On September 11, 1962, President Kennedy visited the George C. Marshall Spaceflight Center where Dr. Wernher von Braun showed him a model of the Saturn C-5 rocket, the “vehicle designed to fulfill your promise to put a man on the moon by the end of this decade.” The next day, in an audacious speech at Rice University, the president marshaled the nation’s resolve to accomplish just that.
“We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard…”
The times were uncertain. Differences between the United States and the Soviet Union played out in a cold war that was a constant presence, propelling the intense rivalry that resulted in Neil Armstrong’s iconic moment as the first human to step on to the surface of the Moon.
“…that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win…”
Kennedy’s speech became the pivot for the development of the technology necessary to achieve his goals in the unforgiving and harsh frontier of space.
“We have vowed that we shall not see space filled with weapons of mass destruction, but with instruments of knowledge and understanding.”
Ultimately it led to cooperation, and the realization that the promise of rapidly emerging technology can only be fully realized through collaboration. Today, six humans from three different countries are living and working onboard the International Space Station and serve as ambassadors of all people of Earth. I was personally affected from the technology that grew out of President Kennedy’s speech when I had the privilege of traveling to the ISS twice, launching in 2008 as part of an international crew onboard the American Space Shuttle Discovery, and then launching in 2011 as part of an international crew onboard a Russian Soyuz spacecraft. During the 164 days of my second mission, I spent much of my free time documenting what I saw 250 miles below.
As I looked back at our home, I faced the sobering contradiction of the incredible beauty of our planet with the unfortunate realities of life for a significant number of Earth’s inhabitants. I launched into space with the belief that we have sufficient technology and resources to solve many, if not all, the problems facing our planet. During my time in space I often found myself contemplating the question, if we have ample technology and resources to solve problems facing our world, why do so many problems remain? I tried to capture what I believe is the answer to this question in this video:
The technological benefits provided by the space program and international cooperation are such an integral part of our daily lives on Earth, it is hard to comprehend just how bold President Kennedy’s challenge to go to Moon was 50 years ago. Think about it, we had barley stuck our toe in the ocean of space, we had not even learned to stand, yet but we were going to sprint.
“But if I were to say, my fellow citizens, that we shall send to the moon, 240,000 miles away from the control station in Houston, a giant rocket more than 300 feet tall, the length of this football field, made of new metal alloys, some of which have not yet been invented, capable of standing heat and stresses several times more than have ever been experienced, fitted together with a precision better than the finest watch, carrying all the equipment needed for propulsion, guidance, control, communications, food and survival, on an untried mission, to an unknown celestial body, and then return it safely to earth, re-entering the atmosphere at speeds of over 25,000 miles per hour, causing heat about half that of the temperature of the sun–almost as hot as it is here today–and do all this, and do it right, and do it first before this decade is out–then we must be bold.”
The problems facing us all today require the same boldness that was required to reach the Moon and return to Earth safely. Fifty years ago, before President Kennedy left Marshall Spaceflight Center for Rice University, Dr. Braun turned to him and said, “By God, we’ll do it.”
Solving the problems facing our world requires that we all stand together and refuse to accept the status quo on our planet. It requires that we all commit to work together so that our planet is not only visibly beautiful, but a planet where life is also beautiful for all. In the spirit of boldness that brought humans to another world, let us all work hard to set aside our differences and work together toward our common goals.
“Many years ago the great British explorer George Mallory, who was to die on Mount Everest, was asked why did he want to climb it. He said, “Because it is there.” Well, space is there, and we’re going to climb it, and the moon and the planets are there, and new hopes for knowledge and peace are there. And, therefore, as we set sail we ask God’s blessing on the most hazardous and dangerous and greatest adventure on which man has ever embarked.” President John F. Kennedy
Johnson Space Center