One of the most famous speeches given by President John Fitzgerald Kennedy was at Rice University on September 12, 1962, where he 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.” How was such a deadline determined given the enormous complexity of such an endeavor?
For context, consider the events of the preceding year. In Kennedy’s brief time since taking office on January 20, 1961, the US suffered two Cold War defeats. On April 12, cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human to reach space, making one full orbit of Earth during a 108-minute mission. Less than a week later, CIA-trained Cuban exiles were defeated by USSR-backed Fidel Castro in three short days. The following month, Alan Shepard made a successful, sub-orbital, 15-minute-flight in a Mercury capsule and, on May 25, Kennedy told Congress that the United States faced extraordinary challenges:
If we are to win the battle that is going on around the world between freedom and tyranny, if we are to win the battle for men’s minds, the dramatic achievements in space which occurred in recent weeks should have made clear to us all, as did the Sputnik in 1957, the impact of this adventure on the minds of men everywhere who are attempting to make a determination of which road they should take… We go into space because whatever mankind must undertake, free men must fully share.
I believe this Nation should commitment itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish.
Originally, the deadline was to be in 1967, the 50th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution in the USSR, but even Kennedy and his advisors thought that less than six years was unrealistic. But there were many significant unknowns between May 1961 and October 1962 that required a dedicated, talented, and focused talent pool.
One of the critical early NASA management decisions was the basic method of going to the Moon:
- Direct Ascent needed a huge booster (bigger than Saturn V!) to send the spacecraft directly to the Moon, land a large vehicle, and send a fraction of it back to Earth.
- Earth-Orbit Rendezvous was first alternative to Direct Ascent. Various modules would be assembled in orbit above the Earth, refueled, and sent to the Moon, using the same large landing vehicle.
- Lunar-Orbit Rendezvous sent an entire lunar mission in one launch. With the main spacecraft in orbit around the moon, a separated lander was sent to the lunar surface. It was the simplest of the three methods, both in terms of development and operational costs, though it was risky.
The Lunar-Orbit Rendezvous mode was “officially” decided on November 7, 1962, almost a month after the famous Rice speech. Most of the technical and management problems were known by then, making Kennedy’s statement reasonable but still aggressive.
There were setbacks in the program that made it difficult to keep the deadline. On January 27, 1967 while testing Apollo 1 at the Kennedy Space Center, a spark ignited combustible materials in an oxygen rich atmosphere, killing Gus Grissom, Edward White, and Roger B. Chaffee. To help get the program back on schedule, the “all-up” concept tested the entire Apollo-Saturn system together on November 9, 1967. The Lunar Excursion Module (LEM) had significant weight and performance issues (built by the Grumman “Iron Works”) that delayed landing until Apollo 11 on July 20, 1969.
Could we accomplish such a mission today with the tight deadline? As discussed in a NASA Retrospective Analysis (2014):
The scientific and engineering communities within NASA, additionally, were not monolithic, and differences among them thrived. Add to these groups representatives from industry, universities, and research facilities, and competition on all levels to further their own scientific and technical areas was the result. The NASA leadership generally viewed this pluralism as a positive force within the space program, for it ensured that all sides aired their views and emphasized the honing of positions to a fine edge.
Even with access to proven hardware and an equivalent budget ($25 billion in the 1960’s is over $120 billion today), we probably couldn’t reach the Moon within eight years with our present dysfunctional culture. The media of the 1960’s was behind the effort, and various distractions from social justice warriors and political correctness were relatively unknown. Moreover, most of the NASA community had experienced World War II and/or Korea, where extraneous constraints might get you killed. And while women and minorities ccontribute to present missions, having a relatively homogeneous group with wartime experience (home and abroad) made it possible to have strong views yet agree on the common goal. It a unique time in modern USA that has passed.