Wednesday, October 04, 2006

One small step for Neil Armstrong: the wheels of justice grind slow, but they grind exceedingly fine

It's been a long time coming, but vindication is finally here for astronaut Neil Armstrong.

That's actually--ahem--Neil A. Armstrong. Don't forget that A, like Armstrong did! Except it turns out he didn't forget it, he just spoke it too quickly for the human ear and brain to record.

But not too quickly for the machine, apparently. Now technology has finally caught up with his fleeting but all-important article, the word "a," thanks to Peter Shann Ford, an Australian computer programmer whose software analysis of Armstrong's "That's one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind" has found the missing word Armstrong had always insisted was there (hat tip: Austin Bay).

Somehow the news is very satisfying to me, although it hardly qualifies as earth- (or moon-) shattering. But that misquote had always grated. It made no sense even when I first heard it, which was when it was originally transmitted and televised in July of 1969. The black-and-white images were grainy and blurred, something like the primitive ultrasound by which I first was able to view the outlines of my son's tiny form in utero many long years later (or actually, not so very many, come to think of it).

But it still seemed wondrous--men on the moon! Walking and talking! And when Armstrong said what sounded to me and to everyone else like, "One small step for man, one giant step for mankind," the reaction was "Waah? What'd he say?"

It made no sense, and the grammarians among us have been ever-so-vaguely annoyed by that ever since. But not nearly so much as Armstrong himself. I'm glad he's still alive to see the record set straight.

[NOTE: Some comments to this post focused on the idea that Armstrong had been perceived as making a grammatical error. My response is that it wasn't about grammar, actually. Both sentences are perfectly grammatical, as far as I can see.

For me and most others, it was about meaning. The sentence was meant to go from the tiny to the large, in a sort of poetry. To me, it should have conveyed: "I'm only one man taking a step at this moment, but I represent the hopes and dreams and efforts of all humankind." When Armstrong said "man" instead of "a man," I felt that contrast between the small individual and the aggregate group was lost.]

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