Three Apollo 11 astronauts went to the moon (two
landed) and safely returned to Earth in July 1969.
NASA knew the mission was very risky, so the White
House prepared remarks in case the astronauts died.
President Nixon’s speechwriter, William Safire, drafted
backup speech, titled “IN EVENT OF
MOON DISASTER”, which
released 30 years later.
Forty-eight years ago this month, people around the world were
glued to their TVs and radios as the first astronauts landed on
Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins — the crew of
NASA’s Apollo 11 mission — blasted into space atop a giant
Saturn V rocket on July 16, 1969. About a week later, on July
24, they safely splashed down in the North Pacific Ocean.
Although the plucky astronaut crew made the feat look easy, NASA
knew better: This was easily the most perilous voyage in history.
So, shortly before the mission,
Apollo 8 astronaut and White House liaison Frank Borman
called President Nixon’s speechwriter, William Safire.
“You’ll want to consider an alternative posture for the President
in the event of mishaps,” Borman told Safire, according to an NBC
“Meet The Press” interview with
Safire on July 18, 1999.
At first, Safire didn’t understand what Borman meant — he told
NBC that it sounded like “gobbledygook” — but Borman quickly
“I can hear [Borman] now: ‘Like what to do for the widows,'”
Safire said. In short, Borman wanted a backup speech
ready in case the Apollo 11 crew died.
The moment where death was most likely was Armstrong and Aldrin’s
launch off the moon’s surface on July 21, when they returned
to lunar orbit and met up with Collins inside the Command Module.
“But if they couldn’t [launch], and there was a good risk that
they couldn’t, then they would have to be abandoned on the moon,
left to die there,” Safire told interviewer Tim Russert of NBC.
“Mission Control would then have to — to use their euphemism —
‘close down communication,’ and the men would have to either
starve to death or commit suicide,” he said. “And so we prepared
for that with a speech that I wrote, and the President was ready
to give that.”
Two days into the moon mission — on July 18, 1969 — Safire sent a
draft of his “IN EVENT OF MOON DISASTER” speech to H.R. “Bob”
Haldeman, Nixon’s chief of staff.
Here’s the full text, which first came to light in 1999:
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 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.
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.
You can see pictures of the
original typewritten remarks at the US National Archives
Safire told NBC that the success of the moon missions gave a
false sense of safety about what NASA was trying to do, and that
the “Challenger” space shuttle disaster was a grim wake-up call.
“We realized what enormous risks that were being run buy these
astronauts,” he said. “They lay their lives on the line, every