JFK at Rice University

U.S. President John F. Kennedy speaks at the Rice University football stadium on Sept. 12, 1962, telling 40,000 people, "We choose to go to the Moon!"

(EDITOR'S NOTE: This is Part 1 of a 3-part series that looks at the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. Parts 2 and Part 3 publish Friday and Saturday, respectively).

On July 20, 1969, U.S. astronaut Neil Armstrong, an Ohio native, became the first man to step on the surface of the moon -- almost 50 years ago today.

As he stepped from the final rung of the lunar lander, an action witnessed on a Sunday night by a worldwide audience hanging on every second, Armstrong offered his famous words, "That's one small step for man ... one giant leap for mankind."

The global race to land a man on the moon was over. The United States had won.

Its technology, daring and sacrifice topped the former Soviet Union and all global contenders who may have had designs on being first to the lifeless moon 238,900 miles from Earth.

But how did it happen? Where did it begin? And how did the United States emerge the victor?

SPUTNIK: The actual race began in earnest in 1957 when the Russians successfully launched the first artificial satellite, Sputnik 1.

The U.S. government watched in shock, a morose that deepened on April 12, 1961, when Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space -- well before any U.S. Project Mercury astronauts were prepared to challenge.

New President John F. Kennedy, who took office less than three months before Gagarin went into space, knew space exploration was vital to the nation -- and to the nation's collective psyche and confidence.

The United States launched Project Mercury in 1958 with a goal of putting a man in orbit, which it accomplished when astronaut John Glenn circled the globe in February 1962. However, Glenn's orbit came almost a year after Gagarin.

Kennedy tabbed Vice President Lyndon Johnson to identify a space achievement the U.S. could accomplish BEFORE the Soviet Union -- putting an orbiting lab in space, orbiting a man around the moon or landing a man on the moon.

Kennedy also wanted to know the costs of these missions.

Kennedy and Glenn

Astronaut John Glenn, standing next to his Friendship 7 capsule in which he made his historic orbital flight, meets with President John F. Kennedy. Mrs. Glenn stands next to her husband. Earlier that day, Feb. 23, 1962, President Kennedy presented the NASA Distinguished Service Award to Glenn.

Johnson spoke with new NASA Administrator James Webb, who said the best option to beat the Russians would be to land a man on the moon. The effort carried a projected price tag of $24 billion to achieve it by 1970 -- roughly $180 billion in today's world.

NASA's budget went up 89 percent the first year and 101 percent the year after as scientists leaned into their work.

Armed with the recommendation, and the input of legendary rocket engineer Wernher von Braun, Kennedy appeared before Congress on May 25, 1961. The German-born von Braun ultimately became the chief architect of the Saturn V super heavy-lift launch vehicle that propelled the Apollo spacecraft to the moon -- and back.

Kennedy said the U.S. "should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth."

Kennedy von Braun

President John F. Kennedy and Dr. Wernher von Braun tour one of the laboratories at Marshall Space Flight Center, Sept. 11, 1962.

It wasn't a popular political move. One national poll showed 58 percent of Americans were against it after Kennedy announced it.

The president's decision suddenly provided a specific mission for NASA, expanding its footprint in Florida and into Houston. Kennedy went to Texas in September 1962 to view the new facility and visit with Mercury astronauts like Scott Carpenter and John Glenn.

The president knew he had to continue to sell his vision to the skeptical American public. Toward that end, Kennedy delivered a fiery speech on Sept. 12 before 40,000 people at the Rice University football stadium. An oft-quoted section of the speech included:

"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. For space science, like nuclear science and all technology, has no conscience on its own.

"Whether it will become a force for good or ill depends on man, and only if the United States occupies a position of pre-eminence can we help decide whether this new ocean will be a sea of peace or a new terrifying theater of war.

"I do not say that we should or will go unprotected against the hostile misuse of space any more than we go unprotected against the hostile use of land or sea, but I do say space can be explored and mastered without feeding the fires of war, without repeating the mistakes that man has made in extending his writ around this globe of ours.

"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 may 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 ... 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 we intend to win, and the others, too."

Again, Kennedy's grand plans didn't sit well with many Americans, who believed the billions could be better spent here in the United States on terra firma.

Former President Dwight Eisenhower reportedly said the plan "to spend $40 billion to reach the moon is just nuts." Sen. Barry Goldwater argued the civilian space program was being pushed at the expense of the military. Sen. William Proxmire said he feared scientists would be diverted from military research into space work.

Kennedy's energetic, powerful and popular voice carried the day. A cut to NASA's budget by Congress was narrowly averted.

Kennedy spoke to the United Nations on Sept. 20, 1963, and proposed a joint mission to the moon with the Soviet Union. Russian leaders were cool to the idea, saying they had no lunar plans. Any joint mission died with Kennedy when he was assassinated Nov. 22, 1963.

His death spelled the end to any joint mission, but the Apollo Project became a memorial to his legacy and there were no further questions about it. Kennedy's dream would be fulfilled.

Project Gemini and then Apollo were go for lift-off.

(Tomorrow: Apollo got the U.S. to the moon and back, but it was not an easy trip.)

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