John F. Kennedy

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5 John F. Kennedy

Excerpt from Special Message to the Congress on Urgent National Needs

Presented on May 25, 1961

On May 25, 1961, President John F. Kennedy (1917–1963; served 1961–63) addressed a joint session of the U.S. Congress and declared that the United States would be the first nation to put a man on the Moon. He vowed that this goal would be reached by the end of the decade. Kennedy's announcement came at a crucial time in U.S. history. The United States and the former Soviet Union were engaged in a period of hostile relations known as the Cold War (1945–91). They were competing for military superiority as well as dominance in space. Nearly four years earlier, on October 5, 1957, Americans had been stunned to learn that the former Soviet Union had launched the Sputnik 1 satellite (a man-made device that orbits Earth; see First Satellite entry). The Soviets had thus become the first country to put a craft into orbit successfully. American morale was shaken: Many citizens looked at the Soviet Union as a backward nation incapable of competing with the United States. Kennedy realized the importance of rallying the nation behind a cause, and he made that cause winning the race to the Moon.

Kennedy had other reasons to worry about public morale. Three weeks earlier, on May 5, astronaut Alan Shepard (1923–1998) became the first American in space. He piloted a Mercury spacecraft 115 miles above Earth's surface and 302 miles across the Atlantic Ocean. Americans were ecstatic, but the celebration was short lived. Soon afterward came news that the Soviets had sent Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin (1934–1938) into space the previous month—once again beating the Americans in the space race. Moreover, Gagarin had made a nearly complete orbit of Earth, whereas Shepard had made only a brief flight. In addition, the U.S. government had recently failed in an attempt to overthrow Cuban Communist dictator Fidel Castro (1926–) in what became known as the Bay of Pigs invasion. The event was an international disaster. More than ever, Kennedy needed a cause the American people could believe in, one that would win the respect of the world.

In his address, titled Special Message to the Congress on Urgent National Needs, Kennedy boldly outlined America's newest priority: "First, I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before the decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth. 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." This statement became a rallying cry for the American people. Never before had science and space exploration been made a top national priority. With one speech, Kennedy was able to achieve his goal of restoring America's morale.

Things to remember while reading an excerpt from President Kennedy's Special Message to the Congress on Urgent National Needs:

  • Kennedy states that the "urgent time schedule" and massive national resources needed to meet the goal of sending a man to the Moon would be a new experience for the United States. In fact, during World War II (1939–45), a tight time schedule and a massive amount of resources were necessary for the development of the atomic bomb. This top-secret program was known as the "Manhattan Project." Kennedy was aware of how the project was accomplished. He wanted to instill the same sense of importance and immediacy publicly in the American people that had been done privately during World War II.
  • Many historians believe that Kennedy's speech was so inspiring because he made it seem like the whole of the United States was going to the Moon: "It will not be one man going to the moon—if we make this judgment affirmatively," he said, "it will be an entire nation. For all of us must work to put him there."
  • Kennedy asked Congress for a considerable amount of money for space exploration. Never before had an American leader asked that so many funds be dedicated to one program during a time of peace.

Excerpt from President Kennedy's Special Message to the Congress on Urgent National Needs

[I]f we are to win the battle that is now going on around the world between freedom andtyranny, the dramatic achievements in space which occurred in recent weeks should have made clear to us all, as did the Sputnik in 1957, the impact of this adventure on the minds of men everywhere, who are attempting to make a determination of which road they should take. Since early in my term, our efforts inspace have been under review. With the advice of the Vice President, who is Chairman of the National Space Council, we have examined where we are strong and where we are not, where we may succeed and where we may not. Now it is time to take longer strides—time for a great new Americanenterprisetime for this nation to take a clearly leading role in space achievement, which in many ways may hold the key to our future on Earth.

I believe we possess all the resources and talents necessary. But the facts of the matter are that we have never made the national decisions ormarshalled the national resources required for such leadership. We have never specified long-range goals on an urgent time schedule, or managed our resources and our time so as to insure their fulfillment.

