With last Saturday’s death of Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon, I began wondering who wrote the now-famous line Armstrong said on July 20, 1969, as he placed the first human foot on the moon’s surface: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” I assumed the statement was not spontaneous, that it was, instead, written by a PR or communications person at NASA, perhaps months before the launch, to make sure the first moon-based words were memorable.
Everyone seems to agree that the words didn’t come to Armstrong just as he stepped off the lunar module. But it turns out that the answer to who wrote one of the world’s most famous statements is not so easily determined.
Armstrong maintained that he composed the phrase in his mind after the spacecraft landed on the moon and before he took the first moonwalk. But a now-retired British engineer, Gary Peach, who worked in a satellite tracking station in Australia during the flight, claims to have made it up before the launch. He says he did not want the first words to be about the moon’s dust. He is quoted by theage.com.au as saying, “I thought, being Americans, they might say: ‘Holy chicken s**t look at all that f***ing dust’. I felt that would not be a suitable thing to be quoted in history books until eternity.”
The history books do now, and will continue to, quote what Armstrong said—maybe. The exact phrase, however, is still being debated. Most people think he said, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” That’s what it sounded like to the millions of people who watched the landing on TV, to the engineers and scientists at NASA, and to dozens of reporters there, many who were so concerned about getting the quote correct that they gathered later to discuss what they heard and to come up with a consensus so they would all report it the same way.
What both Armstrong and Peach claim to have composed is slightly different from the official statement. They have said their statements have an “a” before the word “man,” making it read as “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.”
That’s certainly what Armstrong meant to say, contends everybody involved. Whether or not he did will probably never be known. In later years, Armstrong said that he may have left the “a” out of the statement. But audio experts who have listened to the tape, even within the past few years, are not sure. The static blocks out the letter, but the tape could contain a microsecond of space between the preceding and succeeding words, indicating that the single-letter word was actually said, but not heard.
Most people also agree that there is a significant difference between the meaning of the two statements. The composed statement means that one man made the step that represents mankind’s giant leap. The quote, on the other hand, says that mankind took both the step and the leap, a phrase that does not compare the action of one man to that of all humanity.
People seem to know what Armstrong meant and have never questioned what he actually said. So it may seem to some as if it doesn’t matter what he uttered as he stepped off the ladder onto the surface of the moon. But those of us working in business communications know that the words we put in (and leave out) of our statements and documents determine the messages our audiences will actually construct from what we’ve written. If we want to be understood correctly, we need to write carefully.