There are few moments in history as defining for a nation and the world as May 25, 1961. That's when President John F. Kennedy announced a plan to put a man on the Moon before the decade was over.
There was only a small problem: There was no plan.
Kennedy was talking in front of a special joint session of the US Congress. Back in NASA's headquarters, James Webb—the space agency's administrator—was probably feeling dizzy, thinking about the titanic challenge that was in front of him and his team—a tiny fraction of the 400,000 people that the Apollo program would employ in its heyday. Even while Webb had previously conceded to Kennedy that it could be done, the fact is that NASA had absolutely no idea how to put a man on the Moon. In fact, they couldn't even begin to imagine the scope of such an endeavor.
The proof is that their first estimated budget of seven billion dollars was changed to $20 billion after things started to clear up a bit—finally reaching a grand total of $25.4 billion in 1973. And that's just for the Apollo program. Add the Mercury and Gemini programs that had to happen before the first Saturn left the launch pad.
But it had to be done. The feeling worldwide was that the Soviets were way ahead in the space race, which was exactly right. Only twenty days before Kennedy's speech, NASA had launched Alan Shepard into space, the first US man to reach space. And, unlike Yuri Gagarin more than a month earlier, Shepard didn't even orbit Earth. He was just launched like a cannonball.
The United States couldn't afford a Red Moon. Even worse, Kennedy was also feeling the pressure from the Bay of Pigs fiasco, which happened about a month earlier. He needed a big announcement like this, even if it was something completely crazy in retrospect.
From that point, NASA had to develop everything from scratch, from the Saturn V rockets and the now iconic lander to entire computers and the method for manned orbital rendezvous. Imagine that. None of that technology existed. None of those procedures were known at the time. While all these things may seem like the most logical thing now, at the time they didn't know much about them. It all was stuff that belonged to science fiction comic books.
Kennedy made another beautiful speech at Rice University, in September 12, 1962. NASA was ramping up the effort, just having tested the Saturn C-1 engine for the first time. Earlier that year, they put John Glenn into orbit on board the Mercury spacecraft Friendship 7, a first for the United States. The Soviets were still winning. The most famous paragraph is this:
We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.
Going to the Moon with the Soviets
What is less known is that Kennedy actually proposed a joint lunar mission with the Soviet Union. It happened in a speech before the 18th General Assembly of the United Nations, in September 20, 1963:
Finally, in a field where the United States and the Soviet Union have a special capacity—in the field of space—there is room for new cooperation, for further joint efforts in the regulation and exploration of space. I include among these possibilities a joint expedition to the moon.
We don't know to what extent Kennedy was serious about that, but it obviously never happened and both countries kept their manic race to put their flags on our satellite. The United States won the race with months to spare. The final price tag was $195 billion in 2011 dollars and the life of three astronauts, the Apollo 1 crew. It was a stunning achievement. Something unparalleled in the history of humankind. The kind of adventure that inspired everyone around the world, that put the United States ahead in the technology race, with millions of kids signing up to be engineers, aspiring to be as great as the hundreds of thousands of heroes who put another a handful of heroes on the Lunar surface. In fact, you can argue that the US and the entire world are still riding the Apollo wave.
So celebrate this moment and celebrate this man, who inspired an entire country to achieve what was thought unachievable. No matter the reasons that lead to this adventure, no matter where you are from, May 25, 1961 is a date to be proud of, the day in which humankind really started the giant leap that Neil Armstrong talked about.
We can do with a lot more of that these days.