On this day 60 years ago, President John F. Kennedy pledged the US would land a person on the moon. Decades later, NASA has a plan to go back.
- September 12 marks 60 years since President Kennedy delivered his famous "moon speech" at Rice University in Texas.
- NASA plans to land astronauts on the moon for the first time since 1972 with its Artemis missions.
Standing behind a podium at Rice University's football stadium 60 years ago, President John F. Kennedy pledged the United States would put boots on the moon by the end of the decade.
"But why, some say, the moon?" he posed to the crowd of 40,000 people on September 12, 1962. "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? 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."
In the 60 years since Kennedy's speech, space exploration has helped us discover much about the cosmos and humanity's place within it.
Bill Nelson, NASA's administrator, gave a keynote speech at Rice University's football stadium on Monday, where he mentioned how, with the Artemis missions, the space agency is poised to return to the moon for the first time in half a century — this time to stay.
"There are defining days when minds change, hearts fill, and imagination soar. One of those days happened 60 years ago, at the same stadium in the same sweltering heat of a sunny September day," Nelson told the crowd, which included NASA officials, astronauts, and students.
"Today, in Space City, a new generation — the Artemis generation — stands ready to return humanity to the moon and then to take us further than ever before, to Mars. It's not going to be easy. It's going to be hard," he added.
'We choose to go to the moon'
Kennedy gave the iconic speech amid a fierce space race with the Soviet Union; it'd been a year since the USSR's earth-shaking achievement of putting the first person, Yuri Gagarin, in space in 1961.
In the speech, Kennedy wanted to explain to the nation why the Apollo program was such a high priority. He stressed that humanity's charge into space is a given, and that the world would be better off with the US leading that charge."For the eyes of the world now look into space, to the moon and to the planets beyond, and we have vowed that we shall not see it governed by a hostile flag of conquest, but by a banner of freedom and peace," he said. "We have vowed that we shall not see space filled with weapons of mass destruction, but with instruments of knowledge and understanding."
Just seven years after Kennedy's speech at Rice University, on July 20, 1969, Apollo 11 commander Neil Armstrong stepped off the Lunar Module's ladder and onto the Moon's surface.
60 years of exploration
NASA landed five more missions on the moon, with the last of them — Apollo 17 — touching down in 1972. And while there have been no boots on the moon since then, the space agency continued sending humans off into space.
Skylab, the first US-operated outpost in space, was launched into Earth orbit on May 14, 1973. Observations of the Sun were one of the orbiting laboratory's primary achievements, according to NASA. It spent six years orbiting Earth until its decaying orbit caused it to reenter the atmosphere, scattering debris over the Indian Ocean and parts of Australia.
Between 1981 and July 2011, NASA's space shuttle fleet — Columbia, Challenger, Discovery, Atlantis, and Endeavour — flew 135 missions, taking more than 350 astronauts into space.
And since November 2, 2000, humanity has had a continuous presence on the International Space Station.
Going back to the moon
In a bid to return astronauts to the lunar surface, NASA has spent 17 years and an estimated $50 billion developing the Space Launch System and its Orion spaceship.
The bright new SLS rocket stands taller than the Statue of Liberty, at 23 stories, with the spaceship secured up top. Four car-sized engines and two rocket boosters should give it enough thrust to push Orion all the way around the moon — farther than any spacecraft built for humans has ever flown. That's where NASA's first SLS mission, called Artemis I, is taking it.
When it launches, as soon as September 23, the SLS rocket should deliver the Orion spaceship on a trajectory to circle the moon and return to Earth.
There won't be any people on board, but if the spaceship successfully completes its mission, NASA plans to put astronauts in the Orion module for another trip around the moon, then land them on the lunar surface, in 2025.
"This is now the Artemis generation," Nelson said at a press briefing on August 3. "We were in the Apollo generation, but this is a new generation, this is a new type of astronaut. And to all of us that gaze up at the moon, dreaming of the day humankind returns to the lunar surface, folks, we're here. We are going back and that journey, our journey, begins with Artemis I."
This story has been updated with new information. It was originally published on August 20, 2022.
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