Tag Archives: Kennedy

“We choose to go to the Moon.”

Kennedy at Rice University

Fifty years ago today, John Kennedy gave a speech at Rice University in Texas, outlining his reasoning behind his proposal that the United States send a man to the Moon before the end of the decade. The key phrase:

But why, some say, the Moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? Why does Rice play Texas?

We choose to go to the Moon. 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, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.

Video below the fold. The full text can be found here. (Interesting sidebar: When I posted Monday’s evening pause that quoted this speech I hadn’t realized the 50th anniversary of the speech was this week!)

This speech is worth watching, in full, if only to see the passion of both Kennedy and the audience for what he says. It also reveals a somewhat higher level of sophistication coming from a politician than one would see nowadays. Kennedy not only understood the deeper philosophical reasons for exploration, his thoughts were grounded in history as well as recent events, all of which he referenced repeatedly.
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The Kennedy assassination

An evening pause: On this date, forty-eight years ago, I was ten years old, home sick with a cold instead of at school. As I watched a silly afternoon rerun of a 1950s comedy sitcom (I don’t even remember what show it was) and sipped chicken soup (of course), the show was interrupted with the news of Kennedy’s assassination.

For each generation, there is often a single moment that defines their future. For the baby boomer generation, it probably was this moment more than any other.

“We stand for freedom.”

Kennedy's speech

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.

The Context

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.
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Kennedy’s Moon speech, May 25, 1961

An evening pause: Fifty years ago tomorrow, on May 25, 1961, John Kennedy spoke to Congress about the world situation and the war between freedom and tyranny. “We stand for freedom,” he began, and finished by committing the United States to sending a man to the Moon and bringing him back safely by the end of the decade.

The clip below shows the first five minutes of that speech. It makes it clear that Kennedy’s main point was not to send the United States to the stars, but to stake out our ground in the battle for freedom and democracy. I will write more about this tomorrow.

To see the whole speech, go to the following link at the Miller Center for Public Affairs.