In the five months after Richard Nixon was sworn in as president on January 20, 1969, there were two Apollo missions, both of which had to be successful in order for the July Apollo 11 flight to be the first try at a lunar landing. Both did succeed, clearing the path to the Moon. Apollo 9 (March 3-13) was an Earth-orbit test of the lunar module. Apollo 10 (May 18-26) was the dress rehearsal that performed all elements of the lunar landing mission except the landing itself.
Several of Nixon’s immediate staff, including chief of staff H. R. “Bob” Haldeman and appointments secretary Dwight Chapin, had worked in the advertising agency J. Walter Thompson, and they applied that expertise to making sure that the Apollo 11 mission and its aftermath would communicate the messages important to the president and in the process burnish Nixon’s image as a world leader. On May 28, two days after Apollo 10 splashed down, Chapin and Peter Flanigan, Nixon’s assistant with specific responsibility for space issues, met with NASA Administrator Tom Paine “to go over the Apollo 11 activities which could conceivably involve the President, either directly or indirectly.”10 Nixon, briefed on these discussions, quickly suggested that NASA assign Borman to the White House to help manage activities “with relation to this shot and subsequent congratulation of the astronauts.” Borman recognized that the Apollo 11 mission was “obviously going to be one of the most epochal events in history if it succeeded, and by the same token an unparalleled catastrophe if the crew didn’t survive.” Those within NASA close to Project Apollo, like Borman, realized just how risky missions to the Moon were, and thus were very conscious of the possibility of failure in the first landing attempt.11
Haldeman, Chapin, and Flanigan had their own ideas on how best to portray the president in the most positive possible light, and they did not trust Paine and other top NASA officials to give the president’s interests top priority in the run up to Apollo 11. Paine had been selected as the NASA administrator only after several candidates preferred by the White House had turned down the position. Paine was a holdover from the Johnson administration; as a liberal Democrat, he was an unlikely choice as Nixon’s top space official. (His selection is discussed in chapter 2.) After discussing Paine’s suggestions with Nixon, Haldeman told Chapin that “the President is intrigued with having a very big dinner” after the Apollo 11 crew was released from quarantine; the dinner would include all U. S. astronauts and the widows “of the three that were burned.” [This was a reference to the deaths of Apollo 1 astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee when a fire broke out in their spacecraft during a launch pad test on January 27, 1967.] Nixon first considered having the dinner at the White House, then thought “it ought to be bigger.” After considering both New York and Chicago as venues, Nixon “ended up being primarily intrigued with the possibility of Los Angeles, doing it at the Century Plaza.” Nixon proposed charging $100 a person for the dinner and “using the income for space scholarships for underprivileged kids.” (This proposal was later dropped.) He “definitely wants to go ahead with plans to visit the Cape for the shoot” and “liked the idea of watching the launch from aboard a ship.” Nixon wanted to make sure that any prelaunch reception “would clearly be the President’s affair—not NASA’s.” Nixon had been told that it would be possible to talk on split-screen television with the astronauts while they were on the Moon; he was “extremely anxious to pursue the television participation idea.” The president, reported Haldeman, “still feels he probably should go to the carrier for the pick up,” but “we can talk him out of that.” A week letter, the idea of President Nixon having dinner with Apollo 11 crew—Neil Armstrong, Edwin Aldrin, Jr., better known as “Buzz,” and Michael Collins—the night before their launch had been added to the list of possibilities.
Nixon’s interest in going to the recovery carrier had been communicated to NASA, which was skeptical of the desirability of such an undertaking. NASA’s top public relations official, Julian Scheer, told the White House that Nixon could not greet the astronauts personally, but only “talk with the Apollo 11 crew through a porthole (two feet by two feet in size)” in the isolation quarters in which they would stay for two weeks after their return from the Moon to avoid the remote possibility that they were carrying alien organisms. Even so, after meeting with Nixon on June 10, Ehrlichman ended his meeting notes with the question “splash down—DO WE GO?” Richard Nixon’s answer was “yes.”12
Another White House idea for putting Apollo 11 in a broader cultural and historical context was asking poet Archibald MacLeish, who had written the stirring words with respect to the Apollo 8 mission that Nixon had quoted in his inaugural address, to compose something similar in connection with Apollo 11. MacLeish had initially responded positively to an informal inquiry asking whether he would accept such a request, so on July 1, Nixon, noting that there was “no precedent for such a request by a President in office,” wrote MacLeish, asking him “to write a poem commemorative of this event, examining the meaning and portent of the achievement,” which Nixon noted should be viewed “not only as a great adventure, but in the perspective of the search for truth and a quest for peace.” However, even before receiving the president’s letter, MacLeish changed his mind; apparently he “thought twice about doing anything with Nixon connected with it.” On June 26 he called Henry Kissinger, Nixon’s national security adviser and a former faculty colleague at Harvard, indicating that his “artistic creativity” could not be marshaled on request. MacLeish did write such a poem, but rather than providing it to President Nixon, it was published on the front page of The New York Times on the morning after the Moon landing. According to Nixon speechwriter Safire, “this slap in the face did not go unnoticed, and was an episode to recall and mutter about when we were criticized for not considering the spiritual meaning of the moon landing.”13
