The Apollo Speech: Now It Is Time to Take Longer Strides

Fifty years ago today — May 25, 1961 — President John F. Kennedy spoke to the U.S. Congress and laid out the goal of the Apollo program.


(President Kennedy delivering the May 25th speech. Image from a NASA History Office web page.)

A year and a half later, at Rice University, Kennedy would make another important speech on the subject, but the May 1961 was the first. Fresh on the heels of Yuri Gagarin’s orbital flight and Alan Shepard’s suborbital flight, Kennedy said, “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.”

Here’s the pertinent text of the Special Message to the Congress on Urgent National Needs, with emphasis added in a few places:

Finally, if we are to win the battle that is now going on around the world between freedom and tyranny, 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. Since early in my term, our efforts in space have been under review. With the advice of the Vice President, who is Chairman of the National Space Council, we have examined where we are strong and where we are not, where we may succeed and where we may not. 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.

I believe we possess all the resources and talents necessary. But the facts of the matter are that we have never made the national decisions or marshalled the national resources required for such leadership. We have never specified long-range goals on an urgent time schedule, or managed our resources and our time so as to insure their fulfillment.

Recognizing the head start obtained by the Soviets with their large rocket engines, which gives them many months of leadtime, and recognizing the likelihood that they will exploit this lead for some time to come in still more impressive successes, we nevertheless are required to make new efforts on our own. 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.

I therefore ask the Congress, above and beyond the increases I have earlier requested for space activities, to provide the funds which are needed to meet the following national goals:

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. We propose to accelerate the development of the appropriate lunar space craft. We propose to develop alternate liquid and solid fuel boosters, much larger than any now being developed, until certain which is superior. We propose additional funds for other engine development and for unmanned explorations–explorations which are particularly important for one purpose which this nation will never overlook: the survival of the man who first makes this daring flight. But in a very real sense, it will not be one man going to the moon–if we make this judgment affirmatively, it will be an entire nation. For all of us must work to put him there.

Secondly, an additional 23 million dollars, together with 7 million dollars already available, will accelerate development of the Rover nuclear rocket. This gives promise of some day providing a means for even more exciting and ambitious exploration of space, perhaps beyond the moon, perhaps to the very end of the solar system itself.

Third, an additional 50 million dollars will make the most of our present leadership, by accelerating the use of space satellites for world-wide communications.

Fourth, an additional 75 million dollars–of which 53 million dollars is for the Weather Bureau–will help give us at the earliest possible time a satellite system for world-wide weather observation.

Let it be clear–and this is a judgment which the Members of the Congress must finally make–let it be clear 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 dollars in fiscal ’62–an estimated seven to nine billion dollars 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.

Now this is a choice which this country must make, and I am confident that under the leadership of the Space Committees of the Congress, and the Appropriating Committees, that you will consider the matter carefully.

It is a most important decision that we make as a nation. But all of you have lived through the last four years and have seen the significance of space and the adventures in space, and no one can predict with certainty what the ultimate meaning will be of mastery of space.

I believe we should go to the moon. But I think every citizen of this country as well as the Members of the Congress should consider the matter carefully in making their judgment, to which we have given attention over many weeks and months, because it is a heavy burden, and there is no sense in agreeing or desiring that the United States take an affirmative position in outer space, unless we are prepared to do the work and bear the burdens to make it successful. If we are not, we should decide today and this year.

This decision demands a major national commitment of scientific and technical manpower, materiel and facilities, and the possibility of their diversion from other important activities where they are already thinly spread. It means a degree of dedication, organization and discipline which have not always characterized our research and development efforts. It means we cannot afford undue work stoppages, inflated costs of material or talent, wasteful interagency rivalries, or a high turnover of key personnel.

New objectives and new money cannot solve these problems. They could in fact, aggravate them further–unless every scientist, every engineer, every serviceman, every technician, contractor, and civil servant gives his personal pledge that this nation will move forward, with the full speed of freedom, in the exciting adventure of space.

