First Man: Officials prepared for 'moon disaster'

Ryan Gosling depicts Neil Armstrong in "First Man."
Ryan Gosling depicts Neil Armstrong in "First Man."
Image: Universal Pictures
In two, jolting hours, the movie First Man offers an exhilarating, satisfying and, most of all, terrifying glimpse into the life of astronaut Neil Armstrong.

     Even before he became the first man to set foot on the moon on July 20, 1969, Armstrong (1930-2012) was often face-to-face with death --  whether it was the loss in 1962 of his toddler, Karen, to cancer, or the deaths in 1966 of two colleagues during a training accident. And most notably, a fire inside the Apollo 1 spacecraft killed astronauts Ed White, Gus Grissom and Roger Chaffee in 1967.
     But one of the most memorable sequences in the movie depicts NASA officials readying for the possibility that Armstrong and fellow astronaut Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, now 88, wouldn’t make it off the moon. 
     In fact, President Richard Nixon’s speechwriter, William Safire, prepared remarks to be delivered if that happened. Interviewed in 1999 on NBC’s Meet the Press, Safire (1929-2009) explained that he had been contacted by a NASA liaison who told him to consider an “alternative posture for the president in the event of mishaps.” 
     The most dangerous part of the mission was getting the lunar module off the moon and rejoining it with the command ship, Safire recalled. “But if they couldn’t [get the module off the moon], and it was a good risk that they couldn’t, then they would have to be abandoned on the moon, left to die there. And mission control would then have to, to use their euphemism, close down communication. And the men would have to either starve to death or commit suicide.”
     The remarks Safire prepared for Nixon were unnecessary -- the mission was a success. "Of course, the module made it," Safire said during the 1999 interview. For 17 years that followed, Americans thought there could be nothing wrong in the space program. Then, on Jan. 28, 1986, the space shuttle Challenger exploded, he added. "We realized what enormous risks that were being run by these astronauts. They laid their lives on the line every time." 
      Here is the speech Safire wrote that was never delivered:
     “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.” 



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