On 12 September 1962, President John F Kennedy (JFK) called on the American people to invest billions of dollars into America’s space program. The now dubbed ‘We choose the moon’ speech was made at Rice University (Houston, Texas) to 40,000 freshmen, high school students and elementary students and became one of the defining moments of his abbreviated presidency. His speech appealed to the people that could shape America’s future and win the Space Race by placing a man on the moon.
Kennedy inspired patriotism by explaining that ‘some would have us stay where we are a little longer to rest, to wait. But this city of Houston, this State of Texas, this country of the United States was not built by those who waited and rested and wished to look behind them. This country was conquered by those who moved forward – and so will space’. Kennedy needed the people on his side. Sending a man to the moon was not going to be cheap, especially with an eight year deadline and the on-going Cold War with the Soviet Union.
Money aside, how could America place a man on the moon and bring him back to earth safely? Further, America was not leading the way in the Space Race. Only seven months prior to making this speech, John Glenn aboard Friendship 7 became the first American to orbit the Earth. While this was an important milestone for America, it was almost a year behind the Soviet Union’s achievement of putting the world’s first man, Yuri Gagarin, into space.
Kennedy’s challenge seemed unrealistic, to place a man on the moon in seven years, even though no space walks had yet occurred, no dockings in space had yet been practiced, and no lunar modules had yet been built.
But Kennedy insisted that it could be done, and that it would be done. In his speech, Kennedy appealed to a sense of discovery by quoting and listing several discoverers that had achieved greatness against the odds. These people explored the meaning of gravity, developed penicillin and television and nuclear power. Their achievements had not seemed so impossible to them. ‘Man, in his quest for knowledge and progress, is determined and cannot be deterred’.
Why the moon? He had written in his speech. ‘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?’ Interestingly, the last sentence ‘why does Rice play Texas?’ was scribbled in at the last minute (see below).
Date: 30 August 2012 (published)
Source: Jade Boyd, Rice University
Copyright statement: Copyright Rice University News & Media. All Rights Reserved.
His speech inspired people to believe that it is more rewarding to go the harder route rather than the easy route. By aiming higher (to the Moon), Kennedy committed America to giving itself opportunities to grow and to learn. Mistakes would happen but American would be better for them. Americans must do this and they will win, Kennedy urged.
‘The exploration of space will go ahead, whether we join in it or not, and it is one of the great adventures of all time, and no nation which expects to be the leader of other nations can expect to stay behind in the race for space’.
America responded with one of the greatest deployment of economic resources in US history. Eight years after the speech, on July 20 1969, two American astronauts, on board Apollo 11, walked on the Moon. Though Kennedy did not live to see it happen, it was JFK who channelled America to the goal of sending a man to the Moon and returning him safely to Earth.
Kennedy’s speech fundamentally changed NASA, ramping up the space agency’s profile and creating a huge infrastructure that continues to exist today. Without the investment that was committed by Kennedy in the 1960’s, America’s drive for space might have faltered. The first manned moon landing was followed by these major milestones.
- 1970 – Apollo 13
- 1972-1997 – Pioneer 10, Flight to Jupiter
- 1972-2011 – Columbia – the reusable spacecraft
- 1990’s invention of the Hubble Space Telescope.
- 1996-1997 – Mars Pathfinder
- 1998 – present – International Space Station
- 1999 – NASA launched the most sensitive X-ray telescope in the world
We choose the moon speech
‘NASA’s 10 Greatest Achievements’, Julia Layton.
John F Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum ‘Moon Shot-JFK and Space Exploration’ May 16,2009-April 28,2010.