The cosmos contains countless captivating curiosities, and we know about them thanks to the efforts of scientists and astronomical inquiry.
September marks 60 years since President John F. Kennedy truly ignited the United States space exploration program’s boosters.
On Sept. 12, 1962, while speaking at the Rice University football stadium, he delivered one of his famous oratorical flourishes aimed to gin up support for the country’s space program.
“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,” Kennedy said.
This came six weeks after Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin secured his place in history as the first person in space and more than a year after Kennedy had first urged a joint session of Congress to spend more money on the nation’s space program to put an American on the moon before the end of the 1960s.
Congress moved slowly, though, so the Rice address sought public support for the simmering space race.
And it worked.
According to Space Center Houston, a science and space exploration learning center operated by the nonprofit Manned Space Flight Education Foundation, “The U.S. government committed approximately $25 billion to the program, equivalent to over $100 billion today.”
At the time, NASA was less than 5 years old and existed thanks to President Dwight D. Eisenhower singing the National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958 on July 29 of that year to establish the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, yet Kennedy was determined that a United States astronaut would touch the lunar surface.
Part of this undoubtedly stemmed from the desire to, as Mike Wall reported for Space.com, “one-up its Cold War rival, the Soviet Union [. . .] And it wasn’t just about pride and politics. The project that became Apollo was also viewed as a national security priority, a way to showcase the United States’ technological prowess and convince unaligned nations to cast their lots with the capitalist superpower rather than the communist one.”
Eventually, Kennedy achieved his goal and beat the Soviets to the moon, even if he didn’t live to see it. On July 16, 1969, as part of Apollo 11, Neil Armstrong stepped into the history books and onto the lunar surface before walking around for three hours with fellow astronaut Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin.
Though this was, as Armstrong famously proclaimed, “one giant leap for mankind,” it was only the beginning of space exploration.
For example, the James Webb Space Telescope launched on Christmas Day 2021 and sent back its first images in July 2022. JWST is notable for being the largest optical telescope in space, and its design allows scientists to conduct infrared astronomy, opening up new ways to see the universe and understand space’s history.
As Joel Achenbach reported for the Washington Post, JWST is “a tool for capturing some of the first light of the universe, emitted not very long after the big bang,” which is important because astronomy serves as “a form of cosmic archaeology, because everything we see is a snapshot of some point in the past.”
And don’t forget NASA landed the Curiosity and Perseverance rovers on Mars, which sets the stage for eventually sending humans to the Red Planet.
To accomplish such a goal, though, NASA plans to go back to the moon to lay the groundwork that will allow astronauts to rocket over to Earth’s closest neighbor.
This is the goal of the Artemis project, which will focus on establishing a station in lunar orbit (the Gateway) and building a research station on the surface (Artemis Base Camp) before possibly welcoming paying customers who wish to visit the moon.
Notably, according to NASA, the Artemis missions “will land the first woman and first person of color on the Moon,” which is another giant leap for mankind.
Though national attention may not be as focused on space exploration as it once was, thrilling work is being done. It is worth our collective connection and support as the efforts expand human knowledge, which will lead to even greater accomplishments.
So the next time you gaze at the night sky, take in the wonder of space, and consider the past, present and future of society’s cosmic achievements. Nearly every day history is being made. It’s an exciting time to be alive.
Most importantly, though, follow the advice of the late Jack Horkheimer, former host of “Star Gazers” on PBS: “Keep looking up.”
Todd Vogts is a native of Canton, a resident of McPherson County, and an assistant professor of media at Sterling College. He can be contacted with questions or comments via his website at www.toddvogts.com.