NASA, politics, science

“We choose to go to the Moon”

Fifty years ago, John F Kennedy gave one of the most important speeches in American history [1]. Though analysis of confidential records from the time show that his rationale for the speech was more political (stopping the Russians) than scientific (learning about the universe), it nevertheless led to one of mankind’s signature achievements: setting foot on the Moon. And though we have let petty politics tarnish that achievement [2], it is still the apogee of human accompishment. In honor of the anniversary, I’ve annotated Kennedy’s speech below. Read it and be stirred once more.


President Pitzer [3], Mr. Vice President, Governor, Congressman Thomas, Senator Wiley, and Congressman Miller, Mr. Webb, Mr. Bell, scientists, distinguished guests, and ladies and gentlemen:

I appreciate your president having made me an honorary visiting professor, and I will assure you that my first lecture will be very brief.

I am delighted to be here, and I’m particularly delighted to be here on this occasion.

We meet at a college noted for knowledge, in a city noted for progress, in a State noted for strength, and we stand in need of all three, for we meet in an hour of change and challenge, in a decade of hope and fear, in an age of both knowledge and ignorance. The greater our knowledge increases, the greater our ignorance unfolds.

Despite the striking fact that most of the scientists that the world has ever known are alive and working today, despite the fact that this Nation’s own scientific manpower is doubling every 12 years in a rate of growth more than three times that of our population as a whole [4], despite that, the vast stretches of the unknown and the unanswered and the unfinished still far outstrip our collective comprehension.

No man can fully grasp how far and how fast we have come, but condense, if you will, the 50,000 years of man’s recorded history in a time span of but a half-century. Stated in these terms, we know very little about the first 40 years, except at the end of them advanced man had learned to use the skins of animals to cover them. Then about 10 years ago, under this standard, man emerged from his caves to construct other kinds of shelter. Only five years ago man learned to write and use a cart with wheels. Christianity began less than two years ago. The printing press came this year, and then less than two months ago, during this whole 50-year span of human history, the steam engine provided a new source of power.

Newton explored the meaning of gravity [5]. Last month electric lights and telephones and automobiles and airplanes became available. Only last week did we develop penicillin and television and nuclear power, and now if America’s new spacecraft succeeds in reaching Venus, we will have literally reached the stars before midnight tonight [6].

This is a breathtaking pace [7], and such a pace cannot help but create new ills as it dispels old, new ignorance, new problems, new dangers. Surely the opening vistas of space promise high costs and hardships, as well as high reward.

So it is not surprising that some would have us stay where we are a little longer to rest, to wait. But this city of Houston, this State of Texas, this country of the United States was not built by those who waited and rested and wished to look behind them. This country was conquered by those who moved forward–and so will space.

William Bradford [8], speaking in 1630 of the founding of the Plymouth Bay Colony, said that all great and honorable actions are accompanied with great difficulties, and both must be enterprised and overcome with answerable courage.

If this capsule history of our progress teaches us anything, it is that man, in his quest for knowledge and progress, is determined and cannot be deterred. The exploration of space will go ahead, whether we join in it or not [9], and it is one of the great adventures of all time, and no nation which expects to be the leader of other nations can expect to stay behind in the race for space.

Those who came before us made certain that this country rode the first waves of the industrial revolutions, the first waves of modern invention, and the first wave of nuclear power, and this generation does not intend to founder in the backwash of the coming age of space. We mean to be a part of it–we mean to lead it. For the eyes of the world now look into space, to the moon and to the planets beyond, and we have vowed that we shall not see it governed by a hostile flag of conquest [9], but by a banner of freedom and peace. We have vowed that we shall not see space filled with weapons of mass destruction [10], but with instruments of knowledge and understanding.

Yet the vows of this Nation can only be fulfilled if we in this Nation are first, and, therefore, we intend to be first. In short, our leadership in science and in industry, our hopes for peace and security, our obligations to ourselves as well as others, all require us to make this effort, to solve these mysteries, to solve them for the good of all men, and to become the world’s leading space-faring nation.

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 [9]. I do not say the 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 many 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 [11]? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic [12]? 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 [13].

It is for these reasons that I regard the decision last year to shift our efforts in space from low to high gear as among the most important decisions that will be made during my incumbency in the office of the Presidency.

In the last 24 hours we have seen facilities now being created for the greatest and most complex exploration in man’s history [14]. We have felt the ground shake and the air shattered by the testing of a Saturn C-1 booster rocket, many times as powerful as the Atlas which launched John Glenn [15], generating power equivalent to 10,000 automobiles with their accelerators on the floor. We have seen the site where the F-1 rocket engines, each one as powerful as all eight engines of the Saturn combined, will be clustered together to make the advanced Saturn missile, assembled in a new building to be built at Cape Canaveral as tall as a 48 story structure, as wide as a city block, and as long as two lengths of this field [16].

