The first man to walk on the Moon died over the weekend. Neil Armstrong, commander of the historic Apollo 11 mission, reached the age of 82 before passing into history. He was one of my heroes when he made that, “One small step for (a) man, one giant leap for mankind.”
As a nine-year-old kid, I remember watching the landing like it was yesterday. Mr. Armstrong wasn’t my only hero tied to the space program. I looked up to everyone of those original astronauts and next to the Pittsburgh Pirates of the 1960s, I couldn’t get enough of NASA and anything associated with it.
Little did I know that as I took in everything NASA put out, I was also witness to one of the finest PR operations ever assembled. Keep in mind, I’m not inferring “propaganda,” but rather, public relations in its truest, most professional form.
One of the topics we cover here is crisis communications and crisis preparedness. Can you imagine the kind of crisis preparedness that went into planning for all of the uncertainties associated with pioneering, manned space flight?
We’re talking about using the best technology we had prior to the invention of the Internet, the personal computer, smart phones and even fax machines. Crude at best by today’s standards. And yet the goal was to take a human being and propel him all the way to the Moon AND back, safe and unharmed.
Such a lofty goal takes ambition and just turns it on its head. The movie Apollo 13 kind of captures the essence of the kind of challenge this was. It took a lot of brilliant people, honorable people, and dare I say it brave people to pull it all off.
Neil Armstrong was one of those brave people. He knew there was a very good chance he would make it into space and at some point along the way, not be able to come back. A little thing like hole in a hose, a failed switch, a faulty fuel tube could cause his mission to abort and his life to end. And still he signed up for it. Even as a kid, reading all the positive PR NASA could put out, the risks were not lost on me and the millions of people caught up in the space race at the time.
When Apollo 11 took off from Cape Canaveral, the possibility that it might not come back as planned was all too real. As I understand it, every detail of a process for aborting the mission was pre-planned. The astronauts knew in advance that when it became clear they would not return to Earth, there would be a designated time to terminate all communication that was well in advance of their final moments.
It can be presumed that the perception-minded space agency didn’t want the public to see or hear their heroes in any context other than brave, courageous and healthy. The decision was made that if possible, the astronauts of any failed mission would be allowed time to come to terms with their fate individually, in private and with dignity.
It was against this backdrop that President Nixon’s speechwriter, William Safire, wrote one of the greatest speeches I ever read. Today we would have called this a contingency speech as part of a crisis communications plan. In such situations, it’s customary to prepare remarks and statements for all possible eventualities, including a worst-case scenario.
The following speech was written by William Safire and submitted to White House Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman on July 18, 1969. The “subject” heading of the memo was, “In the Event of Moon Disaster.”
In light of the passing of Neil Armstrong this past weekend, Mr. Safire’s words written so long ago and fortunately, never spoken to the American people, remain a fitting tribute to our first space explorers. Here is one of the greatest speeches never given (Thank God):
“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.”