Fifty years ago today mankind began the process that would lead to the first footprints that humanity had ever left on a surface that was not little blue marble we call home.
That event will live forever in our collective human consciousness, but what if things had gone catastrophically wrong? What if the 600 million people who were estimated to have been tuning in to see this one small step onto the lunar surface didn’t see a successful landing?
NASA planned a successful mission to the moon from the moment President Kennedy gave the country a charge of ” landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth,” in 1961. President Kennedy wouldn’t live to see that charge fulfilled. That would fall to Richard Nixon who only held the office of President for seven months by the time those Apollo 11 astronauts blasted their way to the moon.
In the month before launch, President Nixon’s Chief of Staff William Safire wrote in his biography that he was approached by Apollo 8 astronaut Frank Borman who suggested preparing for what to do if the worst happened.
“You want to be thinking of some alternative posture for the president in the event of mishaps on Apollo 11,” Borman told him.
When Safire hesitated at the suggestion, Borman continued: “Like what to do for the widows.”
Space.com writer Nola Taylor Redd says that conversation is what led Safire to draft the speech Nixon never had to give titled: In Case of Moon Disaster.
If things had gone wrong, it wouldn’t be the first time that NASA experienced loss or malfunctions. Some of the Gemini missions, for example, were rife with issues for NASA.
During the Gemini VIII mission in 1966 Neil Armstrong almost died after his spacecraft fell into an almost uncontrollable tumble after a successful docking test. Armstrong was able to recover, but his mission was cut short.
The tragedy which must have been weighing on the minds of the crew as they prepared for this launch is the death of fellow astronauts Virgil Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee who died during a flash fire which broke out during a launch rehearsal. The fire halted the space program for 18 months while NASA performed an extensive redesign.
Knowing the incredible task which lay before these three men and the myriad things that could go wrong as they stepped foot into the unknown, Safire drafted these words for the president to tell a grieving world:
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 thei r 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
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.
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.
Courtesy of the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum