There’s one type of history I usually wouldn’t touch with a Renaissance Venetian barge pole on this blog, and that’s alternate history. While it’s interesting to try and work your way through a “What If”, you need to understand what you’re talking about in minute detail to get anywhere. History, unfortunately, isn’t really about minute detail. But occasionally, just occasionally, you can get a glimpse of how things might have happened: from an idea, from an ambition, from a plan. Or, in the case of what I’m going to show you today, a contingency plan.
William Safire was a speechwriter and presidential aide for Richard Nixon in the late 1960s. He was one of the people who publicised the legendary Kitchen Debate, a bizarre event where Nixon and Khrushchev started a heated argument about their countries’ achievements in the plastic kitchen of an American “model home”. But in 1969 he had a different task, because somewhere high above his head were three men in a little metal box, about to make a small step for a man and – to paraphrase – a fucking huge one for mankind. But the White House was worried. The footage was to go live on television to 500 million people: what would happen if they failed? The first people to land on a surface other than Earth would go down through human history. But if they missed their rendezvous they could be stuck there forever, perfectly preserved in the lack of atmosphere, a grim reminder of the dark side of the Space Race. So Safire wrote a speech. A speech that was to turn this alternate turn of events into an act of national, maybe even global, heroism. Thankfully, it was a speech that was never used. But it remains hauntingly beautiful, the last transmission Armstrong and Aldrin would ever have heard in a terrible alternate reality where a momentous achievement was marred with tragedy. Here, in full, is that speech:
IN EVENT OF MOON DISASTER:
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.
AFTER THE PRESIDENT’S STATEMENT, AT THE POINT WHEN NASA ENDS COMMUNICATIONS WITH THE MEN:
A clergyman should adopt the same procedure as a burial at sea, commending their souls to “the deepest of the deep,” concluding with the Lord’s Prayer.