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[i]Sometimes it takes a while for history to get its facts straight. In this case, thanks to some remarkable new technology, it only took a little over 37 years.
What astronaut Neil Armstrong said when he first stepped out onto the surface of the Moon on July 20th 1969, ranks, without question, as one of the most famous phrases ever uttered. A Google search on the internet today results in no less than 2.2 million hits for Armstrong's phrase. The only phrase that results in more is "To be or not to be," at 2.3 million hits, but that, of course, is a quote from Shakespeare, not a statement spoken as part of an actual, historical event. To put the magnitude of Armstrong's statement in perspective, two of the most famous quotes from American presidents -- Franklin Roosevelt's "We have nothing to fear but fear itself" and Jack Kennedy's "Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country" -- results in less than 200,000 Google hits.
But what exactly is it that Armstrong said? History credits the phrase as "That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind," but, as Neil Armstrong indicated upon returning to Earth after his Apollo 11 mission, he intended on saying, "That's one small step for [b]a[/b] man, one giant leap for mankind." In fact, that's what he thought he did say, though the "a" could not be heard, leading to a fascinating little space-age mystery that no audio or computer technology of the day could resolve. The technical and historical consensus became that Neil, indeed, fully intended to say, "That's one small step for a man," but, in the rush of the moment, forgot to say, or just did not say, the "a."
Naturally, when I interviewed Neil for my 2005 book, "First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong", I wanted to hear what he had to say about those first words of his. What he told me was:
"I can't recapture it. For people who have listened to me for hours on the radio communication tapes, they know I left a lot of syllables out. It was not unusual for me to do that. I'm not particularly articulate. Perhaps it was a suppressed sound that didn't get picked up by the voice mike. As I have listened to it, it doesn't sound like there was time for the word to be there. On the other hand, I think that reasonable people will realize that I didn't intentionally make an inane statement, and that certainly the 'a' was intended, because that's the only way the statement makes any sense. So I would hope that history would grant me leeway for dropping the syllable and understand that it was certainly intended, even if it wasn't said -- although it actually might have been."
For Armstrong, as well as for historians and the historically-minded, the question of what Neil said or didn't say when he stepped out on the Sea of Tranquility is not petty or insignificant. Over the years, in many published versions of the Apollo 11 mission, Armstrong has been criticized for leaving out what some have called that "crucial indefinite article" and for "messing up" or "muffing" his immortal phrase. Even those in the mood for forgiving have written that "the cadence of Neil's words on tape suggest that the "a" was forgotten, not lost. A new book on the Moon landings even goes so far as to say that Neil's leaving out the "a" rendered his whole statement "meaningless."
The mystery of the missing "a" has finally been solved. Peter Shann Ford is a sort of Renaissance man. Born and educated in Australia, he began as a print journalist before moving over to Australian television as a reporter and news anchor. He joined CNN in Atlanta in 1981 and for over 10 years covered the U.S. space program for CNN and NBC and its affiliates. He was a news anchor on the team that launched CNN Headline News. Leaving television, he went into Australia's central deserts to research Aboriginal tribal lore, which led to his publishing a novel entitled, "The Keeper of Dreams." In 2000, he returned to U.S. television, covering the Olympics for NBC and, after 9/11, reporting from Pakistan and Afghanistan.
But the work that leads him here to us today lies in the field of audio technology and control bionics. As early as 1982, Peter Ford became deeply involved a team of researchers in Atlanta that were pioneering the development of microcomputers for rehabilitation and communication for people with disabilities. He began pursuing the goal of enabling people who could neither move nor speak -- nor, in some cases, see -- to use the newly-emerging microcomputer technology to control communications and electronic devices. Peter invented and wrote a program called "JoyWriter 2," which enabled people with neuromuscular and spinal injuries to replace a computer keyboard with a joystick. He coded in a three-dimensional imaging and robotics language that was developed by legendary programming pioneer Paul Lutus. More recently, Peter invented and developed "NeuroSwitch," a nerve-based communications-and-control system that uses nerve-based signals from areas of the human body that otherwise are too severely disabled to react or communicate. For the past four years, he has been working with world-renowned physicist Stephen Hawking; Hawking was, in fact, Peter Ford's primary "Beta tester" when Ford was writing the software for "NeuroSwitch."
Part of the technology that Peter has developed involves analysis of audio data and signals. Fortunately for posterity, when reading "First Man", my Neil Armstrong biography, Peter became interested in the mystery of the missing "a." He got an audio clip from NASA and, conducted a very thorough analysis, which has since been peer-reviewed by a number of experts in both electronic data analysis and the physiology of speech. He then got in touch with me.
Subsequently Peter has authored a remarkable paper entitled, "Electronic Evidence and Physiological Reasoning Identifying the Elusive Vowel "a" in Neil Armstrong's Statement on First Stepping onto the Lunar Surface." In it, Peter concludes that Armstrong did, in fact, say "one small step for a man." More specifically, his conclusion reads:[/i]
Astronaut Neil Armstrong's arrival on the Moon followed a distinguished career as a combat pilot, test pilot, commander of Gemini VIII for the first docking in space, and backup commander for Apollo 8. His professionalism, precision, and coolness under pressure were established long before and highlighted when he took control of the lunar landing from the autopilot, flew beyond a hazardous area, and landed Eagle manually. He recalls he formulated the sentence, "That's one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind" in the LEM in the hours between landing and stepping onto the lunar surface. It is a concise, eloquent statement for the ages at a unique milestone for our species. It seemed highly unlikely that he would utter it incorrectly. This paper proves, with an analysis and results that are independently repeatable, that he did, indeed, say the sentence completely and correctly.
[i]At a private meeting held in the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., Peter Ford and I, along with Dr. Roger Launius, head of the space history division at NASM, met with Neil Armstrong about his research discovery. Also at the meeting was Ms. Rano Singh, a biomechanics expert from Georgetown University. In the hour-long meeting, Peter presented all his data and answered many questions. In the end, Neil Armstrong was clearly persuaded by the evidence, as was everyone else that was there. His verbatim comments included:
"I have reviewed the data and Peter Ford's analysis of it and I find the technology interesting and useful. I also find his conclusion persuasive. Persuasive is the appropriate word."
Peter Ford will continue refining his data and analysis. His next step will be to analyze the audio track recordings made during the Apollo 11 EVA from the radio telescope dish at Parkes Observatory in Australia.[/i]
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