What did Neil Armstrong Actually Say On The Moon?

In linguistic communication, a pattern generally emerges whereby the speaker or the listener (but not both) work extra hard to make the communication happens. This work (or lack thereof) consists of enunciation, use of contractions, various other things. You know about this because you make such adjustments all the time. When speaking to a child, or when speaking about your area of expertise but to a non-expert, etc., you not only use an adjusted vocabulary but also speak more clearly and maybe even more loudly; you end up doing more of the work than you would usually do.

Entire cultural entities, back in the old days when lingusists were still anthropologists, could be classified (probably too arbitrarily) in this way, where in one setting speakers did little of the work and the listeners had to work harder, but in other settings, the opposite was true.

When we humans speak on radios, I get the impression that everyone is working extra hard because of the interference. Also, if there is a dispatcher or central voice of some kind, I think the dispatcher or equivalent works harder and those out on the periphery don't work very hard at all. To see for yourself, listen to a police band radio for a while.

Dispatcher: "Unit 41, code 11 at Main and Fourth."

Unit 41: "KSshhhhs blorp bleep. Ain orth."

That sort of thing.

Some of this has to do with the quality of the radio signal coming from some places. So, when human astronauts are out visiting other planets, you can get this effect as well.

Houston: Thirteen, we've got one more item for you, when you get a chance. We'd like you to stir up your cyro tanks. In addition, I have a shaft and trunnion -

Apollo 13: Ksshsh Kay

Houston: ..for looking at the Comet Bennett, if you need it.

Apollo 13: Bleep blorp k standby

(Loud explosion)

Apollo 13: Kssh k ooson i elieve we've had a problem herksshh.

Houston: This is Houston. Say again, please.

Apollo 13: Oh ksssh Houston we've had a problem blorp. Ba bee bee a boblrt undervolt.

Houston: Roger. Main B undervolt. OK stand by 13, we're looking at it.

(Oddly, from this point on in that historic transmission between Earth and Outer Space, the words from the Apollo 13 astonauts start to become clearer than the words from Houston. As though Houston had it's hands over the mouthpiece for a while.)

Which brings us to Neil Armstrong's moonlanding quote. What did he say exactly?

Well, being a human, I am quite certain that I know what he said and what he meant. This is what he said:

"That's one small step for man, one diant leap for mankind."

But this is probably a better transcription of what he said:

"That's one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind."

What he meant by that:

"So one guy can hop off the foot pad of a Lunar Landing module, no biggie, but in this case, this is a huge leap forward in the history of our species since we are now walking around on another planet. Albeit one circling our own, not like we just landed on Jupiter or something."

So it is likely that what we actually heard was:

"One small step for BLORP man, one DORPiant leap for mankind"

Where I have substituted nonsense for the missing or messed parts.

To deal with this apparent ambiguity, NASA has generally written the quote as following, provisionally adding the indefinite article and converting "diant" to "giant."

"That's one small step for (a) man, one giant leap for mankind."

And now, a team of linguists writing in PLoS ONE report that even though we couldn't hear it, Armstrong probably did say "a" before "man." From the abstract of the paper:

Neil Armstrong insisted that his quote upon landing on the moon was misheard, and that he had said one small step for a man, instead of one small step for man. What he said is unclear in part because function words like a can be reduced and spectrally indistinguishable from the preceding context. Therefore, their presence can be ambiguous, and they may disappear perceptually depending on the rate of surrounding speech. Two experiments are presented examining production and perception of reduced tokens of for and for a in spontaneous speech. Experiment 1 investigates the distributions of several acoustic features of for and for a. The results suggest that the distributions of for and for a overlap substantially, both in terms of temporal and spectral characteristics. Experiment 2 examines perception of these same tokens when the context speaking rate differs. The perceptibility of the function word a varies as a function of this context speaking rate. These results demonstrate that substantial ambiguity exists in the original quote from Armstrong, and that this ambiguity may be understood through context speaking rate.

Now, there is yet another interpretation. Here's audio of the actual event.

[audio mp3="http://scienceblogs.com/gregladen/files/2016/09/590331main_ringtone_sma…"][/audio]

Here is my interpretation of what actually happened. The words Armstrong said are in bold. The words that were only in his head are in italics.

And I'll step off the LEM now.

Holy fuck. The moon.

That's one small step for BLORP man.

Crap, did I just leave out the "a." Not sure. Should I say it again? No, that would be worse. Maybe I just said it real fast. Whatever. Everybody will get what I mean. This will not be a controversy.

One giant leap for mankind.

Holy fuck. The moon.

So, that controversy, if it ever was a controversy, has been dealt a mighty blow.


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Wait — what about the "Mr. Gorski" part?

I know, it's an urban legend. But it's a great story...

That's one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind. Good luck, Mr. Gorski!

By Christopher Winter (not verified) on 10 Sep 2016 #permalink

Mr. Gorski, in all likelihood, got screwed.

(How's that for ambiguous controversy, eh?)

By Brainstorms (not verified) on 10 Sep 2016 #permalink

I'm glad you added the vid of Armstrong punching a guy that told him he never landed on the moon. ! :->

By Zack Dwight (not verified) on 11 Sep 2016 #permalink

@Zack Dwight, it was Aldrin, not Armstrong, doing the punching.

By Julian Frost (not verified) on 11 Sep 2016 #permalink