On This Day in History May 25, 1961… 50th Anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s Moon Speech to Congress

ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY:

By Bonnie K. Goodman

Ms. Goodman is the Editor of History Musings. She has a BA in History & Art History & a Masters in Library and Information Studies from McGill University, and has done graduate work in history at Concordia University.

IN FOCUS: 50TH ANNIVERSARY JOHN F. KENNEDY’S MOON SPEECH TO CONGRESS

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ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY….

On this day in history… May 25, 1961, President John F. Kennedy announced in an address to a joint session of Congress his goal of sending and putting a man on the moon by the end of the decade. Stating “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.”

HEADLINES

  • President Kennedy’s Speech and America’s Next Moonshot Moment: President Kennedy speaks to Congress on May 25, 1961. President Kennedy speaks to Congress on May 25, 1961. Photo Credit: NASA
    This journey into the future has its foundations 50 years in the past, when President John F. Kennedy issued a challenge that transformed the tentative early steps of human spaceflight into a giant leap for mankind.
    In just a short six weeks in the spring of 1961, a trio of dramatic events set the stage for our first journey to another world: Soviet Yuri Gagarin’s first human spaceflight on April 12, was followed on May 5 by Alan Shepard’s first American flight. Then, on May 25, 1961, President Kennedy went to Congress for an address on “Urgent National Needs.”
    Kennedy told Congress and the nation that “space is open to us now,” and said that space exploration “may hold the key to our future here on Earth.” Then he issued an audacious challenge to NASA that seemed unthinkable after just a single U.S. spaceflight… – Nasa.gov, 5-25-11
  • Race to Space, Through the Lens of Time: On the 12th, Yuri Gagarin became the first human to orbit Earth — one more space triumph for the Soviet Union. Though the flight was not unexpected, it was nonetheless deflating; it would be more than a month before Alan Shepard became the first American in space, and that was on a 15-minute suborbital flight. On the 17th, a force of anti-Castro exiles, trained by the C.I.A., invaded communist Cuba at the Bay of Pigs — a fiasco within 36 hours. Mr. Kennedy’s close aide Theodore Sorensen described him on the 19th as “anguished and fatigued” and “in the most emotional, self-critical state I had ever seen him.”
    At one meeting, his brother Robert F. Kennedy, the attorney general, “turned on everybody,” it was reported, saying: “All you bright fellows. You got the president into this. We’ve got to do something to show the Russians we are not paper tigers.” At another, the president pleaded: “If somebody can, just tell me how to catch up. Let’s find somebody — anybody. I don’t care if it’s the janitor over there.” Heading back to the Oval Office, he told Mr. Sorensen, “There’s nothing more important.”
    So, 50 years ago, on May 25, 1961, President Kennedy addressed a joint session of Congress and a national television audience, declaring: “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.”
    There it was, the challenge flung before an adversary and to a nation on edge in an unconventional war, the beginning of Project Apollo.
    Echoes of this time lift off the pages of “John F. Kennedy and the Race to the Moon” (Palgrave Macmillan), a new book by John M. Logsdon, a political scientist and longtime space policy specialist at George Washington University. He has drawn on new research in archives, oral histories and memoirs available in recent years to shed new light on the moon race.
    The famous speech came after five weeks of hand wringing, back-channel memos and closed-door conferences, often overseen by Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson. In those meetings NASA and Pentagon officials, scientists and engineers, budget analysts and others decided that sending astronauts to the Moon by the end of the sixties was the country’s best shot at overcoming the Soviet post-Sputnik command of the orbital front in the cold war…. – NYT, 5-24-11
  • The Moon and Man at 50: Why JFK’s Space Exploration Speech Still Resonates: Fifty years ago today (May 25), President John F. Kennedy presented NASA and the nation with a historic challenge: To put a man on the moon and return him safely to Earth before the end of the 1960s.
    Kennedy’s dramatic 1961 speech jump-started NASA’s Apollo program, a full-bore race to the moon that succeeded when Neil Armstrong’s boot clomped down into the lunar dirt on July 20, 1969. The moon landing was a tremendous achievement for humanity and a huge boost to American technological pride, which had been seriously wounded by several recent space race defeats to the Soviet Union.
    The impact of Kennedy’s words lingers still, long after Apollo came to an end in 1972. The speech fundamentally changed NASA, ramping up the space agency’s public profile and creating a huge infrastructure that continues to exist today. [Photos: John F. Kennedy's NASA Legacy]
    “This is the most significant decision made by our national political leaders in relation to space activities,” said Roger Launius, space history curator at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum. In addition to starting up humanity’s first journey to another world, he added, “it transformed NASA into a big space-spectacular agency, which it wasn’t before.”
