Nixon and Apollo, linked tales or ambition and tragedy


National Post, 26 July 2019

Five years before the Apollo landing, Nixon was a young man whose best days were behind him. By the time Nixon resigned in 1974, the Apollo program was finished, the moon program over.

Yorba Linda, California — There is something of an echo of the Apollo space program in the long life of Richard Nixon — ambition, success, tragedy and remembrance.

By happenstance I was preaching at a parish a short drive away from the Nixon presidential library this week and so headed over there for their special exhibition on the 50th anniversary of the lunar landing. It was a complete madhouse inside, as it was a free admission day, sponsored by AT&T in honour of their arranging the phone call from Nixon to the Apollo astronauts on July 20, 1969. There was giant inflatable space shuttle in the courtyard which children could climb up and slide down.

Like most people, I associate the lunar landing with John F. Kennedy, and his pledge to land a man on the moon “and return him safely” by the end of the 1960s. JFK was assassinated more than five years before the critical Apollo missions in 1969; it was Lyndon Johnson who largely provided the presidential backing for the moon shot. But it was Nixon, inaugurated in January 1969, who was in office when it was accomplished.

Now that manned space flight has become routine — so routine that the principal interest in it today appears to be for tourism, rather than science or exploration — it is hard to imagine how big the lunar landing was. The exhibit has a disc on which messages from some five dozen world leaders are recorded. Nixon himself flew out to the USS Hornet, an aircraft carrier some thousand miles from Hawaii in the south Pacific, in order to personally welcome the astronauts back after the splashdown of their capsule in the ocean.

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