In July of 1969, the world watched in wonder as the United States of America became the first nation to put a man on the moon. The progress of the Apollo 11 lunar mission captivated the hearts and imaginations of the American people in particular, including President Nixon. On the morning of July 24th, the President, along with the rest of America, anxiously awaited the safe return of the Apollo 11 mission’s command module Columbia and its crew to Earth. To the great relief of all, the Columbia splashed down safely in the Pacific Ocean, and its three-person crew was quickly retrieved by the rescue ship the USS Hornet. After being led into a mobile quarantine unit on board the Hornet, the three astronauts, Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Mike Collins, received a visit from the President of the United States. Unable to enter the quarantine unit, President Nixon spoke to the three men through a window and welcomed them back to Earth:
“Neil, Buzz, and Mike:
I want you to know that I think I am the luckiest man in the world, and I say this not only because I have the honor to be President of the United States, but particularly because I have the privilege of speaking for so many in welcoming you back to Earth.
I can tell you about all the messages we have received in Washington. Over 100 foreign governments, emperors, presidents, prime ministers, and kings, have sent the most warm messages that we have ever received. They represent over 2 billion people on this earth, all of them who have had the opportunity, through television, to see what you have done.”
In addition to these greetings from foreign governments and dignitaries, RN also brought the astronauts news of their wives, who were not on board the Hornet that morning, but who had spoken to the President the previous day. The President delivered messages of love and congratulations to the astronauts from their wives, whom he praised as “three of the greatest ladies and most courageous ladies in the whole world today.” He also invited the astronauts and their wives to an official state dinner to be held in their honor.
After chatting briefly about the recent MLB All-Star Game, RN steered the conversation toward a more serious subject: the international significance of the Apollo 11 lunar mission. President Nixon viewed the lunar landing as a unique and unifying event for all mankind and expressed his gratitude to Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins for their historic role:
“This is the greatest week in the history of the world since the Creation, because as a result of what happened in this week, the world is bigger, infinitely, and also, as I am going to find on this trip around the world, and as Secretary Rogers will find as he covers the other countries in Asia, as a result of what you have done, the world has never been closer together before.
We just thank you for that. I only hope that all of us in Government, all of us in America, that as a result of what you have done, can do our job a little better.
We can reach for the stars just as you have reached so far for the stars.”
Photo: (Left to right) Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins and Buzz Aldrin, in a quarantine facility on the USS Hornet upon returning from the moon, talk with President Nixon.