‘We choose to go to the moon.” With this simple but powerful declaration, President John F. Kennedy set the United States on a course to the moon that would take the country, and the world, far beyond the lunar surface. Fifty years after Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong took his historic first step on behalf of all humankind, the world still benefits from Kennedy’s leadership and vision, which gave us our first “moonshot.”
Up until the early 1960s, the world had no idea whether human beings could survive space travel. Although some animals had survived space shots, not all did, and the question of whether humans could ever explore the stars seemed more a hopeful dream than a realistic endeavor. That all changed on May 25, 1961, when Kennedy stood before Congress and declared, “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. . . . ” The Race to the Moon had begun.
Kennedy told us that to make the moon landing possible within the decade of the 1960s we had to mobilize the public, private, and academic sectors, overcome our fears, invent things that did not yet exist, and, most important, “be bold.” He knew this mobilization would in turn usher in a new era of discovery around engineering, computers, and many other areas of science and technology.
And he was right. Kennedy declared in his speech at Rice University on Sept. 12, 1962, “The growth of our science and education will be enriched by new knowledge of our universe and environment, by new techniques for learning and mapping and observation, by new tools and computers for industry, medicine, the home, as well as the school. . . . We set sail on this new sea because there is new knowledge to be gained, and new rights to be won, and they must be won and used for the progress of all people.”
On Nov., 21, 1963, the day before he was assassinated, Kennedy spoke in San Antonio about the scientific progress that would come from medical space research. He said, “We have a long way to go. Many weeks and months and years of long, tedious work lie ahead. There will be setbacks and frustrations and disappointments. . . . But this research here must go on. This space effort must go on.”
Thanks to Kennedy’s daring vision, our world now understands a great deal more about the moon, space travel, human survival, and international collaboration. Around the globe, the generation that witnessed the impossible become possible used that inspiration as a catalyst for so many more achievements. They raised their children to dream bigger and work in the service of a better world and act boldly together.
In a public forum with Caroline Kennedy at the JFK Space Summit held recently at the John F. Kennedy Library, Amazon owner and Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos — who is setting his sights on Mars — said, “The gigantic legacy of Apollo, is that it inspired so many people to enter science and engineering and to become pioneers and explorers. . . . It would be hard to overstate the degree to which that program did that for a whole generation.”
People in today’s generation have their own moonshots, which include curing cancer and ending other diseases worldwide, creating equity and opportunity for all people through social policies, reducing the impact of our changing environment, and, of course, exploring our galaxy and those beyond.
Kennedy’s bold leadership teaches us that no matter what our moonshots may be, nothing is impossible when people unite behind a shared vision to improve the lives of others, share what we learn, and act boldly together to make it happen.
Alan Price is the director of the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum.