In A Nutshell
If Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin had been stranded on the Moon during the risky Apollo 11 mission in July 1969, then-President Richard Nixon had a speech prepared to address the nation. Written by the late William Safire, a draft of the presidential speech was contained in a memo entitled “In Event of Moon Disaster.” NASA scientists knew that landing on the Moon was the relatively easy part. Their main concern was that Armstrong and Aldrin would be marooned there forever. Fortunately, we never heard that speech in 1969.
The Whole Bushel
When Apollo 11 rocketed into space with a mission to land the first humans on the Moon on July 20, 1969, the public had no idea there was a contingency plan in case these pioneering astronauts were stranded there forever. Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin Jr. were in far more danger than any of us realized at the time. NASA scientists knew that depositing these two men on the dusty lunar surface was the relatively easy part. The riskier part was returning them safely to the command module orbiting the Moon with Michael Collins at the helm.
If an ascent engine on the lunar module had failed to ignite, if the lunar module had been unable to dock with the command module, if there had been a computer error, or even if the men’s dusty spacesuits had caught fire from contact with oxygen once back in the spacecraft, Armstrong and Aldrin could have been lost forever.
The astronauts’ immediate deaths would have been a terrible tragedy. But an almost more chilling scenario was the prospect of stranding them on the Moon or in space with no hope of recovery. That was the event presidential speechwriter William Safire was asked to address in a contingency speech he prepared for President Nixon. If the two astronauts became stranded on the Moon, the plan was to have Nixon telephone their soon-to-be widows, then publicly deliver the speech contained in this memo to White House Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman.
To: H. R. Haldeman
From: Bill Safire
July 18, 1969.
IN EVENT OF MOON DISASTER:
Fate has ordained that the men who went to the moon to explore in peace will stay on the moon to rest in peace.
These brave men, Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin, know that there is no hope for their recovery. But they also know that there is hope for mankind in their sacrifice.
These two men are laying down their lives in mankind’s most noble goal: the search for truth and understanding.
They will be mourned by their families and friends; they will be mourned by their nation; they will be mourned by the people of the world; they will be mourned by a Mother Earth that dared send two of her sons into the unknown.
In their exploration, they stirred the people of the world to feel as one; in their sacrifice, they bind more tightly the brotherhood of man.
In ancient days, men looked at the stars and saw their heroes in the constellations. In modern times, we do much the same, but our heroes are epic men of flesh and blood.
Others will follow, and surely find their way home. Man’s search will not be denied. But these men were the first, and they will remain the foremost in our hearts.
For every human being who looks up at the moon in the nights to come will know that there is some corner of another world that is forever mankind.
PRIOR TO THE PRESIDENT’S STATEMENT:
The President should telephone each of the widows-to-be.
AFTER THE PRESIDENT’S STATEMENT, AT THE POINT WHEN NASA ENDS COMMUNICATIONS WITH THE MEN:
A clergyman should adopt the same procedure as a burial at sea, commending their souls to “the deepest of the deep,” concluding with the Lord’s Prayer.
If the astronauts had been marooned, NASA intended to end communications with them before they died. They would have been left alone with the choice to suffocate as they ran out of oxygen or commit suicide. Fortunately, we never heard that speech in 1969 and they never had to make that choice.