And the rest, as we have heard so often, is history: the quest for the Moon had begun.

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Last Titan Launch

Five years ago today — October 19, 2005 — the last Titan-IV rocket launched from Vandenberg AFB. (The next-to-last Titan rocket had been launched successfully about six months earlier, on April 29th, from Cape Canaveral.)


(Final Titan-IV launch, Space Launch Complex 4, Vandenberg AFB. USAF image. Click to enlarge.)

The rocket carried a classified DoD payload for the National Reconnaissance Office.

This last Titan launch was a milestone of sorts for me, for two reasons.

First, I’d worked on Titan twice in my Air Force career — at Edwards AFB, supporting Titan-34D and Titan-IV test firings, and in the Titan System Program Office at Vandenberg, managing the engineering and contracting for the facility that stored and processed Titan-IV solid rocket motor upgrade segments. (If you ever come to my office, ask me about the piece of a failed Titan-IV that sits on my desk.)

Second, I’d written a speech for the Under Secretary of the Air Force to honor the final launch. It’s not often that the speeches we write for others have to do with things that are so special to us.

Each Titan was a huge, complex machine built to carry out a difficult task. It was an honor to be associated with the program.

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For Those Overloaded on Inauguration Coverage …

We all live through little slices of history every day, but not like today. More words will be spoken and written about today than we can ever count — especially with blogs and tweets and squirts and whatever-will-be-next-in-the-crazy-world-of-the-Internet — and certainly more than anyone will ever read. All the historians through all the years will never catch up with all the words written and to be written about today.

Because of that, I will only say: Congratulations, Mr. President, and good luck.

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The Messages We Send, and Receive

I was in Greensboro for a short time last evening, and stopped for a bite at a fast food restaurant just south of town. As I started pulling into one of several empty parking slots near the door, I noticed that it was marked “Employee Parking Only.”

Except for the two handicapped parking spaces, all the spaces near the entrance were marked, “Employee Parking Only.”

I wondered what message the management was trying to send.

Were they trying to say, “We value our employees, and want to do what we can for them even though we pay them very little and make them wear funny little cardboard headpieces?” If so, that’s very nice of them to be so considerate of their employees. But the message I got was, “Hey, customers, we like our employees more than we like you.” (Maybe they’d like to add, “Please come in and spend your money anyway.”)

I asked the young man behind the counter about it, and he just laughed. He said I was about the fiftieth customer who had asked since they repainted the parking lot — and that the employees don’t even use the spaces, so we were welcome to them.

So I still don’t know what message they were trying to send. I just hope I can communicate more clearly than that in my own writing — my speechwriting, my nonfiction writing, and my fiction.

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Gotta Love Those Speeches

As a speechwriter, I look at speeches by prominent people from time to time, as well as the reporting about speeches. I probably don’t do it as often as I should. Then again, I don’t do a lot of things as often as I should; and some things I shouldn’t do, I do more often than I should.*

Anyway, some comments on recent speechifying.

1. Why can’t people be bothered to look up Bible quotes?

Tuesday Senator Obama gave a speech in which he attempted to … well, we’re not sure what he was trying to do, but his prepared text seemed to talk a lot about race. Others will dissect the delivered speech in more detail than we will, but this quote in the prepared text stuck out: “Let us be our brother’s keeper, Scripture tells us.” Notwithstanding that it wasn’t presented as a direct quote, that’s not what Scripture says. (To be extra-inclusive, the text continues: “Let us be our sister’s keeper.” That’s not in Scripture either.) There are Scriptural references to bearing one another’s burdens that might point in that direction, but in the main that reference was just incorrect.

I remember hearing President Clinton give a speech in which he smashed two of the Beatitudes together; i.e., he joined the first half of one verse with the second half of another. It’s hard to tell if these kinds of thing are poetic license, laziness, ignorance, or a mild form of disrespect.

