What If Apollo 11 Failed? President Nixon Had Speech Ready

Apollo 11 East Crater Panorama
The Sea of Tranquility, where mankind took its first steps on the moon, would have become the permanent resting place for astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin had their lunar module failed to launch from the surface. (Image credit: NASA)

The entire world was captivated by NASA's Apollo 11 moon landing 45 years ago this week, but at the time, the mission's success was far from certain. In fact, then President Richard Nixon even had a speech ready should Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin die on the moon. 

In preparation for possible catastrophe, presidential speechwriter William Safire prepared a statement for President Nixon. Although the speech remained undelivered, given the success of Apollo 11, its existence underscores some of the concerns regarding the hazards of space travel. 

Neil Armstrong's iconic photo of Buzz Aldrin walking on the moon. (Image credit: NASA)

"All involved knew that the risks of an accident on any flight to the moon, especially the first attempt, were high," historian John Logsdon, professor emeritus at George Washington University, told Space.com via email. "Once Armstrong and Aldrin landed, there was particular attention [paid] to the possibility that they might not be able to launch from the moon's surface." [Apollo 11 Moon Landing 45th Anniversary: Complete Coverage

Prepared for all contingencies

Stored in the National Archives, Nixon's speech first surfaced around the 30th anniversary of the lunar landing. The president was to deliver the prepared statement only in the event of problems that left the Apollo 11 astronauts stranded.

In his autobiography, "Before the Fall: An Inside View of the Pre-Watergate White House" (Transaction Publishers, 2005), Safire recalls how NASA's liaison and Apollo 8 astronaut Frank Borman contacted him a month before the landing to suggest preparing for problems on the lunar landing.

"You want to be thinking of some alternative posture for the president in the event of mishaps on Apollo 11," Borman is quoted as saying.

When Safire hesitated, Borman continued: "Like what to do for the widows."

On July 16, 1969, astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins lifted off from Earth. Four days later, Armstrong and Aldrin became the first humans to walk on the moon. Here, the three suit up for a countdown demonstration test. (Image credit: NASA)

As a result, Safire drafted a speech for Nixon to give should the astronauts not return home. Concern turned to Armstrong and Aldrin once they touched down on the moon, as NASA had yet to land humans on any object other than Earth.

If the lunar module failed to launch from the surface, death for the two stranded astronauts could come from either slow starvation or from what Safire termed "deliberately 'closed down communications,' the euphemism for suicide."

The tragic situation would require Nixon to first contact the widows to express his condolences before addressing the nation in the prepared speech.

According to Roger Bruns' 2001 book "Almost History" (Hyperion, 2000), the closing words of the speech echoed British poet Rupert Brooke's words on World War I, a salute to the fallen whose bodies were left on foreign soil. Brooke's poem, "The Soldier," includes the words "there's some corner of a foreign field/That is for ever England," while Nixon states "there is some corner of another world that is forever mankind."

As it mourned the lost astronauts, the speech also spoke to the idea that others would follow in their footsteps, visiting the lunar surface and returning home to Earth.

Public communications would then be closed down, and a clergyman would commend the astronauts' souls to the deep, much like a naval burial at sea.

A hazardous history

The 1960s' space race that saw the United States seeking to put an American astronaut on the moon before any other country, particularly Russia, culminated in Neil Armstrong's first steps.

In his autobiography, Safire said, "Americans had become accustomed to happy endings on space flights, and so had I."

Logsdon, whose book — "After Apollo: Richard Nixon and the American Space Program" — is set for release next year, disagreed, saying he felt Safire understated public awareness of risk.

The period leading up to the historic landing had been fraught with danger. Several Gemini missions had problems, while the tragic Apollo 1 fire claimed the lives of three American astronauts. Logsdon said that the result was a general public awareness of the risks involved in space travel.

The Apollo 13mission, launched less than a year after the lunar landing, brought that danger to the forefront again, when a spark from an exposed wire in an oxygen tank damaged the spacecraft. The world watched in fear as the three astronauts aboard struggled to reach home.

"There were certainly statements prepared in anticipation of the Apollo 13 crew not making it back to Earth," Logsdon said.

Such preparatory political speeches were rare, however. While NASA created contingency plans for its numerous missions and shuttle launches, Logsdon said that, to the best of his knowledge, they did not include prepared presidential statements from the White House.

"That is not how White House speech writing works," he said.

 Read the full text of Nixon's contingency speech below:

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.

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Nola Taylor Tillman
Contributing Writer

Nola Taylor Tillman is a contributing writer for Space.com. She loves all things space and astronomy-related, and enjoys the opportunity to learn more. She has a Bachelor’s degree in English and Astrophysics from Agnes Scott college and served as an intern at Sky & Telescope magazine. In her free time, she homeschools her four children. Follow her on Twitter at @NolaTRedd