On this day in 1961, John F. Kennedy shakes the country into action with a memorable address. “I believe that this nation,” he told Congress, “should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth.”
What an audacious proposal! Perhaps it was even more audacious when you consider that Americans were then reeling from a few recent embarrassments.
Just four years earlier, Russians had outdone Americans by launching Sputnik I, the first artificial Earth satellite. As if that weren’t enough, Russia achieved another first in April 1961: Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human to orbit the Earth. Americans were still lagging: At roughly the same time, our astronaut would enter only suborbital altitudes.
Something had to be done. As Kennedy saw it, a move toward outer space was more than just some kind of idealistic goal. He and his administration believed that a new, tangible victory in space was vital to America’s standing in the world.
Kennedy received a report on April 28 that summed up this position pretty succinctly: “This country should be realistic,” the report concluded, “and recognize that other nations . . . will tend to align themselves with the country which they believe will be the world leader—the winner in the long run. Dramatic accomplishments in space are being increasingly identified as a major indicator of world leadership.”
In other words, space exploration wasn’t just about science. It was about winning the Cold War, preserving national security, and maintaining American leadership in foreign relations.
Not that these types of victories would come easily. “[W]e cannot guarantee that we shall one day be first,” Kennedy told Congress, “[but] we can guarantee that any failure to make this effort will make us last.”
It was a theme that Kennedy would hit upon again as America’s manned space exploration program got underway. Rice University had made an early contribution to the effort when it assisted in the donation of land for a new NASA facility in Houston, Texas. Naturally, Kennedy would soon travel to Rice to give another memorable speech.
“We choose to go to the moon,” he thundered to the crowd in September 1962. “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard . . . .”
Yes! Because it’s hard, and because it requires perseverance and determination.
Isn’t that exactly the kind of attitude that has upheld American efforts for more than two centuries? And don’t you think that such an approach could still get us through today’s challenges?
As you know, Kennedy would not live to see his goal achieved. He was unfortunately shot down by an assassin in November 1963. Nevertheless, Americans would continue on and make their President proud: On July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin met Kennedy’s challenge when they stepped onto the moon, then returned safely to Earth four days later.
All these decades later, the United States is still the only nation that has accomplished such a feat.
J. Logsdon, John F. Kennedy and the Race to the Moon (2010)
John F. Kennedy, Special Message to the Congress on Urgent National Needs (May 25, 1961)
Lyndon B. Johnson, Memorandum for the President: Evaluation of Space Program (Apr. 28, 1961) (available HERE)
Mike Wall, The Moon and Man at 50: Why JFK's Space Exploration Speech Still Resonates (Space.com; May 25, 2011)