In Event of Moon Disaster: The Greatest Speech Never Given
As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, our attention turns to those heroes who climbed through the heavens, walked on the Moon, and lived to tell the tale. The images are burned into our national psyche – men hopping clumsily in their billowy suits, a desolate rock and the infinite void of space all around them, and a familiar blue dot reflecting in the blackness of their visors. Looking up decades later, knowing we've conquered that pale, companionless place, we forget that success was far from inevitable.
The average smartphone is far more powerful than the NASA computers that guided the Apollo – a famous factoid that is as inspiring as it is dreadful. It reminds us that the astronauts succeeded in spite of incredible, unprecedented risk. The famed mission could have ended just as easily in disappointment and disaster.
Facing this possibility, NASA, White House officials, and New York Times writer William Safire made preparations for a speech to have on-hand, as the title so ominously suggests, “IN EVENT OF MOON DISASTER.”
Fortunately – for NASA, the nation, and the Apollo 11 crew – there was no need to deliver the speech. But despite the dire and heartbreaking subject matter, it's an incredible piece of writing, employing the full strength of Safire’s writing arsenal.
"At historic moments, speechwriters turn to poets." - William Safire
In a 1999 New York Times essay the writer notably recounted that “at historic moments, speechwriters turn to poets,” borrowing lines from poet Rupert Brooke in the draft. In addition to Safire's masterful use of allusion and the English language, the speech abounds with uplifting sentiments, noble truths, and poetic rhetoric on courage, exploration, and the brotherhood of man.
In some unlucky parallel universe where Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin never came back, the speech would have made them legends, roused and inspired the nation, and reminded listeners that the greatest glory comes not just from winning, but in rising every time we fall.
Read the full transcript below or via the National Archives.
To: H. R. Haldeman
From: Bill Safire
July 18, 1969
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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 the 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 the 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.
BONUS: While it's a stark contrast to the voice of President Nixon (who would have delivered the speech), here's an awesome video of Benedict Cumberbatch reading the famous Safire Memo:
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