By: John F. Kennedy
Date: May 25, 1961
Source: Kennedy, John F. "Special Message to Congress on Urgent National Needs." May 25, 1961. Available online at http://www.cs.umb.edu/jfklibrary/j052561.htm (accessed February 6, 2003).
About the Author: John Fitzgerald Kennedy (1917–1963) was born in Brookline, Massachusetts. After graduating from Harvard University in 1940, he joined the U.S. Navy in 1941 and was wounded when a Japanese destroyer sunk his patrol boat in the Pacific. At age twenty-nine, he won election to the U.S. House of Representatives and in 1952 to the U.S. Senate. He was elected president in 1960, but his term was cut short by an assassin's bullets in 1963.
In a speech to Congress on May 25, 1961, John F. Kennedy framed his desire to land a man on the moon as a "battle … between freedom and tyranny." This was the language of the Cold War, the hostile rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union that shaped science and technology in both nations. During World War II, the two had been allies in fighting a common enemy, Nazi Germany. After the war, each grew suspicious of the other's intentions. The United States became alarmed when the Soviets occupied Eastern Europe and installedpuppet governments; the Soviets feared that the United States was giving economic aid to Europe to make it dependent on American capitalism.
Each nation looked to science to give it a military and technological advantage. Both used science in an attempt to control space, for mastery of space would give either nation command of missile technology and spy satellites. In the 1950s, Americans had assumed that U.S. science and technology were superior, an assumption that collapsed in 1957 when the Soviets launched the world's first intercontinental ballistic missile and the first satellite, Sputnik. American astronomer Otto Struve voiced the fears of many Americans when he declared 1957 to be a year as momentous as 1492, when Spain surpassed Portugal as a maritime power.
Congress responded in 1958 by passing the National Defense Education Act, which funded the teaching of science, mathematics, and foreign languages in public schools. That year, too, Congress created the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the scientific agency that was to recapture America's leadership in the space race, a race that accelerated in April 1961, when the Soviets launched the first man, Yuri Gagarin, into orbit around the earth. On May 5, 1961, the United States responded by launching Navy Commander Alan Shepard Jr. 116 miles into space during a flight that lasted just over fifteen minutes.
These events were the prelude to Kennedy's 1961 address to Congress in which he committed the United States to recapturing leadership in the space race. He warned that the Soviets had a "head start" and that national security demanded a redoubling of U.S. efforts. As part of these efforts, Kennedy committed Congress and the American people to landing a man on the moon and safely returning him to earth before decade's end.
Although Kennedy couched his speech in the language of the cold war, he was motivated by idealism. Kennedy saw space as a new frontier, one that beckoned the energy and talents of "free men." Americans always responded to new challenges, he believed, for this was part of our national character. Great quests brought out a heroic element in man. He saw the struggle to reach the moon as a quest for "knowledge and peace." This idealism motivated him in Vienna, Austria, in 1961 and at the United Nations in 1963 to invite the Soviets to join the United States in a joint landing on the moon.
One cannot know what Kennedy might have accomplished, for his assassination in 1963 ended hopes for cooperation. Both nations tried to surpass the other in launching spacecraft into orbit for longer periods. In honor of the martyred president, President Lyndon Johnson renewed the nation's commitment to putting a man on the moon. NASA was equal to the challenge: On July 16, 1969, Apollo 11 was launched from Cape Kennedy, Florida. Four days later, Captain Neil A. Armstrong took the first steps on the moon.
Primary Source: "Special Message to the Congress on Urgent National Needs" [excerpt]
SYNOPSIS: In this excerpt, Kennedy challenged Congress and the American people to put a man on the moon and safely return him to earth before decade's end. He appealed to the idealism of Americans by speaking of space as a new frontier. At the same time, he said, a moon landing would be a scientific triumph over the Soviet Union.
Finally, 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. Since early in my term, our efforts in space have been under review. With the advice of the Vice President, who is Chairman of the National Space Council, we have examined where we are strong and where we are not, where we may succeed and where we may not. Now it is time to take longer strides—time for a great new American enterprise—time for this nation to take a clearly leading role in space achievement, which in many ways may hold the key to our future on earth.I believe we possess all the resources and talents necessary. But the facts of the matter are that we have never made the national decisions or marshalled the national resources required for such leadership. We have never specified long-range goals on an urgent time schedule, or managed our resources and our time so as to insure their fulfillment. Recognizing the head start obtained by the Soviets with their large rocket engines, which gives them many months of leadtime, and recognizing the likelihood that they will exploit this lead for some time to come in still more impressive successes, we nevertheless are required to make new efforts on our own. For while we cannot guarantee that we shall one day be first, we can guarantee that any failure to make this effort will make us last. We take an additional risk by making it in full view of the world, but as shown by the feat of astronaut Shepard, this very risk enhances our stature when we are successful. 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.
I therefore ask the Congress, above and beyond the increases I have earlier requested for space activities, to provide the funds which are needed to meet the following national goals: First, 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. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish. We propose to accelerate the development of the appropriate lunar space craft. We propose to develop alternate liquid and solid fuel boosters, much larger than any now being developed, until certain which is superior. We propose additional funds for other engine development and for unmanned explorations—explorations which are particularly important for one purpose which this nation will never overlook: the survival of the man who first makes this daring flight. But in a very real sense, it will not be one man going to the moon—if we make this judgment affirmatively, it will be an entire nation. For all of us must work to put him there.
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