“First, 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.”—President John F. Kennedy, Joint Session of Congress, May 25, 1961
Was President Kennedy a dreamer, a visionary, or simply politically astute? We may never know, but he had the courage to make that bold proposal 50 years ago Wednesday. The Soviet Union’s Yuri Gagarin had completed an orbit of the Earth the previous month and electrified the world. The United States had taken only one human, Alan Shepard, above 100 miles altitude and none into orbit. Americans, embarrassed by the successes of our Cold War adversary, were eager to demonstrate that we too were capable of great achievements in space.
President Kennedy called in the leaders of the nascent National Aeronautics and Space Administration for their opinion on any space goal that Uncle Sam could win. They concluded that the only possibility was a manned lunar landing, and that would include all the principal elements of human space travel.
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