Thursday, July 24, 2014

Preparing for Disaster: Apollo 11

This is fascinating: President Nixon was prepared if Apollo 11 failed and the astronauts didn't make it home from the Moon. tells the story.

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.
"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 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." . . .
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.

You can see the typed text of the prepared speech here.

Here's the poem by Rupert Brooke, "The Soldier" that Safire's speech alluded to:

If I should die, think only this of me:
That there's some corner of a foreign field
That is forever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam;
A body of England's, breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.
And think, this heart, all evil shed away,
A pulse in the eternal mind, no less
Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;
Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;
And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,
In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.

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