By mid-June, Frank Borman had arrived at the White House and had begun to work with Flanigan and Chapin on Apollo 11 activities. He relayed the information that the Apollo 11 crew was “very pleased the President will accept their invitation to dinner.” He recommended that Nixon “should not stay” for the next morning’s launch, since “there is the possibility of last minute delays.” Borman felt that the dinner with the crew would “set the stage” and “the President’s activity will build—with the television from the moon and the events thereafter.” The decision that Nixon would be present as the crew splashed down in the Pacific had been made by this time, and “plans are being made aboard the carrier for the President and his party— up to a total of 30.” After the crew’s release from quarantine in August, the White House was planning “a swing to New York City, Chicago and back to Los Angeles for the dinner in the evening.” Borman had objected to this plan, suggesting that the crew travel only to Los Angeles, but he was overruled. Nixon wanted a nationwide celebration of the mission’s success.14
What were supposed to be final plans for the president’s involvement were in place by July 1. Nixon would fly to Cape Kennedy on July 15 for an early dinner with the Apollo 11 crew, who had to get up at 4:00 a. m. on launch day, and then return to Washington after dinner. He would watch the launch from the White House. On July 20, the day the astronauts would land on the Moon, there would be a White House church service with a large attendance of members of Congress, NASA officials, and other dignitaries. Shortly after the crew members began their walk on the Moon, at that point scheduled for the early morning of July 21, they would unveil a plaque on the lunar module saying “Here Men from the Planet Earth First Set Foot Upon the Moon, July 1969, A. D. We Came in Peace for All Mankind.” The plaque would bear the signatures of Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins, the three men who had actually journeyed to the Moon—and that of Richard Nixon. Adding Nixon’s signature was a late decision on NASA’s part, without White House urging, reflecting the space agency’s interest in making the president positively disposed toward NASA’s post-Apollo plans.
The final wording on the plaque was a White House responsibility, after NASA had prepared a first draft of the text. Initially it was to read “first landed,” but there were Central Intelligence Agency reports that the Soviet Union might land a robotic spacecraft on the lunar surface before the astronauts arrived, so “landed” was changed to “set foot.” Safire, who was reviewing the text for the plaque, changed “we come in peace” to “we came in peace.” He thought the former phrase sounded like “a stereotyped salute from white settlers to Hollywood Indians.” NASA’s adding “A. D.” to the date, noted Safire, was “a shrewd way of sneaking God in”; it would “tell space travelers eons hence that earthlings in 1969 had a religious bent.” Safire recalls that “the one item we did not bother to discuss was the signature of the President” on the plaque, since “the President, whoever he is, always signs a new Federal bridge or post office,” so “we took it for granted he would sign his name to the moon project.” Safire added, “we were insensitive to the sensitivity of old Kennedy hands,” who interpreted Nixon’s signature as “trying to horn in on a Kennedy project.” The president was given two alternatives for the last line on the plaque: “A New Dawn for the Human Spirit” and “A New Dawn of Peace for All Mankind.” Nixon decided to stay with “We Came in Peace for All Mankind.” He gave his personal approval to the wording of the plaque, writing “OK” on a June 16 memorandum communicating the text.15
Nixon also decided in June to make his long flight to the Apollo 11 splashdown on July 24 the first stop on a round-the-world diplomatic tour that would have as its theme “The Spirit of Apollo.” In this way Nixon could use his long trip to be present at the mission’s end as a springboard for broader diplomatic purposes. In particular, Nixon was eager to visit Romanian head of state Nicolae Ceausescu, who had indicated that he could serve as a communication channel to Chinese Premier Chou En-Lai for a Nixon initiative to begin the process of normalizing the U. S.-Chinese relationship. This planning assumed the mission’s success, which was certainly not guaranteed, and thus represented significant risk-taking on Nixon’s part.16
Richard Nixon got much of his information about what was going on in the world from assiduously reading his “daily news summary,” a digest of stories from around the world, usually prepared by his young staff assistant Patrick Buchanan. The July 7, 1969, news summary reported that NASA medical officials were “extremely upset by the President’s plans to have dinner with the APOLLO 11 astronauts the night before they blast off.” The source of the reported concern turned out to be NASA’s Dr. Charles Berry, who billed himself as the astronaut’s personal physician, although according to Mike Collins, “we seldom saw him.” Berry apparently was worried that the president might be carrying germs that could affect the crew’s health during the mission. The Apollo 11 astronauts thought that this concern was absurd, given that they were in daily contact with a number of others not under quarantine restrictions, and would have dinner a few days before the flight with NASA Administrator Paine who, noted Collins sarcastically, “was apparently germ-free.” Borman called Berry’s warning “totally ridiculous” and “dammed stupid,” but advised Nixon to cancel the planned dinner because “if anyone sneezes on the Moon, they’d put the blame on the president.” As the story gained wide circulation, Nixon’s staff accepted Borman’s advice and decided it had no choice but to cancel the president’s prelaunch dinner with the crew. Armstrong, Collins, and Aldrin on July 9 sent a telegram to the president, expressing their “deepest regrets over the unfortunate circumstances that precluded your coming. . . You are welcome in our quarters at any time.” Instead of dining with the Apollo 11 crew on July 15, Richard Nixon called them as they were having dinner and sent them a telegram saying: “On the eve of your epic mission, I want you to know that my hopes and my prayers—and those of all Americans—go with you. . . It is now your moment.”17