    Kennedy made his speech before a special joint session of Congress just four months after being sworn in as president. Filled with proposed policy initiatives (the moon challenge being the last and most dramatic of these), the address was an attempt to get his presidency on track after a very bumpy start…. – Space.com, 5-25-11
  • The 1961 JFK Speech That Sparked ‘Apollo’ and Led Space Exploration to New Heights: NASA’s exploration solidified scientific understanding of moon’s formation and planetary science.
    Fifty years ago, on May 25, 1961, President John F. Kennedy told a joint session of Congress 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.”
    His vision became NASA’s Apollo program, which conducted six successful manned lunar landings during 1969-72 and brought the crews and the moon rocks that they collected safely home. As Kennedy intended, the Apollo program established the nation’s preeminence in spaceflight, but it also produced a revolution in scientific understanding of the moon, sparking a debate that continues today about the relative merits of manned and robotic exploration.
    Kennedy’s call to action was viewed as a largely geopolitical maneuver, intended to achieve U.S. supremacy in rocketry and space travel at a time when the Soviet Union had gained a huge head start by launching Sputnik 1, the first artificial satellite, and Yuri Gagarin — the first man to orbit Earth. There were defense implications: rockets that launch manned capsules into orbit could also propel nuclear weapons across intercontinental distances.
    Whether Apollo had a strong scientific purpose at first or not, the president’s speech “was tremendously influential,” said retired astronomer William E. Howard, who served in military, academic, and intelligence organizations. “[It] inspired a lot of people to go into science.”… – Fox News, 5-25-11
  • JFK’s Man-on-Moon Dream Shown on Tapes to Be Offset by Worry Over Stunt: Then U.S. President John F. Kennedy gives a speech on the nation’s space effort before a special session of Congress in Washington, on May 25, 1961. Source: AFP/Getty Images
    John F. Kennedy’s call to send a man to the moon symbolized the soaring ambition associated with his presidency. In private, he was more a cold-eyed realist, concerned that the mission would be dismissed as a costly “stunt” and might be better recast as a military venture.
    A presidential recording to be released today by the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum reveals a Kennedy conversation in the Oval Office with then-NASA administrator James Webb in which the president expresses doubts that belie his public promotion of manned space travel.
    “This looks like a hell of a lot of dough to go to the moon,” Kennedy told Webb at the September 1963 meeting.
    The release marks the 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s speech to Congress on May 25, 1961, in which he said the U.S. should commit within the decade to “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,” Kennedy said.
    Two years after that address, the president was confronting budget issues as he was contemplating his 1964 re-election campaign, acknowledging that the moon mission probably wouldn’t be accomplished during his time in office.
    His conversation with Webb took place on Sept. 18, 1963, two months before the president was assassinated in Dallas…. – Bloomberg, 5-25-11
  • JFK had doubts about moon landing Questioned costs, voters’ reactions: “I predict you are not going to be sorry,’’ NASA Administrator James Webb said to JFK. “I predict you are not going to be sorry,’’ NASA Administrator James Webb said to JFK. (Abbie Rowe/ JFK Library And Museum/ File 1961)
    Fifty years ago today, President John F. Kennedy stood before Congress and audaciously declared that before the end of the decade, the United States should land a man on the moon.
    “No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space,’’ he said, delivering a confident rejoinder to the Soviet Union’s successes in the space race.
    But two years later, the president struggled with doubts about the expensive program as he prepared for his reelection campaign and worried that public and congressional support was waning, according to a newly declassified tape being released today by the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston.
    The recording of a frank, 46-minute White House meeting with NASA Administrator James Webb in September 1963 provides a window into Kennedy’s thinking, revealing political calculations as well as more personal reactions. At one point during the conversation, Kennedy asks, “If I get reelected, I’m not — we’re not — go[ing] to the moon in my — in our period are we?’’
    Webb tells him no, and Kennedy’s voice drops with disappointment: “We’re not going . . . yeah.’’
    “What I love is that you get every part of him as a person — him doubting the American public is interested in it; then he asks are we going to land in my presidency,’’ said Maura Porter, an archivist at the Kennedy Library. “This is just two months before his death and he thinks space has lost its glamour with the American public — he doesn’t see space being a political positive as he goes into the ‘64 campaign.”… – Boston Globe, 5-25-11

