Monday, April 20, 2009
In the event of a Moon disaster
While Neil Armstrong’s immortal lines “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” have entered history, 233 other words, written for a tragedy that everyone hoped would never happen, were consigned to an archive and forgotten until now.
They are contained in a typed memo from President Richard Nixon’s speechwriter, Bill Safire, to White House chief of staff Harry Haldeman, dated July 18, 1969 – two days before the landing was due.
Chillingly entitled “In the event of Moon disaster”, the stark message brings home just how dangerous the mission was.
If Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin had been stranded on the Moon, unable to return to Michael Collins’s orbiting Apollo 11 command ship, Nixon would have called their widows then addressed a horror-struck nation.
“Fate has ordained that the men who went to the Moon to explore in peace will stay on the Moon to rest in peace,” he would have told the watching millions.
These brave men know 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.”
The President would have added: “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.”
And in an allusion to Rupert Brooke’s First World War poem The Soldier, his concluding lines were to be: “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.”
Once the speech had been delivered, Mission Control would have closed communications and a clergyman would have conducted a burial service like the one used at sea.
The memo lay dormant for decades in Nixon’s private papers in America’s national archives, laid aside once the astronauts had completed their perilous mission.