The early space pioneers of the Soviet and American programs never knew if they would survive the next mission.
Today, with plans for space tourism, orbiting hotels, and even lunar and Martian colonies over the next few decades, the danger and risk of space seems farther removed. But that perspective is wrong and provides a false sense of security. Space is dangerous, unforgiving, and very, very lethal.
None knew this better than the scientists, engineers and courageous astronaut corps of America’s early space program. The fledgling technology and risky engineering lifting Man into space was untried and—although tested—did not face the actual environment it was designed for until literally thrust into it.
And even the nature and composition of that environment was nothing more than an educated guess.
The space race and the Cold War
Debates still raged about the exact composition of the Moon even as Dr. Werner von Braun and his colleagues embarked upon the Apollo Program. NASA’s goal to reach the Moon was tasked by President Kennedy during a speech he made in in 1961. Kennedy set forth a challenge when he called on America to successfully send astronauts to the Moon and return them to Earth. He set a time limit of one decade to reach the goal.
At the time, the United States was up to its proverbial neck in an all-out space race with the Russians. The race, one of the primary focuses of the Cold War, was ignited by the Soviet’s successful launch of the world’s first artificial satellite—Sputnik—during October 1957.
That feat galvanized America as a whole and the military in particular, for underlying the space program was the research and development of America’s second great race: the missile race with the Russians. Therefore, the space race was driven not only by political prestige, but national security.
After the Apollo 1 tragedy that killed three astronauts while they sat in the space capsule on the Cape Canaveral launch pad, NASA strengthened its safety protocols and layers of redundancy. Even so, space travel was still one of the biggest risks ever undertaken. A trip to the Moon was riskier too.
The speech no one wanted to hear: “In Event of Moon Disaster”
As the time approached for the historic launch of Apollo 11, the first Apollo mission scheduled to actually land on the surface of the Moon, White House staff drew up contingency plans for failure. If the astronauts were left stranded on the Moon due to a systems failure, or malfunctioning rocket engine, the President of the United States would have to make an address to the nation and inform the people of the tragedy. The speech would have to be written in such a way as to inspire Americans and strengthen their resolve to continue with the historic missions.
The speech would also have to acknowledge the triumph of reaching the Moon, and the tragedy of the first lunar pioneers that would never be returning home to their families, their friends, and their beloved nation.
“William Safire prepared a speech called ‘In Event of Moon Disaster’ for President Nixon to read on television if the Apollo 11 astronauts were stranded on the Moon. According to the plans, Mission Control would ‘close down communications’ with the LEM and a clergyman would have commended their souls to ‘the deepest of the deep’ in a public ritual likened to burial at sea.”
The undelivered speech—the original residing in the Nixon Library at Yorba Linda, California—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.”
The Presidential speech was never given; the disaster never happened; and the three astronauts made it home to the green hills of Earth.
And in the wake of Neil Armstrong’s, Buzz Aldrin’s, and Michael Collins’ triumphant return, new frontiers were opened and a giant leap forward was taken by the many men and women who fearlessly set their sights on the future and the stars.