One step beyond: Remembering Neil Armstrong

Neil Armstrong photographed by Buzz Aldrin after the completion of the Lunar EVA on the Apollo 11 flight (NASA Photo Archive)

Who among us truly stands apart from the rest of the human race? Neil Armstrong alone. There can be only one “first person on the Moon.” His passing is a real milestone. Thus, I thought that you’d enjoy these excerpts from my 2006 book, Shooting for the Moon (Lyon Press), in which Buzz Aldrin confided to me some secrets from that historic day.

After the LEM landed… The astronauts asked if they could begin their space-walk, and NASA approved it. There had been much back-and-forth about this very issue for weeks before the flight. If the original schedule were to be followed, they’d be walking when nearly everyone in the US, and most in Europe, would be asleep, in the wee hours of the night. By getting the go-ahead now, their moonwalk would happen in prime time.

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It took several interminable hours for the men to get their cumbersome suits and helmets on, and check out the radios and oxygen and all the rest. Armstrong finally opened the little square hatch, measuring a mere two feet, eight inches on a side.

It was late at night on July 20…when Neil Armstrong emerged, backward, and started down the ladder. It wasn’t easy for him to see how high up the final, lowest rung was: The ground beneath the ladder was in shadow. On the Moon all shadows are pitch-black.

So Armstrong could not fully see where he was stepping. Instead, he tentatively hung a leg downward into empty space below the final rung, like a bather testing the water temperature. Viewers at home didn’t know it, but the landing plan had called for shutting down the engines as soon as the “contact light” had come on, and letting the LEM drop the final three or four feet. This would have accordioned the deliberately compressible honeycombed legs. But Armstrong had instead been so gentle in his descent that the engines were still firing when the LM was fully on the surface! As a result, the legs were in no way compressed, and the ladder was therefore higher up than expected, with a substantial three-foot drop beneath the final rung.

Armstrong now saw all this, but if he was in any way concerned he didn’t show it. “I’m at the foot of the ladder. The LM footpads are only depressed in the surface about one or two inches, although the surface appears to be very, very fine-grained as you get close to it. It’s almost like a powder…”

The world held its breath. Would he ever step off, and then say whatever it was that the press had speculated about for months?

It had been a topic hotly discussed: the first human words from the Moon. What would they be? Many hoped that Armstrong would avoid any parochial or patriotic sentiments – that his speech would resonate with some universal theme. It was widely believed that the words would be remembered for all time.

At this point, few at home realized that “Okay, engine stop,” spoken by Aldrin six hours earlier, had really been the first words from the Moon. But even if they did, the ones that somehow were deemed to be “official” would be the words uttered from outside the spacecraft, not from within its walls.

NASA had insisted that Armstrong was at liberty to say whatever he wished; it was one more manifestation of America being a free country. When his own crewmates brought up the topic of what he intended to say, during the three days that they were en route to the moon, Armstrong had been evasive and ambiguous. He wasn’t letting on that he had even decided yet. And maybe he hadn’t.

Of course, many suspected that someone from NASA’s PR department must have secretly met with Armstrong sometime before the flight, and either made discreet suggestions or else asked to hear what the Ohioan had in mind. After all, this was big. Would NASA really leave it entirely to chance? Armstrong was a test pilot, not an orator.

The television camera – marvelous in that it was showing anything at all, but criminal in that the black-and-white images were crude and ghostlike, especially when compared with the vastly superior quality of what was televised during later landings – now showed Armstrong reaching his leg widely out and down, and then hopping down. “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

Everyone cheered. Announcers repeated it over and over. Translators quickly rendered it comprehensible in every language. Of course, there was one little problem: It made no sense. At least that first clause required interpretation. The final clause, “one giant leap for mankind,” was fine; its meaning was obvious. But what did that initial “man” signify in “That’s one small step for man”? Did “man” mean mankind, as it usually does when stated without an article? Or had Armstrong meant himself, in which case he should have said “a man”? Had he blown his lines, like someone’s over-rehearsed speech to the boss?

Later, when asked about this, Armstrong said that he had said “a man,” and that it must have been lost in transmission. Nobody believed him. The tapes are crystal-clear, and there are no other “dropouts” or other missing segments or syllables anywhere else.

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