Thursday, November 21, 2013

JFK and the Moon

"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 the Earth."

If you haven't heard these words before, I suggest you look them up.

These are the words of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, the 35th President of the United States, as he outlined his plans to land an American on the Moon in a speech to a Joint Session of Congress on May 25,
Kennedy addresses Congress- May 25 1961

Just twenty days before Kennedy made this speech, Alan Shepard became the first American to fly in space, after completing a successful sub-orbital flight on Freedom 7. Now, less than three weeks later, the president challenged the nation and its space agency to land on the Moon in just nine years. Time to get to work!

It wasn't long before the hard work really got started. Project Mercury was in full swing, and by May 1963, six Americans had flown in space- four of them achieving orbital flight.

There were now seven years left for America to land a man on the Moon, and everything was going according to plan. NASA was now in the process of developing it's two-man spacecraft for Project Gemini- one step closer to Apollo. However, 50 years ago, on a fateful November afternoon in Dallas, Texas, a young, ambitious American president was gunned down.

The assassination of President Kennedy is a discussion for another day, and be debated by people who know far more about that day than me! But all we need to worry about here is that the man who challenged the nation to go to the Moon was no more.

Despite Kennedy's assassination, NASA continued to press towards the Moon, with Project Gemini launching a two-man crew into low-Earth orbit to demonstrate techniques and gather scientific data needed before any lunar mission could be attempted.

Ed White during Gemini 4 EVA
A total of ten Gemini missions(Gemini 3-12) were flown between 1965 and 1966. Programme highlights included Ed White becoming the first American to walk in space, and the crews of Gemini 6 and 7 proving to the world that NASA could perform a rendezvous between two different spacecraft- a vital operation needed for a successful Moon mission.

With yet another fatal setback, this time the loss of the Apollo 1 crew due to a fire in their spacecraft, it was time to step back and look at what mistakes had been made, and how they would be corrected. People were beginning to ask questions about whether or not NASA would actually be able to land on the Moon before Kennedy's deadline.

Gene Cernan(Gemini 9, Apollo 10, Apollo 17) has spoken about what he initially thought of Kennedy's bold statement:

"He challenged us to do what I think most people thought was impossible, including me!"

However, 8 years, 1 month and 26 days after Kennedy pledged to congress to land a Man on the Moon, Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Amstrong became the first man to walk on the lunar surface. Up until then, one half of the president's goal had been achieved- "Land a man on the Moon." After spending 2.5 hours walking on the Moon, it was time to start thinking about the other half of Kennedy's vision, "Returning him safely to the Earth."

After Armstrong and Aldrin, ten more American astronauts walked on the lunar surface, collecting more and more scientific data and samples so scientists back on Earth could try and find the answers to questions like "How old is the Moon?", "What is the Moon made of?", "Could life have ever existed on the Moon?". However, you don't have to be a genius to try and figure out why Kennedy challenged the nation to reach for the Moon. Of course there was the scientific aspect of it, but the main reason was to beat the Soviet Union to it- the race to the Moon.

Perhaps this video of President Kennedy talking to then NASA Administrator James Webb will explain this point further.  

For me, one line in particular from Kennedy stands out more than anything else:

"We shouldn't be spending this kind of money because I'm not that interested in space."

Now if you watched the video, you will understand that JFK doesn't mean he isn't interested in space exploration, but rather that he is only interested in landing a man on the Moon before the Soviets.

People have been questioning whether or not Kennedy was that enthusiastic about space exploration ever since the days of Apollo. 

Politically, landing a man on the Moon was one of JFK's biggest interests. But whether or not he was all that interested on a personal note remains unclear. I guess we will never know!

Thank You for reading Irish Space Blog!