NASA, and Neil Armstrong himself, have at last given up trying to gloss over the most famous flub of a line yet uttered by man. As he stepped on the moon from the LEM forty years ago, Armstrong said, with a single omission, the words he had rehearsed: “That’s one small step for man; a giant leap for mankind.”
Missing from his recitation was the article (“a”) supposed to precede “man.” “A man” would mean himself, contrasted with mankind — all of humanity. A self-abnegating way of saying “Aw shucks, ‘twart nothing for me, personally. Anybody could’ve done it.” For weeks after the flight NASA struggled with the missing “a” tried in fact to supply it as a freak of electromagnetic eccentricity. Armstrong himself says he was sure he had said it, as he had in rehearsal (it wasn’t just any old ad lib).
But now, forty year later, we are all settling down. We, the world, know what he meant, a self-effacing syllable that simply got forgotten in the rush of the moment. We forgive you, Neil, for muffing the most famous line uttered by man.
And that’s the way it is.