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Debunking myths about Neil Armstrong

Image: Neil Armstrong
U.S. astronaut Neil Armstrong smiles in the lunar module after his historic moonwalk.NASA via Reuters

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.

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.

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