The Story of a Tragedy That Was Not to Be
This column is about America’s walk on the moon and the untold story of one of the most poignant presidential speeches in American history--a speech that never had to be delivered.
In two weeks, this country will celebrate the 30th anniversary of the day when Neil Armstrong and Edwin E. “Buzz” Aldrin Jr. stepped onto the surface of the moon.
Over the past three decades, many of the details of that epic trip have been told over and over again in books and movies. And so, naturally, we now take it as a given that the trip was destined to be a success--that the American astronauts, after landing on the moon, would return home safely.
But it didn’t seem so inevitable at the time. It turns out that officials at the White House and NASA quietly made contingency plans for what President Richard Nixon would do if Armstrong and Aldrin got stuck on the moon and were doomed to die there.
There was even a euphemism for how such a tragedy would end. The stranded astronauts would “close down communications” with Mission Control in Houston and be left in silence, either to die slowly or, perhaps, to commit suicide.
Nixon’s speech was to end with these haunting words, in effect a tribute to Armstrong and Aldrin: “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.”
I came across the remarkable documentary evidence of this lugubrious planning a couple of years ago, while doing research in the National Archives.
There, sitting in the files from the Nixon administration, was a memo titled: “In Event of Moon Disaster.” It laid out a precise scenario for what Nixon should do if the astronauts’ lunar vehicle couldn’t get back up off the moon into lunar orbit to hook up with the command module.
According to the memo, once it was clear that Armstrong and Aldrin could not come home, Nixon was to call the “widows-to-be” to express condolences. He was then to deliver a speech to the nation.
Finally, at the point when NASA would cut off radio communications with the moon and leave the astronauts alone to die, a clergyman was to commend their souls to “the deepest of the deep,” in the fashion of a burial at sea.
The planning memo was drafted for Nixon’s chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman, by Nixon’s speech writer, William Safire, now a columnist for the New York Times. At the same time, Safire drafted the short speech Nixon was to give.
Years ago, in a memoir about his time in the Nixon White House, Safire briefly alluded to this secret planning.
“On June 13, Frank Borman--an astronaut the president liked and whom NASA had assigned to be our liaison--called me to say, ‘You want to be thinking of some alternative posture for the president in the event of mishaps on Apollo XI.’ When I didn’t react promptly, Borman moved off the formal language--'like what to do for the widows.’ ”
Safire complied. His memo and the speech he drafted for Nixon were retained in Nixon’s White House files and now sit in the National Archives. Here is the full text of this extraordinary speech:
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 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.
The secret preparations serve as a reminder of just how risky was the voyage to the moon. Confident of American technology, officials at NASA and the White House still left nothing to chance. They secretly feared something could go terribly wrong.
Yet these events are, in their way, also a testament to hope. We may prepare for tragedy, but our worst nightmares rarely happen. Three decades ago on July 20, Armstrong and Aldrin walked on the rubble of the moon and then came home again. Nixon’s undelivered speech was thrown into a file and happily forgotten.
Jim Mann’s column appears in this space every Wednesday.