Thursday, July 20, 2006

Apollo 11 moon landing anniversary; Ayn Rand - Apollo and Dionysus; William Safire

Today is the 37th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing in 1969.

This anniversary reminds me of two things:

1) Ayn Rand wrote an article in late 1969 entitled "Apollo and Dionysus." She compared the Apollo 11 flight to Woodstock and examined the opposing philosophies that brought about the moon landing and the mudfest in New York. This article is the definitive piece in response to the endless MSM/DNC romanticizing of Woodstock (and of the '60's in general). The article later appeared in The New Left: The Anti-Industrial Revolution.

2) In 1999, William Safire published the text of a speech that he had written for President Nixon shortly before the Apollo 11 mission. Safire was given the duty to prepare a speech in the event that the mission failed. I don't have the url anymore, but I saved the article containing the speech when it was first published seven years ago. The article describes the speech and the circumstances under which it was written. I enjoy "what if" scenarios, especially when the historical figures involved developed such detailed scenarios:

Disaster Never Came
"Fate has ordained," a saddened President was prepared to say, "that the men who went to the moon to explore in peace will stay to rest in peace."

That was the opening line of a speech to the nation that I drafted for Richard Nixon 30 years ago this week, as Apollo XI was about to land on the moon.

NASA's liaison with the White House, the astronaut Frank Borman, had called me to say "You want to be thinking of some alternative posture for the President in the event of mishaps." When that failed to register, he laid it out more plainly: "Like what to do for the widows."

The most dangerous part of the trip was not landing the little module on the moon, but in launching it back up to the mother ship. If that failed, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin could not be rescued. Mission Control would have to "close down communications" and, as the world agonized, let the doomed astronauts starve to death or commit suicide.

Nixon aides H. R. Haldeman and Peter Flanigan told me to plan for that tragic contingency. On July 18, 1969, I recommended that "in event of moon disaster . . . the President should telephone each of the widows-to-be" and after NASA cut off contact "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." A draft Presidential speech was included.

I haven't thought about that macabre planning for three decades. Like most adults, I remembered the exhilarating "MEN WALK ON MOON" headline, the phone call of congratulations to "Tranquillity base" -- and that historic weekend's dark counterpoint at Chappaquiddick, which ended the dynastic potential of the brother of the President who launched the Apollo journey.

Last week, however, Jim Mann of The Los Angeles Times wrote a piece headed "The Story of a Tragedy That Was Not to Be." He was digging through the National Archives last year, researching his book on China policy, "About Face." He found our moon disaster contingency plan, and published it the week before the anniversary along with the never-needed speech draft.

"These brave men, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, know there is no hope for their recovery," the President would have had to say. "But they also know that there is hope for mankind in their sacrifice.

. . .

"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 were the first, and will remain 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."

For 17 years afterward, we took space triumph for granted. Terrible risks were largely ignored -- until the Challenger spacecraft blew up for all to see in classrooms and living rooms.

No disaster speech was on hand for President Reagan to deliver in the stunned aftermath. His writer, Peggy Noonan, rose to the occasion with a moving address written at white heat, concluding with the words of the sonnet by James Gillespie Magee in farewell to the courageous crew who "slipped the surly bonds of earth to touch the face of God."

Time and chance happeneth to us all. Armstrong and Aldrin are alive and well; the third man to walk the moon, Pete Conrad, was killed last week when, like Lawrence of Arabia, he ran his motorcycle into a ditch. But the point is not the quirkiness of Fate: our charge today is to value the goal of discovery that drives questing humans to take great risks.

A personal note. At historic moments, speechwriters turn to poets. The final line of the undelivered salute evoked the cadence of the patriotic poet Rupert Brooke, who died in the Royal Navy in World War I:

If I should die, think only this of me:
That there's some corner of a foreign field
That is forever England.

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