When John F. Kennedy Told the World Why 'We Choose to Go to the Moon'

President John F. Kennedy urged Americans that going to the moon was within reach.
President John F. Kennedy urged Americans that going to the moon was within reach. / Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Often perceived as one of the more charismatic American presidents of the 20th century, John F. Kennedy had little trouble engaging the public with his political rhetoric. But even by those standards, Kennedy’s appearance at Rice University in Houston, Texas, on September 12, 1962, became a landmark moment in the country’s history. That was when Kennedy proclaimed it would be an American who would first set foot on the moon.

Kennedy made the appearance in front of a crowd of 35,000 people that day, and his motives for doing so were not difficult to discern. Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin made history on April 12, 1961, by becoming the first person in space. In a metaphorical sense, America needed to perform a little chest-thumping in what was then a fierce and tense period of one-upsmanship between the two countries.

The university had made Kennedy an honorary professor, which prompted the president to joke that his “first lecture would be very brief.” He continued:

“Those who came before us made certain that this country rode the first waves of the industrial revolutions, the first waves of modern invention, and the first wave of nuclear power, and this generation does not intend to founder in the backwash of the coming age of space. We mean to be a part of it--we mean to lead it. For the eyes of the world now look into space, to the moon and to the planets beyond, and we have vowed that we shall not see it governed by a hostile flag of conquest, but by a banner of freedom and peace. We have vowed that we shall not see space filled with weapons of mass destruction, but with instruments of knowledge and understanding. "Yet the vows of this nation can only be fulfilled if we in this nation are first, and, therefore, we intend to be first. In short, our leadership in science and in industry, our hopes for peace and security, our obligations to ourselves as well as others, all require us to make this effort, to solve these mysteries, to solve them for the good of all men, and to become the world's leading space-faring nation. “We set sail on this new sea because there is new knowledge to be gained, and new rights to be won, and they must be won and used for the progress of all people. For space science, like nuclear science and all technology, has no conscience of its own. Whether it will become a force for good or ill depends on man, and only if the United States occupies a position of pre-eminence can we help decide whether this new ocean will be a sea of peace or a new terrifying theater of war. I do not say that we should or will go unprotected against the hostile misuse of space any more than we go unprotected against the hostile use of land or sea, but I do say that space can be explored and mastered without feeding the fires of war, without repeating the mistakes that man has made in extending his writ around this globe of ours. “There is no strife, no prejudice, no national conflict in outer space as yet. Its hazards are hostile to us all. Its conquest deserves the best of all mankind, and its opportunity for peaceful cooperation many never come again. But why, some say, the moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? Why does Rice play Texas? "We choose to go to the moon. 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.”

This wasn’t Kennedy’s first time making such remarks. He had previously voiced the sentiment to a joint session of Congress in 1961. But this one was intended to rouse citizens. By delivering a stirring speech, Kennedy was able to muster up public support for a space program that would cost a tremendous amount of money. With that support, the U.S. government was willing to commit a staggering $25 billion to the space program, or roughly $100 billion in today's dollars.

Thanks to the efforts of NASA and the explorers willing to risk their lives in pursuit of a dream beyond our atmosphere, Kennedy’s ambition was realized on July 20, 1969, when Neil Armstrong became the first person to walk on the moon. It was, and remains, something far more than a lunar experience. By calling on the country to solve a massive logistical challenge and leave the confines of the planet, Kennedy was also urging the human race to dream bigger.

The podium in place for the speech is now on exhibit at Space Center Houston.