Secrets at the museum

It’s not exactly a secret anymore. Fifteen years ago, this undelivered speech surfaced. A 233-word speech, written by presidential speech writer William Safire, was to be given by Richard Nixon in the event of Apollo 11’s failure. I imagine President Nixon might have kept  it folded neatly in his jacket pocket for the entire 8-day mission and then, in ultimate relief, buried it in a desk drawer when the crew was finally taken aboard the USS Hornet.

While it may not be a secret, it is certainly not something we discuss often at the museum. We try to avoid difficult subjects with children and most adults come to celebrate the moon landing.

In hindsight, it’s easy to forget that the mission to land a man on the moon and return him safely to Earth was anything but assured. We forget that just two-and-a-half years earlier, three astronauts died during a “routine” test on the launch pad. Nine months after the first moon landing, three more astronauts were nearly stranded in space when their spacecraft was crippled en route to the moon. Forty-five years later, we forget the details and remember only that they made it. Forget that they had just thirty seconds of fuel remaining. Forget that the Lunar Module engine failed to ignite, and a felt-tip pen saved the lives of Neil and Buzz. Those not born yet in 1969 take Apollo 11’s success for a simple fact, much like the facts that the colonists formed a new nation and the Union held together during the Civil War.

Without the possibility of failure, there would not be much to “celebrate” about Apollo 11. The policy makers, the engineers, and the astronauts themselves knew that this could end in failure — from simply aborting the landing to making the ultimate sacrifice. Neil Armstrong himself gave the mission only a 50 percent chance of success. Bravery is not continuing without knowledge of the danger, it is advancing in spite of it.

To learn more untold stories, visit the Armstrong Air & Space Museum on Thursday, April 10 at 7 p.m. for the Secrets tour, a unique hour-long experience featuring tales of loss, competition, everyday struggles, scandal, politics, and success.

“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.”

— Christopher Burton
is the executive director
of the Neil Armstrong
Air and Space Museum.