President Richard Nixon speaks to astronauts on the Moon on July 20, 1969. (Photo Credit: CORBIS / Corbis via Getty Images)
The Apollo 11 moon landing 50 years ago this July 20 stands as one of mankind’s most stunning achievements. As America celebrates the mission’s milestone anniversary this week, it’s hard to imagine that everything could have gone tragically wrong during those four nail-biting days. But in the days before that landing in 1969, White House and NASA officials prepared for the worst.
Then-president Richard Nixon’s landline call to the astronauts after the successful mission (“Because of what you have done, the heavens have become a part of man’s world”) will always be remembered, but Nixon was also prepared to call two others in the event the mission went terribly wrong — Neil Armstrong’s and Buzz Aldrin’s wives.
Nixon was also prepared to face the American public with remarks in case Armstrong and Aldrin landed on the moon, but were unable to get off the surface and back to the space capsule.
Safire’s undelivered speech lay hidden for 30 years, until Mann found it in the late 1990s while browsing Nixon archives during research for a book.
“I was rummaging through the archives of the Nixon administration (then in College Park, Md.) when my eyes suddenly fell on something I wasn’t looking for,” Mann wrote in the Post. “It was a memo from Safire to White House Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman titled, “In event of moon disaster.”
“The short text still brings tears to the eyes,” Mann added.
The entire memo is below, courtesy of the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum:
The speech, which also included instructions about Nixon telephoning the wives of the astronauts and a clergyman conducting the equivalent of a burial at sea, begins with “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,” the speech continues. “But they also know that there is hope for mankind in their sacrifice.”
It ends with: “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.”
Following the address, Safire’s instructions included that at the point when NASA ends communication with the astronauts, a clergyman should do the equivalent of a burial at sea, “commending their souls to ‘deepest of the deep’” and conclude with the Lord’s Prayer.