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 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,