On July 21st, 1969, human history changed forever.  With a single step, Neil Armstrong became the first human in history to set foot on another world; a feat man had dreamed of accomplishing since time immemorial.

Only eight years prior, President John F. Kennedy assumed the responsibility of convincing Congress that sending a manned mission to the moon was not only possible, but it was necessary in order to catch up to and overtake the Soviet Union, who had, until that point, been the leader in space fairing endeavors for all of humanity.  Kennedy knew that only by placing an American flag on the closest celestial body to our own planet could America hope to declare victory in the space race, which would have far-reaching ramifications in another sort of race the U.S. and Russia were competing in: the arms race of the Cold War.

In many ways, the early American space program was a war-time effort, and the men and women involved in the Gemini and Apollo missions were aware of that.  While modern NASA places the safety of its astronauts above all else, the first men to leave Earth’s embrace with an American flag sewn on their arm were offered no such reassurances.  In fact, early Gemini capsules didn’t contain any kind of controls… the human occupants were merely along for the ride and served primarily as lab rats, simply to see if the trip was even survivable.

In the days leading up to Apollo 11’s launch, that same mindset permeated not only those tasked with preparing for and executing the launch, but in all facets of the American government.  Indeed, the astronauts involved with the Apollo program were not even able to secure life insurance before climbing atop the modified intercontinental ballistic missiles intended to take them into space, leaving them with no alternative but to sign autographs on 8×10 photos for their wives to sell if the worst were to occur.  These men knew, each time they strapped themselves to a rocket, that there was a distinct possibility that they would never set foot on their home planet again, and they accepted that risk in earnest, because they knew the ultimate goal of putting an American on the moon was bigger than any individual life.  Like so many American heroes before them and since, the astronauts of the Gemini and Apollo missions valued the success and progress of their nation over their own wellbeing.

Because everyone involved understood and appreciated the risks in shooting men at the moon only 66 years after the Wright brothers first took flight, the government had to prepare for the possibility that Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin may never make the trip back home once they reached their destination.  Any number of complications could cause them to die before ever reaching the moon’s surface, and conducting a second successful launch from that surface and back to the orbiter more than doubled the chances for failure.

Eight years prior, President Kennedy had convinced Congress to fund the greatest expedition in human history, but on July 21st of 1969, President Nixon faced the possibility of having to tell the American people that their heroes were never coming home.

Bill Safire, a columnist for the New York Times and speechwriter for President Nixon, was assigned the unenviable task of writing remarks for the President to deliver to the American people in the event Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin found themselves stranded on the moon’s surface.  With the technological capabilities available to NASA, the government knew any issue with the lander’s launch ability was a death sentence, as there was no hope of sending a rescue mission.

In a short two-page memo shown in its entirely below, Safire encompassed the gratitude the American people felt for these brave men risking their lives on behalf of their country and their world, and gave us a glimpse into the fears running through the minds of the American people in those fateful days leading up to one of America’s greatest heroes taking that “giant leap for mankind.”