Proposal: Armstrong Flubbed His Big Moon Speech Because of Ohio

Linguists offer new insight into the "one small step for (a) man" debate.

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One small step for (a) man: Armstrong alights on the lunar surface, July 20, 1969. (NASA)

One of the outstanding debates about Neil Armstrong's historic first steps on the moon concerns the speech that he made to commemorate them. Did the astronaut say "that's one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind" ... or did he say "one small step for man," making the line's two phrases redundant?

It's a question that matters both not at all and also quite a lot. That first moonwalk was, among so much else, a theatrical production whose audience happened to be an entire planet. Did the man whom the United States had painstakingly selected to be its star -- the man handpicked, for his bravery and also his poise, to become a hero -- ultimately flub his big finale? Was this one small speech for a man ... or one giant gaffe for mankind?

Armstrong long insisted that he said "for a man" correctly, and that NASA's radio transmission equipment simply cut off the article. ("The 'a' was intended," the astronaut explained. "I thought I said it.") His brother corroborated that account, noting that Armstrong had been rehearsing a "for a man" declaration months before his flight. (The history-maker-to-be pulled out a piece of paper with the line scribbled on it, Dean Armstrong has said, during a game of Risk.)

Aiding Armstrong's account is that fact that NASA's onboard audio was, indeed, notoriously glitchy: the tapes from the Apollo 11 flight, NASA puts it, "are noisy with technical interference that occurred during their recording and transmission. They are sometimes garbled and sometimes have long periods of no voice." And in 2006, an Australian computer programmer ran a software analysis of the sound waves of Armstrong's lunar transmission and found a wave that could have been the missing "a." Yet, following that, other audio experts have run similar tests and found no evidence of an "a." Even Armstrong admitted, "I can't hear it when I listen on the radio reception here on Earth."

So the debate -- silly and significant at the same time -- continues. Which led a team of researchers from Michigan State and Ohio State to take an interest in the controversy. The scientists tried to shed light on the question, though, based not on the context of Armstrong's famous first words ... but on the words themselves. Their claim? The solution to the "a"-or-nay puzzle lies in Armstrong's state of origin -- and in the idiosyncratic accent it gave his speech.

Armstrong was born in Wapakoneta, in the northwestern corner of Ohio. His father, however, worked as a state auditor, moving the family around the center of the state until Neil was a teenager. Central Ohio has a regional accent, and one of its quirks involves a unique way of, yep, pronouncing the phrase "for a": its speakers tend to blend the two words together. Into what MSU researcher Laura Dilley describes as a "frrr(uh)" -- essentially, a "fruh" -- sound.

Dilley and her colleagues, including MSU linguist Melissa Baese-Berk and OSU psychologist Mark Pitt, conducted a statistical analysis of the duration of the "r" sound as spoken by native central Ohioans saying both "for" and "for a" in natural conversation. To do this, the Acoustical Society of America explains, the researchers used a collection of recordings of conversational speech from 40 people raised in Columbus -- which is near Wapakoneta. Within that body of recordings, the researchers found 191 use cases of "for a." They then matched each of those instances to an instance of "for," sans "a," as said by the same speaker. They then compared the relative duration of the two.

What they found was a large overlap between the relative duration of the "r" sound in both "for" and "for a." And when they compared that finding to their analysis of Armstrong's moon speech, they found that the astronaut's "frrr(uh)" lasted 0.127 seconds -- which falls into the middle of this overlap, though it's a slightly better match for an "a"-less "or."

Their conclusion from all this? "The lunar landing quote is highly compatible with either possible interpretation, though it is probably slightly more likely to be perceived as 'for' regardless of what Armstrong actually said." Armstrong and his silent "a" could have been the victims of what Dilley calls a "perfect storm of conditions": the word "a" could well have been spoken but, for reasons both technical and linguistic, not heard.

The researchers will present their findings later this week at the International Congress on Acoustics in Montreal. At which point their efforts will become one more data point in one of the world's ongoing man-in-the-moon mysteries. Meanwhile, however, NASA will keep embracing the ambiguity. The agency's official transcript of Armstrong's moonfall has his words reading like so: "That's one small step for (a) man; one giant leap for mankind."