Former Nixon adviser describes the view from the White House when humans set foot on the moon
July 19, 2014 8:36 PM
By John R. Price
KENNEDY SPACE CENTER — The lift-off was beautiful. The power of the engines is staggering, and seconds after one first sees the flame exploding off to both sides of the rocket base, the air itself becomes alive, and shakes and strikes against the face. The movement is slow and graceful because it is so powerful. Seven and a half million pounds of thrust. Part of the thrill was what the audience communicated to each other, which was the sure knowledge that what they saw, pinpointed to the second at 9:32 this morning, was the stuff of history, and of the most sweeping kind.
— From my diary, July 16, 1969
It was 45 years ago, the astronauts of Apollo 11 were approaching their fateful and historic moon landing and I was sitting in the Cabinet room with other White House aides.
Following manual maneuvering over the last “football field of boulders” to touchdown, the Eagle landed in the Sea of Tranquility and Neil Armstrong soon planted a first footprint on the moon.
That evening, the Oval Office was a cluttered scene as President Richard M. Nixon prepared to speak to the astronauts. He was intently watching three television sets, one in front of his desk and one on either side. At the moment the astronauts hoisted on the moon’s surface a small mechanical American flag, extended to appear as though wind were blowing it horizontal, Nixon clapped alone and loudly four or five times.
Soon the cue came for him to talk with the astronauts. He picked up the green phone on his desk and spoke briefly and simply to the men on the moon. The small group of us, including pool journalists and camera crew, were hushed.
One small step... mankind's giant leap
July 20, 1969, 3:17:39 EST: The Apollo 11 lander touched down on the moon carrying astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin. Circling in moon orbit was Michael Collins, awaiting their return from the surface.
After he hung up, Nixon asked if any of the TV crew would be on the carrier Hornet in the Pacific for the recovery, and then quipped, “I hate to think of the toll charges on that call!” A wag among the press called out, “Make it collect!”
While planning for a moon landing had proceeded under Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, it fell to Nixon to be the president to cheer on the astronauts who made the journey, to speak to them while they were there and to welcome them back to Earth.
In the spring before the moon mission, future-Sen. Daniel P. Moynihan forwarded to the president a proposal from LBJ’s former staffer, Bill Moyers, that Nixon consider naming the Apollo 11 moon shot the “John F. Kennedy.” The notion won the unusual endorsement of Arthur Burns, a conservative and Mr. Moynihan’s frequent rival on the White House staff. Dr. Lee Du Bridge, the president’s science adviser, also supported it.
It never came to pass. Two seasoned Nixon advisors, Bryce Harlow, his congressional relations guru, and Herb Klein, his communications director, argued that “the Kennedy angle will get major play anyway” and that, in fact, the American space effort had begun with President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s and then-Vice President Nixon’s creation of the rocketry program and NASA. They prevailed.
During the Apollo 11 mission, the logistics of launch and recovery were uppermost at NASA, but the president focused on personal touches and the human wonder that would be stirred by having men on the moon. He wrote to the poet Archibald MacLeish, saying, “It is important that this be viewed not only as a great adventure, but in the perspective of a search for truth and a quest for peace. Nothing man has done more significantly dramatizes the need for an understanding of the common goals of the human race.” He asked MacLeish to write a poem to commemorate the moment.
Nixon invited Ike’s widow, Mamie, to spend the days of Apollo 11’s mission as a guest at the White House. He also sent the newly remodeled Air Force One to Texas to take former President Lyndon B. Johnson and his wife to the launch.
The astronauts carried with them to leave on the moon messages from 73 world leaders and a parchment from Pope Paul VI with the text of Psalms 8. They also left behind, with the express approval of Nixon, a pair of Soviet medals cast to honor two of the early Russian cosmonauts that Frank Borman, an American astronaut, had brought back from Moscow.
I had traveled on Air Force Two to the launch, along with a former Gaullist French cabinet minister, Jean Sainteny, then a director of Air France. He told me of his life in Vietnam and of seeing American intelligence officers talking to Ho Chi Minh, reflecting President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s anti-colonial impulses, as the Japanese were leaving in 1945. The French were hoping to reestablish their control over Indochina.
It turned out that the trip to see the Apollo 11 launch for Mr. Sainteny was a cover story: He was the earliest intermediary between Nixon and Ho Chi Minh and later convened a meeting in his Paris living room with Henry Kissinger and senior officials of the Viet Cong — their first contact. He had taken the Apollo opportunity to secretly brief the president on his effort to start the dialogue.
The conquest of the moon therefore revealed, if only for a fleeting moment, humankind’s profound realization of how we ultimately are one. There were the gestures of comity on the part of the Americans toward their Soviet Cold War rivals. There was the triumph of science, organization and national will. And there was even the more mundane concerns of public office, from reaching out to make peace in Vietnam to capitalizing politically on an American breakthrough, visible to billions around the Earth.
John R. Price, a former president and CEO of the Federal Home Loan Bank of Pittsburgh, spent 29 years at what is now JPMorgan Chase in New York City and served as a special assistant for urban affairs to President Richard M. Nixon.
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