The phrase “Nixon Moon Landing Death Speech” sounds like the beginnings of a conspiracy theory, but it’s a real piece of Apollo 11 history that is often forgotten. The real history of Nixon and the Moon landing is one of success for the President and the astronauts involved, but Tricky Dick needed to have a speech prepared in the event of an unexpected disaster. In an alternate universe, Richard Nixon sat down on July 20, 1969, to deliver the most difficult speech of his career – telling a shocked and grieving nation that Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin wouldn’t be coming home from their lunar adventure.
Obviously, the story of Nixon, Armstrong, and Aldrin, ended much happier than that, but the transcript of Nixon’s prepared remarks, which was revealed in 1999, paints a vivid picture of the responsibilities held by the President of the United States. Even during the moments of humanity’s greatest triumphs, world leaders must be prepared for all possibilities and eventualities, even those that are unthinkable. Thankfully, this speech remained forever in the "What If?" file of history.
The success of the Apollo 11 mission, which brought American astronauts to the lunar landscape and then back to Earth safely, is one of America’s greatest national accomplishments. It was also an incredibly risky and ambitious endeavor. Although years of research, planning, and simulation had gone into the project, it was still the first-ever attempted Moon landing, and the potential for disaster was high in the – literally – unearthly conditions. If anything went wrong, the US did not have a contingency plan to get the astronauts home safely. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were both fully aware that the slightest error or malfunction could leave them stranded on the Moon for good.
The United States did not have the luxury of creating a measured response in the event of a disaster. The entire country was following the Moon landing via television or radio, and much of the rest of the world was watching, too. If something went wrong, the American government would have a very narrow window to address the public before the news was out that the astronauts were doomed. With this in mind, President Richard Nixon commissioned a speech from Bill Safire, a regular speechwriter of his, to be read immediately following the notification of Armstrong and Aldrin's soon-to-be widows.
Michael Collins is the forgotten man of the Apollo 11 mission, as his role was to stay aboard the Columbia in lunar orbit while Armstrong and Aldrin hopped around the Moon’s surface. Given that Nixon’s Moon landing failure speech makes no mention whatsoever of Collins, it is safe to assume that everyone was quite sure he and the Columbia would be able to return safely to Earth.
Instead, the speech focused on the possibility that Collins would be unable to retrieve his fellow astronauts from the lunar surface, and he would be forced to return home without them.
The creepiest aspect of Nixon’s speech was that it was meant to be broadcast to the country before Armstrong and Aldrin had actually died. Even if they were abandoned on the Moon’s surface, the two would be able to survive until their oxygen ran out, or they starved. Alternatively, it was mentioned that the astronauts may have had to engage in “deliberately closed down communications,” a euphemism for suicide. Nixon would be letting the nation know that, although Armstrong and Aldrin were still alive now, they were doomed, and fully aware of their impending demise.
“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.”
Nixon’s speech made an attempt to spread a message of peace for all mankind in the wake of a horrific tragedy. Space exploration has traditionally been a unifying force for human scientific endeavor, and Nixon sought to reinforce that notion in his address. The entire world, after all, was watching.
“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.”