The recent 50th anniversary re-examination of Apollo 11’s July 1969 moon-landing has made that extraordinary event more compelling than ever.
The centerpiece, Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the Moon and his history-making statement — That’s One Small Step for Man; One Giant Leap for Mankind — comes alive again, a simple, emotional response to survival against the odds, and the chance to walk where no one had ever walked.
But the story behind his statement is more complex than most realize, as newly-available sources reveal:
In late 1968, NASA formed a working group, including Armstrong and fellow astronaut, Buzz Aldrin, to formulate the statement. In their first meeting, Armstrong suggested a patriotic song. “Can you sing?” they asked, and Armstrong answered by launching into the National Anthem. But, when he screeched that wicked high note, the problem was obvious. Since Aldrin was still in the running to be first on the Moon, they asked him to give it a try, but he too murdered it.
Armstrong asked if they could lower the key, but he (Aldrin too) could only growl the lowest note.
Armstrong, who actually had a pretty good voice, then suggested Purdue’s (his alma-mater’s) fight song and, again, launched into a version, but, at the second stanza — Hail, hail to old Purdue! Our friendship may she never lack (to rhyme with Gold and Black of the first stanza) — they stopped him. If it was to be anything, it should not be so parochial, nor so tone-deaf.
At this point, Aldrin, who did not have a good voice and hated to sing, objected that Armstrong was being given an unfair advantage. The team agreed, and they turned to the spoken word.
Since this was a group of technical specialists, their strength did not lie in the realm of oratory or poetry. But they were acquainted with some of the famous utterances of history. Armstrong, a military history buff, suggested an English version of Caesar’s “Veni, Vidi, Vici.” The team agreed that the “I came” and “I saw” part was at least accurate, but the “I conquered” conclusion might persuade some that he (whether Armstrong or Aldrin) had battled actual Moon-Men, which could create panic at home.
Aldrin, a West Point grad, suggested the I Shall Return statement of fellow West Pointer, Gen. Douglas MacArthur, but the team was uncomfortable with so controversial a figure, though they admitted that the phrase could comfort a public, worried that the astronauts might never make it back home.
The team looked at other famous statements for inspiration, at least as starting points, but nothing resonated — “We have nothing to fear but fear itself” made into “We have nothing to hope but hope itself” sounded, perversely, hopeless, and “Four score and seven years ago” made into “109 hours ago,” at least as an opening line, made the mission seem insignificant by comparison.
The team even looked at famous American poets for possible inspiration, but found Robert Frost and Walt Whitman unacceptable (too flinty and too homosexual, respectively). They considered Emily Dickinson until a member read her Because I could not stop for death, he kindly stopped for me poem and that was the end of that.
By the fifth meeting, the group understood that they themselves had to create the statement. Each member was asked to come up with one, but this, too, did not satisfy: Hello, Earth, this is Apollo 11, speaking to you from the Moon, with … (too first-talking-picture-ish) … We stand, gazing with awe at God’s creation, humbled and … (too Billy-Graham-ish) … Here on the cusp of history, we pause to … (too-Presidential-State-of-the-Union-Address-ish) … In the name of the USA, we hereby claim this land for …(too-Manifest-Destiny-and-possible-incitement-to-World-War-3-ish).
It was agreed that Armstrong, who by now was first-moon-walker-designate, should come up with something that was genuinely his. What he produced was exactly what we heard on that fateful day. The team liked it — modest, optimistic, genuinely personal but also universal. They suggested only one minor change, that “one small step for man” should be “one small step for a man” since “man” and the subsequent “mankind” meant the same, and the reference to all humans might be muddied. Armstrong took note.
The team decided that, to be on the safe side, Armstrong should record the statement, which could be broadcast virtually simultaneously with his first step on the Moon if transmission problems should arise. He made the recording, forgetting to add the “a” before “man.” But time was very tight and they let it ride.
When Armstrong climbed down the ladder, set foot on the Moon, and realized he wasn’t going to sink beneath the surface, he was so flabbergasted that he forgot his script and actually said, “Jesus Christ, this is the biggest, most wonderful goddam sandbox in the universe!” and began bouncing joyfully around, as we back on earth witnessed. Mission Control blocked his transmission and, instead, broadcast the recording that has become scripture. It left out the “a” but, with the astronauts safe, who cared?!