The Apollo 11 Mission Could Have Bee Much Worse

In 1969, more than 500 million Americans watched on TV as Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first men to set foot on the moon. Although Richard Nixon was President at that time, Lyndon Baines Johnson had advanced space exploration with great effort during his term in office.

LBJ made significant investments in NASA to ensure it had sufficient funds to achieve its goals, as well as making certain a U.N. treaty would prevent one nation from unilaterally claiming ownership of the Moon.

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Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin’s first landing of the Moon left many in shock and awe, receiving congratulations from President Richard Nixon in the Oval Office shortly after their arrival on July 20, 1969, before their splashdown in the Pacific Ocean some 920 miles southwest of Honolulu aboard USS Hornet, an onboard quarantine facility converted camper, serving as their mobile quarantine facility; Nixon could be found outside on its deck and spoke directly to them through windows in their vehicle.

This documentary by MIT’s Center for Advanced Virtuality features an animated video depicting President Reagan giving an address that never took place, premiering this week at the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA). Co-director Francesca Panetta explained they chose this particular speech due to its connection to Apollo 11 — already fraught with conspiracy theories and misinformation — while remaining nonpolitical. Lastly, they wanted to demonstrate just how easy it would be to edit videos using technology available today even 50 years after.

Once the astronauts had returned, they were met by NASA officials, media members, and members of their families for phone calls. A letter was also sent from San Francisco citizen Thaddeus A. Zagorewicz expressing his congratulations for their successful mission; included with it was a 10-cent airmail stamp issued by USPS as first day cancellations.

President Richard Nixon played an instrumental role in many major events and decisions during his Presidency, but is best remembered for his pivotal role in NASA’s Apollo 11 mission and subsequent legacy of human spaceflight efforts. Through this document trail activity, students will review documents related to the creation and execution of Apollo program; answering and recording their answers and conclusions will be encouraged within provided spaces. Some documents and text come directly from our collection while others come directly from online resources such as Wikipedia.

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American’s greatest victory in the Space Race came to fruition when astronaut Neil Armstrong made history by becoming the first human to walk on the moon. An estimated 530 million viewers tuned in for this landmark momentous occasion that many consider the “birth” of modernity; but things could have turned out much differently; any number of factors might have prevented Neil from landing safely; so much so, President Nixon prepared an emergency speech just in case anything unexpected went amiss with their mission.

Journalist Bill Safire states, ‘Nixon composed his message after hearing from an astronaut acting as White House liaison that they had been instructed to compose a message for President Nixon in case something went wrong during Apollo 11. If they were unable to return home safely from space exploration, they would likely perish from asphyxiation or starvation.”

At launch time, everything ran smoothly. In the days preceding launch, Nixon worked hard to incorporate himself into NASA mission. He hosted an unofficial presidential reception prior to launch day and later welcomed back home the crew from 21-hour stay on Moon on USS Hornet, meeting them as soon as they returned; their two-minute conversation on the ship is preserved for posterity.

This text’s intent was to ensure that a tragedy like Apollo 11 wouldn’t harm public opinion and ultimately terminate NASA’s programs. President Clinton was acutely aware of its significance for himself and could possibly affect his popularity ratings and reputation if an adverse incident were to arise during such a mission.

Nixon successfully rode the wave of national pride that followed the lunar landing, being reelected in 1972 and going on to pursue more ambitious projects such as sending people to Mars and funding NASA to allow its pursuit. Furthermore, Nixon played an instrumental role in passing legislation establishing NASA and outlining its goals: The National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958 was one such law which provided for such funding – something Nixon himself was instrumental in doing so himself!

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On July 20, 1969, millions watched Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin take their first steps on the Moon’s surface for President Kennedy and realized by Lyndon Johnson. An estimated 500 million people tuned in, including representatives from Soviet Russia and China – America’s two main competitors in the Space Race. As Armstrong and Aldrin planted an American flag they were met by President Richard Nixon who extended congratulations from all Americans worldwide in an open phone call that was broadcast live to all audiences worldwide.

President Nixon knew his Apollo 11 mission was a risky endeavor and prepared remarks just in case something went wrong. President Safire, President Nixon’s speechwriter, drafted this backup plan; it never had to be used but many close calls almost did: astronauts overshooting their intended landing site and landing in hazardous rocky ground was almost the final straw; lunar module circuit breakers had broken, preventing them from shutting down spacecraft before landing; both instances occurred without serious incident; crew escaped unscathed from both instances with everyone safely escaping unscathed from both.

President Kennedy initially embarked on the Moon mission with excitement; however, as its expenses and technical challenges became evident to him he began questioning its feasibility and even called for its cancellation during private conversations with NASA Administrator Jim Webb – however his assassination just weeks later insured it continued apace.

NASA began planning the Space Shuttle Program after Apollo 11, to develop spacecraft capable of being refueled and brought back down to Earth for reuse. This early 1969 concept sketch shows a shuttle docked to a large space station with other vehicles attached in low Earth orbit – this outline showed how spacecraft would rendezvous with the International Space Station as part of an interagency Space Task Group presentation.

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As we commemorate 50 years since Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin first set foot on the moon, it’s worth recalling that NASA’s inaugural lunar landing could have gone much differently. Traveling through space is dangerous, and any number of hazards could have put their astronauts in perilous situations; had anything gone amiss during their voyage or attempt at leaving its surface, Armstrong and Aldrin may well have died of asphyxiation, starvation or suicide before safely returning home. Luckily nothing went amiss and both astronauts returned safely home!

At Mission Control in Houston, the astronauts communicated their progress to and requested help if anything went wrong while on the lunar surface via CapCom (Captain Communicator), their television systems’ host. At their return aboard USS Hornet (prime recovery ship for Apollo 11 lunar landing), President Richard Nixon stood to welcome back Commander Neil A. Armstrong, Michael Collins and Edwin E. “Buzz” Aldrin Jr with open arms; joking about their call being collect; thanking them for their achievements; inviting them for dinner two weeks hence.

National Archives offers the transcript of President Truman’s Welcome address of July 24th 1969 for viewing on their website. (July 24, 1969).

President Nixon used Apollo’s success as an opportunity to build his approval ratings and reputation; he held a pre-launch presidential reception separate from NASA events, with his name on a plaque fixed to Lunar Module’s leg; he was the only President ever honored this way. Additionally, Nixon personally approved including “We Came in Peace for All Mankind” into its text, and signed the document given out to astronauts after landing.

This video from IDFA puts viewers into a replica 1960s living room and provides them with a presentation about Apollo 11’s journey to the moon – before transitioning into what could have happened if things had gone horribly wrong and left Armstrong and Aldrin marooned on its surface. Canny AI used deepfake technology to replace Wheeler’s narration with that of Nixon himself narrating.

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