QUOTES

  • Special Message to the Congress on Urgent National Needs, May 25, 1961
    President John F. Kennedy Delivered in person before a joint session of Congress May 25, 1961:

    IX. SPACE
    Finally, if we are to win the battle that is now going on around the world between freedom and tyranny, 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. Since early in my term, our efforts in space have been under review. With the advice of the Vice President, who is Chairman of the National Space Council, we have examined where we are strong and where we are not, where we may succeed and where we may not. 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.
    I believe we possess all the resources and talents necessary. But the facts of the matter are that we have never made the national decisions or marshalled the national resources required for such leadership. We have never specified long-range goals on an urgent time schedule, or managed our resources and our time so as to insure their fulfillment.
    Recognizing the head start obtained by the Soviets with their large rocket engines, which gives them many months of leadtime, and recognizing the likelihood that they will exploit this lead for some time to come in still more impressive successes, we nevertheless are required to make new efforts on our own. For while we cannot guarantee that we shall one day be first, we can guarantee that any failure to make this effort will make us last. We take an additional risk by making it in full view of the world, but as shown by the feat of astronaut Shepard, this very risk enhances our stature when we are successful. But this is not merely a race. Space is open to us now; and our eagerness to share its meaning is not governed by the efforts of others. We go into space because whatever mankind must undertake, free men must fully share.
    I therefore ask the Congress, above and beyond the increases I have earlier requested for space activities, to provide the funds which are needed to meet the following national goals:
    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. We propose to accelerate the development of the appropriate lunar space craft. We propose to develop alternate liquid and solid fuel boosters, much larger than any now being developed, until certain which is superior. We propose additional funds for other engine development and for unmanned explorations–explorations which are particularly important for one purpose which this nation will never overlook: the survival of the man who first makes this daring flight. But in a very real sense, 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.
    Secondly, an additional 23 million dollars, together with 7 million dollars already available, will accelerate development of the Rover nuclear rocket. This gives promise of some day providing a means for even more exciting and ambitious exploration of space, perhaps beyond the moon, perhaps to the very end of the solar system itself.
    Third, an additional 50 million dollars will make the most of our present leadership, by accelerating the use of space satellites for world-wide communications.
    Fourth, an additional 75 million dollars–of which 53 million dollars is for the Weather Bureau–will help give us at the earliest possible time a satellite system for world-wide weather observation.
    Let it be clear–and this is a judgment which the Members of the Congress must finally make–let it be clear that I am asking the Congress and the country to accept a firm commitment to a new course of action, a course which will last for many years and carry very heavy costs: 531 million dollars in fiscal ’62–an estimated seven to nine billion dollars additional over the next five years. If we are to go only half way, or reduce our sights in the face of difficulty, in my judgment it would be better not to go at all.
    Now this is a choice which this country must make, and I am confident that under the leadership of the Space Committees of the Congress, and the Appropriating Committees, that you will consider the matter carefully.
    It is a most important decision that we make as a nation. But all of you have lived through the last four years and have seen the significance of space and the adventures in space, and no one can predict with certainty what the ultimate meaning will be of mastery of space.
    I believe we should go to the moon. But I think every citizen of this country as well as the Members of the Congress should consider the matter carefully in making their judgment, to which we have given attention over many weeks and months, because it is a heavy burden, and there is no sense in agreeing or desiring that the United States take an affirmative position in outer space, unless we are prepared to do the work and bear the burdens to make it successful. If we are not, we should decide today and this year.
    This decision demands a major national commitment of scientific and technical manpower, materiel and facilities, and the possibility of their diversion from other important activities where they are already thinly spread. It means a degree of dedication, organization and discipline which have not always characterized our research and development efforts. It means we cannot afford undue work stoppages, inflated costs of material or talent, wasteful interagency rivalries, or a high turnover of key personnel.
    New objectives and new money cannot solve these problems. They could in fact, aggravate them further–unless every scientist, every engineer, every serviceman, every technician, contractor, and civil servant gives his personal pledge that this nation will move forward, with the full speed of freedom, in the exciting adventure of space.
    JFK Library

