On May 25, 1961, 58 years ago on Saturday, President Kennedy addressed a joint session of Congress with what is now called the Moonshot Speech. It was a month after the Bay of Pigs fiasco, the country was still climbing out of a recession that dogged the previous year’s presidential campaign, and JFK’s first hundred days didn’t compare well with the first hundred days of Franklin Roosevelt. In today’s golf terminology we might say JFK needed a Mulligan, a do-over, and the Moonshot speech was the vehicle.

Werner Von Braun and President John Kennedy with an early model of the Saturn V rocket.

Looking back at the success of the Apollo program you might think going to the moon was no big deal, but from the perspective of 1961, it was a big ask, a heavy lift. The US and USSR were already competing in space with launch vehicles which, to that point, were designed to lift the occasional satellite or more likely a nuclear warhead.

The Russians had much bigger rockets than the US, mostly because their nuclear program could only produce a warhead that weighed an incredible 11,000 pounds compared with the much smaller, but no less lethal, US warheads that were just over ten percent of the Russians’ devices. They had bigger rockets because they needed them; we didn’t. Still that was something we didn’t discuss. All we could admit was that the Soviets had superior space lift ability.

They’d launched Sputnik a few years earlier and put the first man into space, Uri Gagarin. A few weeks before the speech the US had launched Alan Shephard on a sub-orbital ride making us officially number two in a two-nation space race.

Kennedy would not accept being second and throughout the weeks prior to the speech his staff looked for something else we could be first in because space was seen as a vast and almost unbounded expense. but there was nothing else. At a 1961 press conference Kennedy was prescient saying, “I have said that I thought that if we could ever competitively, at a cheap rate, get fresh water from salt water, that it would be in the long-range interests of humanity which would really dwarf any other scientific accomplishments.” He was right as we can see now with climate change and erratic weather and droughts in many places. But back then space was sizzle, water was the steak and sizzle sells.

According to Kennedy’s Science Advisor Committee chair Jerome Wiesner, as of April 1961, “Kennedy was, and was not, for space. He said to me, ‘Why don’t you find something else we can do?’ We couldn’t. Space was the only thing we could do that would show off our military power. … These rockets were a surrogate for military power. He had no real options.”

But in selecting the moon and giving it a completion date, Kennedy turned the tables on the Russians. Any successful moon excursion would require planning, tracking, multiple different vehicles for launch, transfer, and descent to the lunar surface. All of it would have to be made from scratch. In selecting the moon, Kennedy gave the US a chance to win by nullifying the Soviets’ early lead in rockets.

The speech

Though the speech is primarily remembered for Kennedy’s stirring call to go to the moon it was really designed to give him a few legislative wins. In all he made 9 proposals mostly for incrementally adding to budget appropriations for everything from Polaris submarines to missile systems, to job training, civil defense, and reorganizing the Army and Marine Corps. He was offering congress pork barrel spending that could easily pass giving him a needed legislative victory.

But when he got to proposal 9, space appropriations, the speech changed gears. That part of the speech is twice as long as the average for the other proposals and the language is different. He had begun by speaking about “the lands of the rising peoples” the non-aligned countries of what would become the third world and the importance of winning their hearts and minds. They were an important part of his audience.

The Soviets were actively recruiting those same countries and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev was launching small wars of national liberation and the US and its allies were finding it difficult to snuff out those brush fires once they started. So Kennedy needed a recruiting tool to conclusively prove that our system of democratic capitalism was better than totalitarian socialism. The space program was that tool.

You know the rest of the story. We beat the Soviets to the moon. But more importantly, the economic stimulus of the space program transformed this country from a manufacturing colossus to one that oozed high technology. It prodded a generation of kids to study science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) and not just in the US but globally. It’s no exaggeration to say it made today’s world.

My two bits

A few years after the Apollo moon landings, the High-Tech era got underway. I trace the earliest events to Digital Equipment Corporation’s introduction of the first mini-computer, the PDP-8 in 1965 though it would be another five or so years before massive adoption began and High-Tech took off. The PDP-8 supported 4 users and had a list price of $18,500 equivalent to $147,100 in 2018. It was a lot of money but cheap compared to what the mainframes of the day cost.

Mini-computers made it possible for developers to experiment, to try new things and even to start businesses. When the Apollo program ended, the shuttle program followed but it had a smaller footprint and thousands of newly trained engineers went looking for work. Many found it in startups and software companies that began doing big business in applications for accounting and manufacturing. The rest is history.

The PDP series of mini-computers were not what would later be called micro-computers. Mini’s and mainframes of the era used CPU boards that were hand wired and soldered together, one reason for the high prices. Shrinking the CPU to a chip, making it a microcomputer happened later and when the PC trend got going, microcomputer was a term used synonymously with them but today all computers are micros.

For more than 50 years we’ve been living in what’s called the Age of Information and Telecommunications made possible by the computer chip and especially the Apollo program that gave such a boost to the tech sector. But economic forces have commoditized much of tech. Cloud computing makes tech ubiquitous and hand held devices costing under $1,000 flood the market making computing and information available to almost any person on the planet. Profit margins are rather thin, too.

A new economic era is beginning which I call the Age of Sustainability. Kennedy’s initial idea that humanity could significantly benefit from a cheap way to get fresh water from the oceans seems more obvious than ever. Indeed our need for environmental solutions is beginning to drive the economy just as the Space Race with the Russians did half a century ago. It’s all within our reach thanks to the science and engineering advances of the last half century. The Moonshot started all this and Kennedy’s speech on May 25, 1961 was the kickoff.

Researcher, author of multiple books including “The Age of Sustainability” about solutions for climate change. Technology, business, economics.

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