Neil Armstrong’s “A” hole

Contributed by
Oct 1, 2006

I have to admit, I don't remember the moment very well. I was not quite 5 years old, so maybe I can be forgiven. I do remember, very vaguely, Neil Armstrong stepping foot on the Moon... but as an honest skeptic I can't really say if I remember it first hand, or if I'm simply conflating the eight million times I've seen it replayed with the actual event.

Either way, we've all seen it. And we've seen Neil flub his line every time.

"That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.".

It never made sense to me, of course. It doesn't make sense. It's not at all a small step for man. So what was he talking about?

It was years later when someone said to me that he meant to say "One small step for a man..." and then it made sense. Neil had made one small step from the lander pad to the lunar surface, but it was a giant leap for all mankind.

Cool! I felt better. But what happened to Neil's "a"?

I may be the last science blogger to write about this, but the "a" may have finally turned up. Using sophisticated digital audio techniques, the missing vowel may have been found by a computer programmer:

He used his computer to download the audio recording of Armstrong's words from a NASA Web site and analyzed the speech pattern with the GoldWave software. In the graphic tracing, he found a signature for the missing "a," evidence it was spoken and transmitted.

That's pretty interesting. It's like having an itch for 40 years that's finally been scratched. The article is a little confusing to me, though. It says:

According to Ford, Armstrong spoke, "One small step for a man ..." in a total of 35 milliseconds, 10 times too fast for the "a" to be audible.

35 milliseconds is 0.035 seconds. I listened to Neil's line, and it obviously takes longer than that-- more like three seconds. I think the author meant the gap between the two words "step" and "man" was 35 milliseconds long, which makes more sense. Maybe it's a typo in the article. I looked on the NASA website, and given that this is the most iconic thing ever said by a NASA employee, it's a little weird that there is no mention of this on their site (as of the time I write this).

But I think my favorite line from the article is this one:

The "a" was transmitted, though, and can be verified in an analysis using [...] Canadian sound editing software...

Leave it to Canadians to find an "a", eh?

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