HISTORICAL INTERPRETATION

  • JFK’s Moon Shot: Q & A With Space Policy Expert John Logsdon: On May 25, 1961, President John F. Kennedy delivered one of the most memorable speeches of the 20th century. He challenged Congress and the American people to put a man on the moon, and return him safely to Earth, by the end of the decade.
    The rest, of course, is history. NASA’s Apollo program roared to life, and just eight years later Neil Armstrong’s boot crunched down into the lunar dirt. [Photos: JFK and NASA]
    Kennedy’s announcement came close on the heels of two embarrassing American Cold War defeats. The Soviet Union had put the first human being, cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, in space on April 12, 1961. Less than a week later came the Bay of Pigs fiasco, a failed CIA-backed attempt to overthrow Fidel Castro’s communist government in Cuba.
    As the 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s momentous speech approaches, SPACE.com caught up with historian and space policy expert John Logsdon, author of “John F. Kennedy and the Race to the Moon” (Palgrave Macmillian, 2010). [50 Years of Presidential Visions for Spaceflight]
    Logsdon chatted about what drove Kennedy to make the speech, and what it means today:
    SPACE.com: What did Kennedy hope to achieve with this speech? Was he just interested in beating the Soviets, or did he also want to jump-start a space program that was still in its infancy?
    John Logsdon: In the immediate aftermath of Gagarin, on April the 20th, he had asked his advisers to find him a “space program which promises dramatic results in which we could win.” So that was the guidance he set out: something in space, dramatic, win.
    There were no real alternatives, either in space or, as he told his science adviser, in any other area that would have the impact of a space achievement. The Soviet Union kind of had defined the playing field as space success, and Kennedy came to the conclusion that he had no choice but to accept that game rather than try to shift the stakes into something else. [Biggest Revelations of the Space Age]
    SPACE.com: Why did Kennedy choose the moon? Were there other options that could also have shown American technological superiority and restored our pride?
    Logsdon: Well, the technical basis for choosing the moon was, it was the first thing that [famed rocket designer] Wernher von Braun and others in NASA said the Soviet Union could not do with its existing rocket. They would have to build a new, larger rocket to send people to the surface of the moon. And so the moon became the first thing where the United States had, as von Braun said, a sporting chance to be first. [Giant Leaps: Top Milestones of Human Spaceflight]
    SPACE.com: JFK’s announcement charted the course of NASA for a decade. What were its longer-lasting effects?
    Logsdon: I think it’s charted the course of NASA for most of the 50 years since, in the sense that it created a large organization built around large engineering projects centered on human spaceflight, with an institutional base of civil servants and contractors and facilities that exists today, and still has the expectation that the country will provide support.
    I kind of look at the budget curve for Apollo as a rollercoaster. Kennedy’s commitment took the space program up the front end of that rollercoaster and over the top, and the momentum has lasted a long, long time. I think it’s just about gone now…. – Space.com, 5-25-11

1961 – JFK – Special Message to the Congress on Urgent National Needs

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1 Comment

  1. I learned a whole lot browsing and reading through your blog. Reading different points of view does help me think outside my box. Appreciate the information. Thanks.

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