Apollo 11: The Department of State Prepares for Launch

Today’s post is written by David Langbart, an Archivist in the Textual Records Division at the National Archives at College Park.

patch for Apollo 11, an eagle with laurel branch in its talons landing on moon

Department of State involvement with the U.S. manned space program is little known and little appreciated.  Much of that involvement dealt with mundane matters such as coordinating international visitors to various launches and the foreign tours of astronauts after their return to earth, informing foreign governments of launches and other mission-related matters, and responding to international messages of congratulation.  The Department was also involved with negotiating the establishment of tracking stations and other ground facilities where needed in foreign countries around the world.

The Department also had a more serious role to play, however.  That role related to the fact that rockets, once launched, flew over the territory of other countries.  This aspect of the Department’s involvement would come into play only if some debris landed in another nation causing damage, injury, or loss of life or in the event of a mission-related disaster that forced an aborted landing on the land or in the territorial waters of another nation.  The Department was responsible for assisting in an emergency by arranging for the staging of recovery teams and obtaining emergency overflight and landing clearances if needed.  (See here and here about the demise of the post-Apollo Skylab.)

After the success of the Mercury and Gemini programs, the U.S. manned space program transitioned to the Apollo missions aimed at landing astronauts on the Moon and returning them safely to Earth.

Since Apollo missions transited the earth only between 35 degrees North and 35 degrees South latitude, not all U.S. Foreign Service Posts were potentially affected. Those in the zone of coverage were directed to name an Apollo Control Officer and to ensure that duty officers during a space mission were alerted to emergency recovery instructions.  To provide posts with general information on the Apollo program and its involvement, the Department of State sent a circular airgram entitled “Contingency Recovery for NASA/Apollo Manned Space Flight”.[1]  It included the following sections:

  1. General
  2. Apollo Project
  3. Contingency possibilities
  4. Post responsibilities
  5. Diplomatic coordination
  6. Contingency recovery procedures
  7. Search and recovery units (SAR)
  8. Telegraphic communications
  9. Spacecraft and location aids
  10. Public information policy

Search and Recovery (SAR) units were specially trained organizations created specifically for the purpose.  They were familiar with the design of the spacecraft, the beacons used to locate them, and the pyrotechnics and toxic fuels on board the spacecraft.  Department of Defense SAR aircraft were prepositioned at critical sites to effect recovery in case of an emergency landing. 

Before each Apollo Mission, the Department issued a document known as the “Mission Special Instruction” or MSI to provide American diplomats overseas with basic information about the upcoming mission.  An MSI typically included the following information:

  1. Launch date
  2. Duration
  3. Orbits
  4. Hours
  5. Planned Recovery Area
  6. Astronauts
  7. Objectives
  8. Location of SAR Units

On July 3, 1969, thirteen days before the launch of Apollo 11, the Department of State sent the following Circular Airgram constituting the MSI for Apollo 11.[2]

Apollo 11, carrying astronauts Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins, and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, Jr., lifted off from Cape Kennedy at 9:32 AM EDT on July 16, 1969, and landed back on Earth in the Pacific Ocean southwest of Hawaii at 12:51 PM EDT on July 24, 1969. 

[1] Department of State, Circular Airgram CA-10847, September 13, 1968, file SP 10 US, 1967-1969 (NAID 594736) Subject-Numeric File, RG 59: General Records of the Department of State.

[2] Department of State, Circular Airgram CA-3770, July 3, 1969, file SP 10 US, 1967-1969 (NAID 594736) Subject-Numeric File, RG 59: General Records of the Department of State.

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