An Insider Recounts Watching the Moon Landing at the White House
The author of this article is seated at the head of the table in the White House Cabinet Room.
By John R. Price
“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”.
– Notes from my diary of July 16, 1969, at the launch of the Saturn spacecraft from the NASA Kennedy Space Center.
It was 50 years ago, the astronauts of Apollo 11 were approaching their fateful and historic moon landing and I was sitting in the Cabinet Room that afternoon with a handful of White House aides to Richard M. Nixon. Besides myself, Dwight Chapin, the youthful Appointments Secretary, Roger Ailes, then a political guru in the White House who went on to celebrity as founder of Fox News, Dave Parker and Bruce Whelihan from the appointments and press offices were among them. In a turnabout, a photo was taken which included Ollie Atkins. Atkins, the official White House photographer, always behind the lens, must on this remarkable occasion have desired to be memorialized as present and was front and center in the informal picture. We all were riveted by what we saw on a TV screen which had been placed near the door leading through to the Oval Office. From a couple of us, cigar smoke rose to the ceiling. Tension mounted.
Following manual flight over the last “football field of boulders” to touchdown, the landing in the Sea of Tranquility was smooth, and greeted by our raucous applause and yelling as no doubt was heard in living rooms, bars, stations, airports and public places around the globe. Neil Armstrong soon descended the metal steps and after a brief hesitation planted a first footprint on the moon. The understated tone and manner of his comment on that step onto the lunar surface only emphasized its signal importance and the sense that all humanity grasped its significance. “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”
That evening the president’s office was a cluttered scene as Nixon prepared to speak to the Astronauts. I came into the room and stood in front of the president’s desk, in a crossfire of good-humored, even clownish screening of each other with their Super 8 home movie cameras by H. R. Haldeman, the President’s usually serious chief of staff, and Dwight Chapin who had followed him into the Nixon campaign and White House. With us in the Oval Office, which seemed congested with their cables and cameras was a small group of still and television cameramen and a pool of the press. TV sets, one in front of the [Woodrow] Wilson desk, and one on either side, were watched intently by the president as the astronauts moved about outside the vehicle. The astronauts planted a small flag pole in the moon’s surface. Then they hoisted with a lanyard a small mechanical American flag to its horizontal position as though wind were extending it. At that moment President 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.
After he hung up, Nixon asked if any of the TV crew would be with him days later on the carrier Hornet in the Pacific for the recovery of the astronauts. He then quipped, “I hate to think of the toll charges on that call!” A wag among the press called out, “Make it collect!” The small crowd slowly, perhaps a bit reluctantly, dispersed. While the cameras and cables were being removed, the thoughts of those of us who had been present at this moment were at a remove from our usual preoccupations.
Planning for a moon landing had proceeded under Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson. Kennedy had announced what seemed an unattainable goal of a manned moon landing by the United States in a decade, and Johnson oversaw NASA’s push to that end. Yet it fell to Nixon to be the president to cheer the astronauts to the moon, to speak to them while they were there, and to welcome them back to earth.
In the spring before the moon mission, Daniel P. Moynihan, Nixon’s liberal Democrat Assistant for Urban Affairs, forwarded to the president a proposal from LBJ’s former staffer, Bill Moyers, that Nixon consider naming the Apollo XI moon shot the “John F. Kennedy.” The notion won the unusual endorsement of Arthur Burns, a conservative and Moynihan’s frequent rival on the White House staff. Dr. Lee Du Bridge, the President’s Science advisor, 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 entire American space effort had begun with Eisenhower’s and Nixon’s start of the rocketry program and creation of NASA, as indeed it had. They prevailed.
While logistics of launch and recovery were uppermost at NASA, as the launch grew near, the president focused on both the larger human feelings which would be stirred by men on the moon, and personal touches. Nixon 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 create a poem to commemorate the moment.
Nixon invited Ike’s widow, Mamie Eisenhower, to spend the days of Apollo XI’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 Johnson and his wife to the launch in Florida, to show recognition for Johnson’s role in driving the moon shot forward.
The Astronauts carried with them to the moon a parchment with the text of Psalm 8, and an inscription from Pope Paul VI, to be left there. They also carried with them, to leave on the moon with the express approval of President Nixon, a pair of Soviet medals, cast to honor two of the early, and now deceased, Russian Cosmonauts. Frank Borman, an American Astronaut, had brought the medals back from Moscow. While America had won the quest to have the first man on the moon, the Soviets had placed the first man to complete an earth orbit, and the first woman Cosmonaut in space. The placing of the Soviet medals there was a bow of respect to the Cold War foe.
I had traveled on Air Force Two to the launch. My seat mate on the flight was a former Gaullist French cabinet minister, Jean Sainteny. Sainteny was now a director of Air France, the French national airline. He told me of his life as a young man in Viet Nam, where he became tutor to the Emperor Bao Dai. He spoke of being interned by the Japanese when they seized control of Hanoi. From his prison window, at the fleeing of the last Japanese troops, he told me of seeing American OSS [intelligence] officers talking to Ho Chi Minh, the leader of the Vietnamese nationalist and communist movements, on the steps of Hanoi’s city hall. Their dialogue reflected Roosevelt’s anti-colonial impulses, as the French were hoping to reestablish their control over Indo-China. Saintenay had never lost touch with his roots in Viet Nam.
It turned out that the trip to see the Apollo XI launch for Sainteny was a cover story: he was the earliest intermediary between Nixon and Ho Chi Minh, carrying a letter from Nixon to Ho inviting dialogue to try to end the Viet Nam war. This was in the first six months of Nixon’s presidency. Sainteny continued as a facilitator of these peace efforts. He later convened the first meeting, held in his Paris living room, between Henry Kissinger and senior officials of the Viet Cong. Sainteny had taken the Apollo XI launch opportunity as a public reason to come through Washington during which he secretly briefed the president on his effort to start the dialogue between Nixon and Ho.
The conquest of the moon therefore saw, if only for a fleeting moment, humans’ profound realization of how we are ultimately one; saw gestures of comity on the part of the Americans toward their Soviet space rivals; saw a triumph of science, organization and national will, and simultaneously saw a continuity of concerns for those governing. These ran from consulting on possible peace breakthroughs in Viet Nam to capitalizing politically on an American technology and mobilization breakthrough, visible to billions around the earth.
John R. Price was Special Assistant to President Nixon and Executive Secretary of the Urban Affairs Council.