[Rather than doing my usual Astro-Lesson, today marks a historic event, although it is still educational.]
|President Kennedy Addressing Congress. (Source)|
On May 25, 1961, President John F. Kennedy gave the 'Decision to Go to the Moon' speech before a Joint Session of Congress. It announced the ambitious goal of safely sending and returning an American to the Moon before the end of the decade.
Kennedy's decision and timing of announcement was influenced by political factors. At the time the United States felt greatly embarrassed to be losing the space race. In the four years after the Sputnik flew in 1957, the Soviet Union managed to get the first human into space, cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, on April 12, 1961. On May 5, the first American, astronaut Alan Shepard, made it into space. Unlike Gagarin, Shepard did not orbit the Earth, completing a suborbital flight.
The U.S. needed a program that they had a strong chance of at achieving before the Soviets. Kennedy consulted with Vice President Johnson, NASA Administrator James Webb, and other officials, concluding on the Moon. Landing an American on the Moon had the potential to push the U.S. to the lead in space exploration.
The technological feat would be most challenging in human history, only the Manhattan Project and the construction of the Panama Canal are comparable. The enormous expenditures and human efforts were deliberated on carefully before being made public, leading to the reality of Project Apollo in 1969.
Kennedy's words would guide NASA's overall human spaceflight efforts. The later half of Project Mercury, Project Gemini, and Project Apollo were all designed to this goal. His goal was achieved on July 20, 1969, when Apollo 11 commander Neil Armstrong stepped off the Lunar Module's ladder and onto the Moon's surface.
Men would return the Moon five more times through the early 70s, on Apollos 12, 14, 15, 16, and 17. (13 malfunctioned and did not land.) The six missions that landed on the Moon returned a wealth of scientific data and almost 400 kilograms of lunar samples. Experiments included soil mechanics, meteoroids, seismic, heat flow, lunar ranging, magnetic fields, and solar wind experiments.
I listened to the roughly 45 minute speech last night, and was blown away. (You can also read the transcript in the link.) There was a lot more discussed then just the race to the Moon, it is a study in American politics at the time. The funny thing is how little things have changed, replace the words 'communists' and 'Soviets' with 'terrorists' and 'al-Queda' and you almost have a speech for modern America.
The most impressive part is Kennedy's words on space exploration, which come late in the speech. His enthusiasm is palpable and impressive. You can feel that this was the right decision for the nation, something we could do, something to be proud of, despite all the hurdles that would have to be cleared.
More over, even though this was program was framed during the cold war, and the context of most of the speech belongs there, this was a human achievement. It reflects tenacity of the entire human race, our drive for exploration and pushing onto new frontiers, expanding our boundaries. In less than 70 years of flight, we had reached the Moon. For the first time in the history of Earth, life had visited another celestial body. It was a pretty good start.
Since then it has been a bit sad that we haven't physically continued this trend. We have tread cautiously into space, with the use of probes and robots. In the context of the Universe, the Moon isn't even very far. But our mechanical messengers and explorers have dominated the Solar System. We have visited every planet and studied them closely, we are now studied major small Solar System objects; this includes Pluto with New Horizons and Ceres and Vesta with Dawn. The Voyager 1 & 2 probes are about to leave the comfort of our Sun, passing into interstellar space.
We have come to a point in 50 years of knowing an immense amount about our Solar System, and even our Universe. We are now getting ready to tread out into those waters again, to reach new frontiers and vistas. NASA, in the last day, has released more information on the new crew spacecraft vehicle, dubbed the Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV). (read more on it here) With the shuttles retiring, the world looks to NASA for the next step in human history. This new spacecraft is being designed with future missions in mind, these include returning to the Moon, supporting the International Space Station, an asteroid mission, and eventually reaching Mars.
The space age is not over, it has just begun.