"I've seen things you people wouldn't believe": Nixon's Speech if Apollo 11 Had Failed
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"I've seen things you people wouldn't believe": Nixon's Speech if Apollo 11 Had Failed

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | Think Pieces | August 30, 2012 | Comments ()


Yeah, I went to the well of the same two line soliloquy in consecutive posts, but it just fit too well both times.

Like a lot of science fiction nerds, I grew up staring at the moon and the stars. It was like a prayer to whisper to myself that someday, I was going there, that someday I'd fly between them for no other reason than to go there. But it was with a grain of sadness even as a child. My earliest memory of the space program is Challenger detonating after launch, and at no time in my life has mankind gone farther into space than I can drive horizontally in a few hours on the interstate.

Somewhere along the way, the audacious projects fell by the wayside. We started doing the safe missions, the more efficient and cost effective missions. I know every one of the scientific arguments, I know that sending people to Mars would cost a hundred times what it took to send a wee little rover. I know that there's no science that can be done by human hands so incredibly much better that it could ever justify the cost. But I also know that all of that is true of the Apollo 11 mission as well. I know that those exact reasons are why the Russians never even made the attempt at dropping humans onto the surface of the moon.

But gods, we sent men there because we could. We sent them there for a dream, for the secret symbols of awe we can only find in infinity. Of course the motivation was to beat those godless commies, but isn't that exactly the point? Once we rode pillars of fire to touch the sky, for no reason but reaching farther than anyone else.

The short speech below was penned by William Safire for President Nixon in the event that Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin had been unable to take off from the moon, and been hopelessly stranded at the Sea of Tranquillity.



I like to think that we will change our collective minds, that the questions of cost-benefit and risk-to-crew will be buried for the irrelevancies that they are in the scheme of the dream. I like to think that if Tricky Dick had been forced to address the world with that speech, that Armstrong would have thought the attempt still worth it. I like to think I would have, in his shoes.

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Comments Are Welcome, Bigots and Trolls Are Not

  • GunNut2600

    Landing on the Moon was a successful failure for NASA. They achieved their goals of delivering three men to the surface and back, safely, but it crippled the agency.

    The Apollo missions consumed so many resources to achieve just one singular goal that NASA was never able to transition successfully to another mission type. There are still entire facilities and factories that have been mothballed because they can't do anything but built Saturn rockets or Apollo components.

    Post Apollo, NASA came up with a full fledged goal of creating a massive space station, a lunar base, and a transport system to move cargo and personnel between Earth and the other locations. Congress authorized the cargo freighter (aka the space shuttle) and had them scrap everything else. We basically had a cargo transport to go nowhere. Even worse, every single detail of the space shuttle became a political debate. You can't build a chair cheap if you got 100 senators fighting over which state gets the contracts to make the legs.

    I did a summer internship with NASA while in college. Some of the most intelligent and dedicate people I have ever met in my life work for the agency. But just like my time in the Navy, the people in charge generally have zero fucking clue what is going on and the dangerous thing is that they make all the important decisions.

    You know what caused the Challenger disaster? Fucking Power Point. It sounds crazy to anyone who has never been in the military. Basically everything from the engineers and scientists has be dumbed down to the level that it fits on a Denny's place mat for the political appointees in charge. So serious issues just get glossed over a couple hundred times until its no longer even on the radar.

    You want to really lose your lunch, check out the Altair project. That was want NASA wanted to do until Congress thankfully stopped them. It was a complete rehash of the Apollo mission except the Altair managed to be an even worse design than the original Apollo landing craft. For example, Astronauts would have to scale a three story ladder to get to the lunar surface. None of this matters as NASA couldn't even get the replacement rocket system built for testing.

    I'm not one of those Paultards who think that the free market is the answer to everything...cause its not. But with building a very expensive and complex system, the normal issues that come with government work gets highly compounded. Apollo was only possible because it happened close enough to the end of WWII that engineers and scientists were still valued over rank and file bureaucrats. That isn't the case today and Apollo will remain the high point in NASA's history from this point on. Its a shame but that is how it is...

  • Sigh. I know I'm alone in my view, but...

