Tag Archives: Lunar Mission

The Greatest Speech Never Given

Last week, I wrote about the anniversary of the launch of Apollo 11, the world’s first manned lunar landing mission that saw Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walk on the Moon. The mission was the successful exclamation point that seemed to permanently declare the United States as the winners of the Space Race, and it went surprisingly smoothly for such a novel scientific venture. Everyone at NASA clearly did their research, and the expedition to collect lunar rocks, film and photograph the lunar landscape, and of course visit the Moon in person for the first time in history.

But what if things didn’t work out that way?

This was the scenario posed to William Safire by some of President Richard Nixon’s aides. Thus he drew up a plan for how to have the president handle the unfortunate circumstance where the men on the Moon mission never make it back. Safire was a speechwriter for Nixon on both of his presidential campaigns, and later wrote for The New York Times as a political columnist. In his memo, In Event of Moon Disaster he advised that Nixon address a potential major mission failure  by first contacting the astronaut’s wives with his sympathies, then by giving his brief, but powerful tribute speech, and finally by having a clergyman official commend the men’s souls in the same practice as a burial at sea.

It may seem grim in hindsight, but the reality is that Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins were explorers venturing bravely into uncharted territory in a vehicle that had never been taken on such a flight before. Even with their experience and the previous missions that tested the capabilities of the equipment and NASA to safely deliver men to the Moon and return them to Earth, it was far from a given. The most problematic part of the mission was in Collins’ picking Armstrong and Aldrin back up. If anything prevented the Command Module Collins was piloting from securing the Lunar Module that the others were in, then they were doomed to remain on the surface of the Moon.

So not only did Safire have to craft a speech that expressed a nation’s sadness in losing two of its best scientific explorers, he had to account for the fact that in all reality of  a failure, they would have to be left behind to die from starvation or suicide on the lunar plains. That is not an enviable death, and writing a statement to describe it in a way that present sympathy and resolve to keep exploring in spite of such a heavy loss is not an enviable task. Nevertheless, Safire did it, and he did it well. The remarks wisely follow the idea of not overdoing it and keep the piece short, yet this does not take away the somber sentiment within it. In fact, it’s terseness allows its listeners to focus on Armstrong and Aldrin, their sacrifice, and the future with some hope. In a manner reminiscent of the remarks of the man who defeated Nixon in the 1960 Presidential Race and opened his presidency with a challenge to explore space, Safire taps into the same vein that John F. Kennedy did. He closes the speech by saying, “Others will follow, and surely find their way home. Man’s search will not be denied.” Akin to Kennedy declaring that we will work toward a Moon mission and explore the cosmos and make other similar ventures “not because they are easy but because they are hard”, Safire offers the same push toward progress in space exploration that NASA has always worked for and assures us that nothing will stop this pursuit.

Here is the speech that William Safire wrote.

Here is a video of Benedict Cumberhot reading the speech in his Doctor Strange voice:

Fortunately, this speech was never needed, and Nixon visited the astronauts as they were in their post-lunar quarantine – a process we now know to be superfluous. Nixon went on to host a dinner in their honor and awarded them all the Presidential Medal of Freedom. They lived on to continue their careers and their lives, and they live on forever in the annals of history.

We can now appreciate Safire’s speech as a great speech that fortunately never was given.

Thanks for reading! Be sure to return here next week for the quarterly recap State of the Season.

I love you to the Moon and back,

Alex

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The Eagle Has Launched

Today marks the anniversary of the launch of the world’s first lunar mission that put men on the Moon. Apollo 11 took off on July 16, 1969, en route to making history for the likes of Neil Armstrong, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, and Michael Collins. They actually landed on the big, reflectively bright ball in the sky four days later on the 20th, and completed their return back to the Earth another four days later on the 24th when they splashed down in the Pacific Ocean and was picked up by the USS Hornet.

The flight of Apollo 11 was without a doubt incredible. The historic importance was obvious to all involved, and in spite of the immense pressure on everyone in NASA, the entire mission was almost perfectly planned and executed. The bigger headline will always justifiably be that man walked on the Moon, but it is worth noting just how smoothly this whole shindig ran – or rather flew and gravitated – along. According to NASA’s website synopsis of the lunar mission, “on July 17, a three-second burn of the SPS [Service Propulsion System – the main engine of the Command Module] was made to perform the second of four scheduled midcourse corrections programmed for the flight. The launch had been so successful that the other three were not needed.” See what I mean? Smooth sailing to the Sea of Tranquility.

Beyond the easy ride the astronauts had on their way to the Moon there was one adjustment made well before the launch. The original primary crew lineup that was announced for Apollo 11 featured Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin as Commander and Lunar Module Pilot (LMP) respectively – roles that both of them filled on the actual mission. However, the role of Command Module Pilot (CMP), or the guy who stays behind to pilot the craft that picks up the pair on the lunar surface once they complete their mission, was not originally Michael Collins. Well, it was in a previous mission that was planned to feature him as the CMP, but then Collins had to have surgery , so another astronaut, who was serving as Collins’ backup, was promoted to the main man in the main Module, for that earlier mission, Apollo 8. That CMP who flew on Apollo 8, was Jim Lovell, the man who later would be the Commander of the star-crossed Apollo 13. Lovell was continuing his role of understudy turned star for the Apollo 11 mission when the crew list was first put out on November 20, 1967. Nevertheless, 20 months later it was a recovered Collins who was flying the Command Module to pick up Armstrong and Aldrin from the Moon. As is fairly common for NASA missions, there was plenty of flipping around on the crews before they every even entered orbit.

As you enjoy this Friday July 20th, look up at the night sky and reflect upon the amazing achievement that so many helped our species earn. Give your shout out to the still up-and-at-’em Buzz Aldrin, and your respects to his mission commander and first man on the Moon, Neil Armstrong. Yet don’t forget the other guys (and gals! You go real-life Hidden Figures ladies and your fellow females!), especially the also-still-cruising Michael Collins, the CMP who made sure that the entire crew made it back to Earth together; and Jim Lovell, who despite being on two Apollo flights into lunar orbit (Apollo 8 and 13) never landed on the Moon. Nonetheless, Lovell, like so many of the  less-recognized members of that era’s NASA team, was an invaluable contributor to the cause of space exploration.

But hey, it’s not all that bad! At least Lovell got to be portrayed by Tom Hanks!

Thanks for reading! If you ever have any questions or suggestion for me, then please pass them along to me at monotrememadness@gmail.com. Be sure to get a gravity assist to swing you back here next week for some more information on the Apollo 11 mission.