‘One Small Step’ Quote On Apollo 11 Briefly Confused Legendary Broadcaster Cronkite

Thanks to NASA putting the video up on YouTube, we’re fortunate enough today to watch the CBS coverage of Apollo 11 landing on the moon, and Neil Armstrong’s first steps, 45 years ago this week.

Legendary broadcaster Walter Cronkite, who died five years ago yesterday amid 40th anniversary celebrations, helmed the moon coverage for CBS. His quotes from that night are so much a part of history that they’ve even appeared in Hollywood; the 1995 movie Apollo 13 had an edited version of his remarks playing over the first steps.

But in the live coverage, Cronkite showed why he was so good — he had the courage to wait to make a statement until all the facts were available. Armstrong’s first words while standing on the moon ended in static. Cronkite, who must have felt pressure to immediately repeat what Armstrong said, waited until he could get confirmation.

Armstrong’s first words on the moon as heard on television were “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” But starting around the word “leap”, static interfered and the word “mankind” was almost unintelligible.

“I didn’t understand,” Cronkite said after a pause. ” ‘One small step for man.’ But I didn’t get the second phrase.”

Cronkite waited, saying he would like to know what the phrase was. Armstrong talked on about the powder on the moon’s surface. About 30 seconds passed, then Cronkite had his answer from somebody: “His quote was, ‘That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.’ ”

CBS broadcaster Walter Cronkite reacts moments after Apollo 11 landed on the moon on July 20, 1969. Credit: NASA/CBS/YouTube (screenshot)
CBS broadcaster Walter Cronkite reacts moments after Apollo 11 landed on the moon on July 20, 1969. Credit: NASA/CBS/YouTube (screenshot)

Decades later, Cronkite recalled how he felt on that night in his 1996 biography, A Reporter’s Life:

That first landing on the moon was indeed, the most extraordinary story of our time and almost as remarkable a feat for television as the space flight itself. To see Neil Armstrong, 240,000 miles out there, as he took that giant step for mankind onto the moon’s surface, was a thrill beyond all the other thrills of that flight. All those thrills tumbled over each other so quickly that the goose pimples from one merged into the goose pimples from the next.

Cronkite also poked fun at his own reporting, saying he was speechless when lunar module Eagle landed despite having the same number of years as NASA to get ready for it.

” ‘Oh boy! Whew! Boy!’ These were my first words, profundity to be recorded for the ages. They were all I could utter,” Cronkite wrote.

Do watch the entire broadcast, it’s a joy, but the first steps take place around 22:55.

11 Replies to “‘One Small Step’ Quote On Apollo 11 Briefly Confused Legendary Broadcaster Cronkite”

  1. I remember watching at the time and being puzzled why the CBS News animation showed them on the ground when they were clearly still flying. Of course, it was because Armstrong delayed the landing while he flew downrange looking for a suitable landing site due to the roughness of where they’d been heading.

  2. Isn’t the quote really “One small step for a man?” Otherwise, it doesn’t really make much sense. He might have said “One small step for man,” but he meant “One small step for a man.”

    1. Good question. That’s why I was so careful to say “One small step for man” was heard on television, because there has been a debate over whether Armstrong actually said “a man” from the moon and it was lost in the transmission.

      1. More recent analysis has said that he couldn’t possibly have fit an “a” in between those two words. Even with an accent that shortens the word, and even if he slurred it together with another word, there just wasn’t enough time. So the word wasn’t staticed out, he just slightly flubbed his line:). It happens to the best of us.

        He definitely meant to say “a” though. No question there.

      2. As a non-native speaker, I’d really like to know what is the difference between “man” and “a man”.

      3. To reenor
        In this context, ‘man’ would indicate humanity in general, making the statement contradictory. Saying ‘a man’, however, merely encompasses the small distance he had to step from the ladder to the lunar surface.

      4. @Elizabeth_Howell,

        Well, then, why don’t you just put the (allegedly) missing indefinite article “a” within angled brackets? Thus: “One small step for [a] man,…”.

  3. On that memorable day I was glued in front of the little 13” black and white TVs I had. I could not think of anything else to do nor did I want to do anything else. This was the most exciting news article I had ever known of and certainly the most exciting I had ever seen. I loved science/science fiction comic books and novels when I was a kid, but I never thought I would ever see man leave the earth and step down from their ladders onto the face of another world. I was really excited but I just kept thinking this could not possibly true; yet it was true. It was such a great accomplishment for scientists, engineers, and the government. A permanent base on the Moon promises multiple possibilities in the world of astronomy. Such possibilities as a permanent launch source for future flights to other worlds, asteroids and comets, and one of the grandest of all dreams, a permanent colony of adventurous spacemen for permanent habitation there has become a reality. A poor economy and a host of additional plans may delay the day, but that it will come is without question a reality.

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