In Event of Moon Disaster

In a few days we’ll celebrate the 42nd anniversary of the first time humans set foot on our moon… another world. Forty-two isn’t a special number, except for those who consider space travel mostly humorous, and survival inevitable. Along with all other readers I blame, and love, Douglas Adams for that.

All these years later, here in reality, space travel is not as humorous or inevitable. And that’s the anniversary we celebrate today, because forty-two years ago William Safire took a call from NASA’s White House liaison Frank Borman. Borman told him “You want to be thinking of some alternative posture for the President in the event of mishaps.”

Safire, though he was a smart guy, didn’t get it, so Borman—who had commanded Apollo 8, and did get it—said it plain: “Like what to do for the widows.”

Oh. That kind of mishap.

So Safire wrote the following for president Nixon to read in case Aldrin and Armstrong didn’t come back….


To: H. R. Haldeman
From: Bill Safire
July 18, 1969.


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.


You can see the whole thing at The Smokng Gun, among other places. The message was clear then, and clear today. Survival is never certain.

By the way, Safire’s last line is probably a nod to “The Soldier,” a poem by Rupert Brooke, which begins:

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

If it’s an homage, I don’t think it works (the parallelism is lost, and so I keep waiting for the apostrophe-‘s’ that never arrives), but it didn’t have to; Aldrin, Armstrong, and Collins all came back, and today there are many corners of that other world that are forever ours.

Jim Ottaviani is the author of eight graphic novels about scientists (so far), on topics ranging from physicists to paleontologists to behaviorists. He’s probably the only comics writer whose books have received acclaim from Physics World, the New York Review of Books, and Vampirella Magazine. Upcoming books include a  biography of Richard Feynman, coming in August, 2011 from First Second and The Imitation Game, about Alan Turing… keep your eyes on in 2012 for that!


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