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ESOC mission control
Kennedy’s call to land a man on the Moon was actually part of a broader speech on “urgent national needs”. (credit: NASA)

Urgent national needs: then and now?

Among space enthusiasts and historians who have written of our nation’s space program, one of the most-quoted passages is from President John F. Kennedy’s address to a joint session of the Congress on “Urgent National Needs,” on May 25, 1961:

I believe that 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.

Occasionally, the next sentence is also quoted:

No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish.

Kennedy recognized that the Apollo program, then in its infancy, was not the be-all-and-end-all of space exploration; he simply believed it was that program which, while “difficult” and “expensive,” would be the most impressive and the most important in the broader effort he described as “the long-range exploration of space.”

Indeed, he went on to propose three additional space projects:

  1. the Rover nuclear rocket, which he said “gives promise of some day providing a means for even more exciting and ambitious exploration of space, perhaps beyond the moon, perhaps to the very end of the solar system itself.’”
  2. additional funding to accelerate the development and deployment of communications satellites, and
  3. additional funding for the development of “a satellite system for world-wide weather observation.”

It is important to remember the context in which Kennedy made these proposals. His address covered a wide range of issues before coming to his final—and what he certainly knew would be the most dramatic—series of remarks regarding space exploration. As he said at the beginning of his address, explaining his purpose for coming before the Congress at that time:

The Constitution imposes upon me the obligation to ‘from time to time give to the Congress information of the State of the Union.’ While this has traditionally been interpreted as an annual affair, this tradition has been broken in extraordinary times.
These are extraordinary times. And we face an extraordinary challenge. Our strength as well as our convictions have imposed upon this nation the role of leader in freedom’s cause. No role in history could be more difficult or more important. We stand for freedom.
It is important to remember the context in which Kennedy made these proposals.

It is also important to remember that this speech was delivered prior to Kennedy’s departure overseas for a summit meeting the following week, with Soviet Premier Khrushchev in Vienna, (June 3, 1961) as he stated at the end of his remarks:

I have long thought it wise to meet with the Soviet Premier for a personal exchange of views. A meeting in Vienna turned out to be convenient for us both; and the Austrian government has kindly made us welcome. No formal agenda is planned and no negotiations will be undertaken; but we will make clear America’s enduring concern is for both peace and freedom—that we are anxious to live in harmony with the Russian people—that we seek no conquests, no satellites, no riches—that we seek only the day when “nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”
It is heartening to know, as I journey abroad, that our country is united in its commitment to freedom and is ready to do its duty.

Undoubtedly Kennedy was sending a message to those assembled that this speech was intended to demonstrate “the American Agenda” that would set the framework of his meeting with Khrushchev, and evidence of congressional support of its content would be of key importance to the success of that summit.

(It is also interesting to note that he raised the notion of a joint US-Soviet mission to the Moon during that summit meeting—and received no response from Khrushchev. More than two years later he repeated that offer publicly in a speech to the United Nations on September 20, 1963—to the consternation of some key senior Members of Congress who were struggling at that time to sustain appropriations for the Apollo program… but that’s another story.)

He then focused on nine separate topical areas of concern, which included:

  1. A call for the defense of freedom in what he described as “The great battleground for the defense and expansion of freedom today,” the “whole southern half of the globe—Asia, Latin America, Africa and the Middle East—the lands of the rising peoples.”
  2. Continuing anti-recession efforts for the domestic economy, including efforts to address unemployment with a new Manpower Development and Training program.
  3. Increased international assistance, which the Congress adopted three months later, providing increased foreign assistance and authorizing the creation of the Agency for International Development (AID).
  4. Increased funding for expanded radio and television broadcasts to Latin America and Southeast Asia.
  5. Expanded international partnerships for defense, including increasing the U.S. commitment to NATO, especially in greater capacity for conventional military strength, and an expanded Military Assistance Program.
  6. Reorganization and revitalization of the military, expanding ability to “deter or resist non-nuclear aggression,” a modernization of the Army divisional structure, improved tactical mobility (new helicopters, armored personnel carriers, and howitzers) an expanded capacity “for the conduct of non-nuclear war, paramilitary operations and sub-limited or unconventional wars,” expanded special forces and unconventional warfare units, increased force mobility and rapid-deployment capability, and an expanded Marine Corps. In addition addressing military requirements, he stressed the need to review the nation’s intelligence capabilities to address “self-defense in an age of hidden perils.” (This entire section of his speech seems eerily applicable to the present time.)
  7. Reorganization and expanded authorities for civil defense, in a new Defense Civil Preparedness Agency at the Department of Defense and an Office of Emergency Preparedness at the General Services Administration. (Subsequently merged into the Federal Emergency Management Agency by President Carter).
  8. Expanded efforts in disarmament, including support for the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty and the establishment of what became the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, which existed from that time until 1999, when it was made a part of the State Department.

page 2: the ninth area of concern >>