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50 Years Ago, JFK Sent Us to the Moon

President Kennedy bolstered American support for his mission to the Moon with a speech at Rice University 50 years ago today

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Standing behind a podium at Rice University 50 years ago today, President John F. Kennedy laid out his vision to send American astronauts to the Moon “before this decade is out.”

The speech breathed air into the wings of Kennedy’s initial pitch for the lunar voyage, which he had made to Congress a year prior. Kennedy said,

We choose to go to the moon. 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.

What many people seem to forget, looking back on the era of the Space Race, was that “support for the Apollo commitment was not unanimous, either in Congress or among the public.” People thought the program to be wasteful, and even some scientists thought it was misdirected.

But the program pushed on, culminating in the the Apollo manned spaceflight program and the first landing on the moon on July 20, 1969.

Kennedy:

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.

“Many years ago the great British explorer George Mallory, who was to die on Mount Everest, was asked why did he want to climb it. He said, “Because it is there.”

Well, space is there, and we’re going to climb it, and the moon and the planets are there, and new hopes for knowledge and peace are there. And, therefore, as we set sail we ask God’s blessing on the most hazardous and dangerous and greatest adventure on which man has ever embarked.

It was an unprecedented endeavor and a world-changing quest for knowledge. But, as Neil deGrasse Tyson reminds us, the search for peace and prosperity and a sense of exploration were not the only drivers motivating Kennedy or the Apollo missions. Rather, he said, during an interview with the Daily Show’s Jon Stewart earlier this year, we went to the Moon because we were at war.

More from Smithsonian.com:
The Legacy of Apollo
Here’s What Nixon Would Have Said If Apollo 11 Hadn’t Landed

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About Colin Schultz
Colin Schultz

Colin Schultz is a freelance science writer and editor based in Toronto, Canada. He blogs for Smart News and contributes to the American Geophysical Union. He has a B.Sc. in physical science and philosophy, and a M.A. in journalism.

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