A Presidential Document Fit for the Moon. By Tahir Rahman
Amongst the famous American documents of all time are the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Emancipation Proclamation. They rest under low lighting and are admired at the National Archives in Washington, D.C.
Another mesmerizing American document rests 250,000 miles away on the Moon's Sea of Tranquility. It reads quite simply: HERE MEN FROM THE PLANET EARTH FIRST SET FOOT UPON ON THE MOON/ JULY 1969 A.D. / WE CAME IN PEACE FOR ALL MANKIND. The signatures of Armstrong, Aldrin, Collins and President Richard Nixon are etched below those words. As I was researching the origin of the plaque for my new book, I ran across an early version of the plaque with some handwritten notes across it from boxes at the Library of Congress. I wondered whose writing was scribbled on that early version of the plaque.
While signing copies of my book at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, fate brought an interesting visitor. Dr. Jarvis D. Ryals saw the title of my book, We Came in Peace for all Mankind, and excitedly informed me that his good friend, James Humes helped draft the Apollo 11 plaque.
I next had the pleasure of interviewing James C. Humes, one of President Richard Nixon's speech writers. It turns out that William Safire, James C. Humes and Pat Buchanan collaborated on the Apollo 11 plaque message content. Alexis Johnson at the State Department had drafted the idea of the plaque for the Moon. It featured two hemispheres of the Earth with no boundaries between nations. The men then encountered several challenges to drafting the plaque.
Mr. Humes was the man whose scribble appeared on the Library of Congress document. He crossed out an earlier statement that read HERE MEN FROM EARTH FIRST LANDED ON THE MOON. He rearranged it and added two words: HERE MEN FROM THE PLANET EARTH FIRST LANDED ON THE MOON.
An earlier draft stated. FIRST LANDED on the Moon, however, intelligence sources indicated that the Russians had possibly landed an unmanned probe there already. Therefore, Pat Buchanan suggested, FIRST SET FOOT ON THE MOON, which emphasized the point well.
There was some arguing over the words, UNDER GOD, which was rejected due to the doctrine of separation of Church and State. A more clever way was to have A.D. (anno Domini, which means the year of our lord). This conveyed some religious meaning without being overtly offensive to other religions. According to grammar rules, the A.D. should have preceded the date, not followed it. I guess speech writers are allowed to break such rules for history.
The plaque was read aloud by Neil Armstrong as 600 million people watched the historic first lunar landing. The plaque still rests on the brilliantly sun-lit at Sea of Tranquility today, awaiting the torch to be passed to a new generation of Moon explorers that will personally admire it they way we admire the archives of our founding fathers.
Tahir Rahman is the award-winning author of We Came in Peace for all Mankind: the untold story of the Apollo 11 Silicon Disc, 2008.