By late May of 1961, the United States had launched one man into space — on a 15-minute hop into the Atlantic Ocean. And American spacecraft hadn’t been able to even hit the Moon, much less study it. Even so, on May 25th, President John F. Kennedy set a new goal for the space program:
KENNEDY: 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.
Kennedy didn’t establish that goal for science. In fact, he wasn’t interested in the science at all. Instead, he was trying to improve American standing in the Cold War.
Space was playing a key propaganda role in that war. The Soviet Union had scored several big “firsts” in space exploration. It sent the first man into orbit, and took the first pictures of the far side of the Moon. That earned it bragging rights about Soviet technology and its way of doing things — boosting Soviet standing among other nations.
So Kennedy sought a major new goal for the American space program. He wasn’t looking for something immediate, though. Instead, he wanted a goal that would be difficult, take years to accomplish, and be spectacular — all in full view of the world.
That goal was achieved 50 years ago this week, with the flight of Apollo 11. We’ll have more about that tomorrow.
Script by Damond Benningfield