Recognizing the head start obtained by the Soviets with their large rocket engines, which gives them many months of lead time, and recognizing the likelihood that they will exploit this lead for some time to come in still more impressive successes, we nevertheless are required to make new efforts on our own. For while we cannot guarantee that we shall one day be first, we can guarantee that any failure to make this effort will make us last. We take an additional risk by making it in full view of the world, but as shown by the feat of astronaut [Alan] Shepard, this very risk enhances our stature when we are successful. But this is not merely a race. Space is open to us now; and our eagerness to share its meaning is not governed by the efforts of others. We go into space because whatever mankind must undertake, free men must fully share.

I therefore ask the Congress, above and beyond the increases I have earlier requested for space activities, to provide the funds which are needed to meet the following national goals:

First, 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. 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. We propose to accelerate the development of the appropriate lunar space craft. We propose to develop alternate liquid and solid fuel boosters, much larger than any now being developed, until certain which is superior. We propose additional funds for other engine development and for unmanned explorations—explorations which are particularly important for one purpose which this nation will never overlook: the survival of the man who first makes

this daring flight. But in a very real sense, it will not be one man going to the moon—if we make this judgment affirmatively, it will be an entire nation. For all of us must work to put him there.

Secondly, an additional twenty-three million dollars, together with seven million dollars already available, will accelerate development of theRover nuclear rocket. This gives promise of some day providing a means for even more exciting and ambitious exploration of space, perhaps beyond the moon, perhaps to the very end of the solar system itself.

Third, an additional fifty million dollars will make the most of our present leadership, by accelerating the use of space satellites for worldwide communications.

Fourth, an additional seventy-five million dollars—of which fifty-three million dollars is for the Weather Bureau—will help give us atthe earliest possible time a satellite system for world-wide weather observation.

Let it be clear—and this is a judgment which the Members of the Congress must finally make—let it be clear that I am asking the Congress and the country to accept a firm commitment to a new course of action, a course which will last for many years and carry very heavy costs: five hundred thirty-one million dollars in fiscal '62—an estimated seven to nine billion dollars additional over the next five years. If we are to go only half way, or reduce our sights in the face of difficulty, in my judgment it would be better not to go at all.

Now this is a choice which this country must make, and I am confident that under the leadership of the Space Committees of the Congress, and the Appropriating Committees, that you will consider the matter carefully.

It is a most important decision that we make as a nation. But all of you have lived through the last four years and have seen the significance of space and the adventures in space, and no one can predict with certainty what the ultimate meaning will be of mastery of space.

I believe we should go to the moon. But I think every citizen of this country as well as the Members of the Congress should consider the matter carefully in making their judgment, to which we have given attention over many weeks and months, because it is a heavy burden, and there is no sense in agreeing or desiring that the United States take an affirmative position in outer space, unless we are prepared to do the work and bear the burdens to make it successful. If we are not, we should decide today and this year.

This decision demands a major national commitment of scientific and technical manpower, material and facilities, and the possibility of their diversion from other important activities where they are already thinly spread. It means a degree of dedication, organization and discipline which have not always characterized our research and development efforts. It means we cannot afford undue work stoppages, inflated costs of material or talent, wasteful interagency rivalries, or a high turnover of key personnel.

New objectives and new money cannot solve these problems. They could in fact, aggravate them further—unless every scientist, every engineer, every serviceman, every technician, contractor, and civil servant gives his personal pledge that this nation will move forward, with the full speed of freedom, in the exciting adventure of space.

What happened next …

Citizens responded immediately to Kennedy's vision. Thousands of young people dreamed of becoming astronauts or rocket scientists, and college enrollments skyrocketed. Most of the students studied science, and as people entered scientific professions the United States became an increasingly technological society. On September 12, 1962, Kennedy gave another speech, at Rice University, concerning the journey to the Moon, once again voicing his dedication to the space program (see box on page 58).

