From JFK's Moonshot to the Mission to Mars: A Historical Perspective

May 08, 2017 • Blog Post • By The Atlantic Re:Think


  • A moonshot - like JFK's 1961 challenge to Congress - can serve as a political and societal rally cry
  • Like the Apollo missions, the mission to Mars will not only be about the final destination, but about the discoveries we make along the way

Nearly 50 years ago, mankind reached the Moon - remembering what it took could help us make it to Mars

On May 25, 1961, President John F. Kennedy gave a speech before a joint session of Congress that would mark a turning point in American history. The country was at a crossroads. The Civil Rights movement was in full swing, tensions with the Soviet Union were at an all-time high and the United States had just elected the charismatic Senator from Massachusetts, in part because of his campaign promise to assure "every American, of every race and creed, equal opportunity in all the activities of our national life."

Weeks before, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin had become the first person in space, and Alan Shepard became the first American in space shortly thereafter. President Kennedy put an ambitious goal before Congress and the nation that day: land a man on the Moon before the end of the decade.

That mission was accomplished with Apollo 11 on July 20, 1969, and the term "moonshot" became synonymous with an ambitious and exploratory task (that also requires a large investment of time and money). This generation's moonshot may instead be a Mars-shot, with NASA hoping to send humans to the Red Planet by the 2030s. Understanding how the original Apollo program changed the culture, technology and politics of its time can help us appreciate what such an undertaking actually means.

According to former chief NASA historian Roger Launius, Kennedy's Apollo plan was a direct reaction to the geopolitical climate at the time. In the span of just one week in April of 1961, the USSR launched Gagarin into orbit and the CIA-backed Bay of Pigs invasion in Cuba failed dramatically.

"One was a very negative military defeat and the other was this defeat in war by other means", Launius said. "Consequently, those two failures meant Kennedy felt that he had to do something to change the dynamic." So Kennedy directed Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson - who was also the Chairman of the National Space Council - to create an agenda item related to space that could serve as a political win and a source of national uplift.

The moonshot was that item. President Kennedy went to Congress in May 1961 to ask them to double NASA's 1962 budget to $600 million so the U.S. could "take a clearly leading role in space achievement", which he described as "the key to our future on Earth."

After President Kennedy's assassination in November 1963, as Johnson pursued his bracingly ambitious social agenda, he continued to advocate for the space program and the Apollo mission in particular. "I think there's every reason to believe that Johnson viewed the Apollo program and the space program as a part of his Great Society initiatives", Launius said. At its peak, the Apollo program employed more than 400,000 people and contracted with 20,000 private enterprises and universities, which gave a huge boost to the economy of the South, helping smooth the way for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The technological challenges were daunting. Scientists had to develop a command module that could sustain human life, a lunar module that would allow two astronauts to land, explore and lift off again, a power platform capable of getting them and their cargo to the moon and back and the computational precision to make the trip possible. It took Projects Mercury, Gemini and Apollo, and $24.5 billion, but in 1969, Neil Armstrong took "one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind" as an estimated 530 million people back on Earth watched the event live.

That pinnacle of human achievement also brought about important technological advances back on Earth. Spacesuits were adapted to create life support systems for firefighters, which were a third lighter than their previous equipment. A light, battery-powered drill was necessary for the astronauts to collect moon rocks, leading to the development of countless cordless tools we still use today. Apollo technology even led to the development of the programmable pacemaker, which has saved numerous lives since.

Almost 50 years after those first steps, we are at another watershed moment in space exploration.

The Mars mission has been a goal of NASA's for decades and significant progress has already been made in building and testing the equipment for the expedition. A joint test of the Space Launch System and Orion crew vehicle is scheduled for 2018. Joe Cassady, executive director, space at Aerojet Rocketdyne and board member of the nonprofit outreach and education group Explore Mars said the Trump administration is interested in the potential for a manned launch to fly around the Moon by 2019.

CEO Chris Carberry of Explore Mars believes that the Apollo program was able to show what countries can do and produce with great motivations, and can drive us to achieve similar goals today. The technology we develop to assist the mission is sure to ultimately be adapted for use on Earth - everything from new computing capabilities and systems like HPEs Memory-Driven Computing to cameras and sensors that intelligently track astronauts' wellness, to all the unprecedented scientific discoveries we could make on Mars.

"If we believe we can do great things, if our national outlook is looking positive, that will translate directly into the economy", he said. "I think it's a win-win in many respects."

Just as the investment in going to the Moon boosted both the nation's morale and economy - and gave us such ancillary benefits as CAT scans and smoke detectors - the ultimate benefit of the mission to Mars may be the one hardest to predict or calculate. "The knowledge that we gained through that process has changed the way in which we view the universe", Launius said. As President Kennedy told Americans in 1962, "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."