    Space exploration - what is it good for? Absolutely nothing, unless you count Tang and microwave ovens. People are suckered by the romantic adventure of it all, but in the meantime GAZILLIONS has been spent on various missions into space. Money that could have been spent on solving poverty and hunger issues on this planet we're actually living on.

    Occasionally I hear the argument trotted out that we're killing our own planet so it's wise to find out if we can live on another. Seriously? How many of the 6+ billion people on this planet do you think will actually be relocated to another when this one is near death?

    The money spent on space exploration trickles down to whom? Not the people, but some major corporations who have done very nicely over the decades. The only tangible use for sending robot rockets to Mars is to extract minerals. We won't be living there, we'll be mining there. It's like taxpayers paying for a highway into the middle of nowhere so McDonalds can build a drive thru there.

  • mc

    I don’t in any way mean to be rude but this comment shows a lack of imagination and I feel for you. the "romantic adventure of it all" is the point. the space landing brought the ENTIRE WORLD (or at least first world countries) together. billions of people held their breath to see if this monumental gamble paid off. it was inspiring, it taught people to dream. to reach for the stars. to believe anything was achievable. do you think Columbus and Captain Cook et al sailing off from the mother country to explore the rest of the planet was pointless? they didn’t do it because they needed to. they did it to explore the unknown. billions of dollars are already spent trying to end poverty and hunger in developing countries. and has been spent for decades. no matter how much first world countries spend the problem will never be defeated because the corrupt war lords and "government officials" in those third world countries take the money and live like fat cats. they will never let it get better because as long as there is poverty and hunger in their countries they have first world handouts to steal. the money spent on the space program DOES go back into the economy. the "major corporations" have to pay their employees who then pay their landlords, their electricity, their groceries etc.

  • E

    I don't understand the current fervor over increasing NASA funding. What benefit does it give us as a society besides it being super neato?

  • Dragonchild

    The private sector isn't in the business of taking big risks. Businesses invest to develop incremental upgrades, because you can give the CFO a cost-benefit analysis. It's worth some risk to gain a competitive edge, but it's enough to a businessman to be merely slightly better than the status quo. They didn't invent the internal combustion engine by looking at ways to improve a horse. Big risks that cost big bucks? The little guy doesn't have the resources and the proposal won't make it past the shareholders' meeting.
    NASA basically starts with impossible missions, invents the tech to get the job done, and these innovations find their way into the private sector. Here's a rudimentary hypothetical example. If Boeing is left to its own devices, its next-gen aircraft might see a 5% increase in fuel economy. This takes innovation, but it's an incremental improvement that Boeing will consciously try to make within the confines of its established infrastructure -- factories, worker skills, etc. They are going out of their way to NOT invent something radically new. A totally innovative design for an aircraft on Mars? They won't touch that unless NASA or the DoD pays them for the research. . . which is exactly how these things work. The Internet was a DoD project. Miss Laaw-yuhr has NASA covered.
    In a globalized economy driven by incremental improvements, there will always be a nation that can make stuff cheaper than you -- because they don't care about human rights. And when China can make a widget for ten cents to your dollar, your incremental improvement is worth a mug of horse piss to the market. But when we push society forward, invent something no other nation can hope to copy, and when they finally manage to copy it we've come out with ten more inventions. . . we create jobs that you can't replace by just cracking a whip over a sweatshop slave. NASA is America's antidote to outsourcing.
    It's not just the immediate economic benefits, either. Many kids who went on to become scientists and engineers were first inspired by NASA. STEM degrees are pretty hard to get when your only goal is wealth. Whether our kids grow up to become technology leaders or burger-flippers depends in large part on what dreams we give them to chase. I've never met a child that was inspired by a banker.
    NASA's budget is less than half a penny per dollar. You're asking what it gets us? Well, if you're the shortsight selfish sort that needs to see personal benefit to justify a dream, here's your answer -- NASA's budget is how much we invest to sustain the most technologically advanced economy in the world. We're spending only 0.5% of our budget to stay one step ahead of the competition in a global economy. Spending this much isn't a waste of money; spending this little is a catastrophically massive failure of foresight.

