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Kennedy's Famous 'Moon' Speech Still Stirs

U.S. President John F. Kennedy delivers his famous "moon" speech at Rice University in Houston on September 12, 1962.
U.S. President John F. Kennedy delivers his famous "moon" speech at Rice University in Houston on September 12, 1962.
On September 12, 1962, amid a fierce space race with the Soviet Union, U.S. President John F. Kennedy delivered a stirring speech to 40,000 sweaty spectators at the football stadium at Rice University in humid Houston, a speech that would come to be one of the defining moments of his abbreviated presidency.

Fifty years later, that iconic speech -- in which Kennedy called for America to put a man on the moon by the end of that decade -- is being commemorated by the U.S. space agency NASA and by the crew of the International Space Station (ISS), which currently includes Russian cosmonauts Gennady Padalka and Sergei Revin and Ukrainian Yuri Malenchenko.

Said Kennedy, in the most famous words from that Rice address:
"We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too."

That daunting challenge came only seven months after John Glenn, aboard Friendship 7, became the first American to orbit the Earth, which in itself was almost a year behind the Soviet Union's earth-shaking achievement of putting the world's first man, Yuri Gagarin, into space.

A man on the moon in seven years, even though no space walks had yet occurred, no dockings in space had yet been practiced, no lunar modules had yet been built.

WATCH: Kennedy's "moon" speech at Rice University

Kennedy acknowledged the work ahead:

"…If I were to say, my fellow citizens, that we shall send to the moon, 240,000 miles away from the control station in Houston, a giant rocket more than 300 feet tall, the length of this football field, made of new metal alloys, some of which have not yet been invented, capable of standing heat and stresses several times more than have ever been experienced, fitted together with a precision better than the finest watch, carrying all the equipment needed for propulsion, guidance, control, communications, food and survival, on an untried mission, to an unknown celestial body, and then return it safely to earth, re-entering the atmosphere at speeds of over 25,000 miles per hour, causing heat about half that of the temperature of the sun--almost as hot as it is here today--and do all this, and do it right, and do it first before this decade is out--then we must be bold."

The speech, delivered to a space-crazy America, was generally well-received, especially in Texas, according to Douglas Brinkley, a professor of history of Rice University, writing on the "Houston Chronicle's" website:
Kennedy's oration was front-page news around the country. Pundits saw it as another Ted Sorenson[sic]-penned speech drenched in terrestrial aspiration. But for all of its soaring rhetoric, the Rice address was grounded in pragmatism. Kennedy made the case to taxpayers that NASA needed a $5.4 billion budget. Kennedy also did a tremendous job of connecting the moonshot to Houston in ways that thrilled locals. "We meet at a college noted for knowledge, in a city noted for progress, in a state noted for strength," he said. "And we stand in awe of all three." What Kennedy did so brilliantly that day was frame the moonshot as being instrumental for U.S. security reasons.

Mission accomplished
Mission accomplished
Without mentioning the Soviet Union by name, Kennedy -- spooked by that nation's stunning space advances -- made it plain that it was his intention to beat the Kremlin at its own game, to be first militarily and technologically.

As correspondent Mike Wall notes on, Kennedy stressed that humanity's charge into space is inexorable, and that the world would be better off with the United States leading the way:
For the eyes of the world now look into space, to the moon and to the planets beyond, and we have vowed that we shall not see it governed by a hostile flag of conquest, but by a banner of freedom and peace. We have vowed that we shall not see space filled with weapons of mass destruction, but with instruments of knowledge and understanding. Yet the vows of this nation can only be fulfilled if we in this nation are first, and, therefore, we intend to be first.

On July 20, 1969, Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin fulfilled Kennedy's vision by landing on the moon and, four days later, returning safely to Earth.

As the late Neil Armstrong -- the first human to set foot on the moon -- recently noted in a rare interview with CPA Australia, the moon walk itself was gravy:

"The first statement we made was, 'The Eagle has landed; Tranquility Base here, The Eagle has landed.' That was the signature line for achieving the presidential goal that we had been working for a decade on. In our view, that was a very important statement. Getting down [on the surface], that was less important in our view. But it was significant -- to actually touch your boot into the sand ..."

To mark the anniversary, NASA TV plans to broadcast a high-quality version of Kennedy's speech at the same time he originally delivered it -- at 1515 GMT today. American Astronaut Suni Williams, who is onboard the orbiting ISS, will also speak about the significance of Kennedy's words.

-- Grant Podelco

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