One small step, a giant feat

By John Lewis

It was one of those moments the world literally held its collective breath.

When Neil Armstrong opened the hatch and began his awkward descent to the moon’s surface, nobody could quite believe it.

The whole world was watching — from school children in Australia, to soldiers in Vietnam, to people on city pavements gazing into shop windows to families huddled around a blinking black and white television in the small hours of the morning.

What if he fell over? What if he just got scared and climbed back up into the module? What if he forgot his speech and just said ‘‘Holy Crap’’?

What if the moon really was made of cheese and he was overwhelmed with gorgonzola fumes?

Nobody really knew what was going to happen and that was the beauty and excitement of it all.

But Neil was a trained astronaut, he was a technical genius and superbly fit, he was superman made real.

He was made of ‘‘the right stuff’’ and he did not put a foot wrong.

The stumble he made was a semantic one.

He left out a tiny word in his immortal speech ‘‘One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind’’.

That is kind of contradictory. How can mankind make a small step and a giant leap at the same time?

Nobody noticed at the time, but down the years Neil’s speech niggled. Something just did not sound right.

I think it was 20 years later I heard someone mention that Neil fluffed his words.

Then it dawned on me. In his excitement Neil left out the tiny little determiner ‘‘a’’ that would have given true meaning to his epic phrase.

‘‘One small step for a man’’ could have been carved in stone on the Lincoln memorial, and kept the pedants happy forever.

But nobody noticed at the time or really cared much afterwards.

We had done it.

We had conquered the moon and beaten those filthy communists and shown the world what was possible if we all pull together in the same direction for a common goal.

The big question was — what’s next?

Well, for a start, there were six more manned moon landings with 10 more men kicking up dust on the shiny dinner plate.

Then it all sort of petered out. It was the 1970s, everything turned brown, suddenly there was no more money, the world looked away and turned in on itself, The Beatles broke up and cynicism arrived with Watergate and the Whitlam dismissal.

But for one brief moment it seemed anything was possible.

We had no idea what was to come — non-stick frying pans, Velcro fasteners, pocket calculators, GPS systems, computers and the internet were all on the horizon, but they all stem from the dream that was Apollo.

Perhaps the greatest legacy of the Apollo program is the profound photo Earthrise captured by astronaut Bill Anders from the module Apollo 8 on its orbit of the moon on Christmas Eve 1968.

The photo shows the Earth as it appears from the other side of the moon.

It is a tiny floating half-circle, achingly beautiful and alone in the vast blackness.

Somebody later said ‘‘on the way to the moon we’d discovered the Earth’’.

I’m now glad Neil fluffed his words, because it showed he was a man, he was nervous and he was just a little bit flawed.

When I look at Earthrise, I realise that good and bad, flawed and beautiful — this is what we are.

And this little place is all we have, so make the most of it.

And for God’s sake — look after it.

John Lewis is a senior journalist at The News.