  • Miss Laaw-yuhr

    Putting aside from all that neato "science" we get/got in terms of information, at the consumer level we got GPS (which saves my life pretty much daily), cordless power tools and vacuums, the materials that make up memory foam and invisalign, LEDs, freeze drying, and velcro and that's just the things I can think of off the top of my head. The benefits to medicine have been huge ranging from improved artificial limbs to heart and insulin pumps. Seriously - take 35 seconds and Google it there's a staggering list of spin off technologies, half of which we all take for granted on a daily basis so, in short, the space program has given us some pretty awesome stuff.

  • E

    And do people think government funded programs are more likely to come up with innovative technologies than for-profit endeavors? I don't see why that would be the case.

  • E

    But why are you so sure that we will continue to get innovative technology from further space exploration and what makes you think we wouldn't develop those technologies regardless?

    I honestly am not trying to argue, I really don't get why everyone is so gung-ho about it all of a sudden, except for the fact that they think the Mars rover is neat.

  • Artemis

    I like to think that we will change our collective minds, that the questions of cost-benefit and risk-to-crew will be buried for the irrelevancies that they are in the scheme of the dream.
    Just no. I think that it's a dream worth pursuing, even with the risks, but the potential loss of life is not an irrelevancy. It cheapens the magnitude of what space exploration is--not to mention the sacrifices of those who have died in that pursuit--to deny that the losses are real and important.
    What Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin did was awesome in the truest sense of the word not because the risk was insignificant, but at least in part because of how great it was.

  • That is a terrific speech Trying to imagine how much Jesus would be stuffed into it were it written today for a president from either party.

  • Bert_McGurt

    I'd LOVE to see how Buzz Aldrin reacts to those moon landing deniers now. The last one to confront him was lucky to get off with one punch to the face. After Armstrong's death, Buzz will be looking to lay an ass-whupping on anyone with the gall to provoke him that way. And rightly so! The sacrifices made and risks taken by the men on the Apollo missions (and of course in all the other space programs as well) are some of the most significant (and probably scariest) I can think of.

    It makes me sad that these sacrifices are being undermined by the government's waning interest in space exploration. For years the public was excited by the scale of these programs, but they've become routine, to a point where the benefits are being ignored. "Space-age" technology is no longer considered cutting-edge, despite the advances that continue to be made in ceramics, synthetics, composites, robotics, rocketry, power generation, life-support systems, biology, chemistry, and even geology and history. A large sector of the public has a perception that money spent on NASA is "wasted". The short-sightedness of which boggles my mind. That money pays salaries - of astronauts, engineers, technicians, cooks, and janitors, among many others. It goes to the private contractors that build space suits and robots. It buys fuel for the rockets. It goes right back into the goddamn economy!

    While it's a good thing that the private sector is taking an initiative in space exploration, typically their interest will only hold so long as it's profitable. And some projects' profit can't be measured in dollars and cents. Some projects are too vast in scope to even be considered by a private company. That's where the government needs to take a role, and that's where they're failing. They need to remember the sacrifices made by these pioneers, and make sure they weren't in vain.

  • Milly

    NASA haven't really helped themselves by massively underplaying the cost of further exploration, and then requiring ever greater expenditure to meet targets.

    If I was an American taxpayer, I wouldn't argue against the need to provide NASA with $8bn for a specific target. But what I would object to is that the initial $8bn grows year by year until 5 years down the line the cost has risen to $23bn+. That shows a lack of planning and foresight within NASA and doesn't help those who fight on their behalf because that money would come from budgets being slashed elsewhere or the American debt (the debt passed on to your children's children) getting ever greater.

    (I'm sorry if the figures are a little off, but I'm trying to remember a recent incident where a scheme got cancelled because of escalating costs)

  • BierceAmbrose

    In the early days NASA took informed, big risks. Sometimes stuff blew up. Latter day(*) NASA can't take risks. These days both politics and careerism would keep you from doing a launch with the odds and unknowns they had for Apollo 11.

    (*) I couldn't help myself.

    I wish we could get honest about risky stuff. Apparently, it's hard to give people a pass when we just don't freaking know yet, without letting people off the hook for things like exploding Pintos where we ought to know better. The "experimental" label on home built aircraft does pretty well at calibrating this kind of risk. The rate rate of development vehicle failures in the emerging private space flight industry feels about right, and nobody's panicking about it. Maybe we're learning.

