At this point, I think we can all agree it doesn't really matter whether Neil Armstrong said "one small step for man" or "one small step for a man" when he set foot on the Moon's surface. Sure, semantic accuracy would have been nice, but again: he was the first person to set foot on the Moon. That's kind of the important bit.
For his part, Armstrong always insisted that he had, in fact, said the correct version of his legendary quote, with the indefinite article very much included. In the intervening decades, the leading explanation for the discrepancy has been a blip in NASA's radio signal, one that would have created just enough static to drown out that particular word in Armstrong's announcement. But a team of researchers from Michigan State and Ohio State say that the explanation may actually be found not in a radio malfunction but rather in Armstrong's central Ohio background.
Armstrong was born in the village of Wapakoneta, a town in the northwestern corner of Ohio, but his father's work as a state auditor meant that Neil moved throughout central Ohio until he was about 14 years old. Like everywhere else, central Ohio has its own unique regional accent, and one of its more prominent features would take on unforeseeable significance on July 20, 1969. In conversational speech, central Ohioans frequently blend together "for a" into what MSU researcher Laura Dilley describes as a "frrr(uh)" sound.
In normal speech, this is a minor enough quirk of dialect that a listener is unlikely to even notice it, but Armstrong's lunar speech was anything but normal. The careful attention of the entire planet combined with what was admittedly a less than optimal transmission quality means that Armstrong's "for a man" sounded like "for man," even if he himself had no doubt he said the right thing. Here's how Dilley and her team arrived at that particular conclusion, according to the Acoustical Society of America:
Dilley and her colleagues, who include MSU linguist Melissa Baese-Berk and OSU psychologist Mark Pitt, thought they might be able to figure out what Armstrong said with a statistical analysis of the duration of the “r” sound as spoken by native central Ohioans saying “for” and “for a” in natural conversation. They used a collection of recordings of conversational speech from 40 people raised in Columbus, Ohio, near Armstrong’s native town of Wapakoneta. Within this body of recordings, they found 191 cases of “for a.” They matched each of these to an instance of “for” as said by the same speaker and compared the relative duration. They also examined the duration of Armstrong’s “for (a”) from the lunar transmission.
The researchers found a large overlap between the relative duration of the “r” sound in “for” and “for a” using the Ohio speech data. The duration of the “frrr(uh)” in Armstrong’s recording was 0.127 seconds, which falls into the middle of this overlap, though it is a slightly better match for an “a”-less “for.” In other words, the researchers conclude, 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. Dilley says there may have been a “perfect storm of conditions” for the word “a” to have been spoken but not heard.
Check out the abstract for their presentation, which will be presented at this week's 21st International Congress on Acoustics in Montreal, right here.
Rare image of Neil Armstrong on the lunar surface via NASA.