“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.

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4 thoughts on ““We choose to go to the moon”

  1. Barrie M says:

    I think that you are right; that if you are one of Apollo’s children, then JFK is always going be a ‘biblical figure’, with Ted Sorenson standing closee by. However, I reckon that there’s another figure in the background who fully deserves recognition as the ‘Godfather’ to Apollo and that is Lyndon Johnson.

    LBJ was instrumental in establishing the Moon as The Goal, probably having spent some time talking to von Braun. But I think that LBJ played an even more important role after Kennedy’s death. Another President might well have had less inclination to fulfil the Apollo commitment and let the flow of funding for the project be reduced. Similarly, after the fire, another President might have had second thoughts altogether. And finally, I would guess that sending Apollo 8 to the Moon in December 1968 must have had Presidential approval, and considering the consequences if that mission had gone badly wrong, Johnson might well have decided to ‘kick the can down the road’ and let his successor make that decision, though it would have delayed the project by some months, and history might have gone down another and less fortunate track?

    • lalmon says:

      Definitely agree on LBJ – he didn’t have a fancy speech but he produced the goods.

      Since I learned about his work twenty or so years ago, the key background figure for me is Bill Tindall, mentioned about 7/8ths of the way through Air & Space magazine’s article here.

      Particularly key was something they didn’t mention in that article: For about a year, Tindall made two- or three-day trips every week to MIT’s Instrumentation Lab to closely supervise, sometimes sharply, the development of COLOSSUS and LUMINARY for the CM and LM. From Charles Fishman’s new One Giant Leap book, where Tindall’s story is given the attention it deserves:

      “He’d come up, and we’d have lunch,” said Ed Copps, one of the MIT software engineers who had joined Apollo from Polaris. “We used to have beer—somebody would go out for subs and the beer . . . and people would sit around.” Tindall was a good-humored man, his temperament described as sunny. But at a lunch that spring, his frustration boiled over.

      “One day,” said Copps, “Tindall just gave us hell, you know? He really beat us up. ‘How can you possibly do this? Here you sit at the very center of the success or failure of this extremely important program. You’re behind. Get it through your head: You are fucking this thing up.’

      “And he was right in many ways. I don’t think there are many people who we could have taken that from, because we were pretty snotty and pretty arrogant people.”

      I idly wondered when I read this if it might have been the same sub shop I ate at when I took some computer courses in the MIT High School Studies Program in 1976/77 – if I recall correctly, the shop, which had been around for ages, was a couple blocks away from MIT’s reactor building.

  2. Barrie M says:

    One man who pretty much gave his life to Apollo, but has subsequently become quite obscure is Joe Shea
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joseph_Francis_Shea.

    I had read so many books on Apollo, but not heard of him until I read “Apollo” by Charles Murray and Catherine Bly Cox. That book has him a a key player up to the time of the fire at which point he had a breakdown and subsequently played a much smaller role.

    The 50th Anniversary is getting fantastic coverage in the UK, much more than I expected. Mark Armstrong was here last week. “Armstrong” premiers here Wednesday evening. I am very glad that I chose not to see “First Man”, which by some accounts, was “tough” with its portrayal of both Armstrong and Aldrin. The phrase “pot boiler” springs to mind.

    It’s kind of ironic, but if someone asked me to recommend just one book on Apollo, it would be “Fire on the Moon” by Norman Mailer. That book came out so soon after Apollo 11, and long before so many other books and biographies which would follow, but few compete with it.

    • lalmon says:

      Funnily enough, I believe it was Murray & Cox’s Apollo: The Race to the Moon where I first learned of Bill Tindall, so I guess it was thirty years ago, not twenty as I thought earlier. (Have you seen the hour-long C-SPAN interview of Murray & Cox when the book was published in 1989? See the second link in this article: https://finleyquality.net/if-we-can-send-a-man-to-the-moon/) That one is among the best books from the perspective of those on the ground.

      Other than all the NASA volumes I bought as a kid (https://finleyquality.net/i-got-mine-at-the-gpo-bookstore/), I think the first non-NASA books I read were two that originated from Life magazine: 1970’s First on the Moon (as told by the astronauts) and Mailer’s Of a Fire on the Moon (its original US title), which collected the three longest non-fiction pieces Life ever published. It’s now oddly called MoonFire in a 50th edition that I bought because it’s gorgeously illustrated with hundreds of high-quality photographs. I like the three-volume, also profusely-illustrated edition of A Man on the Moon by Chaikin – another Time-Life production, actually – still the best book from the astronauts’ perspective, I think. I listened to the 24-hour unabridged audio version of that one late last year.

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