It assumes that the astronauts (Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin) are trapped on the moon and doomed to die. The American people know about it in real time and need guidance:
Fate has ordained that the men who went to the moon to explore in peace will stay on the moon to rest in peace.
These brave men, Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin, know that there is no hope for their recovery. But they also know that there is hope for mankind in their sacrifice.
These two men are laying down their lives in mankind’s most noble goal: the search for truth and understanding.
They will be mourned by their families and friends; they will be mourned by their nation; they will be mourned by the people of the world; they will be mourned by a Mother Earth that dared send two of her sons into the unknown.
In their exploration, they stirred the people of the world to feel as one; in their sacrifice, they bind more tightly the brotherhood of man.
In ancient days, men looked at stars and saw their heroes in the constellations. In modern times, we do much the same, but our heroes are epic men of flesh and blood.
Others will follow, and surely find their way home. Man’s search will not be denied. But these men were the first, and they will remain the foremost in our hearts.
For every human being who looks up at the moon in the nights to come will know that there is some corner of another world that is forever mankind.
Obviously this is a beautiful and moving speech, and should have helped Americans understand this theoretical tragedy had it occurred, but what I love best is the careful avoidance of any mention of God or religious ideology.
The writer mentions ‘Mother earth’ and ‘fate’ but the overall feeling is clear: Mankind did this thing on our own, using our ambition, ingenuity and hope. Whether the mission is successful or not we had achieved something miraculous and unbelievable all on our own. We can take credit for the success just as we must face the blame if things go wrong. Either way we had re-invented our place in the universe for all eras to follow, and, most importantly, for the best possible reason: “the search for truth and understanding”.
Too bad the space race was as much about the cold war as it was about science, and that Nixon was a horrible person in the long run. For today his alternate-universe self will be my Atheist superhero. (The actual speechwriter was William Safire and not Nixon of course. Here is some audio of Safire talking about writing the worst-case scenario speech).