Werner von Braun (left) and President Kennedy at Cape Canaveral. At left an early model of a Saturn V rocket designed by von Braun.
On May 25, 1961, 57 years ago today, President Kennedy addressed a special session of Congress with what is now called the Moon-Shot Speech. It was a month after the Bay of Pigs fiasco, the country was still climbing out of a recession that dogged the presidential campaign, and JFK’s first hundred days didn’t compare well with the first hundred days of Franklin Roosevelt. In today’s golf terminology we might say he needed a Mulligan, a do-over, and the Moon-Shot speech was the vehicle.
Looking back at the success of the Apollo program you might think going to the moon was no big deal, but from the perspective of 1961, it was a big ask, a heavy lift. The US and USSR were already competing in space with launch vehicles which, to that point, were designed to lift the occasional satellite or more likely a nuclear warhead.
The Russians had much bigger rockets than the US, mostly because their nuclear program could only produce a warhead that weighed an incredible 11,000 pounds compared with the much smaller but no less lethal US warheads. They had bigger rockets because they needed them; we didn’t. Still that was something we didn’t discuss. All we could admit was that the Soviets had superior space lift ability.
They’d launched Sputnik a few years earlier and put the first man into space, Uri Gagarin. A few weeks before the speech the US had launched Alan Shephard making us officially number two in a two-nation space race.
Kennedy would not accept being second and throughout the weeks prior to the speech his staff looked for something else we could be first in but there was nothing. At a press conference Kennedy was prescient but also irrelevant saying, “I have said that I thought that if we could ever competitively, at a cheap rate, get fresh water from salt water, that it would be in the long-range interests of humanity which would really dwarf any other scientific accomplishments.”
According to Kennedy’s Science Advisor Committee chair Jerome Wiesner, as of April 1961, “Kennedy was, and was not, for space. He said to me, ‘Why don’t you find something else we can do?’ We couldn’t. Space was the only thing we could do that would show off our military power . . . . These rockets were a surrogate for military power. He had no real options.”
Though the speech is primarily remembered for Kennedy’s stirring call to go to the moon it was really designed to give him a few legislative wins. In all he made 9 proposals mostly for incrementally adding to budget appropriations for everything from Polaris submarines to missile systems, to job training, civil defense, and reorganizing the Army and Marine Corps. He was offering congress pork barrel spending that could easily pass giving him a needed legislative victory.
But when he got to proposal 9, space appropriations, the speech changed gears. That part of the speech is twice as long as the average for the other proposals and the language is different. He had begun by speaking about “the lands of the rising peoples” the non-aligned countries of what would become the third world and the importance of winning their hearts and minds.
The Soviets were actively recruiting those same countries and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev was launching small wars of national liberation and the US and its allies were finding it difficult to snuff out those brush fires once they started. So Kennedy needed a recruiting tool to conclusively prove that our system of democratic capitalism was better than totalitarian socialism. The space program was that tool.
You know the rest of the story. We beat the Soviets to the moon. But more importantly, the economic stimulus of the space program transformed this country from a manufacturing colossus to one that oozed high technology. It prodded a generation of kids to study science, technology, engineering, and math and not just in the US but globally. It’s no exaggeration to say it made today’s world.
From all that came the modern computer, the Internet, geostationary satellites for communications, predicting weather and running GPS systems. In all thousands of practical inventions can trace their origins to the space program but not Tang, the orange breakfast drink.
Today we live in different times. Too often we thirst for power and wealth for their own sake without committing to the demanding work needed. But if history teaches anything, it is that even now, a motivated and committed people can achieve almost anything.