Not because they are easy

July 20, 2009

I appreciate your president having made me an honorary visiting professor, and I will assure you that my first lecture will be very brief.

I am delighted to be here and I’m particularly delighted to be here on this occasion.

Nice intro, get the laugh in early.

Despite the striking fact that most of the scientists that the world has ever known are alive and working today, despite the fact that this Nation’s own scientific manpower is doubling every 12 years in a rate of growth more than three times that of our population as a whole, despite that, the vast stretches of the unknown and the unanswered and the unfinished still far outstrip our collective comprehension.

Would that that were still the case, Mr President. What might have been, eh?

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.

My favourite bit… Everyone’s favourite bit, if I’m honest, even with the clunker “and do the other things” in the middle. Still get goosebumps reading it. The challenge, the leadership, the vision!

The growth of our science and education will be enriched by new knowledge of our universe and environment, by new techniques of learning and mapping and observation, by new tools and computers for industry, medicine, the home as well as the school.

Ah, if only Mr President. If only. No wait… that’s happened! MRI scans, CT scans, home computers, cellphones, satellite communication, heart-rate monitors, Velcro and mircowave ovens. Just off the top of my head.

During the next 5 years the National Aeronautics and Space Administration expects to double the number of scientists and engineers in this area, to increase its outlays for salaries and expenses to $60 million a year; to invest some $200 million in plant and laboratory facilities; and to direct or contract for new space efforts over $1 billion from this Center in this City.

That’s right, we’ll have to invent new technologies, create new roles, hell we’ll have to create new materials just to get the damn thing off the ground! And what a price tag. ZOMG!

To be sure, all this costs us all a good deal of money. This year’s space budget is three times what it was in January 1961, and it is greater than the space budget of the previous eight years combined. That budget now stands at $5,400 million a year – a staggering sum, though somewhat less than we pay for cigarettes and cigars every year. Space expenditures will soon rise some more, from 40 cents per person per week to more than 50 cents a week for every man, woman and child in the United Stated, for we have given this program a high national priority…

Wait a minute. Are you saying, Mr President, that we can go to the moon for less than Americans spend on cigarettes? Holy cow! That’s insane! Even in the 1960s with the cigarettes and the smoking and the oy!

And what, 40c each a week? Holy Mother-frakin’ crap! Is that it? What is it today? But wait, he’s still speaking.

[E]ven though I realize that this is in some measure an act of faith and vision, for we do not now know what benefits await us.

But if I were to say, my fellow citizens, that we shall send to the moon, 240,000 miles away from the control station in Houston, a giant rocket more than 300 feet tall, the length of this football field, made of new metal alloys, some of which have not yet been invented, capable of standing heat and stresses several times more than have ever been experienced, fitted together with a precision better than the finest watch, carrying all the equipment needed for propulsion, guidance, control, communications, food and survival, on an untried mission, to an unknown celestial body, and then return it safely to Earth, re-entering the atmosphere at speeds of over 25,000 miles per hour, causing heat about half that of the temperature of the sun–almost as hot as it is here today–and do all this, and do it right, and do it first before this decade is out–then we must be bold.

And there you have it. The truth of the matter. We will invent an entire industry, a new way of life, materials and equipment not yet built to get this thing off the ground to the moon and back in one piece.

The amazing thing is, they did. In the 1960s. They sent a capsule with limited computing power – less than a calculator digital watch had in the 1980s – to the moon. They flew it there and back, repeatedly. They survived the unknowable and the unthinkable and they returned to tell the tale.

Many years ago the great British explorer George Mallory, who was to die on Mount Everest, was asked why did he want to climb it. He said, “Because it is there.”

Well, space is there, and we’re going to climb it, and the moon and the planets are there, and new hopes for knowledge and peace are there. And, therefore, as we set sail we ask God’s blessing on the most hazardous and dangerous and greatest adventure on which man has ever embarked.

And then we stopped. We stopped going.

I can’t get over that. We simply stopped.

It’s now forty years after Armstrong stepped onto the surface. An entire generation has been born since we stopped going to the moon. An entire generation! That’s not right.

There are plenty of reasons not to go – it costs money, children need food, we shouldn’t be wasting money on this kind of jaunt, robots are cheaper, there’s nothing there to see, we’ve been there and done that, the money could be better spent elsewhere.

But we went for the right reasons, in public if not in the backrooms where I’m sure it was more to do with the Soviets and then Vietnam, and we should go back for all the right reasons: we will grow, we will learn, we will expand and we will be changed by what we find and by the finding itself.

We should struggle, we should take on the hardest of challenges, we should dream to do the impossible because without those dreams, all we’re doing is picking over the mundane.

The president’s speech was given at Rice University on September 12, 1962 and true to his word by the end of the decade we were standing on the moon.

Imagine where we’ll be in eight short years. The year is 2014 – will we be as far ahead of 2009 as Armstrong and Aldrin and Collins were eight years after Kennedy’s speech?

Happy Birthday, Apollo. I think it’s only now we’re truly beginning to realise just how audacious the goal was and how amazing it is that you did what you did. But I know you’ll forgive me if I wish for the day when we erase Gene Cernan‘s place in history as the last man to stand on the moon.

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2 Responses to “Not because they are easy”

  1. Ben Kepes Says:

    But you forger… there’s new challenges – bigger and bolder than even sending man to the moon.

    Creating the best ever iFart application for one, and amassing the greatest number of Facebook friends for another… And then there’s that entire search engine thing…

    No our challenges are way more terrestrial these days….

  2. audent Says:

    My godfathers, what a long post! How ridiculous.

    Yes, sadly we’re easily distracted these days. Surely the Generation X folk can get us out into space again? Can’t we?


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