Today is the fiftieth anniversary of the day that the Apollo 11 spacecraft landed on the Moon. Just six and a half hours after the Apollo 11 lunar module touched down, Neil Armstrong stepped onto the Moon's surface, uttering the famous words, "That's one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind."
I can still remember this remarkable event. I was on summer vacation from school, and my family gathered around our new color television set (we had a black-and-white set up until the late '60s) to watch. The images were not all that clear, but we could see when Neil Armstrong climbed down from the lunar module and onto the Moon. It's something that millions of people will remember for the rest of their lives.
I know I will.
But, what if the worst had happened--if Apollo 11 had crashed or the astronauts were stranded on the Moon or lost in space? What then?
NASA--actually, President Richard Nixon and the White House--had a plan for that, a critical Plan B. If the astronauts for whatever reason were unable to return home to the Earth, then President Nixon had a speech prepared--written by White House speechwriter William Safire--that he would give to the nation. Here's the remarkable text of that Plan B speech:
IN THE EVENT OF A 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.
Before the Plan B speech was broadcast, the President would telephone the "widows-to-be" of the two astronauts left on the surface of the Moon--Neil Armstrong and Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin--to express his personal condolences. (It was assumed that the third member of the Apollo 11 crew--Michael Collins, who didn't set foot on the Moon--would be able to rocket home safely.) And then, after the speech, "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."
But, the worst didn't happen, and President Nixon didn't have to give this speech (though it's good that he had it ready to go). Instead, we are left with the inspiring story of what might very well be the greatest accomplishment of all mankind--landing a man on hte Moon--sparked by President John F. Kennedy's 1961 challenge to the American people:
I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to Earth.