As a speechwriter at the National Air and Space Museum, I have always been fascinated by looking at great moments in history through the lens of the speeches that were delivered to rousing applause, somber contemplation, or something in between. So, with the 50th anniversary of the first Moon landing upon us, it is interesting to look at the speeches that led to that moment.
The Soviet Union launched the first human, Yuri Gagarin, into space on April 12, 1961, beating both Alan Shepard to space and John Glenn to orbit. Within days of the Soviet achievement, President John F. Kennedy asked Vice President Lyndon Johnson to identify a “space program which promises dramatic results in which we could win.” A little over a month later, on May 25, 1961, Kennedy stood before a joint session of Congress and called for human exploration to the Moon. Unlike his later speech at Rice University, Kennedy’s address to Congress isn’t soaring rhetoric about the excitement about exploration or the significance of humanity’s first steps on the Moon. Rather, it was about why it was important that the first steps on the Moon be those of an American. He discusses the Apollo Moonshot as an important step to “win the battle that is now going on around the world between freedom and tyranny.” Moments later he declared: It is “time to take longer strides – time for a great new American enterprise –time for this nation to take a clearly leading role in space achievement, which in many ways may hold the key to our future on earth.”
The speech then laid out the path forward, should the United States embark on this journey. Achieving this goal will require the efforts of all Americans and an expense of billions of dollars. Kennedy put forth the risk and the reward, and called upon Congress to make the decision once and for all, on behalf of the American public:
“I believe we should go to the moon. But I think every citizen of this country as well as the Members of the Congress should consider the matter carefully in making their judgment, to which we have given attention over many weeks and months, because it is a heavy burden, and there is no sense in agreeing or desiring that the United States take an affirmative position in outer space, unless we are prepared to do the work and bear the burdens to make it successful. If we are not, we should decide today and this year.”
And the decision was made: go for the Moon. Following Kennedy’s address, NASA’s budget increased by 89 percent, and then by another 101 percent the following year. The race for the Moon was on.
(It is important to note that at the time this speech was delivered, NASA was still months away from even orbiting an astronaut. A recent blog by space history curator Michael Neufeld recounts the reaction of one NASA leader to the address: “Even through Gilruth had been part of the consultations, he was “aghast” when he heard the speech, as he contemplated such an ambitious schedule.”)
With the decision made, Kennedy now had to rally the support of the American public – after all, this was the most expensive civilian technological program in U.S. history. On September 12, 1962, he delivered his famous “We Choose to Go to the Moon” speech in front of a crowd of 40,000 at Rice University in Texas. In many ways, this speech is a masterclass in speechwriting, with its vivid pictures and soaring metaphors. Kennedy skillfully uses repetition to draw the audience in and capture the importance and urgency of the matter at hand.
“But why, some say, the moon?” he posed. “Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? Why does Rice play Texas? We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.”
(JFK also knew how to play to his audience. Handwritten notes by Kennedy show that the “Why does Rice play Texas?” line was added last minute. It naturally drew great applause.)
And at the end of the speech, Kennedy returned to one of the questions he posed earlier with a short anecdote to inspire the crowd and frame the quest for the Moon as an imperative: “Many years ago the great British explorer George Mallory, who was to die on Mount Everest, was asked why did he want to climb it. He said, "Because it is there."”
The Moon was there, and it was a challenge America was ready to accept and ready to win.
But speeches aren’t just used to rally public support. They also play an important role when responding to tragedy. And it was a somber reality that the Apollo 11 astronaut’s return from the Moon wasn’t a complete certainty.
When Kennedy stood before Congress to lay out the Apollo Moonshot, he didn’t just speak of landing on the Moon. The goal, he articulated, was of “landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to Earth.”
So in 1969, as President Richard Nixon’s speechwriters prepared his congratulatory remarks for the Apollo 11 mission, another speech was written in tandem. This additional set of remarks are of the sort that a speechwriter knows could be of utmost importance, but hopes will never need to see the light of day: what Nixon would say if Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin did not return from the Moon. The speech was sent in a memo from Nixon speechwriter Bill Safire to White House Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman, titled “In Event of Moon Disaster.”
The resulting speech is short and hauntingly beautiful. “Fate has ordained that the men who went to the moon to explore in peace will stay on the moon to rest in peace,” it begins.
In the month before the Apollo 11 launch, Apollo 8 astronaut and NASA liaison Frank Borman spoke with Safire, recommending that the West Wing be prepared in case there were problems during the lunar landing: “You’ll want to consider an alternative posture for the president in the event of mishaps.” The speech does just that: it is written in the event that Armstrong and Aldrin were stranded on the Moon. It captures the real concerns and danger that can exist when doing what once seemed impossible.
From a personal standpoint, I was not alive during the Moon landing. I have never known a time when we hadn’t gone to the Moon or weren’t regularly sending humans into space. So for me, the existence of this speech is a stark reminder of the incredible courage it takes to launch into space on a rocket and go where no person has gone before. And it reminds me not to take for granted this incredible thing 400,000 hard-working Americans accomplished together.
The speech is printed in full below.
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.
The original Safire Memo is in the National Archives.