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That’s one small misstep for most moon tales

NBC News space analyst James Oberg corrects the myths and misrepresentations surrounding Neil Armstrong's "one small step" and other facets of the Apollo 11 saga.
Image: Neil Armstrong practices moon step
Apollo 11 commander Neil Armstrong practices his "one small step" onto the surface of the moon during training at the Manned Spacecraft Center's Building 9 in Houston on April 22, 1969, less than three months before the actual moonwalk.NASA file

As the world celebrates the 40th anniversary of the first human footprint on the moon, retellings of the Apollo 11 story often note that Neil Armstrong flubbed the word “a” in his famous line, “That's one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.”

But the tale-tellers often commit a flub themselves, by misunderstanding the very nature of that “one small step.”

The misunderstanding is far more than a semantic anomaly, or a “Trivia Quiz” question.  It goes to the core of what Armstrong meant to convey with his remarkably insightful verbal contrast. 

In a growing number of TV documentaries, books and even graphic novels, Armstrong is portrayed as noting his "one small step" as he dropped down several feet from the lunar module ladder’s bottom rung to plop into the lunar dust. But that's not how it happened, and this almost comical portrayal of an in-the-blind, barely controlled fall to the ground completely obscures the gentle, deliberate nature of the authentic "small step" he took a few moments later.

What actually happened is that he dropped from the ladder onto a trashcan-lid-sized footpad at the bottom of the module’s landing leg, and not the actual lunar surface. He immediately hopped back up to the bottom rung, to gauge how difficult the jump was, and then dropped back to the footpad.

At that point he announced, “I’m going to step off the LM now.” Barely moving in the fuzzy television scene, he turned to his left, shifted his body slightly, and placed his left foot over the lip of the landing pad to press it into the lunar dust. It was a deliberate "first contact" in full sight of his eyes — if not the TV camera — and he was in complete control of what he knew was a historic event of planetary significance.

Watching his own foot compress the moon dirt, and shifting his weight onto that leg, he made his immortal comment. The contrast between what he had just done physically and the leap he had made metaphorically was astronomical in scale.

Redubbing history
Even as it was happening, many watchers didn’t “get it.” As Armstrong dropped off the ladder for the first time, CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite immediately reported he was now “standing on the moon” and nearly talked over the famous comment about actually stepping there. And when the crew of the next Apollo landing exited their own lunar module in November 1969, commander Pete Conrad (one of the shortest astronauts) dropped off the ladder and joked, “That may have been a small one for Neil, but it was a long one for me.”

In the years that followed, historical re-creations of the first steps on the moon as often as not redubbed the audio in order to make Armstrong’s “small step” comment coincide with the first drop off the ladder.

In the mid-1990s, the CBS series “Cronkite Remembers” shows it that way — as do a number of NASA documentaries, along with the flagship film shown a dozen times daily at Space Center Houston, a museum adjacent to NASA's Johnson Space Center. Taking its cue from these authoritative sources, more recent TV specials often use the same erroneous audio/video matchup.

Some programs and books have portrayed it correctly. A good example is the Discovery Channel's "One Giant Leap," showing signs that some producers took the extra trouble to get it right. But the widespread misrepresentations in other shows are reminders that people should seek truth where it can be found — and the TV screen, with its need for visual excitement and compressed action, is not an environment always conducive to historical accuracy.

Eight more Apollo 11 myths
Over the years I’ve cataloged a number of other historical inaccuracies that have slipped into the modern myth of Apollo 11. Here’s how I debunk them (unless some myths have crept into my own mind, too, which is certainly possible).

1. The very first words after the moon landing. No, it wasn’t the announcement from Tranquility Base that "the Eagle has landed." Lunar module pilot Buzz Aldrin spoke first when he gave this status report: "Contact light! OK; engine stop. Ay-see-ay out of detent. Mode control both auto. Descent engine command override off. Engine arm off. Four-thirteen is 'IN'..." As Aldrin gave his report, Armstrong reiterated these critical comments: "Shutdown. Out of detent, auto ..." and "Engine arm is off." Those were the real first words from the moon, and it was a radioed pilot report, explained in detail here.

