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In Focus


How Sri Lanka missed the Moon

(Inset) The silicon disc (right) next to a
US 50 cent coin for comparison of size

By Nalaka Gunawardene

When Apollo 11 astronauts landed on the Moon 40 years ago this month, they were more than just Americans taking that historic first step on to another celestial body.

They did plant the American flag there, acknowledging the nation whose tax payers had financed the massive operation. But they also left a plaque saying, “Here men from the Planet Earth first set foot upon the Moon, July 1969 A.D. We came in peace for all mankind.” It was signed by the three astronauts –- Neil Armstrong, Edwin (Buzz) Aldrin, Jr., and Michael Collins and President Richard Nixon.

The plaque received wide publicity at the time. But the astronauts also left behind a silicon disc, which is one of the most important and symbolic items taken to the Moon. Etched on to that disc, about the size of a half US dollar coin, are miniaturised messages of goodwill and peace from 73 heads of state or government around the world.

These letters were received by NASA during the final weeks running up to the launch on July 16, 1969, yet this disc helped turn the Apollo 11 mission into an international endeavour. It also carried statements by American Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon, who had all provided political leadership to the American space programme.

It was only in June 1969 that the US State Department authorised NASA to solicit messages of goodwill from world leaders to be left on the Moon. This triggered a minor diplomatic frenzy, with invitations going out from Thomas O Paine, the NASA Administrator.

In all, 116 countries were contacted through their embassies in Washington DC, but only 73 responded in time.

Ceylon declined

Sri Lanka, then Ceylon, was among those countries that did respond. But for unknown and unexplained reasons, Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake declined to send a message to the Moon.

In a letter dated July 15, 1969 to the NASA Administrator, Charge d’Affairs at the Embassy of Ceylon in Washington, A. T. Jayakoddy, wrote: “The Government of Ceylon whilst thanking NASA for its kindness in requesting such a message, has decided not to send such a message.”

The reply, cushioned in diplomatic niceties, gives no hint or reason for the decision. Ceylon thus ruled itself out from being part of the historic mission to the Moon.

Was it some misplaced geopolitical considerations, or simple diplomatic bungling that led to Ceylon’s negative decision? After all these years, we might never find out.

Ceylon government’s letter of decline is now part of the public record, thanks to a book that came out in 2007. Titled We Came In Peace For All Mankind: The Untold Story Of The Apollo 11 Silicon Disc, it was authored by Tahir Rahman, a Kansas-based physician and space historian.

Last minute rush

The book documents the full story behind this little known facet of the very widely covered Apollo Moon landing. It also reproduces each of the 73 goodwill messages, as well as those which were received too late for inclusion on the disc.

“I was amazed at how NASA and the State Department rushed to get these messages before launch,” says Rahman. It took him two months to locate the boxes in which Administrator Paine had preserved the full correspondence.

The engineering and biomedical preparations for the first Moon landing had been meticulously planned for years. Yet the silicon disc idea moved from idea to launch in about a month. 

The participating world leaders congratulated the United States and its astronauts for making history and also expressed hope for peace to all nations of the world. Some messages were handwritten while others were typed and many were in local languages.

Asian countries respond

Among those who sent messages were a number of Asian countries including Japan, Malaysia, the Philippines and Korea. Ceylon’s South Asian neighbours Afghanistan, India, Maldives and Pakistan also joined.

“I fervently hope that this event will usher in an era of peaceful endeavour for all mankind,” wrote Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. M Yahya Khan, the President of Pakistan, said: “Greetings and felicitations from Pakistan to the American astronauts who blazed a new trail for mankind by landing on the Moon.”

The Cold War politics were evident in how governments responded, or chose not to. China’s message came from Chiang Kai-Shek, President of Taiwan, the only Chinese government then recognised by the US. The Vietnamese message was issued by the president of South Vietnam, whose regime fell in 1975. The Soviet Union and most of the eastern bloc countries were notably absent. However, Nicolae Ceau Escu of Romania sent a one-liner.

Many members of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) also took part. Josip Broz Tito, President of Yugoslavia and a founder of NAM, sent an enthusiastic message.

Queen Elizabeth II and King Bhumibol Adulyadej of Thailand are the only heads of state still holding office. Reading the messages, whose English translations are available online, is like entering a time capsule. (Visit: Some countries have since changed names. Others have been subsumed by neighbours, or broken into two or more independent states. The geopolitical map of the world has been completely redrawn.

On the airless and lifeless Moon, meanwhile, not much would have changed for what the astronauts left behind. But we won’t know for sure until the next human explorers get there.







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