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ON MAY 25, 1961, President John Kennedy told Congress, "I believe this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before the decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth." The audience leapt to its feet with thunderous applause, but elsewhere the reaction was different. In an office in Hampton Roads, a man shouted, "It just ain't possible. First, we don't have the rockets. Second, we don't have the spacecraft, and third, by God, we don't even know how to navigate our way out there and back." A colleague added, "Kennedy is nuts."
The speakers were, respectively, Gordon Cooper and Gus Grissom, two of the original seven Project Mercury astronauts.
The astronauts came around in about five minutes. But Kennedy, it was clear, needed to aggressively sell an idea so literally outlandish as a manned moon landing. So on Sept. 12, 1962--50 years ago today--he ventured to Houston, Texas, home of the brand-new Manned Spacecraft Center, and at Rice University made his best pitch for American spacefaring, excerpted below:
"The exploration of space will go ahead, whether we join in it or not. 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.
"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 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.
"We have seen facilities now being created for the greatest and most complex exploration in man's history. We have felt the ground shake and the air shattered by the testing of a Saturn C-1 booster rocket. 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.
"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 will reap the harvest of these gains.
"To be sure, all this costs us all a good deal of money. 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, and do all this, and do it right, and do it first before this decade is out--then we must be bold.
"But it will be done. And it will be done before the end of this decade. 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."
Long before Kennedy's speech, a man who wrote of the moon opined, "The Great Architect of the universe built it of good firm stuff." Jules Verne might have used the same words to describe an America that looked into the night sky, said "it just ain't possible," and did it anyway. An America that was "nuts" in a very fine way. An America seemingly as distant from us as the moon.
And there lies the hope. For like that waning, waxing orb, may we yet return to a fuller, brighter phase?