What a Difference a Letter (Word) Makes
Kirt's Cogitations™ #218

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What a Difference a Letter (Word) Makes

For many years there has been a debate in the space exploration realm about which of the following statements was uttered at 10:56 pm EDT on July 20, 1969, by Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong upon having first set foot on the moon:

“That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”


“That's one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.”

The difference is the word “a.”

According to the historical record, he was supposed to include the “a.” However, for as long as I can remember - and I was nearly eleven years old when the event occurred - the “a” was absent. Even NASA's website quotes the sentence with the missing word. What is the big deal, one might ask, over a simple one-letter word? Well, waaaaaaaaaaay back in 1969, folks were still concerned about grammatical correctness. That was in the days before “adaptive spelling” and “creative grammar” became the accepted norm in schools in order to not bruise the egos of students. Participles did not dangle, prepositions did not end sentences, adverbs were placed properly, and a singular was never matched with a plural in the same sentence.

News items in the last few weeks have reported both on the disappearance of the original NASA tape recordings as well as of new work being done by computer speech pathology researchers. Reportedly, the missing “a” has been found buried in the noise. According to a researcher, Neil Armstrong spoke, "That's one small step for a man ... " with the "a" lasting a total of 35 milliseconds. That was 10 times too quickly to be heard clearly due to the low sampling rate of the digital recorder used to capture the event for posterity's sake.

What got me thinking about this was a caption under a photograph of Neil Armstrong standing on the moon, in a September 1969 edition of “Model Rocket News,” published by the Estes model rocket company in Penrose, Colorado. In 1969, there was a considerable delay between the time a publication was sent to the printer and when it was actually printed and mailed to subscribers. A September edition's editing was likely finalized by late July or early August, so any quotations were still fresh in the memories of the writer. Could it be that the writer of the article, none other than Vern Estes himself, personally heard the “a” spoken by Neil Armstrong, and accurately reported it as such?

That is quite likely the case, since the writer was present at Cape Canaveral for the launch. His company, Estes, had held a rocket design contest the previous year (1968) and made an offer for the winner to select which launch he wanted to witness. Teenager Sven Englund, of New Canaan, Connecticut (who “…sees model rocketry as his way to a future science career”), of course opted for the July 16, 1969, launch of the historic Apollo 11 mission to the moon (a symbolic original target date of July 4th for lift-off was planned). He and his father, Dr. Englund, were accompanied by the Estes family to Cape Canaveral, Florida. Whether Mr. Estes was still there during the historic utterance is not clear, but you can bet that all of party present for the launch waited with bated breath during a live television or radio transmission on July 20th to hear the infinitely important words spoken by Neil Armstrong. In those days, the public cherished and intently focused on such historic events. Besides, there would be no “sampling” phenomenon with a live audio transmission. Those who heard the sentence first-hand and made the effort to write it down, quite likely, as it turns out now, really did hear, “That's one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.”

On a whim, I did a Google search on “Sven Englund” and came up with a photo that, based on his picture in the 1969 “Model Rocket News,” is very likely him. If it is correct, then Sven is now president of New Canaan Fire Department No. 1, in New Canaan, CT. I suppose from Sven's perspective the next best thing to lighting fires in the tails of rockets is putting out fires in houses. Sven, is that you?

Aside: In 1969, there were reportedly 500,000 active model rocketeers in the United States alone, many of them quite involved in the physics, design, and building aspects of the hobby/sport. I was one of them. Estes ran a program whereby if you launched a model rocket within 24 hours of the Apollo 11 lift-off, you would receive a certificate proclaiming your support for and involvement in the U.S. space program. On the morning of Wednesday, July 16, 1969, at 9:23 EDT, NASA launched Apollo 11 from Cape Canaveral in Florida, and shortly thereafter I launched my Astron Alpha rocket from my backyard in Maryland. I sure would like to still have that certificate.