It was May 5, 1961 when Commander Alan B. Shepard became the first American to be launched into outer space


Just look at them, President Kennedy, the First Lady, the Vice President, Arthur Schlesinger, Admiral Burke, watching the flight—it took only fifteen minutes, on a black and white television, doing exactly what a New Jersey class of third graders, including one recently relocated from the President’s home state, were doing as undoubtedly so many others were doing around the country.

The President does not look exultant nor as someone about to trumpet any triumph of the nation, or of his new administration. He looks, as does the Vice President, concerned.

Yet, as he told us a year or so later

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

That much we remember of his challenge to this country, as it has been repeated over and over time and time again. We like hearing it, because we did it. President Kennedy told us we could go to the moon and come back and we did it. We have forgotten what else he said that day and what our country was like in 1962.

In 1962, some Americans could not go to a restaurant, or use a public bathroom, or even drink from a particular water fountain not simply because of their race, but because laws had been passed to prohibit people whose color was darker than most of us from doing what seemed to be allowed to most other Americans.

As the President described it a few months later

The Negro baby born in America today, regardless of the section of the State in which he is born, has about one-half as much chance of completing a high school as a white baby born in the same place on the same day, one-third as much chance of completing college, one-third as much chance of becoming a professional man, twice as much chance of becoming unemployed, about one-seventh as much chance of earning $10,000 a year, a life expectancy which is 7 years shorter, and the prospects of earning only half as much.


And in 1962, a serious illness suffered by to a member of one’s family, or even the modest cost of medical insurance for an older person, could easily result in financial destruction. The President of the United States, one of the wealthiest men in the country could understand our plight even from his own experience after his father’s stroke:

I visited twice, yesterday and today, in the hospital, where doctors labor for a long time, to visit my father. It isn’t easy–it isn’t easy. He can pay his bills, but otherwise I would be. And I am not as well off as he is. But what happens to him and to others when they put their life savings in, in a short time?

And he said:

I talked to a Member of the Congress from my own State a week ago, who told me he was going to send his daughter away to school but because his father had been sick for 2 years, he could not do it. And Congressmen are paid… more than most people get.

So therefore now, what is he going to do? His savings are gone–his children’s savings, they’re contributing though they have responsibilities of their own–and he finally goes in and signs a petition saying he’s broke and needs assistance.

All the great revolutionary movements of the Franklin Roosevelt administration in the thirties we now take for granted. But I refuse to see us live on the accomplishments of another generation. I refuse to see this country, and all of us, shrink from these struggles which are our responsibility in our time.

What does any of this have to do with what we now call “the moon speech” at Rice?

The course he set us on was not simply to give Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin an exciting ride a few years hence:

He said:

Those who came before us made certain that this country rode the first waves of the industrial revolutions, the first waves of modern invention, and the first wave of nuclear power, and this generation does not intend to founder in the backwash of the coming age of space. We mean to be a part of it–we mean to lead it. For the eyes of the world now look into space, to the moon and to the planets beyond, and we have vowed that we shall not see it governed by a hostile flag of conquest, but by a banner of freedom and peace. We have vowed that we shall not see space filled with weapons of mass destruction, but with instruments of knowledge and understanding.

Yet the vows of this Nation can only be fulfilled if we in this Nation are first, and, therefore, we intend to be first. In short, our leadership in science and in industry, our hopes for peace and security, our obligations to ourselves as well as others, all require us to make this effort, to solve these mysteries, to solve them for the good of all men….

There is no strife, no prejudice, no national conflict in outer space as yet. Its hazards are hostile to us all. Its conquest deserves the best of all mankind, and its opportunity for peaceful cooperation many never come again. But why, some say, the moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? Why does Rice play Texas?

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….

The growth of our science and education will be enriched by new knowledge of our universe and environment, by new techniques of learning and mapping and observation, by new tools and computers for industry, medicine, the home as well as the school. Technical institutions, such as Rice, will reap the harvest of these gains….

To be sure, all this costs us all a good deal of money. … But if I were to say, my fellow citizens, that we shall send to the moon, 240,000 miles away from the control station in Houston, a giant rocket more than 300 feet tall, the length of this football field, made of new metal alloys, some of which have not yet been invented, capable of standing heat and stresses several times more than have ever been experienced, fitted together with a precision better than the finest watch, carrying all the equipment needed for propulsion, guidance, control, communications, food and survival, on an untried mission, to an unknown celestial body, and then return it safely to earth, re-entering the atmosphere at speeds of over 25,000 miles per hour, causing heat about half that of the temperature of the sun–almost as hot as it is here today–and do all this, and do it right, and do it first before this decade is out–then we must be bold.

Since Commander Shepard’s brief trip into space, this country has been sending humans in furtherance of what Gene Roddenberry would famously describe as a mission to “boldly go where none have gone before.” Even as we bored of lunar landings and ended the regular Apollo program in 1972, the Skylab was being planned followed by the space shuttle.

The last of those flights ended, successfully thankfully given that we no longer had the ability to rescue our astronauts had there been a need to do so, on Thursday morning.

We have no plans for further manned space flight. It’s too expensive. We have to give tax breaks for the wealthiest so that maybe they will hire some of us. We beg for them to do so, because huge numbers of us are out of work, or underemployed, and no longer receive much assistance in dealing with their plight. Children, as a result, are going to be hungry and, as 60 Minutes showed us, picked up from makeshift shelters so they can go to school and perhaps get some breakfast.

Our government tells us it cannot help because we are fighting two wars, gave tax breaks to those who did not need them, and created a prescription drug program for the purpose of enriching pharmaceutical companies. The wise people who know best tell us that John Maynard Keynes, Franklin D. Roosevelt and every president after him until the one elected in 1980, we wrong: when the economy stalls and people are out of work the government should not spend money, but cut spending, principally by reducing the assistance to those most in need.

In 1961, we could do anything. Today, we can’t even find a way to agree to pay our debts. Sadly, what President Kennedy said in trying to convince Congress to take the smallest of steps in providing medical insurance to the poor and elderly, was wrong in one gross respect:

what we are now talking about, in our children’s day will seem to be the ordinary business of government


2 thoughts on “Progress

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