Forty years ago today most Americans and billions of other people worldwide sat on the edge of their seats in front of televisions as the Apollo 11 command module Columbia prepared to send its lunar module, Eagle, to the surface of the moon the next afternoon – humans’ first visit to another celestial body.
By late in the night on July 20, 1969, the first steps on the moon by humans, Astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, were carved boldly into history, the greatest scientific achievement ever.
That historic and heroic journey had started only eight years earlier at the behest of President John F. Kennedy. America was locked in the Cold War with the Soviet Union (today’s Russia, plus its satellite-nation empire), and the highest competition was for intellectual achievement to ensure both national security and scientific supremacy. The Soviets were ahead in some respects, and Kennedy wanted to stir our nation to unprecedented effort.
It is important to remember that Kennedy made his space program challenge in the context of a far-ranging, visionary speech containing elements of national policy still active four decades later, including the peaceful use of space and global scientific partnerships as nuturers of peace and liberty.
The essence of the speech most remembered is relatively brief:
“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 (Alan) 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. … 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.”
The Rover nuclear rocket wasn’t developed, but Kennedy’s vision and our national, almost spell-bound acceptance of a destiny to explore outer space still drives our scientific imagination.
We are preparing, with certainly less intensity, to return to the moon within 10 years.
The space program has an enormous sustained presence in Mississippi, at the Stennis Space Center in Hancock County on the Gulf Coast. Most of what eventually powers space flight first goes through testing in our state. It is a scientific institution of international stature.
All Mississippians derive direct benefit from spinoffs of space research, including weather satellites that provide life-saving early warning of hurricanes like Katrina and of weather systems that spawn the dreaded tornadoes during our state’s seasonal changes.
The three comprehensive universities – Mississippi State, the University of Mississippi, and Southern Mississippi – all engage in research directly related in some way to the space program, space medicine, and the information sciences necessary to go back to the moon and beyond.
What we need in greater strength is the national morale that accompanied the Apollo program and its goals.
NEMS Daily Journal