Image: Neil Armstrong
NASA via Reuters
U.S. astronaut Neil Armstrong smiles in the lunar module after his historic moonwalk.
By NBC News space analyst
Special to NBC News
updated 8/25/2012 6:03:43 PM ET 2012-08-25T22:03:43

The sad occasion of Neil Armstrong’s death is a fitting time to review many of the facts and assessments of his life. Much of what was reported is accurate, and much is wrong — some is even just plain silly.

Examples of the misinformation and silliness follow. Some of them might even be wrong, but it’s the way I’ve heard it.

Myth: Armstrong was picked for Apollo 11 because he was a civilian, and the White House wanted the first man on the Moon to be civilian, not a military pilot.

Fact: Armstrong wound up as commander of Apollo 11 through his methodical progression of backup and primary crew assignments throughout the Gemini and early Apollo program. Nobody knew when he entered that flow how many Apollo missions would be needed before the actual first landing attempt.

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Myth: Armstrong "pulled rank" and got priority over his shipmate, Buzz Aldrin, who originally had been slated to be first man on the Moon.

Fact: On Gemini missions, the co-pilot did the spacewalks, while the commander remained in the spacecraft to keep control. But the deciding factor on Apollo seems to have been that the hinge on the inward-opening lunar module door was along the right edge, which meant that when the door was first opened, the commander had a clear path to crawl backward through the low door. The second astronaut could then easily move into the unoccupied commander’s space, and repeat the door manipulation. Getting the second pilot out first, while the commander was still in his workspace, would have been tricky in the cramped cabin.

Myth: Armstrong's "one small step" onto the lunar surface was actually a 3-foot jump down off the lunar module’s ladder to the ground.

Fact: Walter Cronkite, who was narrating the start of the moon walk and actually talked over most of Armstrong’s original comment ("What did he say?" he then asked Wally Schirra) appears to have first published this erroneous version. Cronkite, and legions of authors who followed his lead, overlooked the fact that Armstrong had already descended from the ladder and was standing on the garbage-can-lid sized lunar module leg footpad.

The astronaut then moved his left foot gently over the rim and onto the moon dust, a true "small step" as he described it. Nevertheless, numerous video replays of the moon walk, including some by NASA itself, relaid the audio track to incorrectly make the "small step" comment follow the first jump off the ladder.

Myth: Armstrong muffed his famous line about "one small step for A man" by forgetting to pronounce the "a.:

Fact: Armstrong himself recalls saying it, but the intermittent radio link may have suppressed the syllable. I personally heard the broadcast live while I was a "NASA trainee" at Northwestern University’s Technological Institute in Evanston, Ill., and when I immediately repeated the line for a colleague, I distinctly recall saying it as I had interpreted it: "That’s one small step for a man…"

Myth: After the flight, Armstrong withdrew entirely from public contact.

Fact: Armstrong certainly did not capitalize on his fame, and used the post-fame experiences of Charles Lindbergh as a cautionary tale. But he served on NASA committees, and regularly spoke to reporters, historians, and especially to fellow pilots at gatherings such as Oshkosh. 

Myth: During the moon walk, Armstrong made a cryptic comment, "Good luck, Mr. Gorsky," in honor of a childhood neighbor of his in Ohio whose outraged wife had screamed that she’d perform a sex act requested by her husband "when the kid next door walks on the moon."

Fact: The comment is not on any recordings or transcripts, nor was it heard by anyone in real time. It appears to have originated from a comedy routine by Buddy Hackett. 

Myth: Armstrong observed UFOs on the way to the moon, and again once he was down on the surface.

Fact: Most Apollo crews on the way to the moon noticed flashing lights "pacing" them, which turned out to be segments of their Saturn 5 launch vehicle, and especially the four panels of the "LM garage," which got jettisoned soon after launch.

"Secret moon transcripts" from science fiction writer Otto Binder and in tabloid newspapers of that era seem to have been entirely fabricated, since amateur radio operators back on Earth independently monitored many of the actual transmissions and heard the same things that NASA officially released live. 

Myth: Armstrong actually filmed all the moon surface sequences in Nevada.

Fact: Aside from the mind-boggling awesomeness of the actual mission, the genuine "unearthliness" of outer space produced scenes and sequences which just didn't "look right" to many viewers.

For example, mysterious "backlighting" of the shadowed regions of spacesuits and the LM raised suspicions of studio lighting, but were actually caused by backscatter from the lunar surface (which explains why the astronauts’ shadows flat on the surface were still pitch black). But all other technical "objections" are bogus, despite the globally widespread ideological appeal of disbelieving the Apollo successes. 

Myth: As an astronaut facing an enormous physical challenge, Armstrong worked out tirelessly in the gymnasium to strengthen his body.

