It was fifty years ago today that John Kennedy declared to a joint session of Congress: “I believe 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 earth.” It’s amazing how something that happened half a century ago can still sound like science fiction, but there you are.
It’s also interesting to consider how Kennedy chose the Moon as a goal, out of all of the options for the United States in space. Most advocates of space exploration, Wernher von Braun among them, envisioned that our exploration of space would begin with the construction of space stations around Earth, then move to missions to the Moon, and thence on to Mars — a step by step progression out from Earth. But in 1961, when the United States seemed to lag intractably behind Soviet progress in space, space stations looked like just one more thing that the Russians would be able to do first. Landing on the Moon, though — there was the first big, impressive thing that the United States seemed to have even a chance at doing before the Soviets, and so landing on the Moon it was.
John Noble Wilford had an interesting piece about the speech — and the decision behind it, and the program that followed — in the Times yesterday, here. You can view documents associated with the decision and speech at NASA’s web site, here. None are more interesting than the frank evaluation of the U.S. space program prepared for Kennedy in April of 1961, here. Finally, here’s a little something for all you alternate timeline fans out there: clips from a mock documentary about how things might have gone had we followed the Wernher Braun route, here. The clips follow a plan outlined in an influential series of articles that ran in Colliers magazine in the early ‘50s, with illustrations by Chesley Bonestell. More on him, here.
Above: an early sketch from Moonshot. The MESA panel on the side of the LM should be open here, but I didn’t know that at the time.