Sunday, July 19, 2009

The typo on the moon

Tomorrow is the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, and Neil Armstrong's first moonwalk. There are a million anniversary stories online for anyone who wants to recall the details or those who are too young to remember it.

I was a space junkie as a kid. I remember listening to the radio during John Glenn's Mercury flight - the first manned earth orbit - and I was 12 years old when Armstrong stepped out on to the lunar surface. I could tell you about the history of the Mercury program, the Gemini program, the different astronauts' names and backgrounds. I knew what the CM was, along with the LEM, an EVA and all the other nifty acronyms. As noted in the previous post, I chose Kennedy's "Put a man on the moon" speech for oratory competition in high school.

(When I arrived in Washington in 1987 as Sen. Boschwitz' press secretary, I was thrilled to find that our next-door neighbor in the Hart Senate Office Building was the senator from Ohio, John Glenn! I got to meet him several times and ask a few space questions along the way. Big thrill.)

But my favorite Apollo 11 story was one I didn't hear until years later, listening to Pat Buchanan during a TV interview. He had been a speechwriter in the Nixon White House, along with William Safire, who was later a New York Times columnist. They were asked to help come up with the langugage for the plaque that would be attached to Apollo 11's Lunar Excursion Module (The "LEM") and left behind after the moon landing.

The plaque - pictured here - reads HERE MEN FROM THE PLANET EARTH FIRST SET FOOT UPON THE MOON JULY 1969 A.D.WE CAME IN PEACE FOR ALL MANKIND.

Buchanan - a devout Catholic - was pressing, with Nixon's backing, to have the text include the words "Under God" after the "We came in peace," sentence. NASA, however, was wary of having any religious connotation, and kept rejecting the language.

Buchanan and Safire then came up with an idea. The proposed text had a date of "July 1969" on it. The two of them inserted the initials "A.D" after the date. AD stands for Anno Domini, Latin for "In the year of the Lord." Buchanan said it was their way of subtly making the point that the hand of God was at work in all of this.

It worked, no one at NASA objected, and their plan seemed perfect. Except for one little thing: When properly used, the A.D. initials come before the year, not after it. To be correct, the plaque should read "July, A.D. 1969." And so the first moon plaque actually has a typo in it.

2 comments:

  1. I wonder if naming the month is appropriate with AD as a matter of both proper usage and context. It seems somewhat trivial in monumental circumstances like that.

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