Everyone knew that the 1969 Apollo mission to land the first humans on the moon was risky. NASA knew it, the astronauts themselves knew it–and US President Richard Nixon knew it. So NASA had Nixon’s speechwriters prepare an address to the nation that he could deliver in the event that the astronauts died on the Moon.
The Apollo 11 astronauts photo from NASA
The Apollo spacecraft that took humans to the Moon was the most complex vehicle ever made to that time. There were over a million pieces and parts, each of which had to work perfectly with all the others. NASA specifications called for 99% reliability for each part, but there was always the possibility of a failure.
NASA tried to protect everything with redundant duplicated systems, so that if something did fail there was always a backup to take over. But there were three crucial components that could not be made redundant. The Command/Service Module that would carry the astronauts to the Moon had a rocket engine with 20,000 pounds of thrust, which would be used to push the CSM away from Earth towards the Moon, use mid-course burns to correct the flight path, fire at the Moon to insert the spaceship into lunar orbit, then fire again to propel the ship back to Earth. (The CSM engine was the first rocket engine built by NASA that could be re-started.) The Lunar Module, that would carry two astronauts down to the Moon’s surface, had two engines–the descent engine was used to control the module’s approach to the surface to soft-land on the Moon, and the ascent engine lifted the LM away from the Moon to dock back in orbit with the CSM. Most of the concern settled around the ascent engine, which was susceptible to being damaged by the rocks and dust that would be kicked up by the actual landing.
All of these engines were absolutely vital. And, because of size and weight constraints, there were no backups for any of these engines. They all had to work perfectly. Almost every other system on the spacecrafts could fail without jeopardizing the mission–the backups would take over. But the engines had no backups. If they failed, the astronauts died, and there was nothing anyone could do to save or rescue them.
So NASA made a contingency plan for the worst-case scenarios. If the CSM’s engine failed on the trip out to the Moon, the spacecraft would enter an orbit around the Sun until the oxygen supply ran out and killed the astronauts. If the engine failed as it was fired to take the craft out of lunar orbit and send it back to Earth, the CSM would orbit helplessly around the Moon until the astronauts were dead. Eventually the orbit would decay, and the CSM would crash into the Moon. If the LM’s descent engine failed, they would crash; if the ascent engine failed, they would be stranded on the Moon’s surface with no way to get back, and would die when the oxygen ran out.
Since in all of these scenarios NASA had no way of even attempting a rescue, it made the only plans it could. The President would be informed, and would send messages to the “widows-to-be”. If the LM crashed or was stranded on the Moon’s surface, the surviving astronaut in the CSM would be ordered to return to Earth alone. If the CSM failed and all the astronauts were stranded alive in orbit, they would be given a chance to say their goodbyes. The astronauts would then die, as their oxygen ran out over several days. (Although NASA was reluctant to discuss the matter, it had always been presumed that the stranded astronauts would be offered the option of “a deliberate shutdown in communications”–i.e., a suicide.) As soon as communications ceased, a member of the clergy would conduct a burial service, patterned after a burial at sea, commending the astronaut’s bodies to the “deepest of the deep” of space. The ceremony would end with the Lord’s Prayer.
Just before Apollo 11 launched for its historic mission, NASA’s liaison to the White House, astronaut Frank Borman, contacted President Richard Nixon’s speechwriter, William Safire, and asked him to prepare for a failure scenario. Safire in turn consulted with White House Chief of Staff HR Haldeman, then wrote a memo to Nixon entitled “In the Event of a Moon Disaster”, which contained the draft for a public statement to be made by Nixon in the event of a catastrophe.
When the Lunar Module “Eagle” touched down on the Moon on July 20, 1969, President Nixon made a triumphant phone call to astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin inside the Lunar Module to congratulate them, saying:
“Hello Neil and Buzz, I am talking to you by telephone from the Oval Room at the White House, and this certainly has to be the most historic telephone call ever made from the White House. I just can’t tell you how proud we all are of what you have done. For every American this has to be the proudest day of our lives, and for people all over the world I am sure that they, too, join with Americans in recognizing what an immense feat this is. Because of what you have done the heavens have become a part of man’s world, and as you talk to us from the Sea of Tranquility, it inspires us to redouble our efforts to bring peace and tranquility to earth. For one priceless moment in the whole history of man all the people on this earth are truly one–one in their pride in what you have done and one in our prayers that you will return safely to earth.”
But as NASA and Nixon both knew, the most dangerous part of the mission was yet to come: the ascent from the Moon back to the Command/Service Module. Even as Nixon was speaking to Armstrong and Aldrin, he knew that in just a matter of hours he may be making another phone call to them and to their families . . .
The speech that Safire had drafted, reads:
“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.”
In the event, Nixon’s speech came a lot closer to being needed than most people realized. As they were moving around in the cramped confines of the LM preparing to leave the lunar surface, one of the astronauts accidentally broke off one of the toggle switches on the control panel–the very switch they needed to fire the LM’s ascent engine. If the switch didn’t work, they would be stranded there forever. Fortunately, after a brief moment of frantic consideration, Aldrin took the cap off a ballpoint pen and inserted it over the broken toggle switch. It worked, and the astronauts all returned safely to Earth. Nixon’s speech was never given.