This past Wednesday was the 36th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing on the moon, what is likely to be considered, in centuries to come, the most historic event of the latter half of the 20th century. On 20 July 1969, Neil Armstrong and Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin landed their lunar module, Eagle, in the Sea of Tranquility, while the third member of the team, Michael Collins, orbited the moon in the command module Columbia. The next day, Greenwich Mean Time, Neil Armstrong became the first human to set foot on our planet’s closest neighbor.
Historic events are usually accompanied by historic words, if not at the moment in question, then sometime afterwards. In the case of the first lunar landing, many of the most famous words were scripted in advance. The most famous of these the famous sentence of Neil Armstrong’s spoken when he first stepped onto the lunar surface:
That’s one small step for man; one giant leap for mankind.
But even the best script cannot overcome the speaker making an error in delivering the lines and in this case, Armstrong misspoke. It was supposed to be a "small step for a man." Armstrong omitted the indefinite article and in doing so omitted most of the significance of the phrase. Some say he said the word, but static in the transmission obscured it. But this is not the case; there is no static on the recording of the event. We can, however, forgive Armstrong for such a small error in the excitement of the event.
And even carefully written and edited statements can contain errors. A more official pronouncement of the event was the statement on the plaque that was placed on the base of the lunar lander (which remained on the lunar surface):
Here men from the planet Earth first set foot upon the Moon, July 1969 A.D.
William Safire, then a White House speechwriter, wrote this line. In an attempt to insert a reference to God, Safire included the abbreviation A.D., or anno domini, meaning in the year of our Lord. Safire claims that with this line he made the "first mistake made by an earthling on an extraterrestrial body." Safire’s self-admitted error was that A.D. should come before the year, not after. There are few, however, that would consider this to be a mistake, so Safire isn’t admitting to much. And Safire also erred in assessing his mistake, as he was most decidedly earthbound when he made the error, if error it was.
The third famous line from the mission was also spoken by Armstrong:
Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.
These weren’t Armstrong’s only firsts in linguistic history. He is credited with two first citations in the Oxford English Dictionary, for the words postflight, "There was some suspicion, lingering in the postflight shock of the first Sputnik, that this was the road the Soviet Union had chosen," and topo, "The best we can do on topo features is to advise you to look to the west of the irregularly shaped crater." Of course, he is unlikely to have actually coined these words, rather they were probably common in NASA jargon at the time. Armstrong gets credit because he used them in is 1970 book First On The Moon. 67 other words in the OED are given citations from this book by Armstrong, among them A-OK, hypergolic, lift-off, lunar, non-flammable, pitch, playback, preflight, psych, read-out, rocket, rog, selenocentric, slingshot, smack-dab, spaceship, splashdown, transearth, umbilical, undock, and zero-G.
(There is also this quote from the 1974 work Collector’s History of Fans, "Women...carried small fans with mounts of white gauze, silk or net, embroidered with garlands or Neo-classical motifs." Undoubtedly this is a different N. Armstrong.)
In comparison, Buzz Aldrin only gets a single citation in the OED, a quote for multi-engine from his 1973 Return To Earth, "He wanted me to go to a multiengine flight school and I wanted to be a fighter pilot." Collins gets no citations at all. These two have always been in Armstrong’s shadow because Armstrong made that first small step, and it is no different here. They co-authored First On The Moon with Armstrong, but the big dictionary doesn’t even list them as authors.
Copyright 1997-2017, by David Wilton