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60 Years Ago: President Kennedy Proposes Moon Landing Goal in Speech to Congress

On May 25, 1961, President John F. Kennedy delivered a speech to a joint session of Congress. Formally titled, “Special Message to Congress on Urgent National Needs,” the 46-minute speech mainly involved, in the historical context of the Cold War with the Soviet Union, discussions of ways to beat the Soviets in a variety of fields, and proposals to win the hearts and minds of people around the world to the advantages of the American system of government. But what the speech is most remembered for came near the end of the address, when Kennedy discussed the race in space between the two superpowers. With the Soviet Union ahead by launching the first Earth-orbiting satellite and putting the first man into orbit, Kennedy’s bold initiative, resting on the success of astronaut Alan B. Shepard’s 15-minute suborbital spaceflight less than three weeks earlier, would put the United States undisputedly in the lead. After requesting that Congress expand funding of space activities even beyond the increases he had sought earlier, Kennedy proclaimed:

“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.”

Kennedy went on to specify several items for which he sought additional funding from the Congress to help achieve this and other goals in space. By setting such a lofty goal and requesting the needed funding, he committed the nation’s will and its resources to a decade-long pursuit of what at the time seemed to many an impossible goal. His speech set in motion a process that at one time employed 400,000 Americans to achieve the goal on July 20, 1969, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth.

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Left: View of the House of Representatives chamber during President John F. Kennedy’s May 25, 1961 address to a joint session of Congress. Right: President Kennedy addressing the joint session of Congress.

To personally check on the progress of the space program that he set in motion, in September 1962 President Kennedy visited several space facilities. Accompanied by Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson, who served as the Chairman of the National Space Council, he first stopped at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, where Center Director Wernher von Braun showed them a Saturn I rocket, then the most powerful rocket in the world and a precursor to the much larger Saturn V rocket that later launched astronauts on their lunar missions. At Cape Canaveral, Florida, Director Kurt H. Debus toured them through existing and future launch facilities. After arriving in Houston on Sep. 12, Kennedy gave a speech to an audience of 40,000 at Rice University’s stadium in which he renewed the nation’s commitment to the Moon landing. In the speech officially titled the “Address at Rice University on the Nation’s Space Effort,” Kennedy reaffirmed,

“We choose to go to Moon … in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy but because they are 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 we intend to win, and the others, too.”

Following the speech, Kennedy toured the Manned Spacecraft Center (MSC) that NASA had established in Houston the previous November. With the main site on Clear Lake, now NASA’s Johnson Space Center, still under construction, Kennedy visited MSC facilities temporarily housed in various buildings located in southeast Houston. He saw mockups of the proposed Apollo Command and Lunar Modules and a Gemini spacecraft. From Houston, Kennedy traveled to St. Louis to tour the McDonnell Douglas Corp. facility, manufacturer of the Mercury and Gemini spacecraft.

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Left: At NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, Center Director Wernher von Braun, left, describes the Saturn I rocket to President John F. Kennedy and Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson. Right: At Cape Canaveral, Florida, President Kennedy, fourth from left, listens to a briefing in the blockhouse at Launch Complex 34.

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Left: President John F. Kennedy addressing a crowd at Rice University’s stadium in Houston reaffirming his support for America’s space program including landing a man on the Moon. Right: President Kennedy addressing employees while touring the Site 3 facility at NASA’s Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston.

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Left: Map of Houston showing the temporary locations of NASA’s Manned Spacecraft Center (MSC) while the main center site (Site 1) was under construction. Right: The Site 1 of the MSC, now NASA’s Johnson Space Center, under construction in October 1962.