    The Challenger explosion is kind of the opposite - leaning forward(*) when you should not. If you wanna yell at some stupidity that isn't the current election, read up on the investigation after Challenger blew up. It was completely foreseeable, avoidable and fixable. The program had a "space truck" image to prop up, so admitting they had ongoing R & D was just too painful. Don't even get me started on Columbia.

    It sucks, but I'm OK with people who taking clear-eyed, informed risks for noble purpose, like in the Apollo program. Stupidity & pretending stuff is safer than it is just pisses me off.

    Some entry points on mainly Challenger ...

    Richard Feynman was on the review commission after Challenger blew up with his stuff in an appendix after he threatened to pull his name if they kept excluding his input. Side questions: Why have Richard Freaking Feynman on your commission if you aren't going to listen to him? What makes anyone think stonewalling Richard Freaking Feynman can possibly work?

    Edward Tufte points out that it's nearly impossible to notice the shuttle boosters' low launch temperature problem from the infographics presented to program management. Tufte puts the NASA chart next to a "better" version in one of his books. Even knowing there's a problem you look at the NASA chart and go "Huh?" You look at the other and it's inescapable - the boosters are gonna spit fire if you launch cold.

  • Bert_McGurt

    That's certainly true, but it's not unique to NASA either. Other projects under different government umbrellas (say, DoD) are frequently subject to massive cost over-runs without the same objections, or repeated forced justification NASA faces.

    Take the F-35, for example. I don't care to argue against the utility or eventual necessity of the fighter at this point, but it's not as if America, or its jet-buying allies are hard-up for attack planes right now. Whereas NASA currently has NO reusable vehicles to ferret astronauts and payload into Earth orbit, and are relying on the goodwill of the ESA and the Russians to maintain the ISS. It seems incongruous to me.

  • rocky

    I would like this comment a thousand times if I could.

  • POINGjam

    I never thought about it that way. As thrilling as it must have been to step out onto the moon and jump around like a kid in a Chucky Cheese, it was under the weight of wondering whether you'd ever go home again.

  • ,

    The reason politicians niggle around with the budgets for the space program and the NEA is because 80% or more of the national budget is made up of programs they are scared shitless to touch. Defense (for the GOP), social welfare programs (for the Dems). Once you realize it's political death to suggest cutting anything there, what's left?

    The moon program was one of the great engineering feats ever, possibly THE greatest. Reading the history of Apollo, it's astonishing any of the astronauts ever made it back alive. Some of them never even made it off the launch pad.

    (RIP White, Grissom, Chafee)

  • Miss Laaw-yuhr

    Just to add a little perspective to those numbers: NASA has the *smallest* budget of all government agencies, less than 1% of the total federal budget. The other programs you mention break down as follows: Defense is 20%, Medicare/Medicaid is 23%, and Social Security is 20% coming to a total of 63% (these are 2010 CBO figures).

  • Miss Laaw-yuhr

    SLW - love this, the Blade Runner epigraph, and even found Nixon's speech surprisingly moving. So much pretty language so early in the day - it's a word joygasm. And I agree with Admin - it seems unjust that we spend more than any other military in the world (combined) but space exploration is somehow less defensible than the NEA despite all the great stuff we get from it (http://spinoff.nasa.gov/Spinof.... This all makes me thing of my favorite Oscar Wilde quote: "We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars".

  • Snath

    Wow, that speech is actually incredibly moving. Good on Safire for writing something that would have made even Nixon look good.

  • TherecanbeonlyoneAdmin

    My earliest memory of the space program is Challenger detonating after launch, and at no time in my life has mankind gone farther into space than I can drive horizontally in a few hours on the interstate.

    I hadn't even thought of it like that. We were actually watching that launch in school because of the first teacher in space. It was a most uncomfortable day.

    I often wonder why governments can find money for so many other things (like ways to kill people) but won't spend the money on space exploration. On of the few things that can actually bring together everybody on earth.

  • BlackRabbit

    Because most people don't see the "benefit" in space exploration. What do we get out of it, they'd say? I don't agree, but that's the excuse.

    Also, not to kill the heroic moment, but am I the only one who would be kinda creeped out to look at the moon if they hadn't made it back?

  • rocky

    What do we get out of it? I thought this was a pretty good column about that: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/08...

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