The day President Kennedy sent America to the moon
On May 25, 1961, 60 years ago, President John F. Kennedy stood before a joint session of Congress to deliver an address on “Urgent National Needs.” The speech was a laundry list of proposals, including a nuclear rocket called Rover and weather satellites. However, all that most people remember about the speech is the following line:
“First, I believe that this nation 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.”
Kennedy challenged the Soviet Union to a race to the moon. The Apollo program was the greatest challenge of one state to another that did not involve armed conflict in the history of civilization. Why did Kennedy throw down to the Soviets in such a manner?
The first reason was crassly political. The Kennedy presidency was just over four months old, and it had not, mildly speaking, covered itself with glory. Between the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba and Yuri Gagarin’s first space flight just over a month before, Kennedy had presided over disaster and humiliation. Like any clever politician, he decided to change the subject.
The other, geopolitical reason, Kennedy expressed in the very next sentence. “No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish.”
To turn Kennedy’s rhetoric around, the president proposed to “impress mankind” by having the United States land a man on the moon and return him safely to the Earth before any other country. If the United States could do that, it would prove itself the technological and economic super-power on the Earth. The American system of freedom and tolerance would be proven superior to the Soviet totalitarian system.
Just over eight years of political twists and turns, triumphs and tragedies lay between Kennedy’s speech and that evening of July 20, 1969, when his mandate was achieved. JFK did not live to see the accomplishment of his challenge, but it succeeded likely beyond his wildest expectations. That special night, on which a half a billion or so people watched two astronauts walk on the moon was a sublime climax to a tumultuous decade. The Soviets never recovered from the humiliation.
Kennedy’s speech and the subsequent success of the Apollo program, paradoxically, created a problem for succeeding presidents who were interested in similar projects. Both President George H. W. Bush and President George W. Bush made the big speech proposing deep space exploration programs that were focused not only on a return to the moon but human expeditions to Mars. Both proposals were seen as being on the model of the Apollo program. Both of them failed, for various reasons.
When President Donald Trump decided to propose a new deep space exploration program, he did things a little differently. Instead of a big speech, Trump held a low-key signing ceremony in the Oval Office attended by astronauts, politicians and NASA officials. He, as it turned out, shrewdly concluded that the way to sell what became the Artemis Project was to lobby members of Congress. Trump’s pick as NASA administrator, Jim Bridenstine, had served in Congress and was thus perfectly suited for that task.
Artemis was easier to sell because it had been structured according to the realities of the 21st century and not the 1960s. Apollo was by and large run by NASA, with private contractors building hardware on cost plus contracts. Artemis was set up as a coalition of a number of national space agencies and commercial companies. The lunar Human Landing System (HLS) has been set up as a fixed-priced contract, with the vehicle developed and tested by SpaceX more in a partnership with NASA rather than as a subsidiary contractor. International diplomacy and commercial development are powerful arguments for returning to the moon.
The fact that SpaceX’s CEO, Elon Musk, is a quirky, popular figure who has become considered the “coolest capitalist” of the modern age due to his making rocket ships and electric cars was a plus. Musk is the Wernher von Braun of Artemis, albeit without the stain of having worked for the Nazis during World War II.
In short, at long last, a new generation will have a night of magic when they watch the first woman and a “person of color” walk on the moon, the first we hope of many. JFK would have likely approved.
Mark Whittington, who writes frequently about space and politics, has published a political study of space exploration entitled Why is It So Hard to Go Back to the Moon? as well as “The Moon, Mars and Beyond,” and, most recently, “Why is America going back to the Moon.” He blogs at Curmudgeons Corner. He is published in the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, The Hill, USA Today, the LA Times and the Washington Post, among other venues.
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