In 1969, the world watched as Apollo 11 headed for its rendezvous with destiny. To illustrate the difficulty of the mission, just as American astronauts were walking on the surface of the moon, an unmanned Soviet spacecraft malfunctioned and crashed into the lunar mountains. One of the most challenging phases of the moon shot was launching the lunar module from the moon so that it could rejoin the command module. If it failed, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin would have been abandoned to their fate: desperately trying to fix the lunar module until they ran out of oxygen.
Nixon's speechwriter Bill Safire crafted a presidential statement in case tragedy struck.
IN THE 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.
PRIOR TO THE PRESIDENT'S STATEMENT: The president should telephone each of the widows-to-be.
AFTER THE PRESIDENT'S STATEMENT, at the point when NASA ends communications with the men: A clergyman should adopt the same procedure as a burial at sea, commending their souls to "the deepest of the deep," concluding with the Lord's Prayer.
You can listen to Safire discuss the speech here.
The style of the two messages could not be more different in tone. Eisenhower's communication was brief and matter of fact because the events did not need interpretation. The stakes of D-Day were clear: it was a major offensive on the road to victory.
By contrast, Nixon's speech is poetic and rich in imagery because the meaning of the moon landing was not self-evident. The event was deeply symbolic, capturing the individual human spirit, America's technological prowess in the Cold War, and a giant leap for mankind. Nixon's last line, "there is some corner of another world that is forever mankind," is a reference to Rupert Brooke's World War I poem "The Soldier," which includes the line: "there's some corner of a foreign field / That is for ever England." After the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster of 1986, Ronald Reagan also turned to poetry, by ending his speech with an allusion to John Gillespie Magee's poem, "High Flight."
We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and "slipped the surly bonds of Earth" to "touch the face of God."
History could so easily be different, with Eisenhower and Nixon's grim messages having entered the national record. And if we lived in this alternate world, we might discover, in a forgotten corner of the archives, the triumphant speeches that were written in case of success in 1944 and 1969 -- but never needed. As we dusted off these documents, we might wonder what would have happened if D-Day had prevailed or the astronauts had somehow escaped their lunar tomb.