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50 years ago today, JFK explained why 'we choose to go to the moon'

September 12, 2012|By Karen Kaplan | Los Angeles Times
  • The crew of Apollo 13 heads to the launch pad on April 11, 1970. In a speech 50 years ago today at Rice University, JFK vowed to send Americans to the moon and return them safely to Earth. The Apollo 13 crew did return safely to Earth but only after having to abort their trip to the moon.
The crew of Apollo 13 heads to the launch pad on April 11, 1970. In a speech… (NASA )

Fifty years ago today, President Kennedy made his case to the American people that the country should send a man 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,” Kennedy told an outdoor audience at Rice University in Houston.

The Sept. 12, 1962, speech came more than a year after the Soviets sent cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin into space, becoming the first human to orbit the Earth. His April 12, 1961, flight lasted less than two hours, but the space race was on.

Three weeks later, NASA astronaut Alan Shepard became the first American to travel to space with a five-minute suborbital flight.

Kennedy first articulated his goal of “landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth” by the end of the 1960s in an address to Congress on May 25, 1961. But it’s JFK’s speech at Rice that is remembered for its explanation of why the U.S. had to “become the world’s leading space-faring nation”:

“The exploration of space will go ahead, whether we join in it or not,” Kennedy said. “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 this race for space.”

He added:

“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 they become a force for good or ill depends on man. And only if the United States occupies a position of preeminence can we help decide whether this new ocean will be a sea of peace or a new terrifying theater of war.”

To underscore the extent of the challenge, Kennedy laid out many of the obstacles American scientists and engineers were up against:

“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, reentering the atmosphere at speeds of over 25,000 miles per hour, causing heat about half that of the temperatures of the sun – almost as hot as it is here today – and do all this, and do it right, and do it first before the decade is out – then we must be bold.”

In closing, he called the space race “the most hazardous and dangerous and greatest adventure on which man has ever embarked.”

To mark the anniversary of Kennedy’s speech, NASA astronaut Suni Williams weighed in with her thoughts from aboard the International Space Station.

“With that strong charge, NASA not only reached the moon,” she said, “the agency accomplished countless milestones in science, aeronautics and human space flight, including this extraordinary laboratory where I am today, the International Space Station.”

Floating inside the station with her hair defying gravity, Williams noted that “every day, as astronauts continue to live and work in space, and as NASA develops ways for humans to reach an asteroid and Mars, President Kennedy’s vision is alive and thriving.”

You can watch Kennedy’s speech on this NASA website, along with Williams’ tribute here.

Return to the Science Now blog.

Follow me on Twitter @LATkarenkaplan

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