I hope it will not seem irreverent if I say how great I think it was that Neil Armstrong flubbed his famous line? “That’s one small step for (a) man; one giant leap for mankind,” is the way it came out–sans the indefinite article–according to NASA’s official transcript. The astronaut himself remembers saying “a man,” but admitted to the possibility of error, given how preoccupied he was at the time. Being the first person to walk on the moon is an overwhelming experience, evidently.
Not everyone is convinced that Armstrong did misspeak. A few years ago, a computer programmer named Peter Shann Ford subjected the the sound-waves of the original transmission to graphic re-analysis and determined that the space where the “a” had been said was present in the recording though on a not-quite-audible level. Other experts remain unpersuaded. Who can say? Trying to make out sounds in the static is like peering into a Rorschach test. You see what you want to see–or hear what you want to hear, in this case, and I can well understand the desire to hear Neil get the line right.
What I hear, though, is “man” not “a man.” To be clear about what I really hear, though, it is a man making a mistake, a thing that I think is great, as I’ve said. Please do not misunderstand me. In saying this, I am not trying to knock Armstrong off his pedestal. To me, he is a hero, though not in the same way that Michael White discusses in today’s Guardian. But let me explain.
When I teach classical mythology, I point out to my students that heroes differ from gods in a fundamental way. For gods, all things are easy because they cannot die and cannot fail. Heroes, on the other hand, are humans, and as such must live and act with the possibility of failure and death; to attempt extraordinary things, the sorts of things that get people killed, and nevertheless to do them is the essence of the heroic ideal. Whether it is fetching a three-headed hell-hound as Heracles did, or retrieving the Golden Fleece, as did the Argonauts (after whom the astronauts are obliquely named), heroes must be understood in the context of their mortality.
It was with just this sense of heroism that the entire “race to the moon” was launched. Speaking before an enthusiastic audience at Rice University in the autumn of 1962, President Kennedy put the lunar mission in memorable terms:
We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.
In JFK’s formulation, the journey to the moon was to be carried out in the same spirit as had been the heroic quests of antiquity, in hopes of doing things “not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”
And it was hard. All sorts of things might have gone wrong with Apollo 11, as the disaster of Apollo 1 in 1967 had made abundantly clear. All the computer simulations in the world (I use the phrase advisedly!) were only of so much use in those moments as the lunar module neared its target. But with tremendous focus and dedication, Neil Armstrong manually piloted the Eagle over the lunar surface and managed to land it with only 25 seconds of fuel left.
Upon exiting the craft, Neil Armstrong put his foot on to the moon and dropped an indefinite article. In doing so, he reminded us that this was no remote-controlled robot that had taken that first step but a man, as capable of heroic effort as of small mistakes, and acting (as he said so well) on behalf of all mankind.