Apollo 11 – An Alternate Universe

By Sibylle Machat

No, this blog post is not about conspiracy theories connected to the Apollo program, Apollo 11, or the moon landing. Instead, it is about an alternate universe in which the first moon landing had a less fortunate ending, a “there but for the grace of god” in reverse.

The day: June 20, 1969, around 6 p.m. UTC (Coordinated Universal Time).

Neil Armstrong and Edwin ‘Buzz’ Aldrin have successfully landed on the moon, completed their famous moon walk, taken photographs, collected about 20 kg worth of lunar rock and soil samples, and have finally re-entered Eagle (as they named their lunar lander). They’ve slept for a good seven hours, and, now that they are both awake again, the time has come to lift off from the moon, to get back into lunar orbit, rendezvous with Columbia, where their crewmate Michael Collins is awaiting their return, and to, ultimately, head back to earth.

So Armstrong and Aldrin fire the Eagle’s engine.

And … … … nothing happens.

Efforts undertaken by the two astronauts to fix the problem also fail and what was ultimately only a vague concern leading up to the mission becomes a sad reality: Armstrong and Aldrin are stranded on the moon. Once their oxygen runs out, they will die a slow death – with the entire world watching.

Sounds unlikely?

Maybe, but this was a real enough concern at the time that Richard Nixon’s speech writer, William Safire, prepared a speech for the President, covering just such an eventuality. Entitled “In the Event of Moon Disaster,” it remains one of the most haunting ‘what if’ documents of the Apollo project. The memo containing the speech is located in the National Archives, and you can read it here.