What if the Moon Landing Had Failed?

On May 25, 1961, President John F. Kennedy stood in front of a joint session of Congress and called upon the country to launch a bold initiative: “This nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth.” Astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins realized the first half of Kennedy’s aspiration when they planted their footprints on the desolate surface of the moon on July 20, 1969. The second part of Kennedy’s goal — returning the men safely to Earth — had yet to be fulfilled. Computer glitches, the failure of an ascent engine to ignite, or an inability to dock with the orbiting command module could have stranded the astronauts on the moon or in outer space with no possibility of rescue. Under the worst-case scenario, NASA planned to end communication with the men, leaving them to either run out of oxygen or commit suicide, with no further earthly contact. Fortunately, the astronauts returned safely. It was learned later that not only had the White House prepared a speech to announce the demise of the astronauts and offer sympathy to their widows, but their eulogies had already been written.