Fact: Although he lived on a healthy regimen, Armstrong rarely exercised, often explaining that he believed that a man was given a set number of heartbeats in his life and he wasn’t going to do anything to use them up faster. But even without exercise, he briefly sped up his own consumption of his allotment during the Apollo 11 landing.

More about Neil Armstrong's life and legacy:

Video: Friends reflect on the life of Neil Armstrong

Photos: Neil Armstrong: 1930-2012

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  1. American hero

    Apollo 11 commander Neil Armstrong, who passed away on Aug. 25, 2012, will be forever known as the first man to set foot on the moon. This 1969 portrait shows Armstrong in his spacesuit, standing in front of a large photograph of the lunar surface. (NASA via EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Family portrait

    Astronaut Neil Armstrong is pictured with his wife, Janet, and his two sons, Eric and Mark, on Aug. 26, 1963. (Ralph Morse / Time & Life Pictures via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. In training

    Neil Armstrong is buckled up at a NASA training center on Sept. 1, 1963. (Ralph Morse / Time & Life Pictures via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Flying bedstead

    Neil Armstrong strides alongside a lunar landing research vehicle, also known as a "flying bedstead," at Edwards Air Force Base in California on Aug. 1, 1964. The LLRV was used to train astronauts for landings on the moon. In 1968, Armstrong had to eject from an LLRV when the flight controls failed. It was one of the astronaut's closest calls. (Ralph Morse / Time & Life Pictures via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Suited up

    Neil Armstrong sits in a mock space capsule, dressed in a full Navy Mark IV pressure suit (except for the helmet), during training for his Gemini space mission in the mid-1960s. (Ralph Morse / Time & Life Pictures via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Gemini 8

    Commander Neil Armstrong (foreground) and pilot David Scott prepare to get into their Gemini 8 capsule on March 16, 1966. The mission marked the first docking of two spacecraft in orbit, but ended prematurely due to a thruster malfunction. Armstrong got the spacecraft under control and brought the capsule safely back to Earth for a Pacific splashdown. (NASA via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. The trio of Apollo

    Buzz Aldrin, Michael Collins and Neil Armstrong, the crew of Apollo 11, pose with a model of the moon in 1969. (Ralph Morse / Time & Life Pictures via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Practice run

    Apollo 11's Buzz Aldrin, Neil Armstrong and Michael Collins stand by a mock Apollo capsule during water egress training in the Gulf of Mexico. (Science Society Picture Library via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Rehearsal for landing

    Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong poses with a landing simulator at the Lunar Landing Research Facility at NASA's Langley Research Center on Feb. 12, 1969. (NASA / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. At ease

    Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins and Buzz Aldrin stand in front of their Saturn 5 rocket at NASA's Kennedy Space Center on May 20, 1969, during preparations for their mission. (NASA via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Checking out the seats

    Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins and Buzz Aldrin wear clean-room gear during a walk-through egress test in their command module on June 10, 1969. (NASA via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Meet the press

    The crew members of the Apollo 11 lunar landing mission, Buzz Aldrin, Neil Armstrong and Michael Collins, get comfortable during a press conference in July 1969. (NASA via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Time for study

    Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong reviews flight plans on July 14, 1969. (NASA via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Checking the fit

    Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin get ready to train for extravehicular activity, under the watchful eye of chief astronaut Deke Slayton (right). (NASA via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Here's the scoop

    Neil Armstrong takes a photo of a sample that Buzz Aldrin is about to collect with a large scoop during a training session. (NASA via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. On their way

    Neil Armstrong waves as he and his Apollo 11 crewmates head for the van that will take them to the Saturn 5 rocket for launch to the moon from NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida on July 16, 1969. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Fire in the sky

    The Apollo 11 mission's Saturn 5 rocket climbs toward orbit after liftoff from Launch Pad 39A at 9:32 a.m. ET on July 16, 1969. This photo was taken with a 70mm telescopic camera mounted on an Air Force EC-135N plane. Onboard were astronauts Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins and Buzz Aldrin. (Science Society Picture Library via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Shadow on the moon

    Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong captures his own shadow on film while taking a photo of the lunar module on the moon's surface in July 1969. (Neil Armstrong / NASA via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Star-spangled moon

    A frame from a 16mm movie shows Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin setting up an American flag on the surface of the moon during the Apollo 11 lunar mission on July 20, 1969. (Time & Life Pictures / NASA via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. One small step

    Neil Armstrong steps into history on July 20, 1969, by leaving the first human footprint on the surface of the moon. (NASA via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Reflecting on history

    Astronaut Buzz Aldrin stands on the moon next to the lunar module in this photo, taken by Neil Armstrong on July 20, 1969. Aldrin's helmet visor reflects back the scene in front of him, including a small image of Armstrong taking the picture. (Neil Armstrong / NASA via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Astronaut at work