2. Historical ignorance, or ignoring history?

Senator Obama’s speech started with the opening of the Preamble: “We the people, in order to form a more perfect union.” The text continued,

Two hundred and twenty one years ago, in a hall that still stands across the street, a group of men gathered and, with these simple words, launched America’s improbable experiment in democracy. Farmers and scholars; statesmen and patriots who had traveled across an ocean to escape tyranny and persecution finally made real their declaration of independence at a Philadelphia convention that lasted through the spring of 1787.

Notwithstanding that many if not most of the delegates had been born in the colonies rather than having crossed the ocean to become colonists, this passage and the entire speech missed the key historical point that the Constitution did not “launch” our democratic experiment — it re-launched it. The “more perfect union” was specifically intended to be “more perfect” than the previous attempt; i.e., “more perfect” than the Articles of Confederation.

3. Words are important, as are the thoughts and actions behind them.

From an excellent commentary, “The Obama Bargain,” by Shelby Steele in The Wall Street Journal (emphasis in original),

… nothing could be more dangerous to Mr. Obama’s political aspirations than the revelation that he, the son of a white woman, sat Sunday after Sunday — for 20 years — in an Afrocentric, black nationalist church in which his own mother, not to mention other whites, could never feel comfortable. His pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, is a challenger who goes far past Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson in his anti-American outrage (“God damn America”).

How does one “transcend” race in this church? The fact is that Barack Obama has fellow-traveled with a hate-filled, anti-American black nationalism all his adult life, failing to stand and challenge an ideology that would have no place for his own mother. And what portent of presidential judgment is it to have exposed his two daughters for their entire lives to what is, at the very least, a subtext of anti-white vitriol?

So, what Senator Obama said in his long — very long — speech may have been noteworthy, but it doesn’t absolve us of the responsibility of looking beyond the words.

4. Eyewitnesses to history are just like eyewitnesses to any event: they see things differently.

Yesterday, on the 5th anniversary of the coalition’s invasion of Iraq, President Bush gave a speech at the Pentagon. He said “removing Saddam Hussein from power was the right decision,” that the success of recent operations marks “a major strategic victory in the broader war on terror,” and that “The costs are necessary when we consider the cost of a strategic victory for our enemies in Iraq.”

The same day, Senator Obama, front-runner for the Democratic nomination, gave a speech in Fayetteville, North Carolina. He said, “Here is the stark reality: there is a security gap in this country — a gap between the rhetoric of those who claim to be tough on national security, and the reality of growing insecurity caused by their decisions.” From those words, and his previous statements on the war, it seems clear why Senator Obama gave his talk near, but not at, Fort Bragg.

Senator Clinton, also in the running for the Democratic nomination, gave remarks to supporters and said, “We cannot win their civil war. There is no military solution.” Her remarks also wouldn’t go over well at a military base — which is probably the point.

In contrast, presumptive Republican nominee John McCain gave a statement that “Americans should be proud that they led the way in removing a vicious, predatory dictator and opening the possibility of a free and stable Iraq.”

It shouldn’t surprise us that folks looking at events from different ends of the political spectrum will see them in different ways. Be that as it may, it’s easy to tell, between the leading contenders for the Presidency, who has victory in mind.

Which leads finally to this: Presidential candidates who have no military experience need to understand a few things about the military.

1. We’re very dedicated to the well-being of the country, so much so that we put it ahead of our own (and often our families’).
2. We believe we’ve been fighting on the side of truth and justice; you’re welcome to believe otherwise, but don’t try to convince us we’ve been wrong and then say you’re the best person to lead us.
3. We don’t like to lose.

In other words, Senator Obama saying “I will end this war” (as quoted in this story) will never be as compelling to a military audience as saying, “We will do whatever it takes to win this war.”

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*For the uncertain, that’s a deliberate paraphrase of St. Paul. More an allusion than a quote, it works with or without attribution.

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