On May 25, 1961, President John F. Kennedy stood before Congress and delivered a bold proclamation. The U.S. should “commit itself,” he said, “to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth.”
To many, being able to send someone to another world 240,000 miles away (a distance equal to about nine-and-a-half loops around the Earth) within nine years seemed ridiculous—if not impossible. NASA had only just recently launched an astronaut, Alan Shepard, into space for the first time, and U.S. passenger jets had been around for only a few years. Color TVs were just making their way into people’s living rooms, and personal computers wouldn’t become common in homes for another three decades.
But Kennedy believed the times demanded an ambitious goal. Ever since the Soviets had launched the satellite Sputnik in 1957, triggering the space race (see Timeline, below), the U.S. had been trying to catch up, and many questioned whether it was falling behind its Communist rival technologically.
Nikita Khrushchev, the leader of the Soviet Union, had even used the country’s early successes in space to claim that “economy, science, culture, and the creative genius of people in all areas of life develop better and faster under Communism.”
Desperate to prove that capitalism and democracy were paramount, Kennedy told NASA’s administrator, James Webb: “Everything we do ought to really be tied into getting onto the moon ahead of the Russians.”