50th Anniversary of Apollo 11, the Mission That First Put a Man on the Moon

By Benjamin Shapell, Sara Willen | July 17, 2019

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When, running for president in 1960, John F. Kennedy chose as his campaign slogan “it’s time to get this country moving again,” few Americans imagined that if elected, he would so pick up the pace that he’d take them to the moon. Just three months into his presidency, Kennedy pledged, prophetically, in his address to Congress on May 25th, 1961, “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.” To which he added, “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.”  

Kennedy was, of course, right about the Moonshot. It would take a historically massive amount of peace-time government spending; the lives of seven American astronauts; and three presidential administrations to oversee the project’s completion. But when, on July 20th, 1969, an American astronaut, Neil Armstrong, became the first man in history to leave a footprint on the Moon, it astonished the world.

"We stand today on the edge of a New Frontier - the frontier of the 1960's - a frontier of unknown opportunities and perils - a frontier of unfulfilled hopes and threats.... Beyond that frontier are the uncharted areas of science and space... I am asking each of you to... recall with me the words of Isaiah: 'They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles...'" - John F. Kennedy, "Acceptance Speech for the Presidential Nomination at the National Democratic Convention" July 14, 1960.
Kennedy delivering his speech, famous for the line "We choose to go to the Moon, and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard."

Races, mostly, begin with a pistol shot, a flag, or the raising of a gate. This one, however, began with a rocket blastoff. On October 4, 1957, from a secluded steppe in southern Kazakhstan, the Soviet Union launched a satellite the size of a beach ball about 350 miles above the earth. For a period of some three months, it more or less stayed there, orbiting the earth 1,440 times. So began the race to the Moon between Cold War combatants Russia and the United States. 

It wasn’t simply that by April 1961, the Russians had already launched into space a 22-inch satellite, a capsule containing a short-lived dog, and then, on April 12, 1961, sent Yuri Gagarin on the first manned flight. The bigger issue was that, up to that time, the United States had launched nothing. The richest nation of the world was shown to be second, technologically, to a country where 97% of its city dwellers still did not have hot running water.  Kennedy, who believed that the new nations just emerging from colonialist rule were closely watching whether communism or capitalism would offer them a better path, was appalled at the humiliation. And worse than the loss of prestige, rose a more vital danger: if Soviet rockets could launch satellites and space capsules into orbit, it could just as well launch nuclear-tipped missiles. 

The Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev had already boasted, “Let the capitalist countries catch up with our country!” What Kennedy needed in order to win was something bigger, better, infinitely more dramatic and which, perforce, required a much longer lead time – like, say, a decade. The answer was a human mission to the Moon.

But the idea of such a heroic undertaking was more than diplomatic savvy. If the Moon project wasn’t forced into existence, said Kennedy’s speechwriter and alter ego Theodore Sorenson, then Kennedy himself might have invented it. Going to the Moon was, on a personal level, just romantic and daring enough to appeal to the man whose favorite book as a child had been King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table – a saga, let it never be forgotten, located in the mythical castle and court of Camelot. “It combined all those elements of intelligence, courage, and team-work that so intrigued John Kennedy,” Sorenson said. “He immediately sensed that the possibility of putting a man on the moon could galvanize public support for the exploration of space as one of the great human adventures of the twentieth century.”

To achieve that, Kennedy tasked, in the build-up to announcing the Moonshot, Labor Secretary Arthur Goldberg, the son of Russian Jewish immigrants, to clear from the ground up, the skies for flying. Beginning “Dear Mr. Secretary,” he wrote on May 16th, 1961, 

“I wish you to convey to those representatives of industry and labor with whom you are meeting today my personal expression of the urgency of the task they have before them. The security of our nation and the lives of each of us are today tied inexorably to our missile program and may well depend tomorrow upon what we do now in space. The United States cannot afford the luxury of avoidable delays in our missile and space programs. Neither can we tolerate wasteful and expensive habits and practices which add to the great financial burden our defense effort already places on us. Please tell those with whom you meet that their nation expects them to provide uninterrupted and economical production in our missile and space programs…”

With that done, Kennedy went to Congress  nine days later and, in a nationally televised address, made one of the most audacious speeches of the 20th century:

“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 [by the Russians] should have made clear to us all… 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.” 

But it took a series of gradual steps, each ever-so-slightly bolder than the one preceding, before the American space program could make that giant leap to the moon. On May 5, 1961, barely three weeks before JFK’s epic pledge, Mercury 7 Astronaut Alan B. Shepard, Jr. became, for 14.8 minutes, the first American to travel into suborbital space. A second piloted flight of a Mercury spacecraft took place on July 21st, when astronaut Gus Grissom also undertook a sub-orbital mission – this one sending him soaring for 15.37 minutes (and, upon splashdown, almost costing him his life). And a third manned flight, on February 20, 1962, saw astronaut John Glenn become the first American to circle the Earth, making – albeit barely – three orbits of the earth in his Friendship 7 Mercury spacecraft. The Americans were on their way.

Kennedy gave voice to this aspiration as, perhaps, only a handful of presidents could. On September 12, 1962, under a sweltering sun at the football stadium of Rice University in Houston, Texas, he delivered a soaring speech about the American conquest of space. In that oratorical masterpiece, Kennedy traced how the urgency of the space race’s earliest days had turned into long-term determination, and in so doing, defined American exceptionalism:

“We set sail on this new sea because there is new knowledge to be gained, and new rights to be won… Whether it will become a force for good or ill depends on man, and only if the United States occupies a position of preeminence can we help decide whether this new ocean will be a sea of peace or a new terrifying theater of war… But why, some say, the moon. Why choose this as our goal. And they may well ask why climb the highest mountain… We choose to go to the moon… in this decade and do the other thing, 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’re willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win…”

On July 20, 1969, American astronaut, Neil Armstrong, became the first man in history to walk on the moon. The race to the moon had been won; Kennedy’s predication had been fulfilled.  

JOHN FITZGERALD KENNEDY. 1917 – 1963. The 35th President of the United  States.

Typed Letter Signed, as President, 1 page, quarto, The White House, May 16, 1961. To Secretary of Labor Arthur Goldberg.