60 Years Later, JFK’s Moonshot Beckons Us To American Risk

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Sixty years ago today at this very moment, in a rare midday joint session address to Congress, President John F. Kennedy set an incredible goal for the nation. He announced to the body that “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. We propose to accelerate the development of the appropriate lunar spacecraft. We propose to develop alternate liquid and solid fuel boosters, much larger than any now being developed, until certain which is superior. We propose additional funds for other engine development and for unmanned explorations — explorations which are particularly important for one purpose which this nation will never overlook: the survival of the man who first makes this daring flight. 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.”

It’s worth your time to watch the speech, and not just for the amusement of Lyndon B. Johnson working so hard to make sure he is in every frame, at times looking like he’s ready to climb into Sam Rayburn’s lap. It seems like it comes not just from a different time but from a different country.

In his call for a project of immense national import, President Kennedy comes across as the leader of a free people, committing us to a clear-eyed task of achieving something that seemed utterly impossible. He has none of the lecturing attitude of philosopher king wannabe Barack Obama, the bombast of a reality show star like Donald Trump, or the weary old man anger of Joe Biden. Instead of patronizing the audience or handing out tax largesse, he walks Americans through an issue with clear language to explain why it’s important. He speaks to them as citizens, not subjects.

Kennedy called us to undertake the moonshot as a free people, for the good of all mankind. Such a national mega-project commitment with a nine-year horizon is basically unthinkable today. The politics of the 1960s allowed for it, but those of today do not. To grasp how significant this project was, consider this passage from Buckminster Fuller’s “Critical Path”:

A critical path develops an exhaustive list of all that has to be accomplished in order to arrive successfully at a given objective theretofore never reached. The Apollo Project was the official name of the undertaking that was to ferry humans over to and land them on the Moon and return them safely to mother — Spaceship Earth.

The critical-path organization of the Apollo Project disclosed some two million tasks that had to be successfully accomplished before the human astronauts were to be returned safely to Spaceship Earth. NASA’s Apollo management then put a scientifically and technically competent control group to work to identify all the approximately two million tasks, a million of which required technological performances the design, production, and successful operation of which had never before been undertaken by humans.

This isn’t just a president taking on a risky aim. He’s taking on an impossible aim, or one that would today seem impossible — involving a million new tasks, never before undertaken or successfully executed!

For a president to give such a speech today, every turn would emphasize the needs of a particular constituency — assuring people that the contractor jobs building rockets would be good-paying union jobs, that hiring would be done based on historical equity not racist math, and that of course, we’ll get all the necessary permissions from the United Nations, the EU, and the WHO about the health and environmental ramifications of rocket fumes.

And of course, the speech would be picked apart as sacrificing science on the altar of Cold War political victories. The press would denounce it. Why not spend that money on the ground, on people who need it, instead of some far-fetched vision of putting a man on the moon? They’d call it propaganda instead of idealism. And they’d probably be quoting anonymous sources from inside NASA disputing the president’s aim as foolhardy. From Larry Schweikart and Michael Allen’s “A Patriot’s History of the United States”:

Kennedy hardly held a more idealistic position. Newly released tapes from the Kennedy library of a key 1962 discussion with NASA administrator James Webb revealed that Webb repeatedly resisted Kennedy’s efforts to turn the U.S. space program into a narrowly focused lunar expedition. Another legend soon exploded—that of Kennedy’s great vision in putting a man on the moon. JFK wanted a propaganda victory, pure and simple: “Everything we do [in space] ought to be tied into getting to the moon ahead of the Russians.” He then laid it on the table for the NASA administrator, saying that beating the Russians to the moon “is the top priority of the [space] agency and … except for defense, the top priority of the United States government.”

There’s another troublesome aspect to consider. The Apollo mega-project was primarily a civilian operation — with the exception of the astronauts themselves, who were drawn mostly from the military. Today, such an undertaking would almost certainly be handed to the Armed Forces, with a flag officer placed in charge. (See, for example, the use of generals for running both Operation Warp Speed — our generals are good at everything, it seems, but winning wars.)

What does that say about the state of the republic — one where our trust for every major institution with the exception of the military has decayed beyond the point of usefulness in audacious endeavors?

This isn’t to say we don’t have the private sector capacity to do things like this. While NASA still serves an important function, the private sector has taken over the true moonshot engineering tasks, to the great benefit of the space program. NASA, after all, isn’t fundamental science — it’s not primarily a research agency studying the universe, it’s an engineering company attached to the federal government. But it’s also a sad reminder of what was supposed to happen following the fulfillment of Kennedy’s vision, and what happened instead.

You see, Apollo was supposed to be a beginning, not an end: NASA’s Space Task Group by 1969 envisioned the first phase of Apollo setting up permanent, but not permanently manned, shelters on the Moon by 1973. Permanent lunar habitation, likely with supporting space-station infrastructure, was envisioned by 1980. A Mars expedition, building on the lunar experience, was slated for 1983.

Instead of this steady American progress toward the colonization of the Solar System, the Nixon administration killed the final three Apollo missions, and diverted remaining funds into low-Earth orbit missions, where we’ve stayed for most of the past half-century.

Perhaps the best lesson to take away from this historical anniversary, then, is less about what America has lost in our institutions or our ambitions over the past 60 years, and more what could be regained with a return to a form of leadership that tolerates and accepts political risk as part of what is demanded of them.

Risk is not something we handle well as Americans these days — the pandemic surely proved that point better than anything else could. But it’s not just fear in the face of disease. We live in a country where kids don’t want to get drivers licenses, where our schools can’t fail kids for giving the wrong answers, where teachers refuse to teach even with precautions and vaccinations, and where local authorities won’t put down riots.

Kennedy called the nation to dare. Men died as a result. We pushed forward. As Mollie Hemingway wrote seven years ago in a piece titled simply “We Need To Get More Comfortable With People Dying In Space”:

We have forgotten that no frontier has been opened without tremendous loss of life.

Ferdinand Magellan’s attempt to circumnavigate the globe began with a crew of 270 on five ships. Only one ship and 18 crew members made it. Over 85 percent died in battles, mutiny, sickness and various other calamities. Magellan himself didn’t make it!

Scientists attempting to advance human understanding of biomedicine, radiation, and electricity died from their tests.

The first English settlement in what became the United States — Roanoke Island — was a complete failure. More than half the members of the second — the Jamestown Colony — died within eight months of launching. Many Irish citizens fleeing The Hunger didn’t even survive the voyage West.

The same can be said for efforts at improving transport. Whether it was the steam engine or the beginning of air travel, significant advances brought terrible tragedies and loss of life.

I’m not dismissing the sadness of it all. The father of one of my brother’s best friends died testing the Stealth fighter. He left behind a beautiful wife and four children who grieve his death daily. A civilized society is one that cares deeply about the loss of life and views every death as a tragedy. But a society that doesn’t let kids mow lawns until they’re 18 and wearing steel-tipped shoes and protective polycarbonate eyewear is one that has completely messed up the risk-reward calculation.

It’s one thing for a single daredevil, or even 20, to take on such risk. It’s a lot more for a country to do so. In Kennedy’s framing 60 years ago, our common identity as Americans is what unites us. Rather than stoke the divisions of race or class, he focuses our energies toward an incredible goal. Rather than a series of apologies and handwringing over sins of the past, or any lack of clarity about our foe in the Soviets, Kennedy’s message was that unity in our American ethos can launch us to the stars.

The American spirit is still there. It still beats in the heart of this great nation. But we need to honor it, and unite around it, again. And that will require more than just a fine speech from a politician. It will require something of you, as well.

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