When Apollo 11 astronauts landed on the Moon 40 years ago this month, they were more than just Americans taking that historic first step on to another celestial body.
They did plant the American flag there, acknowledging the nation whose tax payers had financed the massive operation. To allay any fears that one nation was claiming the Moon — which was explicitly ruled out by the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 — they also left a plaque which read: “Here men from the Planet Earth first set foot upon the Moon, July 1969 A.D. We came in peace for all mankind.” It was signed by the three astronauts â€“- Neil Armstrong, Edwin (Buzz) Aldrin, Jr., and Michael Collins â€“- and President Richard Nixon.
The plaque received wide publicity at the time, but the astronauts actually left behind some more items. Amidst the various scientific instruments and other items gathering dust at the first landing site — in the southern Sea of Tranquility — is a small white cloth pouch. It contains a silicon disc, which is one of the most important and symbolic items taken to the Moon.
Etched on to that disc, about the size of a half US dollar coin, are miniaturised messages of goodwill and peace from 73 heads of state or government around the world. These letters were received by the US space agency NASA only during the final weeks running up to the launch on 16 July 1969, yet this disc helped turn the Apollo 11 mission into an international endeavour.
The disc was a late-breaking idea. It was only in June 1969 that the US State Department authorised NASA to solicit messages of goodwill from world leaders to be flown and left on the Moon. In those days before fax, email and Internet, this triggered a minor diplomatic frenzy. Hurried invitations went out from Thomas O Paine, the NASA Administrator who was ultimately responsible for the lunar missions.
In all, 116 countries were contacted through their embassies in Washington DC, but only 72 responded in time (The United Nations had 127 member states by that time.) With the initiator US, it made up 73 nations. The disc carried statements by US presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon, each of who had provided political leadership to the American space programme.
Some countries were confused by NASA’s unusual request. Others asked for more details — without realizing that the window for their inclusion was closing fast.Â Sri Lanka, then Ceylon, was among those countries that did respond. But for unknown and unexplained reasons, Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake declined to send a message to the Moon.
In a letter dated 15 July 1969 addressed to the NASA Administrator, A T Jayakoddy, Charge d’Affairs at the Embassy of Ceylon in Washington, wrote:
“The Government of Ceylon whilst thanking NASA for its kindness in requesting such a message has decided not to send such a message.”
The reply, cushioned in diplomatic niceties, gives no hint or reason for the decision. Ceylon thus ruled itself out from being part of the historic mission to the Moon.
Was it some misplaced geopolitical considerations, or simple diplomatic arrogance that led to Ceylon’s negative decision? Why did the Cambridge-educated, liberally inclined Prime Minister turn down the historic opportunity? After all these years, we might never know.
The Ceylonese government’s letter of decline is now part of the public record, thanks to a book that came out in 2007. Titled “We Came In Peace For All Mankind: The Untold Story Of The Apollo 11 Silicon Disc”, it was researched and authored by Tahir Rahman, a Kansas-based physician and space historian.
Last minute rush
The book documents the full story behind this little known facet of the very widely covered Apollo 11 mission. It also reproduces each of the 73 goodwill messages, as well as those which were received too late for inclusion on the disc.
“I was amazed at how NASA and the State Department rushed to get these messages before launch,” says Rahman. He took two months to locate from the Library of Congress the boxes in which Administrator Paine had preserved the full correspondence.
When I contacted him recently for additional insights, Rahman replied: “I do not have any information about why Sri Lanka did not send an Apollo 11 goodwill message.”
Sir Arthur C Clarke, with whom I worked for over 20 years, was also intrigued by Ceylon’s decision, which he didn’t know about until Rahman’s book reprinted the official letter. His only remark: “Mysterious are the ways governments think and work.”
The Apollo Program, initiated by President John F Kennedy in 1961, was mandated to land a man on the moon before that decade ended. It was one of the largest and most expensive technological undertakings in history, which eventually saw 12 American astronauts walk on the Moon in six successful missions between 1969 and 1972. (One mission, Apollo 13, was aborted due to an accident but the astronauts returned to Earth.)
The engineering and biomedical preparations for the first Moon landing had been meticulously planned for years. Yet the silicon disc idea had to move from idea to launch in just about a month. That didn’t allow much notice for world leaders to respond.
