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Neil Armstrong’s Voice

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Neil Armstrong, who died on Saturday, at the age of eighty-two, was by all accounts a reticent man, yet he said many things on July 20, 1969, that have entered into the public consciousness—lingering in the minds of those who heard them on the radio and television, and living, for those born long after he first stepped out onto the surface of the moon that day, in a place of envy and awe. When the lunar module, named the Eagle, touched down, following moments of radio silence that terrified the folks back in mission control, he relayed: “Houston: Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.” Later, as he made his way out of the lunar module (or LM), he described his progress in banal terms that, because of where they were coming from and what they conveyed, rose to the level of magic: “I’m going to step off the LM now.” And then he issued what is among the most famous proclamations of the last century—a jubilant counterbalance to F.D.R.’s “Day of Infamy” speech and a capstone to J.F.K.’s declaration that “we choose to go to the moon”—a statement that Armstrong had composed and prepared just hours earlier, in between the more pressing business of operating space equipment, according to Armstrong’s biographer, James Hansen: “That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.”

In the wake of Armstrong’s death, there may be some discrepancy in how the phrase will be rendered, just as in the ensuing years, there has been controversy as to what exactly Armstrong said as he lighted out from the ladder, becoming the first member of mankind to stand on a celestial body other than earth. It’s been good fodder for years to note that the famous quotation, beamed to a significant fraction of the world’s population in real time, is just a bit off. “Man” and “mankind” are synonymous in Armstrong’s formulation, since he’s missing the modifier “a” in front of “man” to draw the distinction. Armstrong would later claim that he said the “a,” and that it got lost, as it were, in transmission. (Linguists and scientists have argued both sides.) Regardless, he said that he preferred to see it written with the “a” in parenthesis, a wish that, both while he was living and now that he is gone, it only seems fair to honor.

Of course, after adding his voice to the annals of quoted history, he kept talking, just as his exploration was just beginning. It is here, after the momentous aphorism, that we get the picture of the real Neil Armstrong, then a thirty-eight-year-old man from Ohio who, though he excelled in the often swagger-rich fields of combat missions in Korea, test-piloting rocket planes, and commanding spacecraft, was above all a quiet professional, who would describe himself later simply as an earnest engineer. He was eager to perform his mission, ace his required tasks, and get a closer look at how the moon worked. He was not the explorer perched on the prow of a ship, staring dreamily at the horizon, but someone with his feet on the ground (in this case, fixed rather tenuously to that ground in one-sixth gravity). He spoke to the world:

This is very interesting. It’s a very soft surface, but here and there where I plug with the contingency sample collector, I run into a very hard surface, but it appears to be very cohesive material of the same sort. I’ll try to get a rock in here. Here’s a couple.

And yet, though never claimed to be a poet, he was capable, amid the essentially unimaginable confluence of excitement, bewilderment, and the list of tasks at hand, to share the odd majesty of what he was seeing: “It has a stark beauty all its own. It’s like much of the high desert of the United States. It’s different, but it’s very pretty out here.”Read more

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Written by Theophyle

August 26, 2012 at 3:08 pm

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