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.
President John F. Kennedy, September 12, 1962, speaking to incoming freshman students at Rice University, Houston, Texas
I was a few months away from my ninth birthday, in fourth grade. I am sure I must have seen clips of it on the evening news. All I remember is the famous 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 quotation.
No world leader before or since has done as much to spark the imagination, kindle the interest of generations of students, or light the fuse of explosive progress as John F. Kennedy. His vision and leadership convinced America to accept the challenge, cajoled Congress into funding the mission, and gave America’s students and institutes of education a target, a goal for the future. In less than decade, spurred on by the accomplishments and firsts of the Soviet space effort, the United States went from zero to hero. Think of it … the Space Shuttle flew for more than a decade. The International Space Station has been in orbit (albeit under construction) for more than a decade. Yet we went from sounding rockets to the Saturn V, shoes on the ground to boots on the Moon in less than a decade. Technologies that DID NOT EXIST in the early ’60s, developed or refined specifically for the Moon effort, are taken for granted today.
Now sadly, it seems that NASA has all but abandoned manned spaceflight. Were it not for the Russians who long ago vowed to maintain a continuous manned presence in space – and continue to do so with launch vehicles and Soyuz capsules little changed from their original late 1950s designs – American astronauts would have no way to get to or from the International Space Station. Yes, NASA is funding the development of commercial space transportation through it’s Commercial Crew Program, with Boeing, SpaceX, Sierra Nevada, and Blue Origin participating. Yes, NASA is developing the Space Launch System (SLS) based on upgraded Space Shuttle components (minus the Space Shuttle) and promising to be the most powerful launch vehicle ever made. However, these are solutions looking for a problem. With the exception of the SLS, all of these systems target the need to support the International Space Station. Alternatively these systems could be used commercially to support the Bigelow Aerospace inflatable space stations. In other words, low Earth orbit.
Where are the Moon bases, the Mars colonies, the asteroid mines prophesied when I was a child? We beat the Russians to the Moon and then everyone quit. Game over. Go home. We settled for a mere 200 miles above the Earth. Salyut(s), Skylab, Apollo-Soyuz, Mir, ISS, Tiangong-1 all skimming along barely above the atmosphere. So low in fact that without repeated boosts to higher orbits they would (and did) suffer the fiery death of re-entry.
Some say that we didn’t quit, that we just realized that unmanned robotic explorers were more cost effective. The knowledge gained by robotic space craft of the planets and moons of our solar system in the years following the Moon landings has been truly astounding. Yet robotic missions fail to capture the human soul of exploration like manned missions.
Both Russia and China have hinted at a manned return to the Moon, perhaps with one or more permanent stations. Despite Kennedy’s proclamation to the contrary, the United States seems poised to founder in the backwash of the coming age of space.
There is a case for Mars and an underground movement of scientists and engineers are pushing to go there. The technology has existed since the end of Apollo. As Robert Zubrin states on his 2011 book, Case for Mars:
Furthermore, the technology available to America a half century ago was vastly inferior to that of today. The men who designed Apollo did their calculations on slide rules capable of performing, at most, one calculation per second, not on computers doing billions. Yet in eight years they solved all the problems necessary to take us from nearly zero human spaceflight capability to landing men on the moon and returning them to Earth. As this book will show in detail, from a technological point of view, we are much better prepared to send humans to Mars today than they were to get men to the Moon in 1961. Yet they got there in eight years. We’ve gone nowhere in the past three and a half decades. So, the question is, what did NASA have then that it doesn’t have now? The answer is Resolution.
Perhaps Elon Musk said it best in the short video Making Life Multi-Planetary:
What are the important steps in the evolution of life? Obviously there was the advent of single-cell life. There was a differentiation to plants and animals. There was life going from the oceans to land. There was mammals, consciousness, and I would argue also that on that scale should fit life becoming multi-planetary. I think if one could make a reasonable argument that something is important enough to fit on the scale of evolution, then it’s important … and maybe worth a little bit of our resources.
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I want to thank Michael Annis at SpaceRocketHistory.com for his excellent podcast, #26 – Why the Moon?, which made me appreciate the crucial role Kennedy played in putting mankind on the Moon in less than a decade.
Also be sure to check out the various links I have included above for additional information and videos.