On July 20th, 1969, Neil Armstrong and Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin secured their place in history by becoming the first men to walk on the surface of the moon. Soon after their return to earth, Armstrong, Aldrin, and Michael Collins (the "other guy" on Apollo 11) were hailed as heroes the world over. But what would have happened if a malfunction of some sort had kept Armstrong and Aldrin on the moon forever? President Richard M. Nixon had a contingency speech prepared for use in the event that Armstrong and Aldrin became hopelessly stranded on the lunar surface.

The speech was written by senior Nixon speechwriter William Safire, who would later win the Pulitzer Prize, receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and write for the New York Times until his death in 2009. (As Nixon's primary speechwriter, Safire also had a hand in deciding the wording of the bronze plaques left on the moon by each of the six Apollo landings.) The speech is truly unique for being stirring and disturbing at the same time, a fitting tribute for two men who resigned themselves to a lonely death in the name of discovery and understanding. Perhaps the most chilling aspect of Safire's speech is that it was intended to be read to the nation while the astronauts were still alive.

The speech was part of a memo titled "In Event of Moon Disaster", dated July 18th, 1969. The following procedure was outlined in the memo: before reading the speech in a televised national address, Nixon was advised to personally telephone the wives of the doomed astronauts (referred to in the memo as "widows-to-be") and explain the fate of their husbands. All lines of communication with the lunar module would then be cut off, and a priest would have performed the same rites used for a burial at sea, commending the bodies of the astronauts to the "deepest of the deep", and concluding with the Lord's Prayer. The memo makes no mention of a suggested course of action for Command Module pilot Michael Collins, who would still be in lunar orbit, so close yet so far away from his condemned comrades.

Since the early years of Project Apollo, it has been rumored that the Apollo astronauts carried cyanide capsules to spare themselves from a slow death in case their return to Earth became impossible. However, Jim Lovell (Project Gemini veteran and commander of Apollo 13) has said that such capsules were never carried because they weren't needed. According to Lovell, it was generally understood that a much faster form of suicide would be to remove one's helmet and open up the hatch on the Lunar Excursion Module. This method makes more sense, as the marooned astronauts would not be forced to watch each other die.

The speech, as it was prepared for Nixon:

In Event of Moon Disaster

"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."

Source of speech: July 1999 AP article written by Calvin Woodward, emailed to me around that time.

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