Friday, August 08, 2003

More Space-related History

This was originally printed in the LA Times 7/7/99 and reprinted in the NASA publication: Horizons.

The Story of a Tragedy That Was Not to Be

WASHINGTON--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.

Thanks again to Jennifer! You betcha, I've got a serious Rocket Jones!