Did Neil Armstrong muff his historic line or didn’t he? When I along with half a billion others witnessed the first human step on the moon on July 20, 1969, I swear I heard Armstrong say, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” What he meant to say, of course, was “one small step for a man.” In leaving out the “a,” he destroyed the sense of the statement and in essence said, “One small step for humans, one giant leap for humans.” OK, so we all make mistakes. Every encyclopedia I’ve consulted, however, corrects the error. In recent years I’ve even heard recordings of his famous line–purportedly from the original tape–that also include the “a,” making sense of the statement. Did NASA or someone else doctor up the tape to save Armstrong’s (and the U.S.’s) face in the eyes of posterity? Or am I going loony? –James Hulin, Madison, Wisconsin
Can the lame puns, Jimsy, the honor of the nation is at stake. Fortunately, the latest in miracle technology has been brought to bear on the question. But let’s take it from the top. Most earwitnesses to the event, including newspaper reporters, thought Armstrong said “one small step for man.” At least that’s the way the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the L.A. Times (among others) reported it. Armstrong, however, has always maintained that he said “a man,” and most encyclopedias have played along. But the skeptics have been, well, skeptical. Come on, would you admit it if you’d traveled a quarter million miles only to blow your big line?
Enter Al Reinert, the mad Texan. Al spent years prowling through NASA’s vaults digging up forgotten lunar film footage to make what is said to be the muthah space movie of all time, For All Mankind, now in limited release. (Check it out next time it comes through–the visuals are supposed to be unbelievable.) After finding the original quarter-inch audiotape used to record Armstrong’s words in a Fort Worth warehouse, Al and friends used a digital synthesizer to clean up the radio static so they could use it on the sound track. (Perhaps the cleaned-up version is what you heard.) This makes it perfectly clear that what Neil said was . . .
Well, to tell you the truth, we still don’t know what he said. According to Reinert, “cleaning it up does not truly answer the question. He did not clearly say ‘a man.’ But there’s definitely a beat there. It’s open to interpretation–maybe he was in the middle of a step when he said it. . . . I’m prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt.” Armstrong, for his part, is willing to concede he may have mumbled. Cecil’s feeling is, what the hey, we’ve taken this about as far as we can, let’s stop persecuting the guy. “A man” it is.
Isaac Asimov posed a puzzle in a magazine and I’m going crazy trying to figure out the answer. He said there are only four commonly used English words that end in -dous. Two are “positive” and two are “negative.” The positive ones are tremendous and stupendous, and one of the negatives is horrendous. What is the fourth word? –Adam Rosenblatt, Baltimore
Not to knock Isaac Asimov, but you’re dealing with a professional here. I’ll give you two words ending in -dous–hazardous and timidous. The latter, of course, is the ten-dollar way of saying timid. Maybe it’s not commonly used in Asimov’s neck of the woods, but at the chi-chi bistros I frequent it’s constantly on our lips.
My pursuit of higher education has required me to study queueing theory. I have been told that “queueing” is the only word in English that has five consecutive vowels. Can you verify this? I would have asked Bill Safire, but I am not always able to get the New York Times. I rarely miss the Straight Dope. –Doug S., Dallas
I like the cut of your jib, lad. However, your spelling sucks. According to my trusty American Heritage Dictionary (how can you not like a dictionary that illustrates “decolletage” with a picture of Marilyn Monroe?), the participle of “queue” is “queuing”–four vowels. But fear not. An alternate spelling of the verb “meeow” is “miaou”; thus we can have cats “miaouing”–count ’em, five vowels. As for illegitimate words–well, there’s always “heeeeere’s Johnny.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.