Neil Armstrong Didn’t Lie About First Words on the Moon, Historian Says

by Nancy Atkinson on January 4, 2013

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Neil Armstrong on the moon.    Credit: NASA/Andrew Chaikin.

Neil Armstrong on the Moon. Credit: NASA/Andrew Chaikin.

A small controversy has erupted over Neil Armstrong’s first words as he stepped on the Moon’s surface and how he came to say them.

Armstrong had always admitted that while he had been thinking about what to say during his first steps for quite some time before the Apollo 11 mission, he didn’t actually decide on his words until just after landing on the Moon, while waiting to exit the lunar module. In a new BBC documentary, the astronaut’s brother Dean Armstrong says the two discussed the statement months earlier, and that Neil gave Dean a handwritten note showing him the famous quote, “That’s one small step for (a) man, one giant leap for mankind.”

But apparently some people (and writers) have gotten a bit confused, thinking that Armstrong said he thought up the words on the spot, and recent headlines have screamed that “Armstrong Lied” about the quote.

Not so, says says space historian and author Andrew Chaikin, who wrote the book, “A Man on the Moon,” and interviewed Armstrong several times.

“I was distressed to see recent news stories claiming that Neil Armstrong lied to the world about when he made up his famous quote,” Chaikin said via email, and asked Universe Today to share the op-ed he wrote for Space.com.

In the op-ed piece, Chaikin cut to the chase, saying, “Let’s get one thing straight right now: Neil Armstrong was not a liar.” … “The problem, in some people’s minds, is that this seems to conflict with Neil’s own statements over the last 40 years about when and where he composed what became an immortal sentence when he took his first step onto the Moon,”

But it does not contradict history at all.

Chaikin notes that in Neil Armstrong’s first public statement about the famous quote at a post-flight press conference on Aug. 12, 1969, he said, “I did think about it. It was not extemporaneous, neither was it planned. It evolved during the conduct of the flight and I decided what the words would be while we were on the lunar surface just prior to leaving the LM.”

And when Chaikin interviewed Armstrong in 1988 for the book “A Man on the Moon,” Armstrong said the same thing, and he also told that to his biographer James Hansen in 2003.

“It is simply not true, as several recent news articles have claimed, that Armstrong always said he composed the quote ‘spontaneously,’” Chaikin wrote in the op-ed. “It would have been completely out of character for Armstrong, who was thoughtful about nearly everything he said and did, to have offered such an important quote without thinking it through beforehand.”

Chaikin says that Dean Armstrong’s story just adds a little ambiguity. “Maybe Neil had more than one quote in mind at that point, and only shared one of them with his brother. Or maybe the quote he showed his brother was an early draft, but after all these years, Dean remembers seeing the final version. We’ll probably never know the answer.”

But in no way does it mean that Armstrong “fibbed” or “lied” to the public for 40 years.

This isn’t the first time the famous first words have been a bit controversial. While the “a” in “one small step for a man” wasn’t audible in the broadcast to the world, Armstrong always said he did speak that word. A 2006 audio analysis of the broadcast supported Armstrong.

Neil Armstrong passed away in August 2012.

You can read Chaikin’s op-ed on Space.com here.

About 

Nancy Atkinson is Universe Today's Senior Editor. She also is the host of the NASA Lunar Science Institute podcast and works with Astronomy Cast. Nancy is also a NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador.

NooSphere January 4, 2013 at 8:18 PM

Well, I for one am glad that’s cleared up. Let us now let Neil rest in peace.

Kevin Frushour January 5, 2013 at 3:34 AM

I… really don’t care. Humans have spent too much time bickering about the words. Leave them be.

Mike Petersen January 5, 2013 at 4:00 AM

These words will go down in history It’s important that they be accurate. Thank you, Phil, for setting the record straight.

Ian McLeod January 5, 2013 at 4:16 AM

Looking forward to words said by people on Mars and further.

Zoutsteen from Holland January 5, 2013 at 8:12 AM

If Obama was the first to the Moon, we would probably have a “Yes we can” first words.
Poetin would probably just send back a bareback photo showing an unringed left hand.
Neil choose words that pictured mankind were moving onward along the evolutionline.

ozonator January 5, 2013 at 8:35 AM

Some find it easier to wage a war on science than to do basic reading for the do-nothings’ fun and profit.