With the financial support of the government, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) embarked on an unprecedented period of research and development. Project Mercury, which had been begun in 1958, developed the basic technology necessary to send humans into space. These flights were short, however; soon after Kennedy's address to Congress, NASA set a goal of making longer flights. On February 20, 1962, astronaut John Glenn orbited Earth in a Mercury space capsule, proving longer trips were possible (see John Glenn, with Nick Taylor entry). In 1964, NASA began Project Gemini. This program trained astronauts how to return to Earth from space, how to link different space vehicles, and, through the use of special chambers, provided "experience" in walking in weightless environments. Gemini was also responsible for launching several satellites that provided vital information about the Moon's surface and environment, allowing scientists to decide where and how to land a spacecraft.

Project Apollo began tragically in 1967, when the Apollo 1 spacecraft exploded on the launchpad, killing all three astronauts aboard. Manned Apollo flights were suspended for over a year. Then, on July 24, 1969, millions of people around the world watched on television as Apollo 11 (see Michael Collins and Edwin E. Aldrin entry) successfully landed U.S. astronauts Neil Armstrong (1930–) and Buzz Aldrin (1930–) on the Moon and delivered them safely home. Unfortunately, President Kennedy, who had vowed that the nation would experience

this day, was not alive to witness the result of his vision. He was assassinated in Dallas, Texas, on November 22, 1963.

Did you know …

  • After the successful Moon landing of Apollo 17 in 1972, no other spacecraft has landed on the Moon. Project Apollo was discontinued after this flight, and NASA concentrated its efforts on space shuttle missions (see Space Shuttle entry).

Kennedy's Speech at Rice University

On September 12, 1962, President Kennedy visited Rice University in Houston, Texas, and addressed the student body. College enrollment had already begun to increase when Kennedy delivered his address, and his remarks reflect the importance the nation had begun to put on science. He outlined the advancements already made by NASA and once again emphasized that the United States would put a man on the Moon before the end of the decade. He asked the students at Rice to play a part in this endeavor. The following is an excerpt from his speech.

But if I were to say, my fellow citizens, that we shall send to the moon, 240,000 miles away from the control station in Houston, 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 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, reentering 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…. It may be done while some of you are still here at school at this college and university. It will be done during the term of office of some of the people who sit here on this platform. 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 [1886–1924], who was to die on Mt. 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.

  • The early space race between the United States and the Soviet Union was heated and competitive. Today, Russia (which became a separate country after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991) and the United States cooperate in space shuttle missions, most notably flights to the Mir (see Patrick Meyer entry) space station and the International Space Station.
  • In January 2004 President George W. Bush (1946–; served 2001–) made a speech in which he announced that the United States would resume missions to the Moon in the near future (see George W. Bush entry).

Consider the following …

  • President Kennedy committed the United States to sending a man to the Moon because of the nation's intensely competitive "space race" with the former Soviet Union. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the United States and Russia began cooperating on a number of space missions. Do you think this was a positive development? Why or why not?
  • Do you think it was a mistake for the United States to discontinue missions to the Moon after Apollo 17?
  • In 2004 President George W. Bush announced that the United States would someday send humans to Mars. Some people have compared this goal to President Kennedy's vow to put a man on the Moon. Do you agree? Do you believe that someday Americans will be walking on the surface of Mars?

For More Information


Cole, Michael D. Apollo 11: First Moon Landing. Springfield, NJ: Enslow, 1995.

Dallek, Robert. An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917–1963. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 2003.

Web Sites

Kennedy, John F. Moon Speech—Rice Stadium, September 12, 1962. Johnson Space Center, NASA. (accessed on July 19, 2004).

Kennedy, John F. Special Message to the Congress on Urgent National Needs, May 25, 1961. John F. Kennedy Library and Museum. (accessed on July 22, 2004).

Shepler, John. "President Kennedy's Moon Landing." (accessed on July 19, 2004).

Other Sources

"The Speeches of John F. Kennedy." In The Speeches Collection Volume 1. New York: MPI Home Video, 2002 (DVD).

Tyranny: Oppressive power.

Enterprise: Project that is especially difficult, complicated, or risky.

Marshalled: Brought together or united.

Rover nuclear rocket: A rocket powered by a nuclear reactor. Project Rover, a U.S. program created during the mid-1960s, was an effort to build a nuclear reactor, a cheaper reliable alternative to chemical rocket engines, to power a rocket in space.

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John F. Kennedy

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