Lunar Perils

Good morning, it’s July 16, 2020. Fifty One years ago today, at 9:32 a.m. Eastern Daylight Time, Apollo 11 was launched from Cape Canaveral atop a 34-story Saturn V rocket. The destination for Neil Armstrong, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin and Michael Collins was, as the entire world knew, the moon.

If NASA could return the astronauts safely to Earth, it would be more than a historic achievement for the United States. It would also cement the legacy of President Kennedy, the young president who had committed his countrymen to the great quest four months after being inaugurated.

By July 16, 1969, however, John F. Kennedy had been gone for nearly six years. The man in the White House was Richard M. Nixon, the California Republican who had lost the 1960 presidential election to JFK by a razor-thin margin. President Nixon watched the Apollo 11 launch that morning in a room off the Oval Office with a small group of people that included Frank Borman, the former Air Force test pilot who had commanded Gemini 7 and Apollo 8.

Borman was assigned to be NASA’s official liaison to the White House, and from 9:25 a.m. that morning until 9:45 a.m., according to the daily logs retained by the Richard Nixon Presidential Library, Borman watched the launch with the president from Nixon’s small private office.

Col. Borman also had a brief conversation with White House speechwriter William Safire, an encounter that led to the drafting of a remarkably poignant presidential speech.

John F. Kennedy’s call to explore space had contained an explicit warning that such travel was perilous. In his famous Sept. 12, 1962 Rice University speech explaining his rationale for exploring the heavens, JFK quoted British explorer George Mallory, noting that Mallory had died on Mount Everest.

Certainly, the astronauts, all of whom were former test-flight aviators and combat pilots, always knew the dangers of supersonic, high-altitude travel. And the whole country understood the stakes after Jan. 27, 1967, when Apollo 1 astronauts Gus Grissom, Edward H. White, and Roger Chaffee were incinerated in a flash fire in their spacecraft on the Florida launch pad.

These men must have been on Frank Borman’s mind 50 years ago today because sometime that morning, or in a subsequent phone call, he mentioned something to Bill Safire that the White House speechwriter at first did not comprehend.

“You’ll want to consider an alternative posture for the president in the event of mishaps” is how Borman began in his dry military lingo. Although Safire would achieve great fame as a wordsmith, Borman’s admonition struck him as “gobbledygook” — Safire’s word — until Borman added, “like what to do for the widows.”

What the astronaut was telling the speechwriter was that this mission might not succeed — that the men might not return from the moon.

NASA’s engineers were confident they could get the three astronauts there — Borman, after all, had attained lunar orbit himself on Apollo 8 — but what kept them up at night was whether the lunar module could be landed gently enough on the moon’s surface. And, once there, could the LM get aloft again and return Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to the mother ship? If not, they would remain on the moon, with no hope of rescue — to face certain death as their entire home planet waited helplessly.

Anticipating such a possibility, NASA had a protocol in place to shut down communications at some point. But what would the president say in the event of such a catastrophe? That’s what Borman meant when he mentioned “the widows” — Janet Shearon Armstrong, who had two children, and Joan Archer Aldrin, who had three.

So Safire went to work. By July 18, Apollo 11’s third day in space, he sent a draft of a speech to White House Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman.

“Fate has ordained that the men who went to the moon to explore in peace will stay on the moon to rest in peace,” it began. “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.”

Because Nixon never had to deliver it, the text was filed away and forgotten for 30 years until historian James Mann unearthed it in 1999. (You can read the whole thing here.) It would have been the most poignant speech Richard Nixon ever gave. Two future presidents would have to face that tragic scenario, however, testing their mettle and their countrymen’s commitment to space.

But we’ll be back someday soon. It’s human nature.

“Many years ago the great British explorer George Mallory, who was to die on Mount Everest, was asked why did he want to climb it.” President Kennedy said. “He said, ‘Because it’s there.’ Well, space is there, and we’re going to climb it, and the moon and the planets are there, and new hopes for knowledge and peace are there. And, therefore, as we set sail we ask God’s blessing on the most hazardous and dangerous and greatest adventure on which man has ever embarked.”

Carl M. Cannon
Washington Bureau chief, RealClearPolitics
@CarlCannon (Twitter)

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