Left to Write: And Beyond

Posted by Jake Dolgenos

Over three decades after the first successful lunar mission of 1969, a peculiar document was released to the press. Written by former president Richard Nixon's speechwriter William Safire, the memo, two pages in length, imagined a worst-case scenario for the as-yet unfinished mission: what if the astronauts could not return home? It is worth reading for its politically unifying message, its raw poignancy and for the opportunity to reflect on what this unique moment of history signifies. I reproduce the full document here because I believe it is one of a few documents worth reading. It will make you believe in us, as a country and a species.

To: H. R. Haldeman [Nixon's Chief of Staff]
From: Bill Safire

July 18, 1969.

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 the 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 the 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.

You may (and I most certainly do) disagree with much of the attitudes and policies of the Nixon administration, and, indeed, William Safire's own political ideology is not one with which I find much common ground. But, for a moment, he touched something deeper. I took his words as a reflection of something I believe to be important and definitive, something we can all struggle to emulate in our (primarily) earthbound college lives.

Imagine, for a moment, the experience of the men who traveled into the unknown on July 16th, 1969, knowing that the world was preparing speeches for possible tragedy. Remembering the eventual success of the Apollo 11 mission alongside our failures - the crashes of the Challenger and the Columbia space shuttles for instance - puts the seemingly superhuman bravery of those first three in startling context. For this project, they lived for something greater than themselves.

I have two things to say, in my own limited words, about this memo and the thoughts it so eloquently communicates.

First, it is troubling to look at the NASA program of 1969 and realize how little we prioritize our space program today. Our shuttle program is on hiatus (or permanently?) and this year NASA will receive about half the money it did (adjusted for inflation) during the program's peak in 1966. By percentage of the Federal budget, our space program gets less than 1/8th of the priority it did 56 years ago. A look backward makes me wish we could, as a country, look upwards like we did a generation and a half ago. The stars are just as beautiful these days, if a little more obscured by light and air pollution.

Second, and more poetically, it strikes me that the events of July 1969 speak to something profoundly human. We see, in the animal kingdom, many acts of sacrifice that move us. In all cases, these acts are evolutionarily designed to ensure the continuation of the species and, more specifically, the genetic line of the martyr. But the act of making this sacrifice with eyes open, fully conscious of the meaning of the self and the other is something we can truly say is ours alone. When we live and die for our ideas, for loved ones, for the betterment of all mankind, we are expressing our humanity. When we do so with eyes open, as Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins gladly risked, we take the opportunity to do service to this most sacred of human values. It is the reason we pray to and sanctify the martyrs of history - because in their acts we recognize a pure and uncompromising humanity.

It is intimidating to recognize our own limits to this idealistic notion of self-sacrifice. We pretend, certainly, to live in an individualistic society. It can make one feel small indeed, to witness the grander exemplars around us. Not everyone can give up his or her sense of self to the greater good, at least, not every day. But, I submit that to truly live we must find the ideals worth living for; to truly feel fulfilled we must exercise our human need to give to those ideas and people that we believe in. In the age of the suicide bomb it seems outmoded to celebrate the utter conviction of those who die or risk death for their beliefs. But, we should never forget that it was this determination that produced our greatest triumphs - it is to the scientists who lived in their labs and gave up their lives that we can live in a country free of polio and smallpox, a country that receives color photographs from Mars each day, a country that once watched Neil Armstrong take one small, timeless step.

Find in the world those things you believe, and celebrate with me those moments when humanity conquers our collective obstacles with the stubborn and unyielding vision born of a conviction in the greater good.

Jake Dolgenos is a member of the class of 2014, reads boats and rows books, and believes that space is the final frontier. 

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