    Neil Armstrong is seen near the lunar lander and the U.S. flag in a picture taken by Buzz Aldrin on the surface of the moon on July 20, 1969. (Buzz Aldrin / NASA via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Watching from afar

    Ten thousand spectators gathered to watch giant television screens in New York's Central Park and cheer as astronaut Neil Armstrong took humanity's first step on the moon on July 20, 1969. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Homeward bound

    The lunar module, with Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin aboard, approaches the Apollo 11 command module for a rendezvous on July 21, 1969, marking the first leg of the homeward journey. A half-Earth is seen in the background. (NASA via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. All smiles

    Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins and Buzz Aldrin laugh along with President Richard Nixon aboard the USS Hornet. The president was on hand to greet the astronauts after their splashdown in the Pacific on July 24, 1969. The crew was in a quarantine facility as a post-flight precaution. (Richard Nixon Foundation / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. Laughing at quarantine

    Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins and Buzz Aldrin are in high spirits as they look out through the window of their mobile quarantine van on July 24, 1969. (NASA via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. Family reunion

    Neil Armstrong greets his son Mark on the telephone intercom system while his wife Janet and his other son Eric look on at Ellington Air Force Base in Texas on July 27, 1969. Armstrong and his crewmates were quarantined for 21 days after landing back on Earth, out of concern that they might have brought harmful germs back with them from the moon. (NASA via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. Free at last

    Neil Armstrong greets friends after being released from quarantine on Aug. 10, 1969. (NASA via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  29. Ticker-tape parade

    Apollo 11 astronauts Michael Collins, Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong wave to crowds as they celebrate their return from the moon in a New York ticker-tape parade on Aug. 13, 1969. (Time & Life Pictures / NASA via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  30. Behind a desk

    After Apollo 11, Neil Armstrong was appointed deputy associate administrator for aeronautics at NASA Headquarters in Washington. In this picture, Armstrong is seen in his Washington office on July 23, 1970. He resigned from NASA in 1971, and became active in academia and the corporate world. (AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  31. Dealing with tragedy

    After the shuttle Challenger exploded in 1986, Neil Armstrong was chosen to serve as the vice chairman of the presidential commission set up to investigate the tragedy. Armstrong is seen here listening to testimony before the commission in Washington on Feb. 11, 1986. Another member of the commission, David Acheson, listens in the background. (Scott Stewart / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  32. 30 years later

    Neil Armstrong is awarded the Samuel P. Langley Medal in front of the Apollo 11 command module at the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum in Washington, during a ceremony on July 20, 1999, marking the 30th anniversary of the first moon landing. Vice President Al Gore, applauding at right, presented medals to Armstrong as well as to Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins. (Joyce Naltchayan / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  33. A piece of history

    Museumgoers walk around the Apollo 11 command module at the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum in Washington on July 16, 2009, the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11's launch. (Mark Wilson / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  34. 40 years later

    Buzz Aldrin, Neil Armstrong and Michael Collins stand in front of a lunar module exhibit at the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum in Washington on July 19, 2009, the eve of the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. (Mark Avino / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  35. Hailed by the chief

    President Barack Obama speaks with Neil Armstrong and fellow Apollo 11 crew members Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins during an Oval Office meeting on July 20, 2009, the 40th anniversary of the first moon landing. (Saul Loeb / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  36. Hero on the Hill

    Retired NASA astronaut Neil Armstrong is welcomed by Norman Augustine (left), chairman of the Review of U.S. Human Space Flight Plans Committee, and retired astronaut Eugene Cernan (obscured), commander of Apollo 17 mission, before the three testified on Capitol Hill on May 12, 2010. Armstong, Cernan and Augustine testified before the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee on the future of U.S. human spaceflight. During his testimony, Armstrong said he was "not confident" about the commercial market's ability to provide safe and reliable hardware for human spaceflight. (Win McNamee / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  37. Gold medal

    Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong is presented with the Congressional Gold Medal during a ceremony in the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol on Nov. 16, 2011. The gold medals were presented to Armstrong and his fellow crew members from Apollo 11, Michael Collins and Buzz Aldrin, and to retired senator-astronaut John Glenn, the first American to go into Earth orbit. (Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  38. Celebration time

    Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong speaks during a celebration dinner at Ohio State University in Columbus, marking the 50th anniversary of retired senator-astronaut John Glenn's historic flight aboard Friendship 7. It was one of the last high-profile public events Armstrong attended. (Bill Ingalls / NASA via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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  1. Image: Neil Armstrong, the 1st man on the moon, has died at age 82
    NASA via EPA
    Above: Slideshow (38) Neil Armstrong: 1930-2012
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    Y. Beletsky / ESO
    Slideshow (12) Month in Space: January 2014

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