Within these last 19 months at least 45 satellites have circled the earth. Some 40 of them were “made in the United States of America” and they were far more sophisticated and supplied far more knowledge to the people of the world than those of the Soviet Union [9].

The Mariner spacecraft now on its way to Venus is the most intricate instrument in the history of space science [17]. The accuracy of that shot is comparable to firing a missile from Cape Canaveral and dropping it in this stadium between the the 40-yard lines.

Transit satellites are helping our ships at sea to steer a safer course [18]. Tiros satellites have given us unprecedented warnings of hurricanes and storms, and will do the same for forest fires and icebergs [19].

We have had our failures, but so have others, even if they do not admit them. And they may be less public.

To be sure, we are behind, and will be behind for some time in manned flight. But we do not intend to stay behind, and in this decade, we shall make up and move ahead.

The growth of our science and education will be enriched by new knowledge of our universe and environment, by new techniques of learning and mapping and observation, by new tools and computers for industry, medicine, the home as well as the school. Technical institutions, such as Rice, will reap the harvest of these gains.

And finally, the space effort itself, while still in its infancy, has already created a great number of new companies, and tens of thousands of new jobs [20]. Space and related industries are generating new demands in investment and skilled personnel, and this city and this State, and this region, will share greatly in this growth. What was once the furthest outpost on the old frontier of the West will be the furthest outpost on the new frontier of science and space. Houston, your City of Houston, with its Manned Spacecraft Center, will become the heart of a large scientific and engineering community [21]. During the next 5 years the National Aeronautics and Space Administration expects to double the number of scientists and engineers in this area, to increase its outlays for salaries and expenses to $60 million a year; to invest some $200 million in plant and laboratory facilities; and to direct or contract for new space efforts over $1 billion from this Center in this City [22].

To be sure, all this costs us all a good deal of money. This year’s space budget is three times what it was in January 1961, and it is greater than the space budget of the previous eight years combined. That budget now stands at $5,400 million a year [22] –a staggering sum, though somewhat less than we pay for cigarettes and cigars every year. Space expenditures will soon rise some more, from 40 cents per person per week to more than 50 cents a week for every man, woman and child in the United Stated, for we have given this program a high national priority–even though I realize that this is in some measure an act of faith and vision, for we do not now know what benefits await us.

But if I were to say, my fellow citizens, that we shall send to the moon, 240,000 miles away from the control station in Houston, a giant rocket more than 300 feet tall, the length of this football field, made of new metal alloys, some of which have not yet been invented, capable of standing heat and stresses several times more than have ever been experienced, fitted together with a precision better than the finest watch, carrying all the equipment needed for propulsion, guidance, control, communications, food and survival, on an untried mission, to an unknown celestial body, and then return it safely to earth, re-entering the atmosphere at speeds of over 25,000 miles per hour, causing heat about half that of the temperature of the sun–almost as hot as it is here today–and do all this, and do it right, and do it first before this decade is out–then we must be bold.

I’m the one who is doing all the work, so we just want you to stay cool for a minute. [laughter][23]

However, I think we’re going to do it, and I think that we must pay what needs to be paid. I don’t think we ought to waste any money, but I think we ought to do the job. And this will be done in the decade of the sixties [24]. It may be done while some of you are still here at school at this college and university. It will be done during the term of office of some of the people who sit here on this platform. But it will be done. And it will be done before the end of this decade.

I am delighted that this university is playing a part in putting a man on the moon as part of a great national effort of the United States of America.

Many years ago the great British explorer George Mallory, who was to die on Mount Everest, was asked why did he want to climb it. He said, “Because it is there.”

Well, space is there, and we’re going to climb it, and the moon and the planets are there, and new hopes for knowledge and peace are there. And, therefore, as we set sail we ask God’s blessing on the most hazardous and dangerous and greatest adventure on which man has ever embarked.

Thank you.

Per aspera ad astra!


