President Kennedy's Moon Landing He Inspired a Nation To Do The Nearly
Impossible with the Apollo Space Program
By: John Shepler
Five decades ago, July 20, 1969, one man from the planet
Earth fulfilled his vision of landing safely on the surface of
the moon. It was neither Neil Armstrong nor Buzz Aldrin. Their
mission was to plant the American flag for another man who did
not make the trip. In fact, he hadn't lived long enough to make
the journey himself or witness the success of those who stood
in the bright sunlight of Tranquility Base. Yet, it was he who
had inspired a hundred million people to reach for the moon and
actually touch it in the space of a decade. President John F.
Kennedy did more than land the Eagle. He transformed the nation
in the process.
May 25, 1961, President Kennedy stood before a joint session
of Congress to declare it "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." Timing, as they say, is everything.
Americans were rattled on October 4, 1957 when they heard the
beeping of the Russian Sputnik on television and then rushed
outside to see it moving through the stars above their own homes.
That just couldn't be. We won the war. We built the bomb. We
were the best, the brightest, the most deserving. Weren't we?
Our national ego had been bruised, even crushed. Collectively
we yearned to prove again that we could do anything we put our
Kennedy knew he had command of one of those rare teachable
moments. An entire population would give its rapt attention to
any plan of visionary leadership, even one that might sound far
fetched, even impossible. Of his entire Special Message to the
Congress on Urgent National Needs, these two sentences would
become famous: "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. 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."
In fact, "the goal, before this decade is out, of landing
a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth"
became a national mantra. The part about being so difficult or
expensive to accomplish paled in comparison with the parts about
being impressive to mankind and important for the long-range
exploration of space. A less visionary leader might have merely
asked for funds to maintain our technology at the same level
as the Soviet Union and let it go at that. But Kennedy asked
for the moon, and the nation went wild with enthusiasm.
logic behind Kennedy's thinking is also shared within the context
of that speech. "I believe we possess all the resources
and talents necessary. But the facts of the matter are that we
never made the national decisions or marshalled the national
resources required for such leadership. We never specified long-range
goals on an urgent time schedule, or managed our resources and
our time so as to insure their fulfillment." Actually, we
had done exactly those things when threatened by an escalating
World War II and in development of the Manhattan Project, the
atomic bomb. What President Kennedy did was to inspire the nation
to behave in the same way, not merely for the threat of being
conquered by other peoples but for the pursuit of a dream "impressive
Within the next eight short years, the nation transformed
itself. All of a sudden students were getting more homework and
education was taken more seriously. A college degree became the
ticket to success. To be a space scientist or engineer was to
be among the elite. The astronauts were national heroes, the
space missions were a national pastime. Hundreds of thousands
of demanding, high paying "brain jobs" were created
in the space program and in education to support it. We became
a nation of technology. Everything was transistorized, automated
or backed by scientific evidence.
On September 12, 1962, John F. Kennedy gave a follow-up address
at Rice University on the Nation's Space Effort. Again he reinforced
the vision, by revisiting the question "But why, some say,
the moon? Why choose this as our goal?" A nation still rapt
with attention attached itself to his answer and made these words
almost as famous at the moon challenge speech. "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
the one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to
postpone, and one which we intended to win, and the others, too."
Kennedy knew he would get to the moon, and we would too. In
that first speech, the one that made the challenge, he added
"It will not be one man going to the moon -- if we make
this judgment affirmatively, it will be an entire nation. For
all of us must work to put him there." We got there on July
20, 1969, just as we were inspired to do.
Books of Interest:
The Last Man on the Moon , Astronaut Eugene Cernan and
America's Race in Space - by Eugene Cernan; Don Davis. A
revealing and dramatic look at the inside of the American space
program from astronaut Eugene Cernan, one of its heroic pioneers.
Countdown; A History of Space Flight by T. A. Heppenheimer.
The race to put a man on the moon provided the perfect metaphor
for scientific achievement, one that challenged and captured
the public imagination. Yet in addition to its science-fiction
glamour, the space race served equally powerful and social objectives.
Countdown provides the first overview of the period that explores
the achievements and failures of all sides of the space race
in their full historical context.
The Race: The Uncensored Story of How America Beat Russia
to the Moon by James L. Schefter. A young reporter for Life
magazine at the height of the space race had access to all
the inside stories of the astronauts and the missions...but he
couldn't tell the really juicy stuff then. Now he does in this
uncensored memoir of what really happened during "the race."
A Man on the Moon by Andrew L. Chaikin, Foreword by
Tom Hanks, producer of the HBO television series "From the
Earth to the Moon." (see banner above) This book tells the
story of the Apollo moon missions as told through the eyes of
the astronauts and others intimately involved in one of mankind's
Full Moon by Michael Light. Stunningly beautiful images
scanned directly from NASA master negatives and transparencies.
Here are 129 of the best photographs taken by the astronauts
of the Apollo moon missions. Includes five 45-inch-wide gatefolds
displaying the lunar landscape with breathtaking detail.
Also visit these related
Apollo 11 Gift Shop - Souvenirs featuring the image of President John F. Kennedy, similar to the commemorative plate above, and other items of interest.
Historic Apollo 11 Moon Mission Gfits - Souvenir buttons, stickers, t-shirts, similar to the image above, and more designs celebrating the 50th anniversary of this one small step that changed the world for all of us.