About the Author: Priscilla Linn is the Senior Curator at the U.S. Diplomacy Center.
Forty years ago, on July 20, 1969, Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin spent approximately three hours on the moon. Little did the first men to walk on Earth’s only satellite — and their fellow astronaut Mike Collins piloting the waiting space craft — know that perhaps the most exhausting part of their historic journey lay ahead.
They were to embark on the GIANTSTEP-APOLLO 11 Presidential Goodwill Tour, visiting 24 countries over 45 days from September 29 – November 5, 1969. Instead of looking down on the earth from outer space, they were jetting across it, trading their bulky suits and lunar module for business attire and diplomatic vehicles. President Richard M. Nixon promoted the tour, with the official purpose to “share information gained from the flight with other nations and to share plans for future space exploration,” according to Geneva B. Barnes, a NASA Public Affairs officer who accompanied the astronauts. She also said that the State Department chose the nations to visit.
The Commander in Chief authorized the Boeing presidential aircraft for their use, and after a massive ticker tape parade in New York City, the astronaut soon began their journey from Mexico to Tokyo. “As the first men ever to land on the moon you have demonstrated that you are the best possible ambassadors for peace here on earth,” President Nixon told them in a homecoming speech. Neil Armstrong confirmed the president’s statement, reporting that people received the astronauts “not just as individuals, but as representatives of the United States . . . a symbol of a nation firm in its will to share for the benefit of all mankind.”
Certainly the newspapers of the day reported cheering crowds in cities such as Mexico City, Kinshasa, Belgrade, Sydney and Tokyo. The president called their travels, “The most successful goodwill trip in the history of the United States.” According to the November 6, 1969, New York Times article by Nan Robertson, the astronauts gave 22 news conferences, met with 20 heads of state and received numerous decorations including, among others, the French Legion of Honor, the Congo’s Order of the Leopard and the Order of Culture in Japan.
At each stop the diplomatic corps, along with a host of others, choreographed the astronauts’ visit from the moment the airplane touched down until the heroes and their spouses reboarded, off to the next stop. Foreign Service Officer (Ret.) Hans N. “Tom” Tuch, former Public Affairs Officer in West Berlin, kindly donated to the U.S. Diplomacy Center the framed photograph and briefing log of the stop in West Berlin, October 13-14, 1969. In the briefing log, compiled well before the use of graphics programs and computers, the meticulous diagrams indicate the careful logistics to maximize security and strategic routing of the astronaut party in the city. Despite the thorough preparation, according to Geneva Barnes there was a short, unexpected delay in Berlin, when the astronauts stepped off the plane and heard “The Star Spangled Banner.” Placing their hands over their hearts, they waited until the last note sounded before proceeding as directed.
In thanks for his professional assistance, the astronauts presented Mr. Tuch with a photo of the sign the astronauts left on the moon. It reads, “Here men from the planet Earth first set foot upon the moon July 1969, A.D. We came in peace for all mankind." The photo bears the signatures of Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins, which are also on the moon landing sign, along with that of President Nixon.
Age has slightly faded the artifacts, yet they speak to the achievement of our nation and the work of dedicated Foreign Service Officers like Mr. Tuch, who during their careers make it possible for other nations to discover, and hopefully appreciate, more about the U.S. in its many complex aspects. Thus, the seemingly mundane paper artifacts link us to a core purpose of American diplomacy.
No doubt many diplomats serving in the 24 countries of the GIANTLEAP tour have memories of the visit. The staff of the U.S. Diplomacy Center would very much like to hear about any memorabilia related to this or other international visits of U.S. astronauts as goodwill ambassadors abroad. Please feel free to contact us.