On this day May 25, 1961

During a speech to a joint session of the United States Congress, U.S. President John F. Kennedy announced his support for the Apollo space program, with “the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth”.

Kennedy_Moon_speech_25_May_1961On April 12, 1961, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first man to fly in space, reinforcing American fears about being left behind in a technological competition with the Soviet Union.

At a meeting of the U.S. House Committee on Science and Astronautics held only one day after Gagarin’s flight, many congressmen pledged their support for a crash program aimed at ensuring that America would catch up.

Kennedy, however, was circumspect in his response to the news, refusing to make a commitment on America’s response to the Soviets. On April 20 Kennedy sent a memo to Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson, asking Johnson to look into the status of America’s space program, and into programs that could offer NASA the opportunity to catch up.

Johnson responded on the following day, concluding that “we are neither making maximum effort nor achieving results necessary if this country is to reach a position of leadership.” His memo concluded that a manned moon landing was far enough in the future to make it possible that the United States could achieve it first.

On May 25, 1961, Kennedy announced his support for the Apollo program as part of a special address to a joint session of Congress:

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 in the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish.

John F. Kennedy

At the time of Kennedy’s speech, only one American had flown in space — less than a month earlier — and NASA had not yet sent a man into orbit. Even some NASA employees doubted whether Kennedy’s ambitious goal could be met.

Answering President Kennedy’s challenge and landing men on the moon by the end of 1969 required the most sudden burst of technological creativity, and the largest commitment of resources ($25 billion), ever made by any nation in peacetime. At its peak, the Apollo program employed 400,000 people and required the support of over 20,000 industrial firms and universities.

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