President Nixon Was Prepared for Apollo Disaster
Composite photo of President Richard M. Nixon as he telephoned "Tranquility Base" and astronauts Neil Armstrong and Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin after their historic Apollo 11 moon landing on July 20, 1969.
Credit: NASA.

This story was updated at 8:09 p.m. EDT.

The triumphant success of NASA?s Apollo 11 moon landing 40 years ago is a familiar story to most Americans, but it may be a surprise to some that then-President Richard Nixon was ready for disaster.

Tucked away in the National Archives the speech written for Nixon for the historic lunar landing on July 20, 1969, but one he never hoped to read. It was a contingency speech, one Nixon would only read if tragedy struck the Apollo 11 mission and stranded commander Neil Armstrong and lunar module pilot Buzz Aldrin on lunar surface forever while their crewmate Michael Collins circled the moon in the command module. The speech surfaced about 10 years ago, around the 30th anniversary of the first moon landing.?

In his 2001 book ?Almost History,? which chronicles backup plans, speeches and documents that were never needed, author Roger Bruns details the origins of the Apollo 11 failure speech. They can be traced to astronaut Frank Borman, who commanded the 1968 Apollo 8 mission around the moon, who recommended to Nixon speechwriter William Safire that it would be prudent to have a plan in case the Apollo 11 astronauts suffered a very public demise, Bruns explained. ?

According to the plan, Bruns added, Nixon would have called the wives of the Apollo 11 astronauts to express his condolences and then give the following speech:

"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."

According to Bruns, the stricken Apollo 11 astronauts would then shut down communications with Mission Control and there would be a brief ceremony by a clergyman commending their souls to the ?deepest of the deep.? Safire entitled his memo containing the backup speech ?In the Event of a Moon Disaster.?

Of course, there was no moon disaster and the Apollo 11 astronauts and Nixon spoke with them by a phone-to-moon link while Armstrong and Aldrin were on the lunar surface. They lifted off on July 21, 1969 as planned and returned to Earth a few days later. Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins splashed down in the ocean, were quarantined for a short period to make sure they didn?t pick up any cosmic maladies, then received the star treatment with ticker tape parades and a world tour.

But the fact that Nixon was prepared for such a tragedy is a reminder of the unknown risks that faced the first moon explorers, especially as NASA celebrates the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing and prepares to return astronauts to the lunar surface by 2020 in new Orion capsules and Altair landers.

Forty years after astronauts first set foot on the moon, SPACE.com examines what we?ve done since and whether America has the right stuff to get back to the moon by 2020 and reach beyond. For exclusive interviews and analysis, visit SPACE.com daily through July 20, the anniversary of the historic landing. Editor's note: This story was corrected to reflect that astronaut Frank Borman commanded the Apollo 8 mission in 1968.