In an address to Congress on “Urgent National Needs” on May 25, 1961, John F. Kennedy, the 35th president of the United States called for America to send astronauts to the moon and return him safely to Earth before the end of the decade.

Today’s (May 25) story of what happened this day in Science, Technology, Astronomy, and Space Exploration history.

President Kennedy announces Moon landing goal

On May 25, 1961, John F. Kennedy, the 35th president of the United States stood before the congress, and proposed that the United States “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.”

President John F. Kennedy Challenges NASA to Go to the Moon.

In fact, not everyone was impressed with this moon landing goal: a Gallup Poll indicated that 58 percent of Americans were opposed.

But, just about 8 years after that speech, Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon on July 24, 1969.

Kennedy moon landing goal. Buzz Aldrin on the Moon
Just about 8 years after President John F. Kennedy’s speech, Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon on July 24, 1969.Moon Landing: Astronaut Buzz Aldrin, the lunar module pilot, stands on the surface of the moon near the leg of the lunar module, Eagle, during the Apollo 11 moonwalk. Astronaut Neil Armstrong, mission commander, took this photograph with a 70mm lunar surface camera. While Armstrong and Aldrin descended in the lunar module to explore the Sea of Tranquility, astronaut Michael Collins, command module pilot, remained in lunar orbit with the Command and Service Module, Columbia.

The Decision to Go to the Moon: President John F. Kennedy’s May 25, 1961 Speech before a Joint Session of Congress

On May 25, 1961, President John F. Kennedy announced before a special joint session of Congress the dramatic and ambitious goal of sending an American safely to the Moon before the end of the decade.

A number of political factors affected Kennedy’s decision and its timing of it. In general, Kennedy felt great pressure to have the United States “catch up to and overtake” the Soviet Union in the “space race“.

Four years after the Sputnik shock of 1957, the cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin had become the first human in space on April 12, 1961, greatly embarrassing the U.S. While Alan Shepard became the first American in space on May 5, he only flew on a short suborbital flight instead of orbiting the Earth, as Gagarin had done. In addition, the Bay of Pigs fiasco in mid-April put unquantifiable pressure on Kennedy. He wanted to announce a program that the U.S. had a strong chance of achieving before the Soviet Union.

John F. Kennedy announces the Moon Landing goal on May 25 1961
On May 25, 1961, John F. Kennedy, the 35th president of the United States stood before the congress, and proposed that the United States “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.”

After consulting with Vice President Johnson, NASA Administrator James Webb, and other officials, he concluded that landing an American on the Moon would be a very challenging technological feat, but an area of space exploration in which the U.S. actually had a potential lead. Thus the cold war is the primary contextual lens through which many historians now view Kennedy’s speech.

The decision involved much consideration before making it public, as well as enormous human efforts and expenditures to make what became Project Apollo a reality by 1969. Only the construction of the Panama Canal in modern peacetime and the Manhattan Project in the war were comparable in scope.

NASA’s overall human spaceflight efforts were guided by Kennedy’s speech; Projects Mercury (at least in its latter stages), Gemini, and Apollo were designed to execute Kennedy’s goal. His goal was achieved on July 20, 1969, when Apollo 11 commander Neil Armstrong stepped off the Lunar Module’s ladder and onto the Moon’s surface.

Sources

  • “We choose to go to the Moon” on Wikipedia
  • “The Decision to Go to the Moon: President John F. Kennedy’s May 25, 1961 Speech before a Joint Session of Congress” on the NASA website
M. Özgür Nevres
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