The risks were enormous, the outcome was never certain. Malfunctions and fatalities were common in spaceflight, and a mission of this scale had never been completed before.
So NASA prepared remarks for President Nixon to read to the world in case Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins died in the attempt. It’s a note that has since become famous, a poignant reminder of the risks and importance of exploration.
The note is richly poetic. It evokes the ancient Greeks who named the constellations, and also Rupert Brooke’s battlefield poetry, which gave us the image of a soldier buried in foreign soil, making that corner “forever England”, but with this image extended to all of humanity.
On an even deeper level, it goes back to ancient notions of sacrifice. For the Romans, a “devotion” was a total consecration to the flames, literally a destruction and commitment to the gods.
If you imagine how this note was meant to be read, the parallels are immediately apparent: some ideals are worth dying for, and our brave men who went to the moon did well knowing that the ultimate sacrifice might be demanded of them.
In the ancient world, only the best was sacrificed to the gods: unblemished animals, the purest produce. I think we did once too. We sent the best of America: the astronauts were military, bright minds, calm under pressure, entrepreneurs. This is what made us great.
So I read this note, I think of those brave men who went, the armies of engineers and scientists and craftsmen who supported them, and I look at the stars, I look at the moon. We used to look at them and imagine them already within reach. I hope we can do it again.
“To: HR Haldeman
By: Bill Safire
July 18, 1969.
IN CASE OF DISASTERS OF THE MOON:
Fate has decreed that the men who went to the moon to explore in peace should stay on the moon to rest in peace.
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 who dared to send two of her children into the unknown.
In their exploration, they caused the people of the world to feel as one; in their sacrifice, they bind more strongly the brotherhood of man.
In ancient times, men looked to the stars and saw their heroes in the constellations. In modern times, we do the same thing, but our heroes are epic men of flesh and blood.
Others will follow, and surely find their way home. Man’s quest will not be denied. But these men were the first, and will remain the most important in our hearts.
Because every human being who looks at the moon in the coming nights will know that there is some corner of another world that is forever humanity.”
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