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The Anniversary of Neil Armstrong’s Death: An Illusion Tribute

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Neil Armstrong

One year ago yesterday, the first man on the Moon died at age 82.  Two hours before the historic lunar landing, Neil Armstrong mentally composed the first words to be said on the Moon: “It’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind”.  That was not quite the same sentence that  is written in every history book. Instead, the quote that we know is, “It’s one small step for man…”, missing the ‘a’. Armstrong and NASA initially blamed the missing syllable on static, but audio analyses later confirmed that the interval between “for” and “man” was too short for there ever having been an “a”.  Armstrong was reportedly embarrassed for having flubbed the first words on the moon, which in the end, only endeared him to the world all the more. In tribute, we have restored Armstrong’s original intent by splicing an “a” between “for” and “man”.  The result is perhaps grammatically more correct, but less poetic than the actual unintended quote.

The change also destroys one of the best examples of the reverse speech illusion known as “backmasking” (in which people hear messages, often claimed to be satanic, when playing musical lyrics and speeches backwards).  In reverse, “one small space for man” sounds like “man will space walk”. Poignant, and true. “One small step for a man”, however, ruins the illusion and sounds something like “man-a will space walk” when played backwards.

Armstrong was bewildered about the missing “a” even decades after the landing. He needn’t have worried. His message was clear, backwards and forwards, and in every sense.

Listen to these clips for yourself below:

We thank our colleague Jorge Otero-Millan for refashioning the original NASA audio file.

Susana Martinez-Conde About the Author: Susana Martinez-Conde and Stephen L. Macknik are laboratory directors at SUNY Downstate Medical Center. Follow on Twitter @illusionchasers.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. terryballard 10:25 am 08/27/2013

    I’ve listened to this many, many times and always came away with the same conclusion. He rolled the r and the m in forrman. Then after “one” there was a small pregnant pause where he realized that he had just blown his line. Then he went on. It’s okay. We’re all human. Future generations should hear “For a man,” because that’s what he meant to say.

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  2. 2. Scienceisnotagenda 4:39 pm 08/27/2013

    One knows that manned space flight has hit rock bottom when not the death of Armstrong, but the anniversary of his death is on SA.

    Space keeners grope to squeeze anything out of the last tea leaves.

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  3. 3. RSchmidt 12:22 am 08/28/2013

    @Scienceisnotagenda, yes we get it, you are a selfish, ignorant troll who has nothing to contribute. You don’t need to keep reminding us. Perhaps you are just upset that Neil Armstrong has accomplished more in the past year since his death than you will ever accomplish in your miserable life. Regardless, you made it clear long ago that your opinion is worthless.

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