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starship-design: Fwd: The Story of a Tragedy That Was Not to Be

Plans if the first Moon landing had a worst case failure.


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Wednesday, July 7, 1999 LATIMES

            The Story of a Tragedy That Was Not to Be  
            By JIM MANN
  WASHINGTON--This column is about America's
                      walk on the moon and the untold story of one
                  of the most poignant presidential speeches in
                  American history--a speech that never had to be
                       In two weeks, this country will celebrate the
                  30th anniversary of the day when Neil Armstrong
                  and Edwin E. "Buzz" Aldrin Jr. stepped onto the
                  surface of the moon.  
                       Over the past three decades, many of the
                  details of that epic trip have been told over and
                  over again in books and movies. And so, naturally,
                  we now take it as a given that the trip was destined
                  to be a success--that the American astronauts,
                  after landing on the moon, would return home
                       But it didn't seem so inevitable at the time. It
                  turns out that officials at the White House and
                  NASA quietly made contingency plans for what
                  President Richard Nixon would do if Armstrong and
                  Aldrin got stuck on the moon and were doomed to
                  die there.  
                       There was even a euphemism for how such a
                  tragedy would end. The stranded astronauts would
                  "close down communications" with Mission Control
                  in Houston and be left in silence, either to die
                  slowly or, perhaps, to commit suicide.  
                       Nixon's speech was to end with these haunting
                  words, in effect a tribute to Armstrong and Aldrin:
                  "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."  
                       I came across the remarkable documentary
                  evidence of this lugubrious planning a couple of
                  years ago, while doing research in the National
                       There, sitting in the files from the Nixon
                  administration, was a memo titled: "In Event of
                  Moon Disaster." It laid out a precise scenario for
                  what Nixon should do if the astronauts' lunar
                  vehicle couldn't get back up off the moon into lunar
                  orbit to hook up with the command module.  
                       According to the memo, once it was clear that
                  Armstrong and Aldrin could not come home, Nixon
                  was to call the "widows-to-be" to express
                  condolences. He was then to deliver a speech to
                  the nation.  
                       Finally, at the point when NASA would cut off
                  radio communications with the moon and leave the
                  astronauts alone to die, a clergyman was to
                  commend their souls to "the deepest of the deep,"
                  in the fashion of a burial at sea.  
                       The planning memo was drafted for Nixon's
                  chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman, by Nixon's speech
                  writer, William Safire, now a columnist for the New
                  York Times. At the same time, Safire drafted the
                  short speech Nixon was to give.  
                       Years ago, in a memoir about his time in the
                  Nixon White House, Safire briefly alluded to this
                  secret planning.  
                       "On June 13, Frank Borman--an astronaut the
                  president liked and whom NASA had assigned to
                  be our liaison--called me to say, 'You want to be
                  thinking of some alternative posture for the
                  president in the event of mishaps on Apollo XI.'
                  When I didn't react promptly, Borman moved off the
                  formal language--'like what to do for the widows.' "  
                       Safire complied. His memo and the speech he
                  drafted for Nixon were retained in Nixon's White
                  House files and now sit in the National Archives.
                  Here is the full text of this extraordinary 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
                       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
                  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
                       The secret preparations serve as a reminder of
                  just how risky was the voyage to the moon.
                  Confident of American technology, officials at
                  NASA and the White House still left nothing to
                  chance. They secretly feared something could go
                  terribly wrong.  
                       Yet these events are, in their way, also a
                  testament to hope. We may prepare for tragedy,
                  but our worst nightmares rarely happen. Three
                  decades ago on July 20, Armstrong and Aldrin
                  walked on the rubble of the moon and then came
                  home again. Nixon's undelivered speech was
                  thrown into a file and happily forgotten.  
                                    * * *
                       Jim Mann's column appears in this space every

                  Copyright 1999 Los Angeles Times. All Rights Reserved  
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