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Fifty years ago today, John Kennedy stood before Congress and the nation and declared that the United States was going to the Moon. Amazingly, though this is by far the most remembered speech Kennedy ever gave, very few people remember why he gave the speech, and what he was actually trying to achieve by making it.
Above all, going to the Moon and exploring space was not his primary goal.
For Kennedy — whose presidential campaign included an aggressive anti-communist stance against the Soviet Union — the months before the speech had not gone well. Five weeks earlier, for instance, the CIA-led attempt to invade Cuba and overthrow Castro’s communist government had ended in total failure. When Kennedy refused to lend direct military support to the Bay of Pigs invasion, the 1,200 man rebel force was quickly overcome. “How could I have been so stupid as to let them go ahead?” Kennedy complained privately to his advisors.
In Berlin, the tensions between the East and the West were continuing to escalate, and would lead in only a few short months to Khrushchev’s decision to build the Berlin Wall, sealing off East Berlin and the citizens of East Germany from the rest of the world.
In the race to beat the Soviets in space, things were going badly as well. NASA had announced the United States’ intention to put the first man into space sometime in the spring of 1961. The agency hoped that this flight would prove that the leader of the capitalist world still dominated the fields of technology, science, and exploration.
Originally scheduled for a March 6, 1961 launch, the short fifteen minute sub-orbital flight was repeatedly delayed. The Mercury capsule’s first test flight in January, with a chimpanzee as test pilot, rose forty miles higher than intended, overshot its landing by a hundred and thirty miles, and when the capsule was recovered three hours later it had begun leaking and was actually sinking. Then in March another test of the Mercury capsule included the premature firing of the escape rocket on top of the capsule, the unplanned release of the backup parachutes during descent, and the discovery of dents on the capsule itself.
These difficulties caused NASA to postpone repeatedly its first manned mission. First the agency rescheduled the launch to late March. Then early April. Then mid-April. And then it was too late.
On April 12th Tass, the Soviet news agency, proudly announced to the world that Yuri Gagarin had become the first human to enter space. Unlike NASA’s planned fifteen minute sub-orbital flight, Gagarin’s launch vehicle had reached escape velocity and orbited the earth. As the New York Times noted in an editorial, “The political and psychological importance [of this accomplishment gives] the Soviet Union once again the ‘high ground’ in world prestige.” Or as the Soviet government and the Central Committee of the Communist Party stated, “In this achievement, which will pass into history, are embodied the genius of the Soviet people and the powerful force of socialism.”
Three weeks after Gagarin’s flight, the United States finally entered the space race. Unlike the Soviet launch, where press coverage had been tightly controlled and no public announcements were made until the mission was completed and successful, hundreds of newspapermen swarmed about Cape Canaveral.
Twice this first American space flight was scrubbed due to bad weather. Finally, on May 5th at 10:34 AM (two and a half hours late) the Redstone rocket lifted off, pushing astronaut Alan Shepard to 115 miles in altitude before quickly descending to splashdown 302 miles off the coast of Florida. In all, this first American space flight lasted just over fifteen minutes, traveling at most 4,500 miles per hour. Compared to the Soviet achievements, it seemed almost pitiable. Gargarin had traveled a hundred times farther, four times faster, and six times longer. And his rocket had put almost four times the weight, five tons, into orbit.
To President Kennedy, this Soviet superiority simply could not be allowed to stand. On May 25, 1961, fifty years ago today and three weeks after Shepard’s short hop into space, Kennedy stood before Congress to deliver what some had dubbed his “second” state of the union speech. He opened by bluntly saying what he saw as his country’s role in the Cold War that was raging across the globe.
We stand for freedom . . . No friend, no neutral, and no adversary should think otherwise. We are not against any man — or any nation — or any system — except as it is hostile to freedom.
He then outlined a number of proposals for increasing the American effort in this “great battleground for the defense and expansion of freedom.” He called for additional funds to finance radio and television broadcasts in South America. He reaffirmed his commitment to NATO, pledging at least five more nuclear submarines to that alliance. He described plans to re-organize the Army (giving it greater flexibility) and to increase the size of the Marine Corps. He called for a renewal of the civil defense program, tripling its funding and the building of more fallout shelters.
And then he asked for something more.
If we are to win the battle that is going on around the world between freedom and tyranny, if we are to win the battle for men’s minds, the dramatic achievements in space which occurred in recent weeks should have made clear to us all, as did the Sputnik in 1957, the impact of this adventure on the minds of men everywhere who are attempting to make a determination of which road they should take. Now it is time to take longer strides — time for a great new American enterprise — time for this nation to take a clearly leading role in space achievement which in many ways may hold the key to our future on earth.
Kennedy had no illusions about his reasons for accepting the Soviet challenge to a space race. After noting to all how the Soviets had a clear “head start” with “their large rocket engines,” and also noting that his country was willing to take “the additional risk” of joining that space race in full view of the world, he reiterated the political issues that underlay his decision.
We go into space because whatever mankind must undertake, free men must fully share.
To have found a congressmen or senator who opposed this position would have been difficult that night. Nonetheless, all were stunned to silence when Kennedy made his next proposal.
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 earth. No single space project in this period will be more exciting, or more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long range exploration of space.
Many have forgotten in the ensuing decades that Kennedy did not propose this project merely to prove that America could achieve glorious and bold triumphs. When he made this commitment, Americans were truly frightened by the possibility that the Soviet empire was beginning to outstrip them in technology. Worse, this technology gave the Soviets the ability to launch missiles directly at the United States. Khrushchev’s words, “We will bury you!” hung over Congress like a thunderhead. Many, both in and out of Washington, believed that their lives and the future of everything they believed in depended on the success of Kennedy’s proposal.
