As a massive rocket stood on a Florida launch pad Monday, poised to take the first step in a multiphase plan to put astronauts back on the lunar surface for the first time in five decades, NASA celebrated the 60th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s answer to a question that has arisen once again.
Why go to the moon?
Speaking to a crowd of students gathered at Rice University in Houston on Sept. 12, 1962, Kennedy delivered a powerful and eloquent answer, one that has been oft quoted and is particularly relevant today as the Artemis I mission prepares to launch.
“We choose to go to the moon,” Kennedy 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, 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.”
Kennedy leaned hard into fanning the flames of national pride and can-do spirit in his speech, an obvious touchpoint for a country that was still smarting from failing to beat Russia in the first leg of the global space race — putting the first human into space. That mark fell after Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin blasted off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome on April 12, 1961,
and completed a single orbit of the Earth before returning safely to the ground on a mission that lasted less than two hours.
At that point in history, Kennedy was also clearly looking to build political support for his decision to prioritize the U.S. space effort, a move that included tripling the budget of the still-fledgling National Aeronautics and Space Administration in his first year in office. NASA’s 1962 budget of $5.4 billion would barely cover the cost of a single rocket launch today but many of the challenges Kennedy faced in trying to develop a robust U.S. space program during its infancy are still very much a part of the space exploration landscape 60 years later.
On Monday, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson stood, as Kennedy did in 1962, in front of a crowd of students at Rice University Stadium to stump for a space program that’s in dire need of both positive public sentiment and an ongoing inflow of taxpayer dollars.
This time, Nelson said, reaching the moon is merely a stepping stone for a much bigger, and more distant, exploration goal.
“Today in Space City, a new generation, the Artemis generation, stands ready,” Nelson said. “Ready to return humanity to the moon and then to take us further than ever before, to Mars.
“It’s not going to be easy. It’s going to be hard. Some things never change.”
Nelson noted the Artemis I mission should have already been on its journey to the moon, but the first two attempts to launch the massive new Space Launch System have run into technical glitches. As of last report, NASA had performed repairs to part of the rocket’s fueling system and a test of those systems is scheduled for Sept. 17. Pending a positive outcome from that test, Artemis I could be ready for a third launch attempt on Sept. 23 or Sept. 27.
Nelson said no matter what challenges are encountered, or how long it takes to iron out issues, the mission will find success.
“We will launch when we are ready,” Nelson said. “But mark my words, we are going. When the final go is given, Artemis I will roar to life and soar to the moon. And every observation we make and every lesson we learn on this first Artemis journey prepares us and the way for humans to venture even further.
“Ladies and gentlemen, Mars is calling. Why? Because it’s in our DNA to explore.”
Joining Nelson on Monday to mark the anniversary of Kennedy’s “moonshot” speech were other NASA officials, members of Texas’ congressional delegation and Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner.
The crewless Artemis I mission is scheduled to run for 42 days on a flight that will allow NASA experts to test the new SLS components, many of which have been repurposed from the old space shuttle program and other systems, as well as the Orion space capsule.
That capsule, the eventual home for future space travelers, will be carried into lunar orbit where it will take a spin around the moon and then head back to earth for a fiery plunge through the atmosphere at some 25,000 mph before splashing down in the Pacific Ocean at the end of the mission.
Artemis II, currently anticipated for sometime in 2024, will head to space with a four-person crew in the Orion capsule that will fly the craft around the moon in further testing. Then, if all goes according to NASA’s current plan, the SLS/Orion package will return on a mission that will include a landing on the moon’s surface in 2025. Along the way, NASA wants to put a small space station, the Lunar Gateway, in orbit around the moon and has future plans that include a moon base station, the Artemis Base Camp.
In a posting on the Artemis missions’ website, NASA lists a few reasons why it’s devoting billions of dollars to making moon landings, once again, a priority.
“We’re going back to the moon for scientific discovery, economic benefits and inspiration for a new generation of explorers: the Artemis Generation,” NASA says. “While maintaining American leadership in exploration, we will build a global alliance and explore deep space for the benefit of all.”
And while a return to the moon smacks a little of “been there, done that,” NASA says it’s committed to accomplishing some other first benchmarks as part of the series of Artemis missions, including extending manned exploration deeper into the solar system.
“With Artemis missions, NASA will land the first woman and first person of color on the moon, using innovative technologies to explore more of the lunar surface than ever before,” NASA says in a web posting. “We will collaborate with commercial and international partners and establish the first long-term presence on the moon. Then, we will use what we learn on and around the moon to take the next giant leap: sending the first astronauts to Mars.”
NASA says its SLS launch system stands at 322 feet high — taller than the Statue of Liberty — and weighs 5.75 million pounds when loaded with fuel. During launch and ascent, the SLS will produce 8.8 million pounds of maximum thrust, 15% more thrust than the Saturn V rockets that propelled Apollo astronauts to the moon.