This July, our country will observe the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. If you’re old enough, you remember when the race to the moon began in 1961 when President Kennedy committed us to landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth before the end of the decade of the 1960s. If you’re younger, perhaps you only remember the moon landing itself—the image of Neil Armstrong as he stepped out onto the surface of the moon and uttered his famous line about it being one small step for man, and one giant leap for mankind.
Thinking about that event now, it strikes me that there are a couple of generations who only know of Apollo 11 and the moon landing as a moment in history, something they recall hearing about in school in the same way I heard about two world wars and the Great Depression. Such is the passage of time. Just as I don’t have personal memories of the depression or World War II, a fair number of people today don’t have personal memories of the Apollo 11 mission.
As turbulent and chaotic as things might have seemed in July of 1969, the moon landing was a singular achievement bigger than the era that contained it. The journey unfolded over several days, and as divided as the nation was over the war in Vietnam and our politics, the moon landing was a moment when we all felt our “smallness” looking up at the moon in the night sky. More importantly, it was a focal point that went beyond nations and spoke to “humankind.”
But with the passage of time—the various technologies we have developed over the last 50 years, and the fact that we walk around with more computing power in our smart phones than the Apollo 11 mission had—many take the moon landing for granted and assume that a successful outcome was inevitable. It wasn’t. So much was unknown at the time about the surface of the moon and the difficulties of taking the landing craft down from the mothership to the surface of the moon and then making it back to dock safely.
The two men who made the journey to the surface of the moon were genuine in their courage and heroism. I was reminded of this recently, not in recalling the accolades they received upon their safe return, but from a statement that was written and never issued—kept in President Richard Nixon’s suit pocket in case things went badly.
“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.”
The speech went on to say; “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.”
The speech concluded with these words; “Others will follow, and surely find their way home. Man’s search will not be denied. But these men were 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.”
What were also startling were the brief instructions written below the official statement drafted by speechwriter Bill Safire: “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.’ ”
Knowing the outcome as we do, it’s hard to imagine the alternative until we think about “no hope for recovery” and mission control agonizing over when to end communications. History records Armstrong’s famous first words and we celebrate them, but we easily forget that it could have been his last words that we’d most recall 50 years later.