The president sought space not because it was easy, but because it was expedient.
The language was, almost literally, soaring. "We set sail on this new sea," President Kennedy told the country, "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." We choose exploration, he declared, for ourselves and for all nations. "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, 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 the others, too."
And, of course, we found what we sought. We came in peace for all mankind, and we set foot on the moon. In light of our success, that step took on a sheen not only of epicness -- Homer, into the heavens' wine-dark sea -- but also of inevitability. A man on the moon, its image plunged into the public imagination 50 years ago, came to symbolize striving and dreaming and insisting with a power that still captivates us today.
So it's easy to forget how ambivalent Kennedy was, initially, about the space program. It's easy to forget how ambivalent he was, initially, about space itself. As the president put it, bluntly, in a 1962 meeting with advisors and NASA administrators: "I'm not that interested in space."
And that was, it seems, a longstanding apathy. When Kennedy was a Massachusetts senator in the late 1950s, Richard Collin writes in John F. Kennedy: History, Memory, Legacy, he and Robert Kennedy agreed to meet the MIT professor and aerospace pioneer Charles Draper at a Boston restaurant. During the dinner, Draper later recalled, the brothers essentially ridiculed his pitch for space exploration -- not cruelly, but with the kind of patient disbelief usually reserved for those who hold hopeless dreams. The politicians, Collin reports, "could not be convinced that all rockets were not a waste of money and space navigation even worse."
That attitude would continue into the Kennedy presidency. Hugh Sidey, Life magazine's White House correspondent, emphasized space exploration as Kennedy's weakest area during his first few months in office. The new president understood less about that field, Collin notes, than about any other issue he'd been confronted with when assuming office. And Jerome Wiesner, Kennedy's own science adviser, confirmed that view: When it came to space, Wiesner said of his boss, "he hadn't thought much about it."
If Kennedy wasn't inspired by space itself, though, he was inspired by political victories. In April of 1961, just months after the president's inauguration, the cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human to venture into space. Less than a week after Gagarin's orbit came the Bay of Pigs. Kennedy, in need of a political victory both for his administration and against the Soviets, turned to his vice president -- who, unlike Kennedy himself, had been a longtime space advocate. ("Control of space," Johnson had put it in 1958, "is control of the world.") Johnson, at the time, was serving as chairman of a newly reorganized Space Council. Kennedy asked him for recommendations on how to accelerate the U.S. space program -- not in the name of heavenly exploration, but in the name of a slightly more earthly goal:
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? Is there any other space program which promises dramatic results in which we could win?
The president asked for a response "at the earliest possible moment." A week later, Johnson -- basing his assessment in part on a Defense Department suggestion that "dramatic achievements in space ... symbolize the technological power and organizing capability of a nation" -- responded with a five-and-a-half-page memo. It emphasized, among Kennedy's list of potentially Soviet-shaming projects, the manned trip to the moon:
... As for a manned trip around the Moon or a safe landing and return by a man to the Moon, neither the United States nor the U.S.S.R. has such a capability at this time, so far as we know. The Russians have had more experience with large boosters and with flights of dogs and man. Hence they might be conceded a time advantage in circumnavigation of the Moon and also in a manned trip to the Moon. However, with a strong effort the United States could conceivably be first in these accomplishments by 1966 or 1967 ...
The moon, it's worth noting, was selected with geopolitical as well as technological strategy in mind. And it was selected not by Kennedy himself, but by his space agency. In 1959, NASA administrators were tasked with choosing a space exploration goal that would best utilize American potential in space -- and the agency determined that a manned lunar landing would make the most fitting and practical successor to Alan Shepard's planned orbit of Earth. The Apollo program, true to Kennedy's rhetoric, was finally implemented not as a proactive measure against the Soviets, but as a reactive one. "Kennedy was interested in space as a symbol of political power," the historian Dwayne Day writes, "but it was only after the Soviet Union increased the political stakes that Kennedy approved the lunar landing program."
And it was through a process of negotiation that the program's timetable was determined. Responding to pushback from NASA, Kennedy would publicly amend Johnson's aspirational lunar timetable -- from five or six years, starting in 1961, to ten. The president had crafted a goal that would serve his political if not personal interest: to go to the moon. And to go "in this decade." Not because it was easy, but because it was expedient. "The Soviet Union has made this a test of the system," Kennedy would later tell a group of advisors and NASA administrators. "So that's why we're doing it."
On May 5, 1962, Shepard repeated Gagarin's accomplishment, becoming the first American in space. On May 25, Kennedy gave a speech to Congress asking the country to 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." Already, Kennedy's ideological argument was taking the soaring tinge so familiar in his subsequent discussions of space. "If we are to win the battle that is now going on around the world between freedom and tyranny," he argued,
the dramatic achievements in space which occurred in recent weeks should have made clear to us all, as did the Sputnik in 1957, the impact of this adventure on the minds of men everywhere, who are attempting to make a determination of which road they should take .... Now it is time to take longer strides -- time for a great new American enterprise -- 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.
From expediency to enterprise. From steps to strides. From earth's muddy present to its gleaming future. That might complicate the story of aspiration and exploration that we've come to associate with Kennedy and with Earth's earliest forays into space. It might emphasize the way the dullest features of humanity -- competition, vindication, pride -- helped propel human soles to the lunar surface. Then again, it doesn't change the impact of the all-too-earthly decisions made those fifty years ago. We chose, either way, to go to the moon. Not because it was easy, but because it was hard.
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