Words that Set America on a Course to the Moon

July 2nd, 2019

President John F. Kennedy speaking at Rice University on 12 September 1962

By Mary Alys Cherry

We choose to go to the Moon — famous words that set America on a course to the Moon and words that will live in the hearts of Houstonians forever.

President John F. Kennedy, recognizing that the Russians had a head start on us in space, suggested in a speech to Congress on May 25, 1961 that we should make new efforts of our own to go to the Moon.

“For while we cannot guarantee that we shall one day be first, we can guarantee that any failure to make this effort will make us last. We take an additional risk by making it in full view of the world, but as shown by the feat of astronaut Shepard, this very risk enhances our stature when we are successful. But this is not merely a race. 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.

“Let it be clear,” he continued, “that I am asking the Congress and the country to accept a firm commitment to a new course of action, a course which will last for many years and carry very heavy costs: $531 million in fiscal ‘62–an estimated $7 to 9 billion additional over the next five years. If we are to go only half way, or reduce our sights in the face of difficulty, in my judgment it would be better not to go at all.” It was one of two speeches JFK made that helped send us to the Moon.

RICE SPEECH
Then on Sept. 12, 1962, Kennedy came down to Houston, where he reiterated his call to go to the Moon and delivered his famous “Moon speech” at Rice University.
“We meet at a college noted for knowledge, in a city noted for progress, in a state noted for strength, and we stand in need of all three, for we meet in an hour of change and challenge, in a decade of hope and fear, in an age of both knowledge and ignorance. The greater our knowledge increases, the greater our ignorance unfolds.”

With the speech Kennedy hoped to persuade the American people to support the Apollo program, the national effort to land a man on the Moon.

NEW FRONTIER
In his speech, the president characterized space as a new frontier, invoking the pioneer spirit that dominated American folklore. He infused the speech with a sense of urgency and destiny, and emphasized the freedom enjoyed by Americans to choose their destiny rather than have it chosen for them.

While there was grumbling about the cost and value of the Moon-landing effort. Kennedy’s goal was realized in July 1969, with the successful Apollo 11 mission.

“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. “