Manned Space Flight: It's for Us

Posted by Michael R. Honig

Advocates of manned space flight need to concede a battle they can never win.

Ready? “We give! Manned space flight isn’t about the science!” Now, doesn’t it feel better to have gotten that off your chest? And with that out of the way, we can make the case we really want to make. It’s the case that John Kennedy made at Rice University in 1962. Most of us have seen the old black and white video tape on TV, and most of us have seen excerpted the single most famous quote from that speech:

“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…”

That’s the great quote where John F. Kennedy announced his decision to race the Soviets to the moon; the decision that Kennedy’s murder might have prevented, but which Lyndon Johnson – who in a historical irony did not much even like JFK, and who is rarely given the credit he deserves in space and other things -- made it his business to see through. That decision cemented Kennedy’s legacy in space, and inextricably connected him in the world’s minds with Neil Armstrong and Apollo.

But there was much more to that speech than the famous quote. And it wasn’t just about the unmanned robotic missions which can go places that humans can’t. Kennedy took great and justifiable pride in those accomplishments, too, but that wasn’t the key thing. The key thing was about the necessity of US going.

Humans. Americans. US. The arguments which Kennedy made for manned space exploration are as valid today as they were almost a half century ago. With an increasingly ambitious and aggressive Chinese space program, and space entries from India, Brazil, Europe and more, Kennedy’s speech is even truer today than it was in 1962.

What follows is a heavily edited version of JFK’s Rice speech, but no less accurate in its vision and importance. I’ll let President John Fitzgerald Kennedy make the case for manned space flights today, as he did then.

The exploration of space will go ahead, whether we join in it or not … [N]o nation which expects to be the leader of other nations can expect to stay behind in this race for space. … We mean to be a part of it--we mean to lead it. … [W]e intend to be first. …

[O]ur leadership in science and industry, our hopes for peace and security, our obligations to ourselves as well as others, all require us to make this effort, to solve these mysteries, to solve them for the good of all men, and to become the world's leading space-faring nation. For space science, like nuclear science and all technology, has no conscience of its own. … [O]nly if the United States occupies a position of pre-eminence can we help decide whether this new ocean will be a sea of peace or a new terrifying theater of war.

… [W]hy, 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. … 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, such as Rice, will reap the harvest of these gains. …

[T]he space effort itself, while still in its infancy, has already created a great number of new companies, and tens of thousands of new jobs. Space and related industries are generating new demands in investment and skilled personnel … . … To be sure, all this costs us all a good deal of money. This year's space budget is three times what it was in January 1961, and it is greater than the space budget of the previous eight years combined. That budget … [is] somewhat less than we pay for cigarettes and cigars every year. [NOTE: Last I heard not too long ago, this is still true – MH]

… 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… 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, re-entering the atmosphere at speeds of over 25,000 miles per hour, causing heat about half that of the temperature of the sun--almost as hot as it is here today--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. … Many years ago the great British explorer George Mallory, who was to die on Mount Everest, was asked why did he want to climb it. He said, "Because it is there."

Well, space is there, and we're going to climb it, and the moon and the planets are there, and new hopes for knowledge and peace are there. 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.

Thank you. John F. Kennedy - September 12, 1962

NOTE: I urge you to go to this YouTube link to watch the color film of Kennedy giving this speech. It will give you goosebumps.