Two speeches from the 1960’s bookend the 50th anniversary of the Moon Landing. One given and one not given.
President John F. Kennedy (JFK) launched the moon landing program in a May 1961 speech to Congress with this call to action: “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.”
The previous month had been a challenging one for the new Kennedy administration. The Soviet Union achieved the first orbital space flight on April 12, 1961. A few days later, the Bay of Pigs invasion of Communist Cuba failed. In May 1961, JFK called a joint session of Congress to present a speech entitled “Special Message to the Congress on Urgent National Needs." The address lasted about 45 minutes and included ten separate sections. In the first eight sections, he described various programs and needs including Vietnam and the Cold War; programs to lower unemployment; requests for increased economic and military foreign aid; funding for foreign language broadcasts to offset Soviet propaganda; and higher military and Civil defense spending.
One of the last sections of the speech was on the space program. The Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union was a significant rationale for the program. At the time, this war was a battle between Capitalism and Communism. Kennedy believed that achievements in space mattered in this contest. Countries would use success in space as a measuring stick for the American or Soviet systems. As he stated: “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.”
Kennedy acknowledged the head start achieved by the Soviets. He described the challenge facing the country: “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.” JFK laid out a multi-year multi-billion dollar program.
The concluding section of the speech started with: “It is not a pleasure for any President of the United States…to come before the Congress and ask for new appropriations which place burdens on our people.” JFK said the expenditures were necessary to defend freedom and peace. And he believed the American people would support these programs. Congress voted to fund the program.
Eight years later, Apollo 11 launched in July 1969. The margin of error for the Lunar Landing was slim. Astronaut Neil Armstrong manually piloted the ship past the original landing area which was littered with rocks. Armstrong landed with less than one minute of fuel left. Before the flight, Armstrong was asked by a journalist whether he would take any personal mementos to the Moon. His answer: “If I had a choice, I would take more fuel.” Many adverse events could have occurred, either during the landing, once on the ground, or when leaving the moon: a small meteorite causing a leak; an electrical malfunction, an engine failure, etc. There was no way to rescue the astronauts from any of these problems.
Imagine the worst had happened, and a failure had stranded the astronauts on the moon. They are still alive, with no chance of leaving the moon, doomed to die as soon as their life support runs out. Michael Collins, the astronaut in lunar orbit in the Command Module wrote: "My secret terror for the last six months has been leaving them on the Moon and returning to Earth alone…if they fail to rise from the surface or crash back into it, I am not going to commit suicide; I am coming home, forthwith, but I will be a marked man for life, and I know it."
President Nixon prepared a contingency speech in case of disaster.
The speech starts:
“Fate has ordained that the men who went to the moon to explore in peace will stay on the moon to rest in peace.
These brave men, Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin, know that there is no hope for their recovery. But they also know that there is hope for mankind in their sacrifice.
These two men are laying down their lives in mankind's most noble goal: the search for truth and understanding.
They will be mourned by their families and friends; they will be mourned by their nation; they will be mourned by the people of the world; they will be mourned by a Mother Earth that dared send two of her sons into the unknown.”
The short speech ended with this sentence:
“For every human being who looks up at the moon in the nights to come will know that there is some corner of another world that is forever mankind.”
Thankfully, that speech was not necessary - never delivered. The successful moon landing and safe return of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin marked the successful completion of the goal set by President John F. Kennedy earlier in the decade.
Eight years elapsed between JFK’s May 1961 speech launching the moon program, and July 1969 when the success of Apollo 11 made Nixon’s contingency speech unnecessary. A spectacular achievement we can all be proud of.