The audacity of President Kennedy’s 1962 pledge to send Americans to the moon before the decade was over is almost forgotten today. To go to the moon, we would have to revolutionize computer technology, built rockets no one had built before, and send astronauts into an environment we knew nothing about. But we did it, in an event often called the biggest accomplishment of the 20th century. Fifty years later, it’s hard to recall what those days were really like. Each step of the space program’s progress got publicity, but the American people weren’t really on board with it until the moon landing drew near- they were more concerned with Vietnam and the unrest surrounding the Civil Rights movement. Most people thought the moon shot wasn’t worth the money. A senator polled the American Astronomical Society and found only about a third of the astronomers thought the moon mission had “great scientific value.” But what about President Kennedy? Not long after Kennedy gave his famous speech at Rice University, he held a cabinet meeting that included NASA officials to work out the budgeting and schedule for such a mission.
The president was being as clear as he possibly could. It was fine to fly to the Moon, but the point of such urgency—the tripling of NASA’s budget in just two years—was to reach the Moon before the Russians. It didn’t seem clear to the people in the White House cabinet room that day, but the only reason they were there at all was that Kennedy needed to beat the Russians. Not because he needed to fly to the Moon.
“Otherwise, we shouldn’t be spending this kind of money, because I’m not that interested in space.”
Prominent scientists and even former president Eisenhower bemoaned the NASA spending that could have been used for something else. Despite the lack of enthusiasm for the moon mission, NASA accomplished the impossible anyway. Oh, there’s a lot more about the Apollo 11 mission that will probably be new to you in an excerpt from the forthcoming book ONE GIANT LEAP: The Impossible Mission That Flew Us to the Moon by Charles Fishman, at Smithsonian.