Today many still get excited when a rocket is sent into orbit, but I feel the enormous interest and excitement is nothing like it was in the beginning of space exploration. I remember when Alan Shepherd was launched into space in May 1961. His flight only lasted 15 minutes and 22 seconds, but it was the talk at every supper table. Then in February 1962 John Glenn became the first American to orbit the earth. In my junior high school, classes were cancelled and teachers brought in TV sets so we could watch these historical events.
On July 20, 1969 astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first humans to set foot on the Moon. This Apollo 11 mission was followed by six more successful manned missions to the moon (Apollo 12 to Apollo 17). One Appollo mission, Apollo 13, was scheduled to land on the moon but ended as a lunar fly-by.
President Kennedy had pledged in 1961 that we would place a man on the moon by the end of the decade. Six months before the decade ended, Apollo 11 fulfilled that pledge.
Neil Armstrong’s famous statement as he stepped onto the moon’s surface “one small step for man one giant leap for mankind,” was heard in 33 countries, with an estimated 25 million viewers in the U.S. and millions more listening to radio broadcasts.
Looking back today at the success of the Apollo missions, we fail to properly appreciate the risks these men took. There was a possibility that something could go wrong as they walked on the moon. What if they could not get back to their spaceship? They would be stranded there to either starve to death or commit suicide on the moon.
Recognizing this danger, the White House and NASA officials prepared a speech for President Nixon to give if such a tragedy happened. Nixon called it the “widows-to-be” speech.
If this catastrophe happened, Nixon was to give this speech to the nation. NASA would terminate radio communications with the moon and leave the astronauts alone to die. A clergyman would commend their souls to “the deepest of the deep” as was done in sea burials. This would be followed by the Lord’s Prayer.
William Safire was the writer of the speech and later wrote in his book, “Before the Fall: An Inside View of the Pre-Watergate White House”,
“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.'”
Thankfully the mission was a success, and this speech was never given.
Here is a copy of the speech prepared in event of moon disaster.
Unfortunately, when disaster struck in 1986 with the explosion of the Challenger spacecraft, President Reagan had no prepared speech. His speechwriter, Peggy Nooman, quickly wrote a speech and concluded with the words by James Gillespie Magee, an WWII Canadian Air Force fighter pilot. The courageous crew, she said, “slipped the surly bonds of earth to touch the face of God.”
What was considered unimaginable when I was a teenager is now taken for granted. What changes happen in a lifetime.