On 24 July 1969, RN was in mid-Pacific welcoming the Apollo 11 crew home from the moon.
Like the rest of the mission, everything had gone almost flawlessly.
After traveling 240,000 miles, the capsule —named Columbia— splashed down less than two miles from the target. (RN requested that the band play “Columbia, Gem of the Ocean” as the three Apollo astronauts set foot on the deck of the recovery vessel.)
A helicopter picked them up an hour later and brought them to a special quarantine unit on the deck of the USS Hornet, where a proud and buoyant POTUS was waiting —along with CINCPAC Commander Admiral John McCain and many other dignitaries— to greet them.
Here is the text of the not always entirely comfortable exchange (but you try having an easy chat with three men who have just spent a week in space and are behind glass because they may have picked up some ghastly moon bug and with the entire crew of the Hornet not to mention the entire world looking over your shoulder and fastening on every word):
Neil, Buzz, and Mike:
I want you to know that I think I am the luckiest man in the world, and I say this not only because I have the honor to be President of the United States, but particularly because I have the privilege of speaking for so many in welcoming you back to earth.
I can tell you about all the messages we have received in Washington. Over 100 foreign governments, emperors, presidents, prime ministers, and kings, have sent the most warm messages that we have ever received. They represent over 2 billion people on this earth, all of them who have had the opportunity, through television, to see what you have done.
Then I also bring you messages from members of the Cabinet and Members of the Senate, Members of the House, the space agency, from the streets of San Francisco where people stopped me a few days ago, and you all love that city, I know, as I do.
But most important, I had a telephone call yesterday. The toll wasn’t, incidentally, as great as the one I made to you fellows on the moon. I made that collect, incidentally, in case you didn’t know. But I called three, in my view, three of the greatest ladies and most courageous ladies in the whole world today–your wives.
From Jan, Joan, and Pat, I bring their love and their congratulations. We think it is just wonderful that they have participated at least in television in this return. We are only sorry they couldn’t be here.
Also, I will let you in on a little secret. I made a date with them. I invited them to dinner on the 13th of August, right after you come out of quarantine. It will be a state dinner held in Los Angeles. The Governors of all the 50 States will be there, the Ambassadors, others from around the world and in America. They told me that you would come, too. All I want to know is: Will you come? We want to honor you then.
MR. NEIL A. ARMSTRONG. We will do anything you say, Mr. President, anytime.
THE PRESIDENT. One question, I think all of us would like to ask: As we saw you bouncing around in that float out there, I wonder if that wasn’t the hardest part of the journey. Did any of you get seasick?
MR. ARMSTRONG. No, we didn’t, and it was one of the hardest parts, but it was one of the most pleasant, we can assure you.
THE PRESIDENT. Well, I just know that you can sense what we all sense. When you get back now incidentally, have you been able to follow some of the things that happened since you have been gone? Did you know about the All-Star Game?
COL. EDWIN E. ALDRIN, JR. Yes, sir. The capsule communicators have been giving us daily reports.
THE PRESIDENT. Were you American League or National League?
Col. ALDRIN. National League.
MR. ARMSTRONG. Neither one.
THE PRESIDENT. There is the politician in the group.
MR. ARMSTRONG. We are sorry you missed that.
THE PRESIDENT. You knew that, too?
MR. ARMSTRONG. We heard about the rain. We haven’t learned to control the weather yet, but that is something we can look forward to.
THE PRESIDENT. Well, I can only summarize it because I don’t want to hold you now. You have so much more to do. You look great. Do you feel as great as you look?
MR. ARMSTRONG. We feel great.
THE PRESIDENT. Frank Borman feels you are a little younger by reason of having gone into space. Is that right? Do you feel a little bit younger?
MR. ARMSTRONG. We are younger than Frank Borman.
THE PRESIDENT. He is over there. Come on over, Frank, so they can see you. Are you going to take that lying down?
ASTRONAUTS. It looks like he has aged in the last couple weeks.
COL. FRANK BORMAN. They look a little heavy.
Mr. President, the one thing I wanted–you know, we have a poet in Mike Collins. He really gave me a hard time for describing the words “fantastic” and “beautiful.” I counted them. In 4 minutes up there, you used four “fantastics” and three “beautiful.”
THE PRESIDENT. Well, just let me close off with this one thing: I was thinking, as you know, as you came down, and we knew it was a success, and it had only been 8 days, just a week, a long week, that this is the greatest week in the history of the world since the Creation, because as a result of what happened in this week, the world is bigger, infinitely, and also, as I am going to find on this trip around the world, and as Secretary Rogers will find as he covers the other countries in Asia, as a result of what you have done, the world has never been closer together before.
We just thank you for that. I only hope that all of us in Government, all of us in America, that as a result of what you have done, can do our job a little better.
We can reach for the stars just as you have reached so far for the stars.
We don’t want to hold you any longer. Anybody have a last–how about promotions? Do you think we can arrange something?
MR. ARMSTRONG. We are just pleased to be back and very honored that you were so kind as to come out here and welcome us back. We look forward to getting out of this quarantine and talking without having the glass between us.
THE PRESIDENT. Incidentally, the speeches that you have to make at this dinner can be very short. If you want to say “fantastic” or “beautiful,” that is all right with us. Don’t try to think of new adjectives. They have all been said.
Now, I think incidentally that all of us, the millions who are seeing us on television now, seeing you, would feel as I do, that, in a sense, our prayers have been answered, and I think it would be very appropriate if Chaplain Piirto, the Chaplain of this ship, were to offer a prayer of thanksgiving. If he would step up now.
RN was genuinely excited by the mission, the men, and the moment — he was sincere when he said he was the luckiest man in the world. A troublemaking reporter took the President’s hyperbolic assertion about the “greatest week in the history of the world since the Creation” to Billy Graham and elicited a correction; Rev. Graham said that there were greater times, including the first Christmas, the Crucifixion, and the Resurrection.
When RN saw this story in his News Summary, he made a note to Bob Haldeman: “H —- Tell Billy RN referred to a week not a day.”
In RN, RN noted: “When I talked to Billy Graham a few days later, he said, “Mr. President, I know exactly how you felt, and I understand exactly what you meant, but, even so, I think you may have been a little excessive.”