The moonshot. In today’s language, it’s now regarded as anything that’s extremely ambitious, or something seemingly unachievable. I use the word often as a metaphor for “nearly, but not totally, impossible.” In fact, I think I had just used the word for a post I had written in May about America’s 19th century “moonshot,” the building of the Transcontinental Railroad.
Like today’s dialogue about putting man on Mars, America in the early 1960s needed some convincing that putting man on the moon was something the nation wanted to do. Having an adversary aggressively pursuing the same goal probably helped things, but rallying the money and technology towards that goal was another matter.
President John Kennedy felt strongly that this was a possibility for the country and within months of his taking office in 1961, he stood before Congress and set a goal:
“[The US] 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.”
Whoa. That’s ambitious!
During the second half of 1961, the funding, bureaucracy, and resources started falling into place. The Apollo program, which was originally set in place to explore multi-manned spacecraft (as opposed to the Mercury program’s single-manned spacecraft), now had a more tangible objective. In September 1962, President Kennedy paid a visit to Houston to visit the site that was to become NASA’s new Manned Spacecraft Center, which is today’s Johnson Space Center.
It was on that particular visit, during an address at the Rice University football stadium, that Kennedy addressed the crowd further justifying why we needed to get man on the moon:
We set sail on this new sea because there is new knowledge to be gained, and new rights to be won, and they must be won and used for the progress of all people. For space science, like nuclear science and all technology, has no conscience of its own. Whether it will become a force for good or ill depends on man, and only if the United States occupies a position of pre-eminence can we help decide whether this new ocean will be a sea of peace or a new terrifying theater of war. I do not say that we should or will go unprotected against the hostile misuse of space any more than we go unprotected against the hostile use of land or sea, but I do say that space can be explored and mastered without feeding the fires of war, without repeating the mistakes that man has made in extending his writ around this globe of ours.
There is no strife, no prejudice, no national conflict in outer space as yet. Its hazards are hostile to us all. Its conquest deserves the best of all mankind, and its opportunity for peaceful cooperation may never come again. 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…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 we intend to win, and the others, too.
That last paragraph is what the Johnson Space Center chose to commemorate on the back of one of their Apollo 11 50th Anniversary t-shirt options that I picked up on a family visit to the center in December 2018 (and will discuss in a separate post about the Saturn V rocket, coming later this week). I am wearing this shirt at least weekly all summer.
This quote has resonated with me for years. We should not be going through life avoiding the difficulties. I cite this philosophy with my sons, and all I ever ask of them is to try their best, even at the hard things.
While someone might ask, “Why on earth do we need to do this seemingly useless technology task?” when someone suggests continued space exploration, consider what other great things emerge. The example I have cited in the past is the “Dustbuster” handheld vacuum cleaner. The company that marketed that product to the masses, Black & Decker, developed the technology for collecting moon debris samples. Read this paper for other Apollo-program-developed technologies that are now commonplace in America today.
At first I had a hard time finding this shirt to share with you. If you just search “Apollo 11 t-shirt” it will pass you by. Searching “Apollo 11 raglan shirt” found it for me! The t-shirt is available through the Space Center Houston’s gift shop website. It’s a thin cotton raglan design, well-suited for celebrating in July. It retails for $22.99 plus tax and shipping.
I will leave you now with the full video of Kennedy’s 1962 speech. The discussion of the moon landing goals is in the middle of the speech.