JFK's 1961 Speech Launched Space Exploration to New Heights

NASA's exploration solidified scientific understanding of moon's formation and planetary science.

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By Stephen P. Maran, ISNS Contributor

(ISNS)—Fifty years ago, on May 25, 1961, President John F. Kennedy told a joint session of Congress 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."

His vision became NASA's Apollo program, which conducted six successful manned lunar landings during 1969-72 and brought the crews and the moon rocks that they collected safely home. As Kennedy intended, the Apollo program established the nation's preeminence in spaceflight, but it also produced a revolution in scientific understanding of the moon, sparking a debate that continues today about the relative merits of manned and robotic exploration.   

Kennedy's call to action was viewed as a largely geopolitical maneuver, intended to achieve U.S. supremacy in rocketry and space travel at a time when the Soviet Union had gained a huge head start by launching Sputnik 1, the first artificial satellite, and Yuri Gagarin -- the first man to orbit Earth. There were defense implications: rockets that launch manned capsules into orbit could also propel nuclear weapons across intercontinental distances.  

Whether Apollo had a strong scientific purpose at first or not, the president's speech "was tremendously influential," said retired astronomer William E. Howard, who served in military, academic, and intelligence organizations. "[It] inspired a lot of people to go into science."    

Richard Vondrak was a high school senior in 1961. Now a NASA physicist, Vondrak said that the excitement kindled by the new space program led him to a research career. Donald Bogard was a college student when Kennedy spoke. He said that by 1969, when the first rocks from the moon arrived, he was a scientist "behind the quarantine barrier in the lunar receiving lab" at NASA's Manned Spacecraft Center (now the Johnson Space Center) in Houston. Bogard retired last year as chief scientist for astromaterials at the center, and recently said that "Apollo science set the stage for the golden era of planetary exploration." Since Apollo, robotic spacecraft have been the main sources of new information on the moon and planets.

Scientific objectives were established at the outset for the Apollo Project, although many scientists doubted that the missions would be worth the expense. The late Robert Jastrow, a nuclear physicist who led early NASA lunar science planning, wrote in his book "Journey to the Stars" that "My fellow scientists never liked the Apollo Project." He added that they "much preferred sending instruments into orbit" than people. Humans are expensive to keep alive in space, and their movements onboard a spacecraft can disturb delicate scientific equipment.  

Prior to Apollo, scientists were divided about the nature of the moon, said G. Jeffrey Taylor, a planetary geosciences professor at the University of Hawaii in Honolulu. Some experts claimed the lunar surface was formed by volcanism, others thought it was molded by the impacts of thousands of meteoroids, and some, like physicist Harold Urey, a Nobel laureate, contended that the moon was a cold, dead world with a surface of primordial materials from the era when the solar system formed, about 4.5 billion years ago.  

Urey's view was adopted by NASA's Jastrow, who contended that the lunar surface should be explored as the "Rosetta Stone of the solar system." If the moon had formed cold as Urey claimed, there were no volcanoes to erupt and disturb the surface, no forces to fold the crust and throw up mountains, and, since there is no liquid water nor any  wind, no erosion to alter the landscape. All of those effects obliterated the original surface of the Earth over geologic time, leaving no trace of its original condition. So if Apollo could collect rocks from the lunar surface, they supposedly would reveal the nature of moon when it formed, and perhaps what the newborn Earth was like as well.   

But Urey and Jastrow were wrong. Lunar soil gathered by the first men on the moon, Neil Armstrong and Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin of the Apollo 11 mission, hinted that the moon was anything but a primordial body, a conclusion confirmed from later samples and studies. In the soil, composed largely of broken shards of dark rock, there were white fragments of a different substance that hinted at the real history of the moon. The white rock -- which is also less dense than the dark material -- is now understood as evidence that soon after the moon formed, something melted the whole lunar surface. A brief era of very intense bombardment by asteroids and meteoroids may have done the trick.