Answer Man

‘Moon Disaster’ speech was ready to go

The Apollo 11 astronauts, from left: Neil Armstrong, mission commander and the first person to walk on the moon; Command Module pilot Michael Collins, and Lunar Module pilot Edwin Aldrin Jr.
The Apollo 11 astronauts, from left: Neil Armstrong, mission commander and the first person to walk on the moon; Command Module pilot Michael Collins, and Lunar Module pilot Edwin Aldrin Jr. NASA/Chicago Tribune Service

Q: Your recent answer about the Apollo 11 astronauts selling their autographs as a type of life insurance policy reminded me of something I was told years ago but had always wondered whether it were true. Was there a speech prepared that would have been read if the astronauts had died on the moon?

Richard Bridges, of O’Fallon

A: Thank the moon and stars we never had to hear it, but, yes, the Nixon administration was determined not to get caught unprepared if the unspeakable occurred.

So on July 18 — two days before Neil Armstrong took his giant leap for mankind — noted speechwriter and newspaper pundit William Safire delivered a short statement to White House Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman for President Nixon to read if disaster befell Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the lunar surface.

“Fate has ordained that the men who went to the moon to explore in peace will stay on the moon to rest in peace,” the memo, entitled “In Event of Moon Disaster” began. “These brave men 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.”

The tribute then noted that the two pioneers would be mourned, but in their quest they had accomplished what few ever do: unite the hearts of the entire world in a common dream.

“Others will follow and surely find their way home,” it concluded. “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.”

Before the statement was read, Safire recommended that Nixon call each of the “widows-to-be,” as they were denoted in the memo. Had the astronauts found themselves stranded rather than killed in a crash, there apparently were plans to let the world listen in as the two men said their final goodbyes.

Then, after NASA had ended its communications, the memo directed “a clergyman should adopt the same procedure as a burial at sea, commending their souls to ‘the deepest of the deep,’ concluding with the Lord’s Prayer.”

Today, the document is part of the National Archives and can be found at

Before I ring in another year of hopefully interesting and illuminating answers, I hope you will indulge me in a few final postscripts to columns from the year just ending:

▪  Family ties: A recent column on Dr. Samuel Mudd, the man who treated Abraham Lincoln’s assassin John Wilkes Booth’s broken leg, drew this fascinating note from Belleville East High School history teacher Keith Padgett:

“I have had many long discussions with one of our (physical education) teacher, Karen Mudd-Osborne, about Dr. Mudd. As you may have guessed, she is a direct descendant of Dr. Mudd, and she staunchly defends his record as an upstanding citizen.”

In addition, Padgett wrote, Jack Garrett, of Belleville, is directly related to Richard Garrett, on whose front porch Booth died after being shot in Garrett’s tobacco barn. Today, however, the Virginia farmhouse is long gone and all that remains is a historical marker in a highway median ( ).

“I always love teaching about the assassination because of the connections to Belleville,” Padgett said. “The students think I am making it up, but they are both true connections to the assassination of Lincoln.”

▪  Golden guardian: Ironically, shortly after answering a question about suicides on the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, I received a promotional copy of what proved to be a captivating book entitled “Guardian of the Golden Gate: Protecting the Line Between Hope and Despair” by Kevin Briggs with Sam Mellinger.

Briggs was a California Highway Patrol officer who for 20 years patrolled the bridge from which more than 1,700 people have jumped to their deaths since it opened in 1937. Although he initially had no formal training, Briggs, who had survived testicular cancer and a near-fatal motorcycle accident, talked more than 200 people out of jumping, thanks to his knack of being able to read people and situations. He lost the battle only twice.

Through the book, Briggs tries to humanize the struggles of those in despair, including, at one point, his own son. In a plea for crisis-intervention training, Briggs discusses how suicide affects those left behind and even offers insight into a rare jump survivor.

▪  Digging up leads: I finally may have some help for a reader trying to track down the family of a man killed in the 1909 Cherry Mine disaster near LaSalle-Peru.

One of the worst mining tragedies in the nation’s history, 259 miners perished in a fire touched off when dripping oil from a kerosene lamp ignited a wagon of hay. The reader had found a funeral memento on which James Stearns’ last words is a plea to keep his young son from becoming a miner.

To perhaps find a descendant, Bill Farrell suggested contacting Ottawa Daily Times reporter Steve Stout, who wrote “The Cherry Mine Disaster” (815-431-4082 or, or Karen Tintori, author of “Trapped: The 1909 Cherry Mine Disaster,” at Good luck.

▪  Upon further review: A tip of the hat to local historian Jack LeChien for his research into whether Mark Twain ever visited Belleville. Unfortunately, his thorough probe came to the same conclusion as my much more cursory look: There’s no firm proof it ever happened.

The issue was raised in 1939, when March Thoma, daughter of Belleville Daily Advocate City Editor John Thoma, reported that Twain came to Belleville in the late 1860s or early 1870s. His mission supposedly was to interview Belleville High School teacher and principal James Slade about James Slade’s brother, Western outlaw Jack Slade, for Twain’s book “Roughing It.” The claim of Twain’s visit was repeated in Thoma’s 1942 obituary.

But after carefully scouring both the Advocate and the News-Democrat from 1867 to 1875, LeChien found no mention of such a visit. In addition, Twain’s travel notebooks make no mention of it, either, although there is a sizable gap in his 1867 records. Still, LeChien wonders why Thoma would have made the claim if it weren’t true.

“I’ll conclude by using a take on a Twain quote,” wrote LeChien in the July issue of the St. Clair County Historical Society Newsletter. “‘Reports of my Belleville visit have been greatly exaggerated.’ Maybe, maybe not.”

Today’s trivia

Who were the only three men to die in outer space?

Answer to Sunday’s trivia: According to legend, when Fishkill, N.Y., native Isaac Van Amburgh was a boy, he came across the biblical story of Daniel in the lion’s den and from that moment was determined to be a lion tamer. He probably succeeded beyond his wildest dreams. From his start as a cage-cleaner at the Zoological Institute of New York, he is usually credited for developing the first wild animal act in modern times, astounding audiences by sticking his arm and even his head in a lion’s mouth. Known as the Lion King, he enjoyed great wealth before dying of a heart attack in 1865 at age 54.