“We choose to go to the moon”

I was told when I was a kid that Senator John Kennedy once held me – an infant at the time – during his presidential campaign in 1960. I heard about it years later, when my mother wondered whether we should donate our Super 8 film of the event to the JFK Library that was finally being built in Boston. We sometimes vacationed on Martha’s Vineyard – just summer weekend trips, I think – taking the ferry from Hyannis, where the Kennedy compound was, so I imagine it probably happened there, perhaps on Saturday, 25 June 1960, the single public appearance in Hyannis that’s listed in his campaign schedule that summer. I would have been six weeks shy of my first birthday.

Seventeen years later, after the data processing head at my high school did some lobbying with John’s brother, Edward Kennedy, the Senator (well, people in his office) magnanimously offered me a grant of four years’ tuition, room, and board at the University of Massachusetts. That would have been swell, but U. Mass. didn’t have a computer science curriculum at the time, so I passed.

So I feel a small personal affinity for the Kennedys. Though these connections are distant and tangential, that affinity feels closer and more direct whenever I listen to John’s full “We choose to go to the moon” speech at Rice University in 1962. It remains stirring, and tingles the spine when you know the triumphs and tragedies that were to follow.

Ted Sorensen, Kennedy’s “intellectual blood bank”, wrote the initial drafts of the speech and edits by both Sorensen and Kennedy followed. Kennedy also made some handwritten adjustments before delivering it, including a last-minute joke on the page below. The complete story of the speech is in this article at the JFK Library.

If you follow along with the copy of the speech Kennedy was reading from that day, which appears on pages 25-42 in this document archive from the JFK Library, you’ll see that in the last couple of minutes, he paused, abandoned the text, and spoke in a more conversational manner, commenting first on the sweltering heat and clapping his hands for effect at the end of this part:

I’m the one that’s doing all the work, so we just want you to stay cool for a minute. However, I think we’re going to do it, and I think we must pay what needs to be paid. I don’t think we ought to waste any money, but I think we ought to do the job. And this will be done in the decade of the ’60s. It may be done while some of you are still here at school at this college and university. It will be done during the terms of office of some of the people who sit here on this platform. But it will be done, and it will be done before the end of this decade.

The full text of the speech as actually delivered is available here.