The big cheese and the director’s cut

Pivot Points is a monthly column by Euroscientist writer David Bradley

If you were lucky enough to have clear skies on the evening of 15th June, you may have seen the total eclipse of the moon. The moon. Luna. The great ball of “cheese” in the sky. The moon has been the focus of poetry, art, music and scientific conjecture ever since we first jumped down from the trees and looked skywards. Cold-war posturing aside it was inevitable that we would find a way to take a giant leap of faith and a small step on to that other worldly world. And we did, 42 years ago, on 29th July 1969.

I was just over three-years old and had been tucked up in bed for hours when Neil Alden Armstrong’s Eagle came home to roost and he finally stepped on to the lunar surface to leave his indelible footprint and to utter that famous phrase – “That’s one small step for man, one……giant leap for mankind”.

It was a momentous occasion, it warranted a great quote from a great individual, something humanity might quote for centuries as we reached for the stars. But. On hearing those crackly words, one can imagine the disappointment. He stepped on to the biggest and brightest stage in the history of humanity and…well…to put it bluntly he fluffed his line. Surely, it should have been: “One small step for “a” man, one giant leap for mankind”, without the pause. The missing “a” is critical. The long pause between “one” and “giant”: the point at which he realized the error of his words.

The quote has caused consternation for over four decades. Some say the “a” was lost in transmission across the 400,000 km between Armstrong’s microphone and the tape recorder at ground control. Armstrong himself denies any mistake. A scientific analysis of the recording supports his claim and blames his Ohio but a more recent study says he definitely made a mistake but the line is poetic nevertheless.

I think the evidence weighs heavily towards the latter, although how much more poetic it would have been if Armstrong had not had such a verbally unfortunate start to the Apollo program’s big money shot. But, that is perhaps the most important case of fluffing one’s lines ever. Why? Because I think it proves that Armstrong really did set foot on the moon.

As I mentioned, at length, in a recent Pivot Points “Cracked Conjectures“, there are apparently a multitude of people out there willing to believe almost anything: from the craziest of fairy stories to the most convoluted conspiracy theories.  Among them are the many people who are unwilling to believe that anyone has taken even the smallest of steps let alone a giant leap on to the moon.

It is difficult to understand why. Many of those people maybe saw the 1978 movie Capricorn 1 about a faked Mars Landing and got confused. Others take an Aristotelian stance of the kind dramatically overturned by Galileo and Kepler more than 300 centuries ago and brought to life recently in Stuart Clark’s gripping novel The Sky’s Dark Labyrinth. There are probably many who, for some insane reason, hoped the cold war would never end and that the US losing the space race but “winning” the lunar race was too much of a tangled diplomatic web for their deluded sensibilities.

The conspiracy theorists talk of evidence to support the idea that the lunar landing was faked. They cite implausibly high photographic quality, camera cross-hair positioning, the lack of stars in the lunar sky, inconsistencies in lunar shadows, photographic hotspots caused by stage lighting, and of course, the Star Spangled Banner purportedly rippling in the breeze. All of this evidence has been debunked repeatedly.

But, I think Armstrong’s missing “a” is the tiny but essential piece of evidence that disproves all the conspiracy theories.

Picture the scene: you’re directing the most elaborate movie ever, one that might change the course of human history, one that requires a giant leap of faith. It has to be convincing from the Russian Steppes to the streets of Manhattan. You have to get everything right: script, scenery, continuity. The whole world and future generations have to be convinced that it is authentic or all is lost.

So, cameras are rolling for that crucial scene. Your leading man, the man of the lunar matinee, is just about to plant his foot in the very grey dust scattered deeply across the studio floor. His moonolog is good to go, his “to be, or not to be” moment is cued…and…”Action!”

“That’s one small step for man, one…giant leap for mankind.

At this point, what would be the first word you, as director, would shout? It’s obvious, isn’t it?

“Cut! Steady now Neil, daaahling, back up those steps would you, be a love? Ready to go again everyone? Lunar Landing, Scene 1, take 2…and action!”

“That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.”

“Perfect, that’s a wrap everybody, see you in the bar, the drinks are on me!”

Of course, the people who faked the moon landing would have thought of that, wouldn’t they? Isn’t that why they left out that little “a”? Isn’t Armstrong’s fluffed line just the perfect touch to add nervous authenticity to the movie? Next time you’re gazing up at the night sky and musing on whether or not there is an astronaut’s footprint on that great ball of lunar cheese, think on, if Armstrong had been word perfect we might never have been convinced of the truth.

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4 thoughts on “The big cheese and the director’s cut”

  1. Thanks for this great post about the historic role the character “a” took over.

    Another letter to be become a historic artifact is the character “i”, since Steve Jobs invited us to the relates product series.

    Do you have other letters in mind which will become a phonetic heritage of modern society? If we get enough characters, we might start thinking about an important letter’s of history museum.