HOUSTON — Here in Space City, it is the stuff of legend: Houston was the first word spoken on the moon.
The governor has bragged about it. Advertising campaigns have been built around it. It even turned up in the lyrics of a mayor’s campaign song.
Only one problem with that idea — sadly, it’s just not true.
On a hot Sunday afternoon 45 years ago this weekend, Americans sat transfixed in front of their television sets as Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin achieved what had long been the impossible dream of landing men on the moon.
With no live television coverage of the descent to the lunar surface — the camera wasn’t deployed until later, after Armstrong stepped outside — viewers of network TV coverage heard but didn’t see the landing.
That caused confusion. CBS News, hailed for its coverage anchored by the revered Walter Cronkite, showed animation of the lunar module sitting on the moon before it had actually landed.
So perhaps the world could be forgiven for the mistaken belief that the first words spoken on the moon were “Houston, Tranquility Base here, the Eagle has landed.”
The New York Times, beneath the headline “Men Walk on Moon,” published a transcript of the transmissions from the lunar surface beginning with Armstrong’s dramatic announcement.
The Houston Post ran a caption beneath a picture saying “First Word Uttered From the Moon Was Houston.”
“So that became the sort of statement of record of the first words spoken on the moon,” said Andrew Chaikin, the author of “A Man on the Moon,” perhaps the definitive history of the Apollo program. “In fact, I once saw an advertisement or a poster from the city of Houston that said, ‘Houston: First Word Spoken From the Moon.”
In fact, a closer look at the transcripts reveals the landing clearly happened several seconds before Armstrong said, “Houston.”
“It’s a technicality, but if you want the first words from the moon, they were ‘contact light,’” Aldrin told KHOU 11 News.
Aldrin spoke those words the instant he saw an instrument panel light that illuminated as probes extending from the lunar module footpads touched the moon’s surface. His next words were telling: “OK, engine stop.”
Once the engine had shut down, the lunar module was sitting on the moon. Aldrin rattled off some more technical mumbo-jumbo. Then after a moment of silence, Mission Control basically asked a question.
“We copy you down, Eagle,” said Charlie Duke, the capsule communicator in Houston, which was another way of saying, “Looks like you guys have landed.”
Only then did Armstrong transmit the announcement beginning with the word “Houston.”
“The first symbolic word was ‘Houston, Tranquility Base.’” Aldrin recalled. “However, before we got to that point, when we touched down I said — because I watched the light — ‘Contact light, engine stop.’”
The story got more complicated decades later, when NASA released previously unpublicized recordings from inside the lunar module. Shortly after Aldrin said the word “contact,” Armstrong is heard saying “shutdown.” Chaikin contends the spacecraft wasn’t actually sitting on the moon until that moment.
“Neil says ‘shutdown,’ which means that he has at that point shut down the descent rocket, the descent engine of the lunar module,” Chaikin said. “And he only did that after they were actually on the moon.”
Aldrin bristled at the suggestion Armstrong uttered the first word on the moon. He was there, he said, and the first words were his.
“Let’s not deal with trivia as to what the recording was,” Aldrin said. “Andy may want to do that for his book, but what I recall I just told you.”
So Aldrin believes the first word spoken on the moon was not “Houston,” but “contact.” Chaikin, the historian, believes it was “shutdown.”
At least there’s no argument that the man who said the first word on the moon, whoever he was, came from Houston.