Being Human on the Moon

“Better a diamond with a flaw than a pebble without.” (Analects of Confucius)

Fifty years ago tonight I was a young naval officer joining a bunch of students gathered around the TV in the common room at Pine Hill Divinity Hall (now Atlantic School of Theology) in Halifax. I was living aboard ship at the time so my recently-widowed mother, then a summer student, invited me to join them for the live broadcast of the first attempt to land people on the Moon. Just before midnight we were straining to interpret the grainy image of Neil Armstrong making his way carefully down the ladder of the lunar lander, waiting breathlessly to hear what he might say.

Grainy TV image
One small step – the grainy TV image as it appeared on CBS news

What we heard was “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind”, which seemed ambiguously puzzling. It turned out that what he meant to say – and what he was sure he had said – was “one small step for a man…” which, of course, would make perfect sense. The did-he-or-didn’t-he” debate went on for years and was the even topic of academic study as recently as six years ago. For heaven’s sake – who cares! The moment was a shining achievement.

Imagine being in that ponderous spacesuit on the brink of the unknown, the world watching, the uncertainties, the emotion: but instead of being free to revel in the experience and focus on practical issues at hand, the poor guy had to think about delivering a comment worthy of the history books before a live audience of some 600 million viewers around the globe. I think I’d have been more impressed if humanity’s first words on the Moon had been a simple, heartfelt “Wow!” In any case, I find the idea of flubbing a historic line to be endearingly human. So what if Armstrong’s delivery wasn’t perfect? As far as I can tell, the most credible explanation is that between an Ohio accent and fuzzy audio transmission, his pronunciation of “…small step “frrr(uh)” man…” didn’t come through clearly.

There’s a lovely metaphor suggested by author Tahereh Mafi, that the Moon “understands what it means to be human” because it is “cratered by imperfections.”

It wasn’t just Armstrong reaching for a memorable bon mot that night, even down here in Halifax. In fairness, it must have been an irresistible temptation for a group of preachers-in-training to vie for the most profound comment. Personally I don’t remember what anyone said, or even what I thought myself: just utter absorption in what was happening on a small fuzzy black and white screen. Even the legendary television host Walter Cronkite, who had hoped to say “words that would live in history” when the lander first touched down more than six hours earlier, found that when that moment came he could only take off his glasses, look down with a smile, say “Whew, boy…”, wipe his nose and simply shake his head.

The Spanish have a proverb: “Open your mouth only if what you are going to say is more beautiful than the silence.” But in Cronkite’s case, I reckon that there was indeed beauty in those few words.

Armstrong died in 2012 aged 82 and by all reports was a thoroughly nice man. According to his granddaughter, the greatest impact of the mission had not been his momentous “one small step”, but rather seeing Earth rise over the moon, “looking back at the Earth and seeing it from space as a fragile resource and hoping that people would care for it.”

As my companions at Pine Hill might have responded – “Amen!”