Video: Did Armstrong make one small fib for mankind?

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updated 1/4/2013 6:23:43 PM ET 2013-01-04T23:23:43

Let’s get one thing straight right now: Neil Armstrong was not a liar. But that’s the outrageous accusation made about him in screaming headlines following a new BBC documentary on his life.

The controversy stems from a comment made by Armstrong’s brother Dean, who says in the film that Neil shared his famous "one small step" quotation with him shortly before the mission. 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. So let's look at the facts.

NASA / Andy Chaikin / collectSpace.com
On July 20, 1969, Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong became the first man to walk on the moon. Armstrong is pictured here, shortly after collecting a sample of lunar dust and rocks. At his feet is the handle for the sample collection tool.

The very first public statement Neil made about the subject was at the post-flight press conference on Aug. 12, 1969, following his return from Apollo 11. Asked by a reporter when he came up with the quote, Armstrong answered as follows:

"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."

In the Aug. 22, 1969, issue of LIFE magazine, Armstrong elaborated a bit more. "I had thought about that a little before the flight," he wrote, "mainly because so many people had made such a big point of it. I had also thought about it a little on the way to the moon, but not much. It wasn't until after landing that I made up my mind what to say."

This is the story Neil told me when I interviewed him in 1988 for my book "A Man on the Moon" (even though I did not specifically ask the question, knowing he was probably tired of answering it). It was also the story Armstrong told 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." 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.

Nothing in Neil’s post-flight statements rules out the possibility that he thought up the "one small step" line before leaving Earth. He didn’t say, "I thought up the quote after we landed;" he said, "I decided what I would say after we landed."

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.

What it does not mean is that somehow Armstrong "fibbed" or "lied" to the public for 40 years. Everyone who knew Neil well has described him as extraordinarily principled. That was certainly the man I saw when I interviewed him, and in the years that followed, as we became friends.

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And it's worth remembering that Neil Armstrong went to the moon, above all, as a consummate engineering test pilot. As he told me in 1988, making the first lunar landing was the greatest technical challenge, and before the flight, he thought he and Buzz Aldrin had only a 50-50 chance of pulling it off.

Stepping onto the surface was far less central in his focus, and coming up with a quote for the first step was way down on his list of priorities when faced with the awesome challenge of his mission. And yet, he understood its importance, and he gave us a quote worthy of the moment, one that will live forever.

And that’s the point: Neil Armstrong did right by history. And now we should do right by him.

Space journalist Andrew Chaikinis an Apollo historian and author of "Man on the Moon," "A Passion for Mars" and co-author (with Victoria Kohl) of "Voices From the Moon" and the children's book "Mission Control, This is Apollo." You can find him at: www.andrewchaikin.com.

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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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