Of Deathless Remarks…


Neil Armstrong knew that the whole world would be listening for what he said as he put the first human foot on the lunar surface. He had been prodded on the subject in preflight television interviews. Esquire had run several pages of possible sayings by writers and celebrities under the rubric “What Words Should The First Man On the Moon Utter That Will Ring Through The Ages?” A New York radio station had called upon its listeners to submit their own suggestions, and hundreds did. Armstrong would have to deliver something fairly notable or mar the whole mission. It is unlikely that any famous saying in all history was produced under greater pressure than Neil Armstrong’s as he stepped from the lunar module at 10:56 P.M. (E.D.T.) on July 20, 1969.

What he said was transmitted instantaneously across more than 200,000 miles of space, was heard by millions, and printed in countless newspapers—incorrectly.

The way his saying was reproduced on the air and in print around the world was: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” Hardly anybody seemed to notice that there was something wrong with it. It really didn’t make much of a point, since there was no contrast between “man” as used in the saying and “mankind.” They both meant the same thing, which left the remark a little flat.

It took Neil Armstrong himself to set the matter right when he got back to earth. Going through the official transcript during his quarantine period, he discovered—no doubt to his horror—that he had been misquoted in every possible medium and language. The line that he must have hoped would ring at least for an age or two was being repeated over and over across the earth with a word missing. The missing word was the smallest one possible in the English language, but its absence ruined his line.

What he had actually said up there on the moon was: “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.”

The indefinite article on which his meaning depended had somehow gotten lost in transmission, probably in static. The ‘ New York Times subsequently printed Armstrong’s revision, and the wire services sent out corrections; but the original and erroneous version will no doubt crop up here and there from now on. It is already embedded in the moon-walk “memorial” issues of the Times and other newspapers and is thus irrevocably filed away for the misinformation of future generations.

If astronaut Armstrong’s words, even the correct ones, seem somehow inadequate to the stupendous event that prompted them, whose words would have been equal to it, short of shooting a Shakespeare into orbit? It may be that we have reached a point where events have outrun man’s capacity for responding to them. Once it was possible to get into history, and into the quotation books, by winning a comparatively small naval engagement and announcing: “We have met the enemy and they are ours.” That was succinct, it told the story, and it was equal to the occasion, which was all that was required of a famous saying at that time. But how could anything like it, or anything at all, be equal to what happened on the morning of August 6, 1945, at Hiroshima?

The most lastingly significant occurrence of our time, or of any time, produced no memorable saying, not when it happened and not since, though libraries have been written about it. Captain Robert A. Lewis, who witnessed it as copilot of the Enola Gay , said all that anybody could say under the circumstances. What he said was: “My God!”

Captain Lewis’ comment is not much of a coinage, and it does not appear in the quotation books. But it may be the only possible response to most of the major developments of the future.