On September 12, 1962, President John F. Kennedy delivered his Address at Rice University on the Nation’s Space Effort to land an American on the moon by the end of the decade. In the years that followed, Kennedy’s address became known as the “We choose to go to the Moon” speech.
Sadly, President Kennedy did not live to see Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin take humankind’s first steps on the lunar surface on July 20, 1969, roughly five months before the end of the decade laid out in JFK’s speech.
While JFK’s life was taken a little over a year after his address, his words have lived on as an example of what people are capable of when they seek to answer a call to overcome what many see as impossible odds.
Earlier this week I had the honor of attending a celebration of the 60th Anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s “We choose to go to the moon speech” at Rice University.
I was not alive when JFK made his speech. However, as a third-generation aerospace worker, his words, and the actions they triggered in the decades that followed, have been a part of my life in one way or another for as long as I can remember. As such, I consider myself fortunate to have been a small part of the celebration of such a historical moment.
Growing up in Florida, I never imagined I would have reason to step foot on the Rice University campus. However, once I moved to Texas shortly after graduating college, I had the opportunity to cover a high school football playoff game at Rice Stadium while working as a sports editor for a Houston area newspaper. I was even offered a job to work at Rice at one point, but chose to go in a different direction.
While the field turf has changed since the days when a Super Bowl was played, and a “moonshot” speech were given, each time I set foot inside the stadium I still felt the magnitude of being somewhere that had experienced its share of historical moments.
Despite those previous trips inside Rice Stadium, nothing really prepared me for the realization that I would be inside the stadium listening to a recording of JFK’s we choose to go to the moon speech exactly 60 years after it was given.
Walking up to the stadium I was greeted by a larger than life mural of JFK on the stadium’s upper deck. Seeing the mural, the magnitude of the event started to sink in.
Once inside the stadium, I had the opportunity to chat with former NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine. Serving as NASA Administrator during the presidency of Donald Trump, Bridenstine played a large role in spearheading the current effort to return to the moon known as the Artemis Program.
It was a bit surreal to be talking about the future moon efforts with a former NASA Administrator while at an event celebrating the kickoff of lunar ambitions from 60 years earlier.
As an aside, my conversation with Administrator Bridenstine was a much less awkward experience than the time a former Space Shuttle Program Manager started chatting with me while we were both standing at adjoining urinals for a Space Shuttle anniversary event.
Just like when the speech was first delivered, it was hot inside Rice Stadium as former astronaut, turned senator, turned current NASA Administrator, Bill Nelson pointed out in his remarks. Although the triple digit on field feels like temperature definitely dampened some armpits, it could not dampen the magnitude of the event.
Along with various elected officials and VIPs, thousands of middle and high school students were on hand for the festivities in a measured attempt to inspire the next generation of students to take giant leaps for human kind.
In a symbolic passing of the torch, the current students were joined by many Rice Alumni who were in the stadium 60-years earlier for the original speech.
As was the case in JFK’s time, America is once again looking towards a return to the moon. If all goes well, the next human steps on the moon will be made by the end of the current decade.
In support of the current return to the moon effort, as I write this, the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket, complete with an Orion capsule, is currently sitting on a launchpad at the space center that bears President Kennedy’s name. The SLS is awaiting a go for launch once issues with leaking hydrogen valves are safely resolved.
Once SLS and the Artemis Program launch their uncrewed test mission, they will go to the moon and back to test various systems on the vehicle. About a year after Artemis 1, a second mission conveniently called Artemis 2 will take humans around the moon.
If all goes to plan on the first two missions, by 2025 Americans may once again put boots on the ground of the lunar surface during the Artemis 3 mission.
As someone who worked on the Orion Program during its early days, and has longed hoped to be alive when humans were on the moon, I am certainly rooting for Artemis to succeed in returning humans to the moon.
Of course, as the pesky and recurrent hydrogen leaks have shown, so much has to go right for a successful mission to the moon to occur. As John F. Kennedy so eloquently stated 60 years ago, “we do these things not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”
In addition to being at the 60th Anniversary event at Rice this week, in 2019 I was fortunate to be at the Kennedy Space Center to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the famous first steps on the moon by Neil Armstrong on Apollo 11.
As someone fascinated by aerospace history, I have always been amazed by the small steps and giant leaps of the Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, and Space Shuttle Programs. I am equally enthralled by the current efforts of companies like SpaceX to build and operate commercial vehicles.
Unfortunately, as an agency reliant of yearly funding and congressional whims, the best laid plans of NASA men and women can often fall victim to budget cuts and shifting presidential priorities.
There is not a single group that is at fault for the fact that December 19, 2022 will mark the 50th anniversary of the last human steps on the moon. It can be said that SLS is a victim of a funding model that has not really changed much in over 60 years.
President Richard Nixon cancelled the Apollo Program to make way for the Space Shuttle Program.
Following the loss of Space Shuttle Columbia, President George W. Bush announced the end of Space Shuttle Program, and the rising of the Constellation Program.
President Barack Obama ended Constellation, but saved Orion, while looking towards commercial companies to handle low earth orbit missions.
One can argue the politics and the excuses for why it has been over 50 years since humans last left footprints in the dusty lunar soil until the cow jumps over the moon.
The reasons don’t matter. What does matter is doing everything possible to ensure that it is not another 50 years before humans return to the moon.
Many people reading this may not be alive when the 100th anniversary of JFK’s speech at Rice rolls around.
For that matter, depending on how people address rising sea levels between now and then, Rice University itself may be under water along with Kennedy Space Center.
While I enjoy celebrating anniversaries of past human spaceflight accomplishments, it is time for some new milestones to be created that can be celebrated in another 50 to 60 years.
Humans must continue to build on the vision first outlined by a young idealistic president on a sweltering hot summer day 60-years ago inside a football stadium in Houston, TX.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I am off to answer the age-old question of why did Rice play Texas?
Copyright 2022 R. Anderson