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
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
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
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.
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.
all, 116 countries were contacted through their
embassies in Washington DC, but only 73 responded in
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
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.”
reply, cushioned in diplomatic niceties, gives no hint
or reason for the decision.
thus ruled itself out from being part of the historic
mission to the Moon.
it some misplaced geopolitical considerations, or simple
diplomatic bungling that led to
negative decision? After all these years, we might never
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.”
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
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.
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.
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