Fifty Years Ago – Excitement, Fear, Bravery And The Moon Shot

On July 21, 1969 Neil Armstrong and Buz Aldrin walked on the moon. Neil took the first step at 02:56:15 UTC meaning the date was July 20th in North America, it was a little before 11 PM EST. This marked the actualization of a goal publicly stated by JFK on September 12, 1962 during a speech at Rice Stadium in Houston, Texas. The length of time between that speech and the first manned moon landing was 2503 day or 6 years, 10 months and 8 days.

That September day in 1962 was not the first time that President Kennedy had talked about sending a man to the moon. He had made a similar proclamation to Congress on May 25, 1961, which was less well received. At the time, a small majority of Americans were not in favor of the mission. It was an ostentatious goal that was guaranteed to be very expensive. The view was that the money would be better spend on addressing domestic issues. In the strange way that history seems to frame things, everyone was correct and wrong at the same time.

It was very expensive, and it turned out to be much more expensive than the initial estimates. A case can be made that it would have been better to spend the money on fixing domestic issues, at least in the short term, but the long term domestic benefits of the program far out wayed any short term cost. The money was spent throughout the country and the Apollo Program had at one point 400000 Americans working towards its completion.

In the 2500 days between the Rice Stadium speech and the launch of Apollo 11 the impossible was done over and over again and the world would never be the same. The fields of computer science, chemistry, engineering, manufacturing, behavioral sciences, and organizational behavior were either invented or advanced in the course of the endeavor. These discoveries were shared with humanity once the goal was achieved and the strategic importance of keeping them secret was gone. This changed EVERYTHING.

2500 days seems like a big number until you realize that the difference between life in 1962 and 1969. At the time Kennedy made the speech, the US had launched 4 manned missions, two of which were orbital and accounted for 6 laps around the earth, 3 each with Mercury Atlas 6 and Mercury Atlas 7. The other two were suborbital flights and were basically ballistic launches. So much work needed to be done, so much science needed to be discovered or invented, and there really wasn’t any reason to believe that what he was putting forward as a unifying goal was even possible. More science needed to be done and more technological advancement needed to be achieved in the next 2500 days than had been done or achieved in maybe all of the days before that moment. Nothing like a stretch goal and a strong national desire to beat the Russians to make the impossible possible!

I used to talk to my father a lot about the space race of the 1960s. He would speak about the level of optimism about what was possible and a collective awe every couple of months when a new space mission would demonstrate that another impossible problem had been solved. There was amazement with Mercury when the US was taking the first steps, a growing confidence with Gemini when the US was working out the kinks, and an absolute certainty that the future was going to be amazing, and completely different from the past, once the US got through the set-back of Apollo 1 and the deaths of Gus Grissom, Ed White, Roger Chaffee, and Apollo 8 orbited the moon in December 1968.

These conversations were always exciting for me because I wasn’t alive when it was all going down and my dads enthusiasm when talking about what it was like during that time made his stories very easy to listen to and hear. He had a good memory for the details and had been powerfully impacted by the events that seemed to change the world every few months. It was clear to him that the space race was going to have a big impact on every other area of life and he was curious enough to try and figure it all out before it became obvious to everyone else.

More than almost any other event or series of events, I would credit the moon shot and the impact it had on my father for how he decided to raise his children. He was amazed and he normalized amazement to us. The source of the amazement was modeled to be the achieving of the impossible through effort, collaboration, trial and error, learning and the application of the lessons. A process repeated over and over again until the imagined idea becomes a lived experience by a human being. Problems had a solution and if enough people worked at it, sharing their discoveries and adapting their approaches base on the new information, an answer would be found.

He was always keen to use the word “we” when it came to problem solving and making life better. When I was very young I took it to mean myself, my brother, my dad, my mom, and a few people who were close to us, but there was a moment when he expanded my understanding of the word to mean “all of humanity.” While the Russians had not yet landed anyone of the moon, they had contributed considerably to the space race and without these contributions the entire thing might not have happened when it did. He was careful to re-frame our thinking away from the Russians being the losers of the moon race and on humanity being the beneficiaries of the successes of the Americans.

JFK cited the difficulty of the goal as being the thing that would move the American people to work together in a collective effort to make it a reality. Maybe it was his experiences in WW2, maybe it was the collaborative efforts of being 1 of nine children, maybe it was the result of his time at university, maybe it was just the way his brain worked, but he was absolutely correct. The space race and the moon shot he announced in 1962 did serve to unite the American people generally and the work force specifically to do things that had never been done before and have not been repeated in the 50 years since. There is no ignoring the progress that was made in the 2500 days before he spoke at Rice Stadium, but his speech served to punch this progress into a gear so high and for a sustained period of time that our species hasn’t been able to match again.

I still believe that my dad was right to teach my brother and me that “we” could do the impossible so long as the individual people were willing to do their part, learn from their and other peoples mistakes, and adapt to the lessons. It was done once and there is no reason to believe that this potential has evolved out of us. But I’m less certain that it WILL ever happen again. We are the same but different from the post WW2 people. Genetically we’re the same, but operationally we are very different.

We are as afraid as they were, but we do not have a common enemy to unify against or a shared view of evil to work hard to prevent from being a thing again. We are afraid of ideas and feelings now, and not necessarily bad ideas or feelings. Life has become so easy that it is as though we have run out of things to fix and have instead broken off into factions and made the decision to view the other factions as the problems that needs to be solved.

Kennedy didn’t make the Russians bad, evil or wrong. He didn’t spend much time talking about them in terms of the space race other than to say that they would continue to do what they were doing and that meant that the US had to do the same. He was able to get the public to accept that the Russians were there and would always be. And in doing so he was able to free-up the minds of the public to do what they needed to do.

This might be the greatest lesson from the entire thing. We only have a finite amount of resources so we need to be strategic with how we invest them. Cultivating and maintaining a sense of fear about something that isn’t going away is one way to use them, but it doesn’t allow anyone to make the most of what they have. When he set the goal of going to the moon and effectively told the country that the Russians were going to try to do the same thing, he basically said “be scared, and do it anyway.” It was a request to be brave and to work hard, and the message landed perfectly. 2503 days later two men walked on the moon. Whatever threat the Russians had been had not altered the course that Kennedy had plotted, it had not stopped the Americans from doing the impossible, and it had not materialized triggering a global catastrophe.

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The text of this speech appears below:

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.

John F. Kennedy, 1962
Audio File of this portion of the Rice University speech by JFK 1962

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