Fifty-five years, ago a young president from Massachusetts went to Houston to summon a nation. On a very hot September day in Rice Stadium he said, “We have vowed that we shall not see space filled with weapons of mass destruction, but with instruments of knowledge and understanding.” Then, as now, the Russians challenged us. The stakes were high. We were behind in the race for space, and the Russians clearly wanted to militarize it, having already placed missiles in Cuba. Our national security was at stake. Children in schools were practicing “duck and cover.” Bomb shelters were common.
Before this apprehensive people, John F. Kennedy asked us to join together to meet the challenge of the race to space: “Yet the vows of this Nation can only be fulfilled if we in this Nation are first, and, therefore we intend to be first. In short, our 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.”
John Kennedy appealed to our better angels. He asked us to look to the heavens. And to each other. And he also asked us to do what is hard. “We choose to go to the moon in this decade . . . not because [it is] easy, but because [it is] 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 Kennedy asked us that day to participate, to join in. He was honest with us. He told us this effort was going to cost “$5,400 million a year — a staggering sum, though somewhat less than we pay for cigarettes and cigars every year.” He didn’t say someone else should foot the bill for our priorities. He said we were going to make this investment because that was the way we were going to invest in our future. That way we could share in the mission.
Here was a president in Houston, a half-century ago, accepting and using the tools of science to inspire people to action toward a major challenge that faced the country. And his leadership allowed us to dream big, then to fulfill that dream. To win the race to space, to change the face of Houston, to create and lead a new economy, to change the way we look at the moon, and, importantly, to change the way we look at ourselves. If we can put a man on the moon . . .
Think back to those times when we could do big things. When nothing was outside our grasp. When that young president asked us to do something for our country. When he inspired us with science. When science was a wonderful thing that brought the moon within reach.
Boy, could we use a president like that now. One not concerned about crowd size, but with the empathy to see and respond to the apprehensive and anxious victims in the crowd. One who understands the science behind the large storms and floods that now threaten our nation, and with the vision to be on the forefront of a new worldwide green economy rooted in science. One who can inspire us with a future of hope and aspiration.
There is an opportunity right now, in the teeth of the storm, for real leadership to do and inspire us to do great things.
Leaders can call the American people to do great things, but they have to ask. They have to describe the challenge and why it is important. They have to inspire confidence that, to borrow from FDR, “We will gain the inevitable victory.” And, importantly, they have to ask for our personal participation. Yes, you have to join in. You have to be in the arena helping out, just as so many of the people of Texas are doing right now. You have to be willing to work for it. As JFK said, “because it is hard.” No guts, no glory.
We celebrated science and technology when they were used to predict the eclipse. We love science and technology when they cure disease. We are grateful to science and technology when they are used by NOAA to forecast the path Harvey or Irma will take and how much rain will fall. Why, when scientists predict what will happen with climate change, does everyone get all political and talk about their “beliefs”? It’s not about what you believe. It’s natural laws. Like gravity. Nature doesn’t care what any of us “believes.” Nature just works. If we keep putting more CO2 in the atmosphere, we can expect more Houstons.
Our hearts go out to the people of Texas, and now those in the path of Irma. In the state of Texas, which produces more wind energy than the next three states combined, does it really have to be that way? Or, with real leadership from the top, could the American people show us once again that we can “make this effort, to solve these mysteries, to solve them for the good of all men”?
John K. Bullard is the Regional Administrator of NOAA Fisheries and a former mayor of New Bedford.