I believe 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 Earth. --President John F. Kennedy to a special joint session of Congress on May 25, 1961
On this date 39 years ago, the national goal set to us by Kennedy was accomplished when Apollo 11, carrying Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins, splashed down safely in the Pacific Ocean. Over eight years of singularly focused scientific and engineering discovery was realized in this achievement. Many people say it's still the greatest achievement of mankind.
Kennedy's challenge to the nation became a calling for a Cause and fired our national imagination. It forged the will within the nation such that nothing could stop the Cause. Not the daunting technical challenges. Not the tragic deaths of the Apollo 1 crew in a capsule fire during testing. Not the naysayers who cried the project was too expensive. Not the turbulent social upheaval of the 1960's. Not the Cuban Missile Crisis. Not the Vietnam War. Not the murder of John F. Kennedy, nor Martin Luther King, nor Robert Kennedy.
World War II was unquestionably the greatest focal period of the nation's collective spirit during the 20th century, but the Apollo program of the 1960's was surely the second. And at least during WWII, the need of singular focus on winning the war was obvious. And while the Apollo program was partially driven by Russianphobia, the benefits were certainly less nebulous than winning a war against the Axis Powers.
And the costs! According to Project Apollo article on Wikipedia, the final cost of the project was about $23 Billion in 1969 dollars ($135 Billion in 2005 dollars)! Again, other than war, when has any country committed itself to such an endeavor?
Kennedy knew the magnitude of the task he was setting, but as he said in his famous speech at Rice University:
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.
Setting such a bold goal for the country was a sign of great leadership. Somehow inspiring the public imagination and national will to actually accomplish the single greatest peacetime achievement in history, is, most assuredly, leadership truly worthy of being called presidential.
Something to think about in this election year.