As the American space program once again looks toward the Moon, we revisit President John F. Kennedy’s 1961 challenge to land a man on the Moon and return him safely to the Earth.
When John F. Kennedy was sworn into office as President of the United States in 1961, plans for human space exploration were well underway for both the UnitedStates and the Soviet Union.
The Soviets led the way—on April 12, 1961, cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin circled the Earth once in his Vostok spacecraft and returned safely. Gagarin's flight took place a month before American astronaut Alan Shepard's suborbital flight and 10 months before astronaut John Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth.
Immediately after Gagarin's flight, President Kennedy wanted to know what the United States could do in space to take the lead from the Soviets.
On April 20, Kennedy sent a memo to Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson, outlining questions he wanted him to explore with NASA Administrator James E. Webb and Secretary of Defense Robert F. McNamara. “Do we have a chance of beating the Soviets by putting a laboratory in space, or by a trip around the moon, or by a rocket to land on the moon, or by a rocket to go to the moon and back with a man,” was his primary concern. In addition to things like costs required, Kennedy wanted to know: “Are we working 24 hours a day on existing programs. If not, why not?”
With that “if not, why not” question in mind, Johnson polled leaders in NASA and the military. He reported that "with a strong effort" the United States "could conceivably" beat the Soviets in sending a man around the Moon or landing a man on the Moon.
In May 1961, Webb and McNamara prepared a memo outlining the future of U.S. space exploration entitled “Recommendations for our National Space Program: Changes, Policies, Goals.”
The report stated that “to achieve the goal of landing a man on the moon and returning him to earth in the latter part of the current decade requires immediate initiation of an accelerated program of spacecraft development,” designated Project Apollo.
Under an outline for a new national space policy, McNamara and Webb described the types of projects the space program would be pursuing: “Projects in space may be undertaken for any one of four principal reasons. They may be aimed at gaining scientific knowledge. Some, in the future, will be of commercial or chiefly civilian value. Several current programs are of potential military value for functions such as reconnaissance and early warning. Finally, some space projects may be undertaken chiefly for reasons of national prestige.”
President Kennedy spent several weeks assessing America's options for competing with the Soviets in space. On May 25, 1961, he announced the goal of landing a man on the Moon before a joint session of Congress. At that point, the total time spent in space by an American was barely 15 minutes.
“...if we are to win the battle that is now going on around the world between freedom and tyranny, the dramatic achievements in space which occurred in recent weeks should have made clear to all of us, as did Sputnik in 1957, the impact of this adventure on the minds of men everywhere... Now it is time to take longer strides—time 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. ...we have never made the national decisions or marshaled the national resources required for such leadership. We have never specified long-range goals on an urgent time schedule... 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 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...will be more exciting, or more impressive to mankind, or more important...and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish...” -President John F. Kennedy, May 1961
It’s a message Kennedy would echo in his 1962 State of the Union Address, and in his famous address at Rice University on September 12, 1962, where he declared "We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard."
After President Kennedy's call for human exploration of the Moon, nearly all of NASA's efforts in space turned toward the goal of a lunar landing.
In the decade that followed, the Ranger, Surveyor and Lunar Orbiter spacecraft gathered data on the Moon. Thirteen robotic spacecraft transmitted detailed images of the Moon, and searched for landing sites for human explorers. In 1969, eight years after Kennedy’s initial challenge, two American astronauts took “one giant leap for mankind”—walking on the Moon for the first time.