No Moon, please – we’re Ceylonese: How Sri Lanka lost the Moon…

We came in peace for all makind...
We came in peace for all makind...

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

Yes, they planted the US flag there – after all, it was the American tax payers who financed the massive operation. But they left on the Moon other items that signified the universal nature of their mission.

One was a plaque (photo, above) 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 bore the signature of the three astronauts –- Neil Armstrong, Edwin (Buzz) Aldrin, Jr., and Michael Collins –- and then US President Richard Nixon. Another was a golden olive branch.

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.

The silicon disc (right) next to a US 50 cents coin for comparison of size
The silicon disc (right) next to a US 50 cents coin for comparison of size
These letters were received by NASA during the final weeks running up to the launch on 16 July 1969, yet this disc helped turn the Apollo 11 mission into an international endeavour.

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. Sri Lanka, then Ceylon, responded. But for some unknown and unexplained reason, then Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake declined to send a message to the Moon.

When I first heard about it about 18 months ago, I was both intrigued and curious. Was it some misplaced geopolitical considerations, or simple diplomatic arrogance that led to Ceylon’s negative decision? After all these years, we might never find out.

I have now written this up in an article titled ‘How Sri Lanka Missed the Moon’, which appears this weekend in the mainstream media and online in two different versions.

The Sunday Leader newspaper has printed the compact version in its issue for 19 July 2009. Citizen journalism website Groundviews carries the more detailed version, where an interesting reader discussion is evolving…

The story is based largely on 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.

Uncovering forgotten history
Uncovering forgotten history
The book documents the full story behind this little known facet of the very widely covered Apollo 11 mission. 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. He took two months to locate from the Library of Congress the boxes in which NASA Administrator Paine had preserved the full correspondence.

While researching for this article, I contacted Rahman hoping for some additional insights, but he replied: “I do not have any information about why Sri Lanka did not send an Apollo 11 goodwill message.”

Sir Arthur C Clarke, with whom I worked for over 20 years, was also intrigued by Ceylon’s decision, which he didn’t know about until Rahman’s book reprinted the official letter. His only remark: “Mysterious are the ways governments think and work.”

Reading the messages, whose English translations are available online, is like entering a time capsule. Only two of the world leaders are still holding office (Queen Elizabeth II of Britain, and King of Thailand); most of them are dead. Some countries have since changed names. Others have been subsumed by neighbours, or broken into two or more independent states. Geopolitical map of the world has been completely redrawn.

The story of the Apollo 11 silicon disc is more a history and politics lesson, and less a science story. But I’m glad that I found a little known facet of the very widely covered Apollo missions to write about on its 40th anniversary.

Watch Tahir Rahman interviewed on Fox News network:

Author: Nalaka Gunawardene

A science writer by training, I've worked as a journalist and communication specialist across Asia for 30+ years. During this time, I have variously been a news reporter, feature writer, radio presenter, TV quizmaster, documentary film producer, foreign correspondent and journalist trainer. I continue to juggle some of these roles, while also blogging and tweeting and column writing.

7 thoughts on “No Moon, please – we’re Ceylonese: How Sri Lanka lost the Moon…”

  1. Why are you trying to discredit the memory of a highly regarded statesman who was perhaps the last decent leader the UNP of Sri Lanka had? Dudley Senanayake may have been seen as weak and indecisive on some matters of statescraft, but he was a gentleman to the core, and a great patron of Buddhists. He did what no other leader before or after was able to do: he introduced the Buddhist week and moved away from the Judeo-Christian calendar that considers Saturday and Sunday as the fixed weekend. For this act alone Dudley earned the eternal gratitude of Buddhists everywhere.

    You never miss an opportunity to ridicule the SInhala Buddhist accomplishments past or present. This is yet another dispicable attempt to dig up the forgotten past and insult the memory of a true Buddhist leader. We will deal with the traiters like you soon.

  2. I am dismayed that the Moon plaque read ‘We Came In Peace For All Mankind’. What about the other half of humankind?

    That kind of sexist wording, and male chauvinistic attitude, took us not only tot he Moon but to the edge of nuclear catastrophe in that same decade.

  3. @21st Century Fox:
    You really are sounding and behaving like a one-track horse now. I don’t know what intellectually deprived upbringing you’ve had, but you sadly lack the ability to enter any discussion on any topic without forcing your Buddhist baggage into it, no matter what is being said.

    I have said this before, and I’ll only say it once more. I’m a secular humanist and will not get baited into religious discussions of any faith (people keep trying, believe me!). This is not an arrogance, but a practical measure as I’ve found that religion (like love) blinds all reason and rules out any rational or open discussion. You and others are perfectly free to believe in any faith of your choice, but if you are remotely the Buddhist that you so often profess to be, you should know that tolerance of multiple – including opposing – points of views is a core tenet in Buddhism. (I have studied it as a subject, though don’t allow it to take over my mind).

    I have so far published your off-topic, hate-filled, sometimes outright threatening comments in the spirit of inclusive debate. But this is a moderated personal blog focusing on media, culture and development, not a public platform for religious zealots. I hope you find your rightful place soon to let off your steam and anger. So, for the last time, please go somewhere else and find an adversary of your size and temperament.

    And yes, once in a blue Moon at least, try and actually practise what the Buddha taught!

  4. @Sandra:

    As for the sexism in terminology, I don’t think it was a deliberate exclusion of women. Gender-neutral use of English was only just beginning to emerge in the 1960s – this would gather momentum in the 1970s.

    At the time, the term ‘mankind’ was widely understood and accepted to include women as well. The more gender-neutral term ‘humankind’ would come into popular use a few years later. I’m not endorsing this, but merely suggesting that it probably wasn’t intentionally excluding women (and still less, insulting them) when the lunar plaque’s wording read ‘We came in peace for all mankind’.

    Far more intentional was the exclusion of women from the lunar missions themselves, a topic which I have just discussed at:

    As I wrote in another blog post in May 2009, the popular US television series Star Trek, which started airing in September 1966, was well ahead of reality in inclusiveness. When neither the mainstream television nor the space programme reflected America’s true diversity (let alone our planet’s), Star Trek had a multi-ethnic crew for the Starship Enterprise, roaming the universe in the 23rd century in a mission of exploration (not conquest). It included an African-American woman, a Scotsman, a Japanese American, and a super intelligent alien, the half-Vulcan Spock. See:

    But even such progressive (for that time) story tellers still opened each episode with these famous and evocative words: “Space… the Final Frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds; to seek out new life and new civilizations; to boldly go where no man has gone before.”

    It was only in the follow-up series that the producers replaced the word “man” with the gender- and species-neutral “one”. From Star Trek: The Next Generation series, the opening read (in part): “….to boldly go where no one has gone before.”

  5. This is a great web site! Does anybody know where I can get a replica of the Apollo 11 disc?

    — (Space enthusiast, former children’s pastor, but not religious zealot)

  6. Dear Nalaka,

    Just hopped on to your blog via an article elsewhere. I am reading this towards the end of 2012, but still startled by the comments from the likes of ’21st Century Fox’. Seems that similar foxes multiplied in blogs and other spheres over the past 3 years. And great response to Sandra who I wasnt sure whether raised a genuine concern.

    Anyhow, great article. Will ‘regular’ the blog from now on.

    – A fan from ‘Vijaya’ days.

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