Remembering a small step and giant leap

Today, Sunday July 20, marks the 45th anniversary of Neil Armstrong setting foot on the moon. SpaceRef has a series of videos relating to the Apollo 11 mission, with film of Walter Cronkite on CBS covering the events. But what did Armstrong say on setting foot on the moon? As I understand the CBS video, Armstrong said, “That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” Listen for yourself. Click here, and scroll down for “CBS Television.”

On the occasion of Armstrong's death in 2012, Joel Shurkin in Slate commented on the famous quote, or perhaps misquote. (Slate reprinted the 2012 article today.) From Shurkin's perspective as a reporter at the Space Center in Houston, the quote was either “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” or “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.” As Shurkin put it. “The transmission was not clear and we were not sure we heard the word 'a' before the word 'man.'”

Shurkin continued, “Clearly, this was to be one of the most famous quotations in history and we had to get it right. More important at the moment, we had to be consistent. We could not have one news service say one thing, the other two something else, or have the New York Times have one version and the Washington Post another. Forget history, we had to deal with editors.”

Shurkin said that a small group representing the wire services and major papers quickly decided the “a” was missing, and consequently, “It went out that way to all our readers and that is the quote everyone knows.”

Shurkin continued, “Later, Armstrong insisted that he knew what he was going to say before he climbed down the ladder and that he said the 'a' word. But when NASA cleaned up the recording of the transmission, it was clear we were right and he was wrong. He simply forgot to say it.”

Regardless, the “giant leap for mankind” represented, as Shurkin put it, “…the largest and most successful government peaceful stimulus package in American history. You would have to go back to the funding for the transcontinental railroads in the 19th century to find an equal.”

Shurkin noted that the space program generated “…much of the electronic age we live in, the way we build computers and electronics, how we program them, how we organize them. The first fuel cells flew in Apollo. Much of the early work in integrated circuits derived from solving technical problems in flying men to the moon and returning them. With every mission, the computers got smaller and more powerful.”

He concluded, “It is absolutely true that the laptop computer I am using to write this has more computing power than the computers that flew to the moon, but I would not be writing on it now had those computers not gone there then.”

Shurkin has many other interesting observations on the Apollo program as well, and his article is well worth reading here.

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