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Aldrin on Moon
The “urgent national needs” of 1961 led to Apollo 11; what will the “urgent national needs” of today create? (credit: NASA)

Urgent national needs: then and now?

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Having recited this series of initiatives and requirements, Kennedy then turned to his ninth major point of discussion: the exploration of space. The following excerpts from that portion of his speech set the stage for his oft-quoted pronouncement about setting America on a course to the Moon:

Now it is time to take longer strides—time for a great new American enterprise—time for this nation to take a clearly leading role in space achievement, which in many ways may hold the key to our future on earth.
I believe we possess all the resources and talents necessary. But the facts of the matter are that we have never made the national decisions or marshaled the national resources required for such leadership. We have never specified long-range goals on an urgent time schedule, or managed our resources and our time so as to insure their fulfillment… while we cannot guarantee that we shall one day be first, we can guarantee that any failure to make this effort will make us last… But this is not merely a race. Space is open to us now; and our eagerness to share its meaning is not governed by the efforts of others. We go into space because whatever mankind must undertake, free men must fully share.

After then laying down the gauntlet for sending a man to the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth, the President took pains to emphasize that it was going to be a long-term and costly effort that had to be seriously considered and consistently supported:

Let it be clear—and this is a judgment which the Members of the Congress must finally make—let it be clear that I am asking the Congress and the country to accept a firm commitment to a new course of action, a course which will last for many years and carry very heavy costs: 531 million dollars in fiscal ‘62—an estimated seven to nine billion dollars additional over the next five years. If we are to go only half way, or reduce our sights in the face of difficulty, in my judgment it would be better not to go at all.

In his conclusion, Kennedy continued to stress the urgency of the needs he had outlined and to acknowledge the need for the Congress to make its own determination whether to accept his carefully considered judgment of the necessary commitment of resources:

In conclusion, let me emphasize one point. It is not a pleasure for any President of the United States, as I am sure it was not a pleasure for my predecessors, to come before the Congress and ask for new appropriations which place burdens on our people. I came to this conclusion with some reluctance. But in my judgment, this is a most serious time in the life of our country and in the life of freedom around the globe, and it is the obligation, I believe, of the President of the United States to at least make his recommendations to the Members of the Congress, so that they can reach their own conclusions with that judgment before them. You must decide yourselves, as I have decided. and I am confident that whether you finally decide in the way that I have decided or not, that your judgment—as my judgment—is reached on what is in the best interests of our country.
It takes very little imagination to see considerable similarities between the “Urgent National Needs” outlined in Kennedy’s 1961 speech and the “Urgent National Needs” of today.

Taken in its entirety, Kennedy’s speech on Urgent National Needs was a serious, wide-ranging and carefully-considered response to a host of challenges facing the nation in the spring of 1961. It blended domestic requirements with national security requirements; it demonstrated a commitment of the United States to be strong, at the same time it offered assistance to both our allies in multinational security organizations and the developing nations of the world, especially in the southern hemisphere; it provided a relatively near-term decadal goal in space exploration at the same time it called for a long-term and sustained commitment and the development of technologies to enable still greater future exploration.

It takes very little imagination to see considerable similarities between the “Urgent National Needs” outlined in Kennedy’s 1961 speech and the “Urgent National Needs” of today. We need better communications with the developing world, and more effective dissemination of information about what we as a nation stand for. We need continuing efforts to pull the nation’s economy through difficult times. We need to address the needs—and fundamental basis—of our multilateral commitments for security in today’s “New World Order.” We need enhanced capabilities to fight unconventional warfare and enhanced intelligence capabilities to support the War on Terror. Civil defense has now become even more crucial, and is embodied in our efforts to secure our homeland defense, which has continuing and expanding needs for capability and resources. We have an increased need to control and eliminate the development of weapons of mass destruction, especially by and among rogue nations and terrorist organizations. And finally, in the wake of the Columbia accident, we are hearing increasing calls for a “new national vision” for America’s space program.

Perhaps now, as in 1961, these issues have all come together in our nation’s consciousness and should, once again, form the basis for another Presidential declaration of “Urgent National Needs” to be placed before the Congress—and the American people.


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