Richard Nixon photo

Remarks on Presenting the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Apollo 13 Mission Operations Team in Houston.

April 18, 1970

Dr. Paine, Mrs. Lovell, Mrs. Haise, Mr. and Mrs. Swigert, all of the members of the NASA team who are here, and members of your families who are here in such great numbers today:

I have a very special honor, first as President of the United States to speak for all of the American people in expressing appreciation to the men and women on the ground who made it possible for the men to return to earth. We express our appreciation to you.

But I also am authorized to do something that even in this office I cannot usually do, and that is to speak not just for Americans but to speak for people all over the world.

There has poured into the White House in these past 24 hours, an unprecedented number of wires and letters and cables. There has poured in the kind of messages that have told me over and over again that it is vitally important to convey to the wives, to the astronauts, and to the men and women on the ground NASA [National Aeronautics and Space Administration] the fact that not just Americans but people all over the world, not just people in the free world but people in the Communist world, people of all religions, of all faiths, of all political beliefs, that they also were on that trip with these men.

I could read many, many wires today that express those sentiments. I have one that I think perhaps summarizes them as well as any. I read it to you:

"To the President of the United States:

"For the safe return of three astronauts, we express profound gratitude to God, to men of science and to all those who contributed to make this possible.

"To Your Excellency and to the people of the United States, we give assurance of deep admiration for the great skill employed and courage shown in the carrying out of this extraordinary undertaking which has held the attention and the hope of the world.

"To the heroes of the day and to their families go our joyful best wishes."

That message expresses the sentiment that runs through all of them. It happens to be from Pope Paul.

I would also mention something else: that in these last few days never have so many people on this earth, in all nations, thought together so much, shared an experience together so much, and never have they prayed so much for the success of this mission.

I had a man last night at the White House at a dinner who came up to me-I know he hasn't been in church for years--and he said, "I never prayed so hard in my life as I prayed these last 3 or 4 days."

I know that whatever our religious faith may be, whatever our differences in this respect are, that we know that through our prayers we helped to participate in this successful recovery.

But let me say one other thing. I think it is important that out of this mission we recognize that it was not a failure. I remember when I called Captain Lovell, he said he was sorry that they were unable to complete their mission of landing on the moon. I would reply in this way: The three astronauts did not reach the moon but they reached the hearts of millions of people in America and in the world. They reminded us in these days when we have this magnificent technocracy, that men do count, the individual does count. They reminded us that in these days machines can go wrong and that when machines go wrong, then the man or the woman, as the case may be, really counts. They reminded us, for example, of a truth that every astronaut has said when he has returned from a successful space flight, but that we have not paid too much attention to.

I know that when I have welcomed each group at the White House, their first statement is that, "We could not have done it without the help of hundreds, thousands of people on the ground." They point out that there are 6,000 major components in an astronaut operation and if something goes wrong with any one of those 6,000 major components the whole thing may prove to be a failure. They say that and we usually think in terms of "That is just the man carrying the ball giving the credit to the blockers when really we know he did it."

But now we know. We are reminded of the fact that the men and women on the ground do count, that those hours that they spent were worth spending. And I use this one example to indicate it.

There were a number of contingency plans that had to go into effect when this accident occurred and they took care of most of the difficulties. But there were some things that occurred that nobody could have planned for. We just didn't expect it to happen that way.

President Eisenhower often used to say around the Security Council table that it had been his experience in a really great crisis that plans were useless but that planning was indispensable. And so it was in this case.

When the problem was how to bring into the LEM [Lunar Excursion Module] from the command module the carbon dioxide absorbent, there was no plan, no contingency. Nobody ever thought that could happen. But then here in this great organization, men came into play. They are men whose names simply represent the whole team: [Robert E.] Smiley, [James V.] Correale. And they had a jerry-built operation which worked, and had that not occurred these men would not have gotten back. That is only one example to prove the magnificent teamwork of the Whole group, how the years of preparation paid off.

So, as President of the United States, I wanted the opportunity to thank everybody who had helped to make this flight a success, the success that it was, and all the others a success. I called Dr. Paine immediately after splashdown and said, "I would like to do that." He said, "How many days or weeks or years do you have? There are about 300,000 that we would like to thank." I said, "Well, then I will come down to Houston and present the Medal of Freedom to you, Dr. Paine, for the whole NASA organization." And now we see the greatness of a really superb executive. His response was, "No, not to me." He said, "Let me think a moment, and I will tell you who it ought to be to." He said, "Let's give it to the Apollo mission operations team." And he suggested that we have on this platform today the members of that team: Sig Sjoberg, Glynn Lunney, Mill Windler, Gerald Griffin, Gene Kranz. They are here and I wonder if they would all stand, please.

Mr. Sjoberg, I am sure that when I see the three astronauts in Hawaii a few hours from now, they will say from their hearts, "Never have so few owed so much to so many."

It is now my proud honor to present to the Apollo 13 mission operations team the highest civilian award in the United States, the Medal of Freedom.

I read the citation:

We often speak of scientific "miracles"-forgetting that these are not miraculous happenings at all, but rather the product of hard work, long hours and disciplined intelligence. The men and women of the Apollo 13 mission operations team performed such a miracle, transforming potential tragedy into one of the most dramatic rescues of all time. Years of intense preparation made this rescue possible.

The skill, coordination and performance under pressure of the mission operations team made it happen. Three brave astronauts are alive and on Earth because of their dedication, and because at the critical moments the people of that team were wise enough and self-possessed enough to make the right decisions. Their extraordinary feat is a tribute to man's ingenuity. to his resourcefulness and to his courage.

SIGUARD A. SJOBERG [Director of Flight Operations]. Mr. President, all of us here at the Manned Spacecraft Center and indeed people throughout the country and world who had the opportunity to participate in Apollo 13, are extremely grateful for this award.

Thank God for the return of the astronauts.

Thank you.

THE PRESIDENT. You know, a President learns a great deal on a trip like this. I had to learn how to pronounce Sjoberg.

Now we leave you to go to Hawaii where we will present the Medal of Freedom to the three astronauts. Their wives and Mr. and Mrs. Swigert will accompany us.

I know that you will want us to take from you the best wishes and congratulations from the men and women on the ground to the men who came back from space.

Note: The President spoke at 11:15 a.m. at the Manned Spacecraft Center, Houston, Tex.

In his opening words the President referred to the wives of astronauts James A. Lovell, Jr., and Fred W. Haise, Jr., and the parents of John L. Swigert, Jr.

Richard Nixon, Remarks on Presenting the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Apollo 13 Mission Operations Team in Houston. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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