[January 27th marks the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 1 tragedy, one of many setbacks and challenges that didn’t deter from the US manned space program from making history. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy five moments or contexts for NASA’s early years. I’d love your responses and thoughts in comments, as always!]
On the Cold War limits yet compelling possibilities of the famous “moon shot” speech.
On May 25th, 1961, just a few months into his term of office, President John F. Kennedy delivered a speech before a joint session of Congress. The speech contained a number of sections and proposals, but it is Section IX: Space that has endured in our collective memories, for it was in that section that Kennedy famously and ambitiously argued, “I believe that this nation 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.” A year and a half later, on September 12th, 1962, at Houston’s Rice University, Kennedy fleshed out that goal further in another, more focused speech, laying out in detail both the histories and motivations that help explain why “we choose to go to the moon” and some of the many steps that the government and nation (with the help of scientists such as those at Rice) were taking to achieve that aim. While of course Kennedy tragically did not live to see the culmination of those efforts, NASA and the space program achieved his ambitious hopes with room to spare, launching the first manned moon voyage in July 1969, just over 8 years after the original speech.
If we examine the full text of Section IX, in which the moon proposal occupies only one of thirteen paragraphs, what stands out most is just how fully Kennedy couches his space program goals in the context of the Cold War. He opens the section by arguing, “if we are to win the battle that is now going on around the world between freedom and tyranny, the dramatic achievements in space which occurred in recent weeks should have made clear to us all, as did the Sputnik in 1957, the impact of this adventure on the minds of men everywhere, who are attempting to make a determination of which road they should take.” That is, Kennedy isn’t just linking the space race to other rivalries between the US and the Soviet Union—he’s overtly arguing that whichever nation achieves its goals more quickly and fully in the “adventure” that is space exploration might well convince other nations and communities around the world to take its side in the broader Cold War conflicts. It’s a kind of Domino Theory motivation for space exploration, and Kennedy elaborates on it throughout much of the section, such as his admission that because the Soviets have a “head start,” “we cannot guarantee that we shall one day be first, [but] we can guarantee that any failure to make this effort will make us last.” Perhaps it’s inevitable that Cold War fears would drive even these most otherworldly ambitions, but it’s still striking to see just how much Kennedy frames his moon shot in those terms.
Despite those historical limits, however, the section’s second half features a number of compelling visions of the future. The moon proposal is only the first of four such goals, which also include: accelerating development of the Rover nuclear rocket, with the hopes of exploring “perhaps beyond the moon, perhaps to the very end of the solar system itself”; accelerating “the use of space satellites for world-wide communications”; and producing “at the earliest possible time a satellite system for world-wide weather observation.” The latter two goals in particular make clear that Kennedy was not thinking solely of a Cold War space race, nor even indeed of space exploration at all, but rather of the multiple layers of scientific and global progress that NASA and the space program could help achieve. And in the section’s most beautiful lines, Kennedy acknowledges precisely the global and human nature of those potential achivements: “But this is not merely a race. Space is open to us now; and our eagerness to share its meaning is not governed by the efforts of others. We go into space because whatever mankind must undertake, free men must fully share.” In Kennedy’s speech and moon shot ambitions, then, we see—as we do so often in American history—the nation’s more contingent and narrow needs yet at the same time its most ideal and inspiring visions.
Next NASA post tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other NASA takes you’d share?
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