To: H. R. Haldeman
From: Bill Safire
July 18, 1969
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.
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.
It’s been over 50 years since mankind landed on the moon. You'll soon see celebrations across various media channels, but something is always missing from the coverage.
The event is celebrated as a monumental achievement — the ingenuity of the human species to break the bonds of earth’s gravity and land on another heavenly body. From the world’s point of view, it appeared everything went flawlessly. However, the spectacular event was anything but certain.
The mission involved a great deal of skill and technology. Also, many things would need to go right in succession. Any number of small things could spell doom. With earth being nearly 240,000 miles away, no one would come to save the Apollo 11 astronauts in the event of a disaster.
In particular, NASA thought the highest probability of failure might occur on the lift off from the lunar surface back to the command module floating in space. According to Business Insider, Former astronaut Frank Borman contacted President Richard Nixon’s speech writer about this.
Borman told Bill Safire that would it would be a good idea if the President would be prepared to speak about a failure of this nature. Safire would go on to write the letter above, which would remained tucked in the National Archives until 1999.
In the event the lunar module couldn’t lift off, the live feed from the moon would be shut off. Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong would be left on the moon to either suffocate or commit suicide. Michael Collins in the command module would travel back home to earth by himself, in what might be the loneliest journey in human history.
A service similar to a burial at sea would be conducted in the memory of Aldrin and Armstrong. Fortunately for the astronauts and the watching world, there was no disaster and this letter was never read. However, the mission was no smooth ride. Disaster was always close at hand.
According to Bill Whittle’s documentary “Apollo 11 What We Saw”, during the descent of the lunar lander a problem occurred. Neil Armstrong called out, “We have a 1202 error”. What was a 1202 error? No one was really sure.
According to Whittle, out of all the countless training that was done for this mission, an error like this was never encountered. Ground control had never seen it before and there was no procedure written to deal with it. All that was known was that there was no altitude and range data from the flight computer.
To make matters worse, before the flight computer stopped giving data, the astronauts just completed a roll with the lander. The windows of the lander were now pointing away from the moon. They were coming in toward the surface now and couldn’t see it, plus their altitude and range data were gone. While all this was going on 600 million people were listening or watching live.
The 1202 error turned out to be a computational error because the computer was being fed too much information. However, it didn’t matter at this point. Armstrong was flying the lander manually and overshot the intended landing area. The landing of the lunar module would be no easy task, even in the mapped landing region.
I had seen a lunar lander in the Smithsonian National Air And Space Museum in Washington DC about 10 years ago. I was startled how fragile the thing looked. I joked to one of my friends that I bet I could put my fist through the thing with no effort. It turns out that I may have been right.
“The Eagle was essentially a silver and gold soap bubble just barely able to hold 5 PSI of pure oxygen in the 1/6 gravity of the moon”
— Bill Whittle, “Apollo 11 What We Saw”
Whittle in his documentary explains the lunar lander in the museum I described above was actually reinforced. The Eagle that was heading for the moon’s surface was less sturdy than the one in the museum. In fact, it wasn’t strong enough to support its own weight on earth. The sides of the lander were about as thick as a piece of aluminum foil.
Landing on rocks or a hard landing could instantly destroy it. Another concern was that the lander would not be able to take off if the landing surface was on too much of an angle. With all this in mind, Armstrong was flying around trying to find an impromptu landing spot. Oh yeah, they were running low on fuel too.
However, Armstrong still managed to slow the lander down and put it on the surface safely. Both astronauts were complete rocks during this turbulent landing, betraying no emotion or fear. None of the viewers listening in or watching noticed anything out of the ordinary.
The Pen Is Mightier Than The Switch
This mission wouldn’t be the first where Neil Armstrong had shown nerves of steel and problem solving ability. On a previous mission on Gemini 8 in 1966, the spacecraft went into roll of near 360 degrees per second. In a spin of this nature, it wouldn’t be long before the astronauts would pass out and eventually die.
Armstrong calmly shut down the maneuvering thrusters and activated the re-entry thrusters, stopping the roll. In so doing, he saved his team’s lives and maybe the space program.
Some similar problem solving skills would be called upon again. Part of the astronaut’s mission would be to recover moon rocks and bring them back to earth. When Buzz Aldrin brought a bag of these rocks into the lander, he accidentally hit and broke the switch that would activate the thrusters that would lift the lander off of the moon.
The two astronauts never panicked. Through trial and error they figured out that the tip of a pen would activate the circuit to get them home.
Whittle tells a story he heard from someone who knew Aldrin that sums up the way the astronauts thought. Sometime well after the mission was done, a reporter asked Aldrin about the switch issue.
She asked him if they shared their feelings about what last words they would want to say to their widows and children if they couldn’t leave the moon.
According to the story, Aldrin looked at her like she was speaking a different language. When he realized she was serious, he leaned over and said, “We weren’t thinking about any last words. We were trying to fix the...switch!”
Not A Smooth Ride
Despite the images shown to the public during the moon landing, it was no cake walk. Problems were encountered during the mission that were faced with steely resolve.
The members of NASA were under no illusion that success was guaranteed either. This was perhaps best demonstrated by Frank Borman’s call to the White House to prepare a possible failure letter about astronauts stranded on the moon.
Despite the planning and training, this was an extremely dangerous mission that could have easily resulted in disaster. If anything, we should keep this thought in mind as we watch news stories about this event.
The crew that flew to the moon were taking the ultimate risk and were totally fine with it. Their courage and composure were truly unmeasurable. They were so good that it made the mission look easy to a public watching and listening far away on earth.
Maybe the one thing we should remember on this anniversy is that this mission was by no means easy. It was extremely risky, and in many ways a gamble. Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins should always be remembered for their willingness to make the ultimate sacrifice in our pursuit of the stars. As Safire said in his letter: "ancient man found their heroes in constellations", but modern man found their heroes on the surface of the moon.
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