October is American Archives Month! We’re celebrating the work of archivists and the importance of archives with a series of blog posts highlighting our “Archives Across America.” Today’s post comes from staff at the Nixon Presidential Library in Yorba Linda, California.
On July 20, 1969, astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first humans to set foot on the Moon. This triumph instilled patriotism and curiosity within the American people as they watched the events unfold on their televisions.
Now, almost 50 years later, researchers and museum patrons alike can relive this monumental moment in American history at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum.
Even those who are not old enough to remember the Apollo 11 mission are intrigued by the moon rock, the “most historic telephone call ever made,” the Safire “In Event of Moon Disaster” memo, and the legacy of the Apollo program.
In a truly unique Presidency defined by such events as the end of the Vietnam War, the opening of China, Watergate, and the first and only resignation by an American President, the Moon landing continues to draw significant interest from the public and sets apart the Nixon Library experience.
Richard Nixon’s history with the space program extends back to his time as Vice President. As Vice President, Nixon was a strong supporter of outer-space exploration. He believed achievements in space would not only provide advancements in the sciences, but would also foster pride among Americans and deliver a strategic Cold War victory.
With the ultimate success of the Apollo 11 mission, Nixon not only put these words into action, but also fulfilled the promise of President John F. Kennedy, who famously pledged to the American people in 1961 that a man would reach the moon by the end of the decade.
In fact, all six lunar touchdowns, beginning with Apollo 11 and culminating with Apollo 17 in 1972, occurred during the Nixon Presidency—this makes Richard Nixon the only President to witness a Moon landing during his time in the White House.
Visitors to the Nixon Library and Museum are able to encounter the lunar landings through photographs, artifacts, and audio recordings. After being welcomed to the exhibit by two life-size replicas of astronauts standing on the Moon, guests are able to listen to the conversation between President Nixon and the Apollo 11 astronauts that Nixon dubbed “the most historic telephone call ever made.”
The telephone used by President Nixon to place that call from the Oval Office is on display. Also available are meals carried aboard the space shuttles, as well as a moon rock collected during the Apollo 15 mission in 1971.
The Archives department maintains all Moon landing documents within its holdings. This includes telegrams sent by President Nixon to the Apollo 11 astronauts on the eve of their launch, which detailed his personal pride in them and the excitement of the American population.
Another interesting piece is the handwritten draft of remarks President Nixon planned to deliver to the Apollo 11 crew following their return. The outline, titled “A Week that Changed the World,” was drafted by the President while en route to the USS Arlington on July 23, 1969. He gave his remarks the next day aboard the USS Hornet, where the astronauts were quarantined following their July 24 splashdown in the Pacific Ocean.
Last, the Nixon Library holds items relevant to the famous Apollo 13 mission, including handwritten notes for the President’s call to the astronauts’ wives on April 17, 1970, and for his speech at the Medal of Freedom ceremony the next day.
His telephone conversation was to conclude with the line that “this is a bigger day than when I was elected.” The Medal of Freedom ceremony was held after the astronauts’ safe return to Earth following an explosion on board the spacecraft and the dramatic series of event that ensued.
The Moon landings are a common subject for reference requests and research topics. Since 2004, approximately 110 reference questions from the public have been received and answered by the Nixon Archives department.
Nearly a quarter of the textual requests have concerned the infamous Safire memo. This memo, prepared by Nixon speechwriter William Safire for Chief of Staff H. R. Haldeman, included the suggested text for a speech President Nixon would give should the Apollo 11 mission fail and the astronauts not return. Although the speech never had to be delivered, it remains a source of curiosity to this day.
Among the many memorable events that characterize the Nixon Presidency, the Apollo program lunar landings continue to inspire fascination among the Nixon Library and Museum’s visitors and provide a steady stream of research assistance opportunities for the staff.
The interactive experience of the Moon landing exhibit immerses visitors in this era and offers a rare chance to view artifacts directly associated with these accomplishments. Researchers can examine the key documents relating to these missions and view President Nixon’s own handwritten thoughts concerning Apollo 11 and 13 in particular.
The lunar landings are one of the many aspects of the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum that make it unique in all the NARA Presidential Libraries.
Visit the National Archives American Archives Month web page for more information about our events and activities throughout the month.