

I care because it's an interesting bit of historical data and could changes the halo that Armstrong has worn for all these years. It's calls into question other things Armstrong has or has not said on other subjects.

Either way, it's a pretty dick move of his brother's, to wait until Neil was dead to say this.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 12:18 PM on January 7, 2013 [1 favorite]


I always assumed it was openly written for him by some pencil pusher in the Federal government somewhere.

The line is a great one and not just because of when it was spoken. "Some pencil pusher" did not come up with it.
posted by DU at 12:18 PM on January 7, 2013 [1 favorite]


"I don't care if this is a top secret movie set. If I don't get my pizza in 20 minutes, there's no way I'm going in front of the camera. Now help me hoover up the last of the cocaine and make sure wardrobe has fixed the greenscreen on my "helmet""
posted by zoo at 12:42 PM on January 7, 2013


it's an interesting bit of historical data and could changes the halo that Armstrong has worn for all these years.

It is an interesting bit of historical data, but seems unlikely to significantly change the way history sees Armstrong. Mostly because however stirring the line is—and it is stirring—there's always been an air of the manufactured about it. I remember my grandfather being faintly mocking about the spontaneity of "One small step" when I was a kid. I suppose I imagined that it was workshopped by the astronauts and NASA higher-ups before the mission began. Because given a successful landing, then someone had to say something, and since that person was speaking for the world, then a prepared, formal, utterance would be more appropriate to the moment than a "Hi, Moon, how's it hanging?"
posted by octobersurprise at 12:44 PM on January 7, 2013


Either way, it's a pretty dick move of his brother's, to wait until Neil was dead to say this.

I'm not sure I agree it was a dick move. Perhaps he kept the secret because he didn't want to tell a story that contradicted Neil's. Rather honorable for him to hand on to it so long, actually.

From the article it sounds like Neil may have had more than one possibility, he ran this one by his brother, and he decided to go with it. Perhaps that decision wasn't made until he was on the moon. With everything going on after they landed I can't imagine he had the time or the clarity to come up with that then and their.

Either way, it's just about the best line that he could have used and it's unfortunate that either a slip or the tongue or a technical glitch took out that "a".
posted by bondcliff at 12:44 PM on January 7, 2013


I heard he makes his lyrics up on the fly as well.
posted by Shepherd at 12:47 PM on January 7, 2013 [1 favorite]


I suppose I imagined that it was workshopped by the astronauts and NASA higher-ups before the mission began.

Well, that's the thing, several higher ups have written in their books that they had no idea what Armstrong would say. I think it was flight director Chris Kraft and Chief Astronaut Deke Slayton who did so.

So either they're liars or weren't people Neil spoke to about the line.

The real question is why wouldn't Neil simply say "Oh yeah, I thought it up a few months earlier" or some such. Why repeatedly insist that he made it up after landing? It's an interesting question.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 1:00 PM on January 7, 2013


He was however specifically banned from going with "I'm on the moon, suck it Collins."
posted by jaduncan at 1:03 PM on January 7, 2013 [1 favorite]


Really, you wanted the first person on the moon to be so feckless as to never consider in advance how to commemorate the moment.
posted by Mental Wimp at 1:25 PM on January 7, 2013


"Pow! To the Moon!" was also deprecated.

Why repeatedly insist that he made it up after landing? It's an interesting question.

I don't know. My knowledge of the history of the space programs is pretty casual. But it doesn't seem implausible to imagine that the first man on the moon would want to mark the moment with memorable words. And it doesn't seem implausible, either, to imagine that, having once said that his words were spontaneous, the first man on the moon might be disinclined to admit that they weren't really as spontaneous as all that. None of that seems especially deceitful, more just a very human wish to polish the sharp edges of history.
posted by octobersurprise at 1:32 PM on January 7, 2013 [2 favorites]


I can definitely see being unwilling to contribute to the "must document every gnat's fart" "oral history"ism that we seem to be obsessing over more and more in the latter day US. By refusing to give any further story than "I just thought of it, OK?" you nip in the bud any endless overthinking of this plate of beans.
posted by DU at 3:09 PM on January 7, 2013


With my luck, I would have stubbed my toe on the bottom rung, and the first words would have been something along the lines of:
"GOdd DAMNitt!!"
posted by Atom Eyes at 3:34 PM on January 7, 2013


I can definitely see being unwilling to contribute to the "must document every gnat's fart" "oral history"ism that we seem to be obsessing over more and more in the latter day US.

Except he specifically gave permission for friends and family to speak their mind to his biographer. Then his biographer did an exhaustive study of possible influences for the quote and Armstrong repeatedly said he thought of it after landing, since he didn't think it was that important.

No one would fault him for having written the quote before the flight, so it's interesting that if that's what happened, he chose not to say so for the rest of his life.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 3:59 PM on January 7, 2013


It's a legendary and iconic piece of minutiae, and we are a society obsessed with such trivia. In a world where we are jaded enough to assume that our leaders and elites are constantly lying to us, for a heroic moment such as this we want the truth, dammit!
posted by Apocryphon at 4:49 PM on January 7, 2013


If the line had been written for a 1940s book about a moon landing, it would have been edited out as too contrived.
"Jesus," says the editor, "You've just landed on the fucking moon. Express some emotion."
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 5:15 PM on January 7, 2013 [1 favorite]


Well, according to Theodore Sturgeon, his first words were actually "It's some kind of soft stuff. I can kick it around with my foot."
posted by Bron at 5:41 PM on January 7, 2013


My mom and I have been fighting over this for years. Except it's Kevin Costner's last line in Field of Dreams. "You wanna have a catch?"

She insisted it was "You wanna have catch?" and I was like WHAT I DON'T EVEN

Ten years later I turned the captions on at someone else's house and THANK YOU.
posted by Madamina at 5:44 PM on January 7, 2013


Why repeatedly insist that he made it up after landing?

Well, he may have had several ideas floating around his head, and only made up his mind on the exact phrasing at the last minute. That might be consistent with all versions of the story, but, of course, I just speculating like the rest of us. And I don't even trust first hand accounts, because at my age I have had enough person experience with the unreliability of memory to know that we remember the way we want to remember.
posted by Mental Wimp at 6:04 PM on January 7, 2013


One of my favorite Apollo stories is that of Pete Conrad, Commander of Apollo 12. After Armstrong's famous words, Conrad got into a debate with reporter Oriana Fallaci over whether NASA truly let Armstrong choose what to say without approving it. Conrad insisted that he would be able to say whatever he chose, and made a $500 bet with her on the spot. The two of them worked out what he would say, and when his moment on the lunar surface arrived, one of the shortest astronauts said the words that have so inspired the rest of humanity over the years:

"Whoopee!! Man, that may have been a small one for Neil, but that's a long one for me!"

According to Conrad, he was never able to collect on the bet.
posted by 1367 at 6:16 PM on January 7, 2013 [2 favorites]


I'd have been tempted to touch with my first boot, scream hugely, cut off the scream suddenly, fall over and remain silent for an extremely tense 20 seconds or so.
posted by jaduncan at 6:16 PM on January 7, 2013 [1 favorite]


One small step for man, one giant leap for John Madden.
posted by dirigibleman at 11:47 PM on January 7, 2013


The Apollo 8 astronauts did confess to Arthur C Clarke that they were tempted to radio back that there was a huge 1:4:9 monolith on the dark side of the moon. Alas some of them wanted to fly again...
posted by ewan at 4:29 AM on January 8, 2013


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