[1] Some would argue that it was one of the most important speeches in human history. I would be among that group.
[2] Just as we used it to fund the original program.
[3] President of Rice University from 1961-1968. He was a famous chemist who missed a Nobel prize by the narrowest of margins.
[4] The first part of the statement is even truer than ever, as China and India have started to create engineers and scientists at a rate even higher than the US (500,000/year to our 6,000/yr). The second part is sadly no longer true; the number of scientists has actually declined in the USA over the past decade.
[5] More exactly, Newton was able to show that gravity was the force that kept the planets in their orbits. In doing so, he invented the field of astrogation (though he didn’t know it).
[6] He is refering to the old name for Venus: “Morning Star” [i]. So his “literally”  is actually figurative.
[7] The pace has since slowed considerably, and has actually reversed in many areas.
[8] Best known today for leading the first Thanksgiving [ii], his journal has proven to be a fascinating primary source for anthropologists and historians exploring the founding of America.
[9] These are clear references to the Russian program that was still ahead of the US efforts.
[10] The Outer Space Treaty would be signed in 1967, and was a direct result of US achievements in space. It outlawed the placement of weapons in space (thereby quelling fears of orbiting bombs) and declared that all bodies would “not (be) subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty” (thereby putting the idea of ownership and use into a legal limbo). Though the first part was and is to be celebrated, the second has made commercial exploitation of the asteroids and Moon problematical and has contributed to delaying the full development of outer space.
[11] A reference to the conquest of Everest, which happened in 1953.
[12] A reference to Lindbergh’s non-stop solo flight, which happened in 1927. Lucky Lindy wasn’t the first to cross the Atlantic by airplane (the US Navy did that in 1919), nor non-stop (Alcock, Brown, and Vickers did that, also in 1919). He was the first to go non-stop and solo across the Atlantic, which made it more of a stunt than a true accomplishment.
[13] This is my favorite section in the speech. In my opinion, it stands along with Churchill’s fighting speech and with Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address as one of the high points of modern oratory.
[14] A reference to what is now known as Johnson Space Center. At the time, it was the Manned Spacecraft Center and represented a bribe to Texas in return for their support for the space program. Under the compromise reached at the time, astroanuts would train and live in Houston, and flights would be controlled from there once they had cleared the launch tower. However, all other manned flight activities would be coordinated through Florida, which had been selected as much for its geographical position [iii] as for its Congressional clout.
[15] Glenn’s successful flight had happened just three months earlier.
[16] The Vehicle Assembly Building is still one of the largest buildings in the world. It is nearly twice as tall as the Statue of Liberty and has three times the cubic volume of the Pentagon.
[17] The Mariner 2 was the first spacecraft to successfully fly by another planet. It was launched before the speech and encountered Venus [iv] three months after the speech. The Russian craft to Venus had missed the target entirely, though they later caught up using the Venera probes.
[18] Also known as NAVSAT, these were an early precursor to the modern GPS.
[19] This program grew into LANDSAT and the modern weather satellites, and has spun off into several commercial ventures (e.g., SPOT).
[20] When asked to defend the money spent in space, one astronaut quipped “There is no money spent in space; it is all spent right here on Earth!”
[21] Sadly, another dream that didn’t come true. Houston has a strong oil and gas component and is developing biotechnology, but there isn’t much else in the way of science and engineering here.
[22] That’s $430,000,000 for salaries, $1,400,000,000 for infrastructure, and $7,100,000,000 for contractors in 2010 dollars, spent in Houston alone. The total budget is $38,500,000,000 – and the budget would increase rapidly over the next five years. For comparison, this year’s total budget for NASA is $17,000,000,000 or half of the budget in 1962 !
[23] This and the previous note about the temperature are references to the unusually hot and muggy day.
[24] More than anything else, it was this sentence that doomed us to the stunt of Apollo instead of the measured progress of a true exploration venture.

[i] Amusingly, there were some who opposed the Space Program because it might take us to Lucifer (“Light bringer”), which is an old name for Venus in the morning.
[ii] Which came about in Spring and was essentially a thank you to God for not letting his lousy leadership kill them all.
[iii] By launching from close to the equator, you get a free ride from Earth’s rotation and so need less energy to get into orbit. In addition, Florida has water on both sides to land in if something goes wrong (as it frequently did in the early days). Cape Canaveral (changed to Cape Kennedy and back) was a compromise between the needs of physics (as close to the equator as possible) and the physicists (someplace with decent weather in the summer).
[iv] Which isn’t nearly as dirty as it sounds; it just means that the probe came close enough to get a really good look (which again isn’t nearly as dirty as it sounds).


4 thoughts on ““We choose to go to the Moon”

  1. Talking about large buildings (coming from a time when America was moving forward, inventing things and GROWING), the Chrysler Plant across Interstate 44 from where I sit now (or rather before it was razed some weeks ago) was so flipping big. I was in awe of it my entire life. I sat agape watching them knocking most of it down. There’s still a sign reading “5 million square feet for lease.” The complex isn’t completely torn down but the section nearest the highway is. Quite an end to an era, these symbols of a strong, striving USA falling down or becoming museum pieces.

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