Richard Nixon was looking at the speech no President of the United States would ever want to deliver.
It was titled, “In the Event of Moon Disaster.”
The date was July 22, 1969. Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were set to depart from the surface of the moon to join fellow crew member Michael Collins in the Command Module — and then to return home to Earth triumphant, after man’s historic first walk on the moon.
But what if they didn’t make it? What if destiny turned cruel and left the two stranded? A grim death would certainly follow.
The possibility of such tragedy had been suggested to White House speechwriter William Safire by NASA liaison and astronaut Frank Borman before the Apollo 11 mission. Borman recommended that, given the nature of the work, contingency plans were in order.
Human risk had always been factored into the space program; from its very inception, astronauts were aware that they could, in the words of Chuck Yeager, become “spam in a can.”
The late astronomer Carl Sagan framed it best: “We will lose lives. Astronauts and cosmonauts have always understood this. Nevertheless, there …will be no shortage of volunteers.”
In his brilliant book on Project Mercury, author Tom Wolfe called this willingness to sacrifice life itself to further man’s scientific pursuits, the right stuff.
But in July of 1969, it was left in Safire’s hands to explain what happens when that right stuff is called into play, when the ultimate duty is required.
“Fate has ordained that the men who went to the moon to explore in peace will stay on the moon to rest in peace,” Safire wrote.
“Others will follow,” he continued,” and will surely find their way home. Man’s search will not be denied. But these men were first and they will remain in the foremost of 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.”
Simple, direct, beautiful words that, quite fortunately, President Richard Nixon did not have to deliver. Some historians call it the best speech that has never been given.
The existence of this speech was not well-known until 1999 when an archivist discovered it in the Nixon papers (Interestingly, Safire originally sent the speech to Nixon’s Chief of Staff, H.R. Haldeman. There is no mention of the speech in the Haldeman diaries).
Safire, who went on to become a highly respected New York Times political columnist, passed away in September of 2009 — but he never forgot the lessons he learned in 1969. To the date of his death, he continually reminded the public of the courage of astronauts, and of the terrific gamble every mission represents. The complete, touching speech he wrote is available at the website of the National Archives.
The coda to the Apollo 11 trip – which is not nearly as well-known as the speech itself — is that a mechanical problem developed which almost prevented Armstrong and Aldrin from leaving the moon. Aldrin, while attempting to go sleep, noticed something out of place with a circuit breaker. It took some work back at NASA and an improvised nudge with a felt pen by Aldrin to remedy what could have been a chilling situation. Aldrin later revealed, “We were pretty close to not being able to come home.” At the time, the general public had no idea that Safire’s speech was so harrowingly close to being used.
Eighteen lives — fourteen of them from NASA — have now been lost since man has been actively blasting off into the skies.
Thirteen other Americans have perished during training and test flights.
There are, of course, other serious perils for astronauts besides instant death – for example, pathogens returning with the crew remain a concern.
Michael Collins recalls his worries about “the little white mice” he was quarantined with following space flight. If one of the colony of mice developed a symptom or a problem, there were implications for his own health safety.
Although exposure to infectious disease in a hermetically sealed capsule seems unlikely, research has turned up twenty-nine cases of such since shuttles began. Most of these are urinary or gastric — but with the prospects of longer flights ahead, unknown bugs are always a possibility.
A whole concatenation of issues that threaten space travel have nothing to do with putting human life in jeopardy — these swirl around cost. Space cannot be explored on the cheap. In terms of inflation adjusted dollars, NASA, since its inception, has been a more than $900 billion investment. The 2019 fiscal year budget for the agency is $25 billion. Weighing the pros and cons of how it proceeds forward is a political football, and all reasonable bets are off.
Carl Sagan maintained that man has an obligation to continue to push to new frontiers beyond the moon. With so many uncertainties, he argued, our survival is at stake.
One thing Sagan was right about: despite the significant risks, we have no shortage of brave volunteers ready to take on the job.