One Small Slip for Man


"Oh, great," she mumbled. And with that, $100,000 in equipment floated into eternity.

Who from St. Paul doesn't remember hearing of our Golden Girl's walk of fame in that vast abyss of space last year? A tool bag slipped from her grasp, something that might happen to any of us—but in this case the nation was tuned in.

"Oh, great," she said, almost imperceptibly, and in that moment the first human being entered the cosmos.

John Glenn wasn't human. Humans err; John was a god. So was Neil Armstrong, though you'll no doubt argue he muffed his famous line descending that ladder.

He was supposed to say, "That's one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind." What we all heard instead was, "That's one small step for man," which sounds like another word for mankind.

A flubbed line would indeed have shown his human side had Neil actually flubbed it. But he didn't, and he always maintained as much.

The missing word was eventually found in a software analysis of Armstrong's phrase by an Australian computer programmer. He analyzed the speech pattern with modern audio software in 2006, and the ensuing graphic tracing uncovered the missing "a." It was spoken, but clipped, in the relatively primitive 1969 transmission process. Neal had been flawless after all.

No, it would be 2008 before a true human crossed the veil and floated in the mystic blackness. Emerging from the international space station for routine maintenance, she would lose more valuable tools in one instant than could fry in the detonation of a Home Depot.

And it was beautiful.

"That's our girl," I heard, as news spread from bar to bar, neighborhood to neighborhood. "That's our St. Paul girl." She even sounded St Paul. "Oh, great," she muttered. No East Coast astronaut would have swung so effortlessly to such a phrase. A Texan would have spit out something sharper.

But what was missed in that moment by those at NASA was the sublime human portrait offered to the viewing audience. She was instantly one of us. It was what we all feared we'd do if placed in a similar situation. And as we made our jokes, allowing our chins to rise ever so slightly, we knew it was true: She was us.

That very public mistake lent some grace to our own memory of breaking the precious crystal our great-grandparents brought from the motherland. It marched in solidarity with the day our wedding ring slipped from our finger while fishing, settling on the floor of Lake Mille Lacs. It soothed the pain of knowing we once left a gas hose in our car while pulling away from the filling station. They are all suspended, fragile moments—moments we all longed to retrieve at the time, hoping to rework them before they joined the permanent record of our lives.

I thought of dear Heidemarie Stefanyshyn-Piper last week when I learned she was leaving the space program and returning to her earlier career in the U.S. Navy. I have no idea if the loss of the tools had anything to do with it, but in the brief news dispatches announcing her departure not a single source failed to mention the blunder.

I wonder what went though the mind of Captain Ed Smith in 1912 when he took the most luxurious ocean liner ever to feel the tide into that frustratingly misplaced iceberg, ending the maiden voyage of the Titanic. In that devastating realization, was there an "Oh, great" to be heard?

It's okay, Captain. It wasn't you, it was your ship that was billed as unsinkable. Humans, your crew included, have to suffice with less flattering descriptions: awkward, often clumsy, always vulnerable. That's us.

So thank you, Heidemarie. You passed along the kind of reminder we need from time to time, when our swagger is swelling and our mood starts to strut.

Thanks for being the first real human in space and representing St. Paul so fittingly. We're your people, and we think of you now when we leave the oven on and head off to work in the morning.

You're no Captain Smith. He earned himself a genuine Bronx-born, blue-edged cuss after his gaffe. You just offered "Oh, great," which is all the moment called for.

No Exxon Valdez had dumped its poison. No overcrowded music club had become a cremation urn for those witnessing the irresponsible stage pyrotechnics. You just dropped some tools, that's all.

And for that, all of us in St. Paul are eternally grateful.