2. The cheering crowds in Mission Control. This one really torques my shorts for personal reasons because the scenes of flight controllers carousing over the moon landing, or the first steps on the moon, are extremely unprofessional, and those guys trained me for my own later duty tours in Mission Control during space shuttle flights. You watch your data, you don’t get distracted, you don’t celebrate until you’re off shift or until the mission is over (yeah, there were a few brief, muffled cheers here and there, I must admit). Yet leading documentaries splice scenes of post-splashdown flag-waving cigar-chomping revels into actual key mission events. I guess the intent is to humanize the people, but I think it demeans them, and it insults history.

3. The selection of Armstrong as a ‘civilian’ first human on the moon. Supposedly Armstrong was chosen for the sake of symbolism, to deflect potential propaganda about militarizing outer space. But such propaganda, then or now, can’t be deflected because those promoting it don’t really care about reality — they’ll make up, and publish, whatever they need to make their points. Armstrong (a former fighter pilot) was assigned to an Apollo crew in 1966-1967, served as backup commander to Apollo 8, and rotated to Apollo 11 as a normal process.

4. The fuss over who would go out first. It’s dramatic to imagine arguments between Armstrong and Aldrin, and influence-peddling by their advocates, but the driving force behind the "first" pick was which side of the module door the hinges were on. It had to open inward (so internal air pressure sealed it snugly into the frame), and the hinges wound up on the right side, so when it opened, it blocked off the man standing on the right. Developing a way for the guy on the right to scramble into the other guy’s tight space was asking for trouble in the already-cramped cabin. As consolation, the same structural feature meant that the second guy got to go back inside first.

5. The moonwalkers faced sunlight/shadow temperature extremes of hundreds of degrees. This kind of gee-whiz "factoid" filled the news media during Apollo, and few people had enough experience with space (or even just with classical thermodynamics) to realize that these were just candidates for Ripley’s “Believe It Or Not” columns. In a vacuum, the moonwalkers were as thermally insulated as any vacuum flask on Earth, and objects slowly warmed or cooled when exposed to sunlight or shadowed. Because of the thermal inertia of the material object (like a gloved hand), it would take hours if not days to reach extreme temperatures.

6. Misuse of space films. Many dramatic spaceflight events occurred with no cameras recording them, so some creative documentary producers have crossed way over the line in misrepresenting scenes. Several videos use images of flames trailing behind a re-entering capsule (since the crew faced backwards with a perfect shot out their windows of the flame trail) to represent the unobserved engine plumes from firing of the upper stages to push Apollo toward the moon. One particularly objectionable documentary used images of flames dancing outside the window of a descending Gemini capsule to represent flames dancing inside the Apollo 1 capsule where three astronauts died.

7. Bogus mysteries about objects accompanying the outbound mission. From the beginnings of human spaceflight, flying-saucer magazines and newsletters were full of garbled accounts of alien spacecraft observing — or interfering with — astronaut missions. Some of the less wild accounts were based on simple misunderstanding of how objects coming off a spaceship would drift along it through space. There were both small Apollo-derived fragments (insulation, ice, wiring harnesses and fired explosive bolts) and larger structures (the upper stage, and the four garage-door-sized panels that encased the lunar module for launch) that could be seen from time to time outside the windows.

8. Supposedly secret radio transmissions. Within a few years of the landing, grocery store tabloids were publishing alleged transcripts “picked up by radio hams” that described spotting aliens at the landing site. None of these radio operators were named, and the skilled hams who did monitor transmissions report hearing just what NASA released publicly. Some books have been written referring to wild stories, but the claims of "official" knowledge about secret signals have never panned out.

NBC News space analyst James Oberg spent 22 years at NASA's Johnson Space Center as a Mission Control operator and an orbital designer.

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