As 600 million people watched live on television, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed their bug-like Eagle module on the moon, four miles off course with less than 30 seconds of fuel to go. The U.S. had won the space race. Man had walked on the moon.
It was July 20, 1969. There had been frustrating disappointments against the Soviets, including a fire that killed three astronauts during a training simulation early in the moon mission. Armstrong, Aldrin and their Apollo 11 comrade, Michael Collins, returned home as heroes to a grateful nation.
But two days before Armstrong's historic moonwalk, William Safire in Richard Nixon's White House was prepared for a far different outcome, drafting a speech the president never had to give called "In Event of Moon Disaster."
"Fate has ordained that the men who went to the moon to explore in peace will stay on the moon to rest in peace," began the speech that surfaced in the National Archives three decades later. "These brave men, Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin, know that there is no hope for their recovery. But they also know that there is hope for mankind in their sacrifice."
Instead, Nixon cheered on the Apollo 11 crew by radiophone from his Oval Room: "For one priceless moment in the whole history of man all the people on this Earth are truly one — one in their pride in what you have done and one in our prayers that you will return safely to Earth."
Armstrong and Aldrin planted an American flag and explored their powdery new world for 2 1/2 hours. The U.S. space program seemed invincible, until very real tragedy struck again 16 years later.
The shuttle Challenger blew up 73 seconds after takeoff, also live on television but this time in full color rather than ghostly black and white. Seven crew members, including Christa McAuliffe, who had won a contest to be the first civilian teacher on a space flight, were killed that chilly Florida morning on Jan. 28, 1986.
"Their truest testimony will not be in the words we speak, but in the way they led their lives and in the way they lost those lives — with dedication, honor and an unquenchable desire to explore this mysterious and beautiful universe," President Ronald Reagan told a stunned and mourning nation.
On Feb. 1, 2003, an American president once again found himself comforting his country after a space disaster. The shuttle Columbia had disintegrated on re-entry into Earth's atmosphere, raining debris on the small Texas town of Palestine and killing seven crew members.
"The cause in which they died will continue," George W. Bush said. "Our journey into space will go on."
It's been 40 years since Armstrong became the first human to step foot on the moon, but the space race — its triumphs, tension and sadness — need not be light years away for young people living in a world where shuttle flights and beautiful pictures from Mars almost feel routine.
To inspire, entertain and educate kids ahead of the Apollo 11 anniversary, consider these books:
— "Moon Landing" (Candlewick, $29.99, ages 9-12) by Richard Platt and designed by David Hawcock. A spectacular pop-up putting into context some of the most famous moments in the space program. Archival photos and mini-booklets stashed in slots enhance the three-dimensional paperwork featuring a fiery Redstone rocket blasting Al Shepard on his way, a Gemini capsule and a large, protruding full moon with astronaut landing spots.
— "One Giant Leap" (Penguin, $16.99, ages 6-8) by Robert Burleigh and illustrated by Mike Wimmer. Wimmer's paintings show off the Eagle module that carried Armstrong and Aldrin down to the moon's Sea of Tranquility. The book notes the two had a little trouble planting the flag and explains how Armstrong's small step for man — his first boot print — will remain crisp in dust on the weatherless planet for millions of years.
— "Mission to the Moon" (Simon & Schuster, $19.99, ages 8-12) by Alan Dyer. Space fans large and small will appreciate the breadth of this book, complete with DVD and 200 NASA photos. It shows a cheat sheet printed on the cuff of Armstrong's spacesuit, reminding him of every task he had to perform during the short but busy moonwalk.
— "Mission Control, This is Apollo" (Penguin, $23.99, ages 8-12) by Andrew Chaikin with Victoria Kohl and paintings by Alan Bean. Bean was the fourth of 12 men to walk on the moon and later devoted himself to keeping the experience alive through his paintings, many of which are used in this book. Chaikin writes that Armstrong hadn't decided on his famous first words from the moon until the last minute, when he placed his left foot in ancient dust and spoke: "That's one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind."
— "Almost Astronauts, 13 Women Who Dared to Dream" (Candlewick, $24.99, ages 9-12) by Tanya Lee Stone. The Right Stuff, Tom Wolfe's term for what it takes to challenge the limits of air and space exploration, oozes "manliness, manhood, manly courage," writes Stone as she tells the story of 13 women pilots dubbed the "Mercury 13." They withstood rigorous astronaut testing during America's fledgling manned space program and performed well, but they were denied further consideration in 1962. A year later, the Soviets put the first woman into space.
— "Moonshot" (Simon & Schuster, $17.99, ages 4-7) written and illustrated by Brian Floca. The Apollo 11 astronauts click, click, click on their spacesuits, wiggle into their hatch and lay on their backs — Armstrong on the left, Collins on the right and Aldrin in the middle. After their work on the moon is done, they carry "secrets of the sky" through the darkness "to warmth, to light, to home at last."
— "Look to the Stars" (Penguin, $17.99, ages 6-up) by Buzz Aldrin and illustrated by Wendell Minor. Only comic book heroes like Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers blasted off into space in Aldrin's youth. The son of a pilot, Aldrin recalls photos of the Wright brothers and Amelia Earhart at home, his dad's love of flying inspiring him to reach for the stars. Aldrin traces exploration of the universe from Copernicus and encourages young people to carry the torch of science and space travel. It's Aldrin's second moon book for kids.
— "T-Minus, The Race to the Moon" (Simon & Schuster, $21.99, ages 8-12) by Jim Ottaviani and illustrated by Zander Cannon and Kevin Cannon. The space race in a black-and-white graphic novel that intersperses the inner-workings of the early Soviet program with that of the United States. The book explores the contributions of many thousands of engineers and other technicians who made it all happen.
— "Footprints on the Moon" (Candlewick, $16.99, ages 4-8) by Mark Haddon and illustrated by Christian Birmingham. A young boy with the solar system on his bedroom wall stands at his window and gazes skyward as the astronauts walk on the moon. At 3 a.m., he makes his way downstairs and turns on the TV to see it for himself on the flickery screen. The boy is Haddon the author, who says he still sits sometimes at his bedroom window, "staring at that tiny, distant world."
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