What people have also forgotten is that Kennedy’s purpose was not to send Americans into space, but to demonstrate unequivocally that freedom was a best way to build a society. He and Congress wanted to prove that in the competition between the centralized government-controlled Soviet Union and the free and capitalist United States, individual responsibility and private enterpise — based on freedom — could do it better. “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country,” John Kennedy had said in his first inaugural address. According to this ideal, each citizen was individually responsible for doing what he or she could to make society better, not the government.
This ethos was reflected in how the 1960s American space program operated: NASA was run so much from the bottom that the presence and influence of Washington was practically invisible. The hard scheduling and engineering decisions were instead worked out by the ordinary lower-echelon workers thinking independently in the field. It is not surprising then that the last person to find out about the prospect to send Apollo 8 to the Moon was James Webb, NASA’s administrator, the man who was supposedly in charge at the top. Webb might have been responsible for making the final and essentially political decision, but unlike Khrushchev he interfered little with design and engineering problems.
NASA however was a government program, and its success helped prove to an entire younger generation how it was possible to use the government to solve society’s ills. “As revolutionary visions faded, many became crisp professional lobbyists: environmentalist, feminist, antiwar,” wrote sixties radical and former SDS president Todd Gitlin of the aftermath of the 1960s. “Most were willing to think of themselves as unabashed reformers, availing themselves of whatever room they found for lobbying, running for office, creating local, statewide and regional organizations.”
While Americans had often used local government to achieve their ends, and while the first half of the twentieth-century had seen a continuous growth in the use of the federal government to wield change, the 1960s saw a burst of federal activism that was possibly the largest in the country’s history. The success of the space program, though certainly not the sole cause, surely helped to dissolve any remaining resistance to centralizing American political power around the national government. The result today, fifty years later, is an out-of-control federal government whose debts threaten to overwhelm our country’s future for generations to come.
In space, this new faith in government resulted in the insistence that all space exploration be conducted entirely by NASA and the federal government. Moreover, subsequent presidents repeatedly tried to emulate Kennedy’s model, declaring a new goal in space, to be built by the government and completed by some deadline.
First Nixon declared that the U.S. would build a reusable space fleet that would lower the cost to orbit, and required all commercial satellites to use it.
Then Reagan declared that the government would build a space station by 1990, using it as a platform to stimulate commerce and industry.
Then George Bush Sr. declared in 1989 that NASA was going to establish a base on the Moon, send an expedition to Mars, and make “the permanent settlement of space” the nation’s goal.
Next Bill Clinton declared that Reagan’s space station was to be an international project, an orbiting United Nations for world peace and diplomacy.
Finally George Bush Jr. essentially repeated his father’s declaration of 1989, declaring that NASA was going to take us back to the Moon and beyond, and do it by 2020.
In all these declarations, it was assumed that the space vehicles and rockets to get into space would be designed and operated by the federal government. Sometimes NASA would do the actual construction. Other times it would design the craft and subcontract construction to others. Regardless of the details, in every case the United States — the world’s supposed beacon for liberty and individual freedom — had decided to imitate the Soviet model, to depend on the government and centralized authority as its method of achievement.
Instead of asking what each of us could do for our country, we were asking our country what it could do for us.
The result, unfortunately, has generally been failure. The shuttle did not lower the cost into orbit. If anything it increased that cost, while limiting competition and innovation. The space station did not generate new industry, as Reagan dreamed. Nor did it foster world peace, as Clinton imagined. And the dreams of both Bushes have led nowhere, while costing the American taxpayer billions.
Instead, the American space effort has floundered for decades, shifting from the ephermal dreams of one President to the next.
There is hope, however. Though Barack Obama once again emulated past presidents last year when he declared that NASA is going to mount a mission to the asteroids, his administration’s effort to shift the design and construction of rockets and manned spaceships from NASA to the private sector is the first real movement back towards freedom and private enterprise in fifty years.
Initially, I had great doubts about Obama’s sincerity. Even now, I am skeptical of his goals, as much of what he has said and done during his political career suggests that he cares not a bit for the aerospace industry, viewing it as a member of the “evil” military-industrial complex.
Nonetheless, his administration has stayed the course, and continues to push for funding for the new private commercial space companies. Whether they will get that funding, considering the dire state of the federal budget, remains an unknown. Also, the political battles with Congress over this funding remain difficult and confusing. Overall, I still think the situation is a mess that will take at least three to five years to sort out.
However, even if the Obama administration’s plans fail entirely and they are unable to fund their private space initiative, there is a silver lining. By essentially shutting down the government-run space program of NASA, Obama has created a vacuum where none had existed before. There is a need to get into space, which translates into profits and success. And without the government to fulfill that need (at a cost few can afford), others must come forward to do it, and they must do it for far cheaper, because that is all their customers can afford.
The result is that we are hopefully seeing the birth of a new robust industry made up of multiple competing private space companies, all capable of making a profit with or without the government.
In such a circumstance it will be practically impossible for a future president to step in and dictate the future, as John Kennedy did fifty years ago and later presidents tried repeatedly with little success. By shutting down the government space program, Obama has made it more difficult for future presidents to declare a new future goal for space, as it will be far harder for them to initiate a new program than redirect an old one.
Instead, chaotic freedom will become the guiding principle, competition will be the fuel that dictates the future, and the personal dreams and desires of ordinary but passionate citizens, not politicians, will direct the effort.
Freedom. What a concept. It is too bad we haven’t had much faith in it during the past fifty years.
Some of the material above comes from my book, Genesis, the Story of Apollo 8, updated and adapted for this essay.