It has been over 56 years since President Kennedy stood before Congress and challenged this nation to reach into the heavens — to explore the cold, vast emptiness of the space that exists beyond our blue skies.
Our nation was still reeling from the embarrassment of having lost the space race. Sputnik had been launched four years earlier. Just a few months before Kennedy’s challenge, Yuri Gagarin, had lifted off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome, to became the first person to leave this little blue planet and return home safely.
Sputnik caused a furor in American, but it really wasn’t much of a satellite. It was roughly the size of a basketball. It didn’t gather any data, but only transmitted radio pulses so it could be tracked. It orbited the earth for just a few months before it reentered our atmosphere.
None of this — neither the Sputnik launch or the orbital flight of Gagarin — deterred President Kennedy from making his historic challenge to congress in May of 1961. At that time, he stood before the nation and said, “This nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth.”
At that time, and for the next decade, our nation invested heavily in space exploration. Within a short period of time, Alan Shepard led the way into space; followed by Gus Grissom, John Glenn, Scott Carpenter, Wally Schirra and Gordon Cooper; the Mercury astronauts.
What created this nation’s laser-like focus on space exploration was not just the challenge of President Kennedy, but it was also the inspiration he provided to the scientists who designed the rockets that lifted our astronauts from Cape Canaveral and the space capsules that protected them from the harsh vacuum of space.
Many people said it couldn’t be done. Many people said that it was a foolish mission. Many people thought we should forget the challenge of exploring space.
Certainly, there were plenty of challenges on earth that needed attention — the war in Vietnam, civil rights, the assassinations and riots of the 1960s that were tearing our nation apart. These were problems that required our attention, but our government did not allow those problems to turn our attention from the exploration of space.
There was a good reason for that.
Just a year after President Kennedy issued his challenge, he addressed a crowd of 35,000 at Rice University in Houston. He told the crowd, “We choose to go to the moon! We choose to go to the moon, not because it is easy, but because it is hard; because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skill, because that challenge is one we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win.”
President Kennedy issued a clear challenge, with a clear goal and he inspired the brightest minds in America to accomplish that mission. He inspired our nation.
He also inspired Gene Kranz.
Kranz was only 31 years old when he became NASA’s Flight Director. He was in charge of Mission Control when the moon landing mission, commanded by Neil Armstrong, blasted off in 1969.
Many of the older, experienced scientists and engineers of the 1960s did not believe the mission was possible. They had severe doubts and reservations. One of the first things Kranz did was to assemble a team of people who believed in the mission. They were young scientists and engineers who not only believed in the mission, but also believed in their ability to work together to accomplish that mission.
The average age of the people who manned mission control at the time of the Apollo 11 flight was 26 years old. Many of them were just in high school when President Kennedy first issued this historic challenge.
Mark Twain has been quoted as saying, “All you need in this life is ignorance and confidence, and then success is sure.” Kranz surrounded himself with young people who did not believe the mission was impossible. They believed in themselves and believed in their ability to achieve the impossible.
On July 20, 1969, they achieved that dream. Those young people, inspired and challenged, achieved the impossible. They allowed Neil Armstrong to take “one giant leap for mankind.”
Our nation is still faced with challenges, demands and problems that many people feel will be impossible to solve. We must inspire our young people. We must give them the tools they need to achieve their dreams.
If so, we will walk on Mars and we might even find a cure for cancer, heart disease and hunger.
Randy Riley is President of Council of Wilmington.