Brian Griffiths January 5, 2013 at 10:29 AM

nothing to see here…move along please.

Adheeb January 5, 2013 at 1:18 PM

Obviously further investigation is needed. We have to get to the bottom of this. Demand Eric Holder to release the documents, now!

bdlaacmm January 5, 2013 at 1:35 PM

It’s way overdue that a new Neil Armstrong step off a next-generation Moon Lander and give us words for the 21st Century. And this time, let’s plan on staying!

You want to jump-start a new economic prosperity for America? This would do it.

newSteveZodiac January 5, 2013 at 2:55 PM

He actually muttered something before he said the famous words and admitted to friends that it was “good luck Mr. Schulz” the story is that when he was a kid playing in the yard he heard his neighbour Mrs. Schulz say to her husband “You want oral sex? You’ll get it when the kid next door walks on the moon”

Sheila Voshell Askelson January 5, 2013 at 3:37 PM

If this is true and I highly doubt it then Dean Armstrong should have said something a very long time ago. Not wait until this American Hero has passed to slander and defame him when there is no possible way to defend himself or his good name. Just rotten to the core Dean! To think this stigma and question will go down in history and be attached to his name is enough to make me very angry. I think Dean is jealous of all his brothers success and is trying to get some attention of his own. I CALL FOUL!!!!! SHAME ON YOU MR. ARMSTRONG, SHAME SHAME SHAME ON YOU!!!!!

Lorin Ionita January 7, 2013 at 7:46 AM

I don’t think you read the article properly.

Bobby Hudson January 5, 2013 at 5:15 PM

It figures that someone would always attempt to defame someone when they’re deceased and can’t defend themselves. Thank you to Andrew Chaikin and others to step up to state the truth.Those who try any attempt to defame others are fools.

Jerry Smith January 5, 2013 at 10:12 PM

There was never any reason to doubt Neil Armstrong … Check out this story: Neil Armstrong autographed quote auctions for nearly $40,000

http://www.pjstar.com/news/x2143898602/Neil-Armstrong-autographed-quote-auctions-for-nearly-40-000

Jerry Smith January 5, 2013 at 10:19 PM

The gist of the story: a newspaper editor in Peoria, Ill., wrote to Neil Armstrong in 1970, and asked him to write his quote on a sheet of stamps. When Armstrong sent the sheet back with his handwritten words and signature, the (Peoria) Journal Star ran a photo of the stamps in the weekender edition of the paper. The article includes a photo of the Armstrong’s words with his signature.

Simon Donaldson January 5, 2013 at 11:45 PM

It’s an amazing quote, a quote that drives men and woman forward – that gives them inspiration and, often, clear aspirations in life.

So why should writers and newspapers bicker about its true-origins origin? I understand the awe behind those words – they proved that Humankind, as a whole, had finally began its true space-age, that we had finally set foot on another ‘world’ so to speak, as inhospitable as our dear-moon happens to be.

It’s an amazing quote, from an amazing person, that carries more weight than possibly any other quote throughout our entire history.
so…
Let it be.

Henry Frost January 6, 2013 at 5:20 PM

Firstly, that is an awesome enhanced image of Neil on the moon by Andrew Chaikin.

If you’ve seen the video of Armstrong ejecting from the lunar landing simulator with half a second or less to spare, then calmly go back to his office and continue working, I doubt he made many mistakes.

The quote for me is fine either way, although I have to admit, “One small step for man” without the “a” sounds more universal and poetic to me.

RIP Neil

Lorin Ionita January 7, 2013 at 7:53 AM

This is a weird controversy. Why do we care how he arrived at that quote instead of what the quote is. For all I care he could have dreamed about it the night before or just invented it on the spot.

John Dawes January 18, 2013 at 12:35 AM

Will Neil Armstrong’s real “First Words” from the moon be lost to history? They were not “One small step for a Man, one giant leap for mankind.” They had to do with the depth the Lunar Lander sank into the Lunar surface. Houston then sent up a message that said in effect, “Mr. Armstrong, Do you have a message for us.” to which Neil then responded with the now famous quote. I wonder if the true “First Words” will be expunged from history because of what we want to believe were Neil’s first words.

I wonder if there are still video records available to show and hear what actually happened or if they have been deleted for what we want to believe.

I would be interested if anyone could direct me to a still extant video source of the original television broadcast.

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