Posted by: Ed Darrell | May 1, 2012

President Kennedy’s speech at Rice University, September 1962: “We choose to go to the Moon.”

John F. Kennedy at Rice University, Houston, Texas, Sept 12, 1962 - photo from NASA

John F. Kennedy at Rice University, Houston, Texas, Sept 12, 1962 - photo from NASA

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.

President John F. Kennedy, September 12, 1962, at Rice University, Houston, Texas

Why this speech in Houston? There’s more here than just a speech in a football stadium. Kennedy was working to save the space initiative, and to make America more secure.

In this quest, Kennedy lays out the reasons we need strong science research programs funded by our federal government, and strong science educational achievement in all of our schools.

From the White House History Association:

Race to the Moon

President John F. Kennedy (1961-1963) awoke on April 12, 1961, to the news that the Soviet Union had won the race to put a man into space. Kennedy immediately met with Vice President Lyndon Johnson in the White House to discuss the embarrassment of the Soviets beating America again. “Can we put a man on the moon before them?” Kennedy asked. A few weeks later, Kennedy challenged the nation to “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 challenged Congress and the imaginations of all Americans a few weeks later, when on May 25, in a special Joint Session of Congress, he proposed a Moon exploration program. In a speech outlining defense and foreign policy needs to make the U.S. secure and safe against threats from Soviet communism, or any other nation or faction, Kennedy spoke openly about the space race that had been waged since October 4, 1957, when the Soviet Union became the first nation on Earth to orbit an artificial satellite, Sputnik.

Kennedy told Congress in that part of the speech:

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.

(Here’s a link to an audio excerpt of that speech, from the Kennedy Library.)

The race was on. The Soviet Union’s massive rocket engines gave them a decided advantage. Kennedy’s challenge captured the imagination of Americans and America. Necessary money flowed from Congress, but not in a completely free flow. Some opposed the nation’s efforts in space exploration because they thought spending on space exploration detracted from the nation’s defense efforts. Kennedy continued to stress the connection between space exploration and defense. He was backed by successes — Navy Commander Alan Shepard, Jr., had successfully launched into space and returned safely; and on February 20, 1962, pilot Marine Capt. John Glenn orbited the Earth three times, catching the U.S. up almost to where the Soviet Union was in manned space exploration.

Kennedy understood that constant attention, constant selling of the space program would be necessary. So in September 1962 he found himself in Houston, the newly-designated home of the manned space program, and he took the opportunity to cast the American goals in the space race as peaceful, good for all mankind, and definitely worth the massive costs.

Notice how he casts putting a human on the Moon in league with other great achievements of civilization. Kennedy was truly shooting for the stars.

Notice also how he relates space exploration to practical applications then in existence, such as communication, navigation of ships at sea, and weather forecasting. This was years before geosynchronus satellites were used for everyday telephone conversations, years before quantum theory was harnessed for Global Positioning Systems (GPS) and digital personal, handheld telephones, and before the newly-invented printed circuits were miniaturized to make computer calculating a possibility in space — the Moon landing was done with slide rules and hand calculations.

Just over 14 months later Kennedy would die in Texas, in Dallas, on November 22, 1963. On July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed the Eagle Lunar Module on the Moon, at the Sea of Tranquility. A few hours later, on July 21, they stepped out on the Moon. From Kennedy’s speech to Congress, the task had taken 8 years, one month and 26 days.

More resources:

Flash of the old Wayback’s colored lights,  for inspiration, to “Anything You Ever Wanted to Know” at KERA-FM 90.1 in Dallas, on July 24, 2009.

Buzz Aldrin on the Moon, with Neil Armstrong, the U.S. flag, and the Eagle Lunar Module reflected in his helmet visor, July 21, 1969 - NASA photo via Wikimedia

Buzz Aldrin on the Moon, with Neil Armstrong, the U.S. flag, and the Eagle Lunar Module reflected in his helmet visor, July 21, 1969 - NASA photo via Wikimedia


  1. Aside from the fact that this was a history making event, another reason why it was such a big deal is because of the fact that it was televised. The media being involved in things this is what made it so dramatic. For example, the reason why there was such a problem with the draft during the Vietnam War was because parents, wives, and the whole country had to witness the horror of war right in their living room. Ultimately, this resulted in the cultural revolution during that time period.

    • Perhaps A cultural revolution. (“The Cultural Revolution” usually refers to the Communist Chinese Cultural Revolution, of a few years later). ;-)

      Interesting that you think this speech’s being televised played a role. I don’t think it was televised live outside of Houston, Texas. Surely it was available for the news programs — but I wonder whether it actually was broadcast into most living rooms.

      Where could we check that out? Newseum, maybe?

      A key reason it was such a dramatic undertaking is because, televised or not, it captured the imaginations of millions of Americans. Performance psychologist Charles Garfield — who worked for Grumman Aircraft on the Lunar Excursion Module — said that humans had dreamed of going to the Moon for thousands of years, but this really very tiny band of Americans actually did it. I remember that in our elementary school, most kids hoped they’d get a chance to actually go to the Moon in our lifetimes (not likely now, is it).

      Kennedy was always good on TV, though, wasn’t he?

  2. Why did it take so many years for them to go out to the moon after kennedy gave the speech that they were going to the moon? Shouldnt da government just waited to announce it after they had everything ready?

    • The moon project was a huge undertaking — about ten years, was what the experts told Kennedy it would take.

      That’s more than Kennedy’s term.

      The project required the buy-in of hundreds of Members of Congress in the House and the Senate, to appropriate the money to do it.

      And the intent of the announcement was to create a superordinate goal for the country to focus on.

      So, it would have been impossible to do it in secret, and do it right; and one of the intended results was to get people excited about working to go to the Moon.

      Government in secret is inherently difficult, and inherently prone to corruption. Non-corrupt governments don’t do things in secret. That was another key intention of the announcement, to highlight the differences between western democracies, which do things in the open, and communist governments like the Soviet Union, which do things in secret to keep people unaware and to hide problems.

  3. Good article but contains several technical errors:

    “The Soviet Union’s massive rocket engines gave them a decided advantage.” — False. Design work on the gigantic F-1 engine which powered the Saturn V began in 1958, and the F-1 was successfully test-fired in April 1961 (over one year before JFK’s Rice Univ. Speech). The knowledge that this critical component had been successfully tested may have contributed to Kennedy’s aggressive speech. It was the Soviet Union’s *lack* of large engine expertise which contributed to the failure of their N1 booster.

    “the Moon landing was done with slide rules and hand calculations”. False. The Lunar Module was a computerized fly-by-wire vehicle, where all pilot actions (even in manual control) were processed and implemented by computer. It had two separate on-board computerized guidance systems, in case one failed.

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