The Apollo 11 Story Part 2: JFK Aims for the Moon

President John F. Kennedy announces the United States' plan to go to the moon.
President John F. Kennedy address a crowd of 35,000 at the Rice Stadium in Houston, Texas | Image credit: NASA

Part 1: The Space Race

Speaking to a large crowd gathered at the Rice Stadium in Houston on September 12, 1962, John F Kennedy proclaimed for all to hear that the United States would land a man on the moon before the decade was out. In the now famous speech, Kennedy stated that “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…” Although now a cornerstone of Kennedy’ legacy, he had not always been so sure that sending a man to the moon was the best use of taxpayers money.

The Apollo program was first announced by NASA Deputy Administrator Hugh L. Dryden in July 1960 at NASA’s Space Task Group conferences. It was to be a follow-up to Project Mercury and would push the crew compliment from just one to three. Although still in its early stages, later that year a series of studies were ordered that included internal design studies led by Maxime Faget. As the principal designer behind both the Mercury and Gemini spacecraft, Faget had been the obvious choice for the task.

The original Apollo spacecraft design called for a mission module in addition to the lunar lander, and command, propulsion, and service modules. However, the mission module would later be dropped from the design with NASA concluding it was unnecessary. With a finalised design, the agency began soliciting spacecraft procurement bids. Although not the most competitive bid, NASA awarded the contract to manufacture the Apollo spacecraft to North American Aviation. The now-defunct aerospace manufacturer was chosen because of their history and experience with the agency.

President John F. Kennedy inspects the Mercury spacecraft that transported John Glenn into orbit.
President Kennedy inspects John Glenn’s Friendship 7 Mercury spacecraft on February 23, 1962 | Image credit: Cecil Stoughton, White House

On January 20, 1961, John F. Kennedy was elected president. Although Kennedy had run on a campaign that promised global American superiority in missile defence and space exploration, once in office he became uneasy with the potential costs of a crewed space program. After Gagarin made his maiden human spaceflight in April 1961, the Apollo program received widespread support from Congress and the public alike. Kennedy, still unsure asked Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson to review the state of the country’s space program. A week later, Johnson drafted a memo stating, “we are neither making maximum effort nor achieving results necessary if this country is to reach a position of leadership.” Most notably, Johnson would suggest that “Manned exploration of the moon, for example, is not only an achievement with great propaganda value, but it is essential as an objective whether or not we are first in its accomplishment — and we may be able to be first.”

Just 20 days after the launch of Freedom 7, the United States first manned spaceflight, on May 25, 1961, Kennedy proposed a manned mission to the moon during his Special Message to Congress on Urgent National Needs. “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,” said Kennedy. “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.”

What followed was the single largest commitment of personnel and resources made by a nation in peacetime. The Apollo program would cost the American taxpayer $25 billion ($107 billion today), employ 400,000 people directly and receive support from 20,000 universities and industrial firms.

Part 3: Apollo 1 Tragedy

Andrew Parsonson is a space enthusiast and the founder of Rocket Rundown. He has worked as a journalist and blogger for various industries for over 5 years and has a passion for both fictional and real-life space travel. Currently, Andrew is the primary writer for Rocket Rundown as we look to expand our reach and credibility.