We Chose to Go to the Moon: JFK's Speech 50 Years Later

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Kennedy before Congress on May 25, 1961

Even the most iconic moments in American history can start to seem a little shopworn after a while. The flag-raising at Iwo Jima? Seen the picture a million times. FDR's "nothing to fear but fear itself" speech? Isn't that a bumper sticker?

The same overfamiliarity is true, to a lesser extent, of President Kennedy's historic speech before a joint session of Congress on May 25, 1961 in which he set the U.S. on the path to a lunar landing by the end of the 1960s. "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 Earth," Kennedy said. Eight years later, the nation did just that.

It's the 50th anniversary of that speech, and NASA is doing its best to make hay out of the occasion. Stories about the speech lead the agency's website, with pictures and clickable videos for anyone who wants to relive the day one more time. There's a breaking-news page about NASA's next manned spacecraft as well — a supersized Apollo-like pod called the Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV), that will be capable of flying crews of at least four astronauts up to orbit or into deep space. It's been more or less known since 2004 that some version of the MPCV would replace the space shuttle after it files its last mission this summer. But just yesterday — in a too-cute bit of timing — NASA announced that yes, that was now formally, officially, double-definitely true.

Still, NASA can be forgiven its spin, since, when it comes to the manned space program, there's so little other good news. After the shuttle is mothballed, the U.S. will be effectively grounded, dependent on hitching rides with the Russians just to get back and forth to the American-built International Space Station.

The Obama administration does have a manned program of sorts, one that relies pretty much on outsourcing the design and construction of rockets to private industry while NASA works on the MPCV. But even if the new crew module is successfully built — sometime in 2016, NASA promises — it will sit in a hangar unless the rockets are ready to lift it. And once they are, there is no certainty about where American astronauts will go except on milk runs to the station, though the White House does promise vaguely that exotic destinations like the moon, Mars or an asteroid are possibilities. In today's USA Today, lunar astronauts Neil Armstrong, Jim Lovell and Gene Cernan — who know a thing or two about taking big risks and accomplishing big things — speak their minds in an op-ed piece that blasts the White House for its celestial aimlessness. For NASA, that's clearly off-message, and yet it's hard to argue with what the Apollo vets are saying.

None of this makes a good contrast with the crispness and clarity of Kennedy's call, but none of that should make us look back at him too gauzily either. It was no secret that JFK's moon commitment was as much a political undertaking as a scientific one; indeed, the politics part had the edge. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the U.S. was in the process of taking a bad technological beatdown at the hands of the Soviet Union. In 1957, Sputnik became the first satellite in orbit; in April of 1961 Yuri Gagarin became the first human in orbit — and both of them wore the hammer-and-sickle insignia. The U.S. followed with its pipsqueak Explorer satellite and its popgun suborbital flight of Al Shepard, and while they were nice, they were clearly second-tier.

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