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Neil Armstrong: First Copywriter on the Moon


As you’ve probably heard, national hero Neil Armstrong passed away on August 25th. The first human to set foot on the moon, not only was Armstrong smart, he was apparently a great writer. His immortal words: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” have gone down in history as one of the greatest quotes of the twentieth century. It’s well deserved—was that not the perfect thing to say? Imagine trying to come up with a tagline for space travel; I can’t imagine a better one. To think, what if Buzz got out there first? And all he said was a loud, “Eat it, Russia!” The moment could have gone an entirely different way.

The one point of contention from Armstrong’s moon landing quote is whether it was “one small step for a man” or simply “one small step for man” as it’s been known. Slate has a great piece on this from a reporter who was actually in on the debate at the time. In that moment, the reporter and others listening to Armstrong just weren’t sure which he said. They collectively agreed there was no “a” and released the quote that way. But Armstrong himself insisted he did say “a man” and the reporters were wrong—even though a cleaned up version of the landing recording supposedly makes it clear there was no “a.” More evidence he has the heart of a writer: we’re stubborn and we can’t stand being rewritten.

Mental Floss has a collection of letters Armstrong wrote that give another glimpse of his writing prowess. In this letter of thanks to the people who designed his spacesuit, you even get a bit of his humor:

To the EMU gang:

I remember noting a quarter century or so ago that an emu was a 6 foot Australian flightless bird. I thought that got most of it right.

It turned out to be one of the most widely photographed spacecraft in history. That was no doubt due to the fact that it was so photogenic. Equally responsible for its success was its characteristic of hiding from view its ugly occupant.

Its true beauty, however, was that it worked. It was tough, reliable and almost cuddly.

To all of you who made it all that it was, I send a quarter century’s worth of thanks and congratulations.

Sincerely,
(Signed) Neil A. Armstrong

This has to be one of the more endearing thank you notes I’ve ever laid eyes on. It’s benevolent, unassuming, and funny in the most charming, self-deprecating way. Armstrong was just a great writer. He could pull off poignancy and humor with equal eloquence—any writer will tell you that’s not an easy feat.

Space travel is all well and good, but the man would have made a great copywriter. And the fact that he can steer a spaceship, well that’s just the sort of color agencies look for on a resume.

Read more of Armstrong’s letters here.