"Not Because They are Easy, but Because They are Hard"
Kennedy’s September 1962 trip to space installations was intended to give him a sense of the character and scope of the accelerated space effort he had approved in May 1961. At Huntsville, he saw one of the very large F-1 engines that would be used to power the Moon rocket, and witnessed a test firing of the engines of the first stage of the Saturn 1 booster that generated 1.5 million pounds of thrust. At the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station and the NASA Launch Operations Center on Merritt Island in Florida, he saw the launch pad from which two Saturn 1 boosters had already been successfully launched, and was briefed on the Gemini and Apollo programs. He told the NASA staff at the Launch Operations Center that “as long as the decision has been made that our great system and others will be judged at least in one degree by how we do in the field of space, we might as well be first.”14 On the flight from Florida to his next stop in Houston, Kennedy spent more than an hour in informal conversation regarding both the civilian and the military space programs with BOB director Bell, director of defense research and engineering Harold Brown, and Seamans of NASA. Kennedy was surprised to discover that he and Seamans had both been members of the Class of 1940 at Harvard. (James Webb was on a separate plane with Vice President Johnson.)
The trip also provided an opportunity to make a major speech on the reasons behind his decision to go to the Moon; that speech is often confused with the May 25, 1961, address to a joint session of Congress during which Kennedy had announced his decision. At 10:00 a. m. on September 12, 1962, on a day that was oppressively hot and humid, President Kennedy addressed a Houston crowd of more than 40,000 people, mostly students, in the Rice University football stadium. Like many other of the president’s speeches, various government agencies had suggested to the White House what Kennedy might say; in this case, material had been submitted to JFK’s top speechwriter Theodore Sorensen from at least NASA, BOB, the State Department, and by Sorensen’s brother Tom at the U. S. Information Agency. Sorensen drew on ideas, phrases, and words from most of these inputs in drafting Kennedy’s Rice University speech, but he was a consummate master of spoken rhetoric, and his drafts transcended the sometimes pedestrian content of the agency submissions. Even so, most of Kennedy’s speeches as president, including this memorable space address, were group products.
The Rice University speech is perhaps most remembered for the line “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.” The original version of this sentence was actually suggested by NASA; the agency’s lengthy input into the speech preparation included the sentences: “We chose to go to the moon in this decade not because it will be easy, but because it will be hard. It will bring out the best in us.” These words formed the basis of a much more eloquent declaration. As Kennedy spoke, he substituted the word “choose” for the word “chose,” and said, “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.” Among the other memorable sentences in Kennedy’s Rice University address are the following:
“The exploration of space will go ahead, whether we join it or not, and it is one of the great adventures of all time, and no nation which expects to be the leader of other nations can expect to stay behind in the race for space.”
“This generation does not intend to founder in the backwash of the coming age of space. We mean to be part of it—we mean to lead it.” (This last sentence was extemporized rather than in the prepared text of the speech.)
“We set sail on this new sea because there is new knowledge to be gained, and new rights to be won, and they must be won and used for the progress of all people.”
“But why, some say, the moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask why climb the highest mountain. Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? Why does Rice play Texas?” (This last sentence was written into the speech’s reading text in Kennedy’s hand.) “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 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.”15
President Kennedy completed his tour of space installations later in the day, first visiting the temporary quarters of the new Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston, then flying to St. Louis to visit the plant of the McDonnell Aircraft Corporation, where the Mercury and Gemini spacecraft were developed. By the time he returned to the White House, Kennedy had had an apparent change of mind; rather than giving high priority to controlling the costs of sending Americans to the Moon, Kennedy wanted to know “how soon can we get there?”