Lenn Harley wrote a post about the final launch of the American shuttle program which inspired me to go back and look at how America became the leader in space, and ultimately, the leading economic and military power in the world.
We sort of backed into it, and, if it hadn't been for the intransigence and insolence of Nikita Kruschev, we might not have been first to the moon, or even had a pen that writes upside down. Our space program was years behind the Russian program. Prior to his presidency, John F. Kennedy was not a proponent of the American program. Early in his presidency he approached Kruschev at least twice, in a spirit of cooperation, to form a joint space program. Each time he was rejected.
Vice President Johnson, was key in keeping the program alive, and it didn't take him long to convince JFK. In May of 1961, President Kennedy said to a joint session of Congress:
"First, 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. 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."
In 1962, during a speech at Rice University, Kennedy said the line that is the title of this post. He also said
"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."
Later that fall, Kennedy explained why he was pushing these space accomplishments in a cabinet meeting:
"This is important for political reasons, international political reasons... Because otherwise we shouldn't be spending this kind of money, because I'm not that interested in space. I think it's good, I think we ought to know about it, we're ready to spend reasonable amounts of money. But...we’ve spent fantastic expenditures, we’ve wrecked our budget on all these other domestic programs, and the only justification for it, in my opinion, to do it in the pell-mell fashion is because we hope to beat them [the Soviets] and demonstrate that starting behind, as we did by a couple of years, by God, we passed them. I think it would be a helluva thing for us."
Kennedy, almost above everything else, believed in American expeptionalism and he put this to the test. He challanged the brightest and the best to take America forward, to surpass the Soviet Union, and to lead the world into the next frontier. And while the space program was expensive, we, the American people, and the world, received so much benefit from it, well beyond that pen. The technologies discovered and invented led to breakthroughs not only in space technology but were spun off into medicine, buidling materials, navigation, safety, etc. The U.S. treasury is still receiving residuals from the developed patents.
And the space program is one of the lowest cost programs that the government has developed, with such a larget return. The 2010 space program budget was $18.7 billion. Yeah, that's a lot, but, when you look at the projects that were covered in the current president's stimulus package, you wonder why NASA has effectively been gutted with the subsequent loss of almost 10,000 jobs directly along with other jobs indirectly affected. And, the stimulus programs would have covered over 30 years of NASA's budget.
Yes, there will still be a NASA, but it will not be going to the moon. It is focused on robotic exploration of Mars. Not a bad thing, but, what will happen to our astronauts? Yeah, we will be hitching rides on Russion shuttles to the orbiting space station. But Russia will also be working with China on it lunar exploration and mapping program. What technological wonders will they develop during this process? How long will it take China to surpass the U.S. in space technology? How long will it be before it is Chinese expeptionalism that is looked up to by the rest of the world?
When I saw my first shuttle launch, I was both thrilled and saddenned. Thrilled by watching such a tremendous and truly awesome moment. Saddenned because I realized that I would not be going out into space, something that I had dreamed and hoped to do. And I am further saddenned by the end of the shuttle program with nothing on the horizon replacing it. And to perhaps the loss of one of the greatest examples of American exceptionalism.
We don't need another "Sputnik Moment"! We need a few more Kennedy moments.