What If Apollo 11 Had Gone Wrong? NASA Had a Contingency Plan
This Saturday is the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 space program’s landing on the moon. In honor of the achievement, Citizen Truth will run a series of articles about little known aspects of the Apollo 11 space program all week.
Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin always knew the most dangerous part of the Apollo 11 mission was leaving the moon.
NASA knew it as well, and so did President Nixon, who had a secret contingency speech already prepared in case they didn’t come back. This information wasn’t known to the general public until about 20 years ago when the contingency plan documents surfaced.
To return to Earth, the ascent module of the Apollo Lunar Excursion Module (LEM) could not fail. The LEM also had to be safely piloted back to the lunar module, where Michael Collins was waiting, then the three had to successfully return to Earth.
Since no one had ever been to the moon, the scenario was not one that could be rehearsed with pure confidence. NASA wasn’t entirely sure the LEM could even get off the surface; that depended on how good the lunar landing was, as well as minimizing damage to the LEM during the mission.
If the LEM failed, Aldrin and Armstrong were stuck there. They knew there was no rescue mission, and they knew that many things could happen to leave them on their own up there. The two astronauts would be faced with a horrible decision: starve to death or commit suicide.
If Aldrin and Armstrong had been stuck, NASA’s plan was to simply turn off all communications channels. Apparently, not even Aldrin and Armstrong knew that part. NASA was extremely worried about any communications or footage leaking out in the event of this type of disaster. The thought of harried communications or even potential suicides being recorded was something the agency just could not stomach.
Today, Nixon’s speech is a matter of public record. He would have first called the astronauts’ wives, then would have delivered a public address in which he talked about fate ordaining the pair to stay on the moon: “These brave men, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, know there’s no hope for their recovery. But they also know there is hope for mankind in their sacrifice.” After the speech, NASA had plans to give the astronauts an official military burial at sea.
Nixon never had to give that speech. Instead, the president became the first human to call the moon from a regular phone, and also became the first president to welcome a crew back from the moon. Today, the original speech is available in the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum.