This is the 46th in an exclusive series of 50 articles, one published each day until July 20, exploring the 50th anniversary of the first-ever Moon landing. You can check out 50 Days to the Moon here every day.
For its July 1969 cover story, Esquire magazine had an inspired idea: Ask famous people what the first astronaut on the Moon should say, as he stepped onto the Moon, that very month.
The Apollo missions, of course, were a cultural and media sensation: In the first half of 1969, there was a new one every 60 days, each more risky and adventurous than the last. As the actual Moon landing approached, everyone was wondering what the astronauts, the first humans to set foot somewhere other than Earth in the solar system, would say.
Esquire in 1969 was at the height of its influence and literary power, and at the forefront of reinventing reporting with the “New Journalism” of Norman Mailer, Gay Talese, and Tom Wolfe.
The magazine’s survey of what the first words on the Moon should be was a classic combination of Esquire cheekiness and self-importance, precisely the attitude that made the magazine both infuriating and irresistible.
The headline of the story was, “Le Mot Juste for the Moon”—French for “the right word for the Moon,” and a conjuring of French literary figure Gustave Flaubert, who said that most of writing consisted of finding “le mot juste.”
Esquire was simultaneously mocking its own idea and claiming credit for its cultural significance. If the publication could ultimately claim to have a couple examples of “first lines” from really important people that were better than those the astronauts themselves came up with, so much the better.
Given the magazine’s standing, it got responses from a glittering roster of late 1960s American celebrities and figures from politics and literature, many of whom were known for their wit or their writing ability: Vladimir Nabokov. Poet Gwendolyn Brooks. Isaac Asimov. Bob Hope. Sitting Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas. Ayn Rand. Former Vice President Hubert Humphrey. Truman Capote.
A picture appeared with each luminary. As part of the joke, Esquire put each headshot inside a space helmet.
Muhammad Ali, astronaut.
The magazine didn’t just run the words of 61 famous people; it wrote a story to go with the quotes. Mostly, it mocked the chatter from astronauts who had already been to space, comparing astronaut expressions and descriptions to something the character Granny on the sitcom The Beverly Hillbillies would say, or perhaps a character from “a hack Victorian novelist.”
Esquire was not expecting much from Neil Armstrong.
“While the space program is poised on the brink of a truly epoch-making triumph of engineering, it is also headed for a rhetorical train wreck,” the story said.
“The principal danger is not that we will lose the life of an astronaut on the Moon, but that the astronauts will murder English up there . . . . That they are likely to litter the intergalactic void with gibberish and twaddle.”
The smugness is rather remarkable, because despite the talent of the people it enlisted, Esquire got not a single decent line from any of them.
It got, in fact, a lot of gibberish and twaddle.
For the record, Neil Armstrong always said that he didn’t think about his first words until the lunar module was safely on the Moon’s surface—that there would be plenty of time between touchdown and opening the hatch to figure out the right thing to say. Indeed, crewmmate Michael Collins asked Armstrong while they were flying to the Moon what he planned to say, and Armstrong said he hadn’t thought about it yet. No one—including Collins and fellow crewmate Buzz Aldrin—believed that particular line.
Armstrong’s opening line, of course, was, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”
Aldrin’s first words are perhaps less well remembered but similarly echo through the decades with unprepossessing eloquence: “Beautiful view. Magnificent desolation.”
With that as your benchmark, here’s a sampling of what Esquire’s best and brightest came up with:
John Kenneth Galbraith, the Harvard economist: “We will hafta pave the damn thing.”
Ayn Rand, libertarian thinker and novelist: “What hath man wrought!”
Bob Hope, the comedian and entertainer: ” (1) Well, at least I didn’t end up in Havana. (A reference to a recent spate of hijackings to Cuba) (2) My god, smog! (3) I’ll be darned, it’s made of cheese!”
Gwendolyn Brooks, Pulitzer Prize–winning poet: “Here there shall be peace and love.”
Leonard Nimoy, the actor, then in his third season as Spock on the new TV series Star Trek: “I’d say to Earth, from here you are a peaceful, beautiful ball and I only wish everyone could see it with that perspective and unity.”
Marianne Moore, the poet: “Just got here and I have to look around / (I’m quoting Harry Belafonte) / Sit down. I can’t sit down. I’ve just got to Heaven and I’ve got to look around.”William O. Douglas, Associate Justice of the Supreme Court: “I pledge that we the people of Earth will not litter, pollute and despoil the Moon as we have our own planet.”Truman Capote, writer: “If I were the first astronaut on the Moon my first remark would be: So far so good.”
Isaac Asimov, the novelist and science writer: ” ‘Goddard, we are here!’ It would be a salute to Robert Hutchings Goddard, who was the father of all this. In 1926, he fired the first liquid-fueled rocket.”
Kurt Vonnegut, the novelist: “Was this the face that launch’d a thousand ships?”
Muhammad Ali, world heavyweight champion boxer, a little confused about Esquire‘s request, offering not words for the astronauts on the Moon, but instructions to them: “Bring me back a challenger, ’cause I’ve defeated everyone here on Earth.”
Vladimir Nabokov, novelist: “You want a lump in (the astronaut’s) throat to obstruct the wisecrack.”
Charles Fishman, who has written for Fast Company since its inception, has spent the past four years researching and writing One Giant Leap, his New York Times best-selling book about how it took 400,000 people, 20,000 companies, and one federal government to get 27 people to the Moon. (You can order it here.)
For each of the next 50 days, we’ll be posting a new story from Fishman—one you’ve likely never heard before—about the first effort to get to the Moon that illuminates both the historical effort and the current ones. New posts will appear here daily as well as be distributed via Fast Company’s social media. (Follow along at #50DaysToTheMoon).