But the few dozen who did congratulated the United States and its astronauts for making history, and expressed hope for peace to all nations of the world. Some handwrote their messages while others typed. Many were in local languages. A few included intricate artwork, such as the Vatican’s message by Pope Paul VI.
Among those who sent messages were a number of Asian countries including Japan, Malaysia, the Philippines and Korea. Ceylon’s South Asian neighbours Afghanistan, India, Maldives and Pakistan also joined.
“I fervently hope that this event will usher in an era of peaceful endeavor for all mankind” wrote Indira Gandhi, Prime Minister of India.
M Yahya Khan, President of Pakistan, said: “Greetings and felicitations from Pakistan to the American Astronauts who blazed a new trail for mankind by landing on the Moon.”
The Cold War politics are evident in how governments responded, or chose not to. For example, China’s message came from Chiang Kai-Shek, President of Taiwan â€“- the only Chinese government recognised by the US at the time. Similarly, the Vietnamese message was issued by the president of South Vietnam, whose regime fell in 1975. The Soviet Union and most of the eastern bloc countries were notably absent. However, Nicolae CeauÅŸescu of Romania sent a one-liner.
Many members of the then fledgling Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) also took part. Josip Broz Tito, President of Yugoslavia and a founder of NAM, sent an enthusiastic message.
Some countries were initially cautious or uncertain. King Bhumibol Adulyadej of Thailand said in a telegram: “In view of our total ignorance of this project, would appreciate any information you can provide concerning NASA’s invitation to send message… number of countries responding… methods of recording and method of deposit on the Moon.” In the end, the Thai government sent a message just in time.
The king of Thailand is only one of two heads of state still holding office; the other is Queen Elizabeth II. Reading the messages, whose English translations are available online, is like entering a time capsule. Some countries have since changed names. Others have been subsumed by neighbours, or broken into two or more independent states. Geopolitical map of the world has been completely redrawn.
Even as the invitations went out, NASA was still trying to figure out how best to archive the messages to withstand harsh conditions on the Moon. Miniaturisation was essential as weight was at a high premium on the spacecraft.
One of NASA’s regular suppliers, the Sprague Electric Company of North Adams, Massachusetts, devised a new technique to inscribe the microscopic messages on the 1.5 inch, 99%-pure silicon disc. Silicon was chosen because it can withstand the extreme temperatures on the Moon.
The same technology is now widely used to make integrated circuits in modern electronics including computers. New at the time, it enabled each letter to be reduced 200 times to a size much smaller than the head of a pin.
The letters, no larger than one-fourth the width of a human hair, could be read under a microscope without any other playback facility. The only text readable by the naked eye is the wording on the rim: “From Planet Earth” and “July 1969”.
Sprague successfully delivered it one week prior to departure, but NASA then wanted to include late arriving messages. The final disc was ready only five days before Apollo 11 lifted off.
Having carried it to the Moon, the astronauts almost forgot to leave the disc behind. In his book, Rahman describes what happened.
Armstrong and Aldrin had only two and a half hours in which to explore the landing site, collect moon rocks and set up some scientific instruments. They also had to take part in some commemorative activities, including erecting the American flag and reading the inscription from the plaque. When President Nixon made an unscheduled call, it further crowded their schedule.
They were about to leave the Moon when Armstrong suddenly remembered the little “package” that was taped on to the arm of his colleague’s spacesuit. Aldrin, already up on the ladder, tossed it down to the ground. Armstrong nudged it with his foot â€“- there was no time for photographing or filming the moment. They had bigger things to worry about: if the lunar module failed to take off, they would be marooned on the Moon.
“The [transcript] shows that the astronauts almost forgot to leave it on the Moon. Buzz Aldrin confirmed that when I interviewed him,” says Rahman. “The mission was designed for safety first, so I can’t say more attention should have been paid to it. I am just glad it got there!”
After the astronauts returned safely to the Earth to a heroes’ welcome, the silicon disc was quickly forgotten. It earned only an occasional footnote in detailed histories of the Apollo missions. With his detailed account, Rahman has finally filled in the missing story.
Rahman feels that the messages are even more relevant today than they were when hurriedly written 40 summers ago. “The Apollo 11 plaque which states ‘We Came in Peace for all Mankind’ is one of the most important documents in world history â€” so are those goodwill messages.”
NASA official media release on the silicon disc:
Fox News interview with space historian Tahir Rahman: