Race to the Moon
Reflections on ambition and perseverance 50 years later
PHOTOS COURTESY MUSEUM/&LIBRARY KENNEDY F. JOHN AND NASA IT WAS A BOLD MOVE ON THAT LATE SPRING day half a century ago, when President John F. Kennedy, only four days shy of his 44th birthday, looked to the skies to define our future.
Embarrassed by a communist regime that put a man in orbit before the U.S. could even manage a sub-orbital space shot with Commander Alan Shepard Jr. perched atop a Redstone rocket, the president redefined the playing field.
He did it 50 years ago, on Thursday, May 25, 1961.
“I was at home in my mother’s house, watching television,” recalls Joel Kessler, the vibrant executive director of The Von Liebig Art Center in Naples, who grew up in New York City.
“I remember watching the speech and feeling this incredible sense of pride — especially because the Russians had just sent Yuri Gagarin up there. We were so far ahead of them in so much, and yet they did this before us.”
Above: After lifting off from the lunar surface, the LM made its rendezvous with the Command Module. The Eagle docked with the Command Module, and the lunar samples were brought aboard. The LM was left behind in lunar orbit while the three astronauts returned in the Columbia to the blue planet in the background.
NASA/COURTESY PHOTOS Addressing a joint session of Congress, the president announced that the United States would seek to reach the moon by the end of the decade (even though historians point to Mr. Kennedy’s private doubts).
That American moment remains a paradox: fragrant with hope, but fraught with deep anxiety about the Soviets, who not only preceded us into space, but tested the largest hydrogen bomb ever created in the same year.
In Charlotte, Collier and Lee counties, the technological mindset of most citizens remained earthbound. A significant number of the region’s roughly 75,000 residents may have figured that air conditioning in a private home and mosquito control on a summer night represented the apex of a technologically advanced civilization.
Left: Commander Neil A. Armstrong, Command Module pilot Michael Collins, Lunar Module pilot Edwin E. Aldrin Jr., the crew of Apollo 11, on May 1, 1969. After all, those extraordinary luxuries had become available only within the previous 12 to 24 months in Southwest Florida.
Meanwhile, and in spite of a misstep known as the Bay of Pigs, life was good for many people. The prophetic and driven businessman Ray Kroc had already established more than 200 McDonald’s franchises in the country, where patrons could get French fries for a dime, a hamburger for 15 cents, or a milkshake for 20 cents.
Rudolph Nureyev, the great Russian ballet master, defected to the West. Black “Freedom Riders” climbed on buses and rode through the South, demanding civil rights.
WALKER President Kennedy created the Peace Corps, Roger Maris would break Babe Ruth’s single-season home run record in the fall by hitting 61 home runs without steroids (but with extra games in the schedule), and Chubby Checker would hit the top of the charts with “The Twist.” A 12-ounce box of Kellogg’s cornflakes would hit 23 cents, according to www.foodtimeline.org.
Late in the year 1961, a Korean War veteran and Navy pilot named Neil Armstrong would even fly the X-15 fast enough to break the speed record for rocket-powered aircraft.
But all of that offered little solace to the nation’s leaders in Washington.
Many who live here now remember well the moment President Kennedy set a new course, in part because of what happened later, they say: Not only the greatest American success since the winning of World War II and perhaps ever in the annals of scientific exploration, but a culture and a people that redefined itself.
KESSLER After Neil Armstrong’s one small step on Jan. 20, 1969, the United States created technologies and abilities undreamt of before the lunar landing.
“There were significant gains in knowledge about health and in scientific research which have led to numerous benefits in many areas of our lives,” notes Dr. Ken Walker, president of Edison State College.
At the time President Kennedy outlined his challenge to the American people, Dr. Walker was just starting his educational career as a political science teacher at Odessa Junior College, in Texas. The president’s announcement moved him deeply, he recalls.
“I found his speech to be visionary and uplifting in spirit. It helped pull our nation together in support of a goal that was beyond our imagination, but exciting to think about.”
GLENN IN 1961 The cost finally to put a man on the moon amounted to $150 billion in today’s dollars. That’s five times the cost of the Manhattan Project and 18 times the cost to dig the Panama Canal, according to a recent report in The Economist.
But it’s a fraction of the cost of American wars in Afghanistan and Iraq through a period of roughly the same duration, about nine years. Since 2001-2002, the United States has spent almost $1.2 trillion (a trillion is equal to 1,000 billion), according to the website www.costofwar.com.
Neither Dr. Walker nor Mr. Kessler see the cost of the Apollo program as prohibitive, they say.
“I don’t see any correlation between the cost of the space program and (other projects),” says Dr. Walker. “All had very different purposes, and costs are related to purpose. So I think each project has to be evaluated on the effectiveness and results achieved. I do believe the space program has been worth the cost, not only in financial terms, but in knowledge gained — with breakthroughs in communications, health, bio-medical research, military technology and many other areas.”
GLENN TODAY Not to mention breakthroughs in courage and ambition.
“The big discussion at the time was, ‘Would you go to the moon?’” remembers Mr. Kessler, who had graduated from Samuel J. Tilden High School in Brooklyn in 1958, and would find himself a married man by 1962.
“A lot of people didn’t want to go because they were afraid,” he adds. “What made it so spectacular was that we were doing it, and it was happening — and it would happen. The Kennedy era and the Apollo program offered the promise of things to come. The hope for the country was enormous.”
Even among those who didn’t appreciate President Kennedy, initially, the hope was enormous.
“My dad was a Republican, and he was the mayor of Louisville, Ky., and we had worked hard to defeat Kennedy,” says Cecy Glenn, the CEO of United Way of Charlotte County.
“I remember sitting with dad in the living room — I was 11 years old — and there was something on the television about the race to the moon. Even though my family was politically involved against Kennedy, it’s hard to describe how truly exciting that was.
“I believe the whole country came together to champion the American effort. We were in the middle of competing with the Soviet Union. We couldn’t let the Russians beat us!”
Eight years later, at the height of the Vietnam War, Mr. Kessler, Dr. Walker and Ms. Glenn all watched Neil Armstrong step onto the surface of the moon, along with millions of other Americans.
They all felt roughly the same way, they say.
“I saw the moon landing with my infant daughter, Laurie, and other friends gathered around our television, and even at that young age, we all had tears streaming down our faces,” Ms. Glenn recalls.
For Mr. Kessler, the defining quality of the American effort at that time and place was the simple ability to ask a single question, which his generation has never stopped asking: “Why not?”
And has it been worth it?
“That’s like asking whether experimenting to find cures for cancer is worth it,” Mr. Kessler replies.
“Our generation won’t know that, but generations to come will possibly reap huge benefits. That’s how this country has become as great as it is — because we do those kinds of things. And we have to keep doing those kinds of things. We have to keep looking to the future. Because our children and grandchildren will benefit, even if we don’t.” ¦