The Moon Disaster That Wasn’t: Nixon’s Speech In Case Apollo 11 Failed to Return

Endur­ing con­spir­a­cy the­o­ries aside, the 1969 moon land­ing (above) was a rous­ing suc­cess for the gov­ern­ment space pro­gram known as NASA. After a decade-long space race, dur­ing which it seemed to all observers that the Sovi­ets had the edge, the U.S. land­ed Apol­lo 11–carrying Neil Arm­strong and Buzz Aldrin–at the Sea of Tran­quil­i­ty on July 20, 1969.  Nixon was pres­i­dent, the Viet­nam War and its oppo­si­tion raged, and Leonid Brezh­nev helmed a stag­nant Sovi­et empire.

On the great list of Cold War what-ifs, the near-miss of the Bay of Pigs is sure­ly num­ber one. But for all the space nerds out there, this one ranks pret­ty high: What if Aldrin and Arm­strong nev­er made it back? This was, of course, a dis­tinct pos­si­bil­i­ty, and one that the Nixon admin­is­tra­tion pre­pared for. While we were told dur­ing this last pres­i­den­tial elec­tion that Mitt Rom­ney failed to write a con­ces­sion speech, William Safire, speech­writer for Richard Nixon, did write a speech in the event that Apol­lo 11 couldn’t make the return trip. The speech, enti­tled IN EVENT OF MOON DISASTER, is a some­thing of a terse and poignant mas­ter­piece. Below is an excerpt of Safire’s brief, hypo­thet­i­cal address:

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 the 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 the 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.

Would the space pro­gram have con­tin­ued had these two brave pio­neers died on the moon? Cer­tain­ly. But this moment of tri­umph would instead be remembered—like the Chal­lenger dis­as­ter of 1986—as a moment of great loss and a very seri­ous set­back for our for­ays into out­er space.

Read the full speech here at Let­ters of Note.

Josh Jones is a doc­tor­al can­di­date in Eng­lish at Ford­ham Uni­ver­si­ty and a co-founder and for­mer man­ag­ing edi­tor of Guer­ni­ca / A Mag­a­zine of Arts and Pol­i­tics.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Michio Kaku Schools Takes on Moon Land­ing-Con­spir­a­cy Believ­er on His Sci­ence Fan­tas­tic Pod­cast

Dark Side of the Moon: A Mock­u­men­tary on Stan­ley Kubrick and the Moon Land­ing Hoax

First Orbit: Cel­e­brat­ing 50th Anniver­sary of Yuri Gagaran’s Space Flight

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  • Safire’s turn­ing to Rupert Brooke caus­es me to won­der if many Amer­i­can speech-writ­ers are/were sim­i­lar­ly cul­tured …

  • Bart says:

    “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.”

    Reminds me of If I should die, a poem by Rupert Brooke to con­form rel­a­tives of fall­en sol­diers:

    “If I should die, think only this of me:
    That there’s some cor­ner of a for­eign field
    That is for ever Eng­land.”

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