One month before Apollo 11 lifted off for the moon, William Safire received a phone call.
Most of us probably remember Safire as a political columnist and wordsmith for The New York Times. But in 1969, he was President Richard Nixon’s speechwriter. And on the line was Frank Borman, the veteran astronaut and NASA’s liaison with the White House.
“You want to be thinking of some alternative posture for the President in the event of mishaps on Apollo 11,” Borman said, as Safire remembered in his autobiography.
Safire was confused. He said in an interview later that Borman’s words sounded like “gobbledygook.” Borman broke the silence and cut to the chase.
“Like what to do for the widows,” he said.
Borman knew of what he spoke. He had been commander of Gemini 7 and Apollo 8, the first mission to fly around the moon. And he was a member of the review board that investigated the Apollo 1 fire that killed all three astronauts on board during a launch rehearsal in 1967.
Apollo 11 was viewed as NASA’s most dangerous mission. Landing on the moon was difficult enough. But no one was sure the lunar module would be able to lift off the moon’s surface. And if it couldn’t, no rescue would be coming. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin would be doomed.
Safire prepared a powerfully poignant speech, one Nixon thankfully never had to deliver. It talked about humans in ancient times looking to the stars and seeing heroes in the constellations, and modern mankind finding heroes in “epic men of flesh and blood.”
And it closed with an epitaph inspired by poet Rupert Brooke’s salute to British soldiers who died in World War I:
“For every human being who looks up at the moon in the nights to come will know there is some corner of another world that is forever mankind.”
I mention this not because it’s a fascinating anecdote about one of America’s iconic successes, but because it shines light on the meaning of courage.
Put yourself in Armstrong’s and Aldrin’s spacesuits.
They literally were facing the unknown. They boldly went where no human had gone before. There had been troubles aplenty in the space program up to then and more would follow (like the Challenger and Columbia space shuttle disasters that killed seven crew members each in 1986 and 2003).
And Armstrong and Aldrin did face problems, like when the module overshot the relatively flat landing site by 4 miles. With alarms sounding, Armstrong had to manually pilot away from a boulder-strewn area, touching down with only 30 seconds of fuel in the landing tank.
Courage wells when an outcome is uncertain. Courage is what allows you to understand a risk, accept that you might not overcome that risk, and decide to persevere nonetheless. Courage is quiet and graceful, not loud and profane. It is steeled with conviction, not bravado.
Courage is not only about physical feats, like exploring a new world or facing an enemy’s bullets. It’s about making an unpopular decision you know is right, and sticking to it. It’s taking responsibility for your words and actions, and for the words and actions of others you inspire. It’s acknowledging that you were wrong, and making amends. It’s choosing to keep moving forward when the road looks too tough to traverse.
Many NASA astronauts have said their courage stemmed not from a belief in their own abilities but in knowing they were part of something greater and serving a common good — in this case, their country.
Landing on the moon was a marvelous technological feat. But as we celebrate that, we also should remember that the mission’s beating heart was the courage of epic men.
Michael Dobie is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.