Was Neil Armstrong misquoted?

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tags: NASA, Neil Armstrong

It’s one of the most famous quotes of all time. “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” were the first words NASA astronaut Neil Armstrong uttered when he set foot on the moon at 02.56 GMT on July 21 1969.

Or were they? Armstrong himself has always insisted he said “one small step for a man” not “one small step for man”. While the former is grammatically correct and meaningful, the latter is contradictory when coupled with “mankind” in the next part of the sentence.

Try and judge for yourself by listening to the recording. Most people hear “for man”. Assuming that Armstrong is correct in his claim (a reasonable assumption since he was the only one there and by all accounts an honest and trustworthy individual) – the reason most of us don’t hear an “a” could be due to a combination of factors including the noisy radio link, the 250,000-mile distance, the stressful situation for the speaker affecting his speaking rate and his particular North American Midwest accent, where the “a” is naturally shortened and merged with the preceding word. Another factor is how our brains perceive speech. It is worth noting he also agreed the “a” was inaudible in recordings, but still maintained he had spoken it.

In 2006, news stories reported that audio analysis, including spectrograms like those used for voice prints, had found the missing “a”, mysteriously hiding behind a burst of static. However subsequent efforts by others failed to substantiate this story.

Skip forward a decade, and researchers in the US have finally shed some new light on the controversy. In some intriguing experiments published in PLOS-ONE, the team analysed a large number of recordings of Midwestern American speech, and also used a group of Midwestern listeners to investigate how the speakers said the phrases “for” and “for a” respectively – and how the listeners perceived them.

Many recordings of Ohio residents speaking both phrases were analysed, and revealed that timing statistics for both versions overlapped so much that it was very often impossible to tell them apart. This means that whichever version Armstrong actually uttered, it would probably be indistinguishable anyway. ...

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