Is This a Footprint, or Bootprint?

That is undeniably a boot print, yet every time we talk about this iconic photograph from the Apollo 11 moon landing, we call it a footprint. Why?

The Leaping Robot Blog started the conversation, using modern history as the lens for differentiating between the connotations of a footprint as a symbol of exploration versus a bootprint indicating invasion. Patrick McCray and Roger Malina write:

No one could deny that this was a boot print not a foot print. But does it matter? Footprint, boot print. Isn't that just a matter of semantics? No. But why have we almost always described it as a foot print when it's so obviously NOT?

A profound shift in thinking comes when we decide how we choose to see this. And the difference is more than symbolic. Apollo 11 occurred in the shadow of the Vietnam War. The idea of boots – boots on the ground – meant a good deal at the time, especially to citizens of Southeast Asia.

It's an interesting take that got me thinking of a few more reasons we might prefer to label the subject of this iconic photograph as a footprint, not a bootprint:

  • A footprint feels like a more universal symbol than a bootprint. While feet have some variations, they fall within a fairly narrow spectrum of shapes. Boots are more diverse and individualistic. When we want to elicit more empathic behaviour, we instruct people to walk a mile in someone else's shoes, to take on their individual identity. We like to think of the moon landings as a moment for all humankind, not an individual triumph of those specific astronauts.
  • Footprints are natural; bootprints are corporate. Boots are branded, commercialized products. Frequently, the soles are even deliberately molded to produce brand-distinctive shapes or writing. Even though these particular boots were handmade, we used to be really prickly about the commercialization of space. Even though we're now more open to the concept, the idea of bringing advertising to the Moon is still repulsive.
  • Running around barefoot is a symbol of being at one with the environment. Barefoot on sandy beaches is a romantic image; barefoot trail-running is a naturalistic affection. The character who is always barefoot pops up frequently in TV as the one at peace in the outdoor world. While in practice we're terrible at littering in space, we like to idealize ourselves as not trashing everywhere we go, at least off-planet.
  • Being barefoot can also be a symbol of poverty. You can be too poor for boots, but still make footprints. Referring to the indentations left by Armstrong on the moon as footprints makes them a universal feature, irrelevant of economic status. In practical reality, getting into space and setting foot on the moon (or any other planet) requires millions of dollars and a huge amount of economic and scientific privilege. While we're more comfortable with the idea of buying trips into space now than we were then, we still want moments of epic exploration to belong to all of us, not just to some lucky subset.

What do you think? Do you think of footprints on the moon, or bootprints? Does it matter? Why?

Tip via Physics Today's Facebook feed. The feed is a beautifully-curated stream of thoughtful commentary on interesting science, and I'm not just saying that because I occasionally write for them. Image credit: NASA