KENNEDY'S NEW OCEAN
"The most difficult thing is the decision to act. The rest is merely tenacity."
"It will not be one man going to the moon . . . it will be an entire nation. For all of us must work to put him there."
—PRESIDENT JOHN F. KENNEDY, MAY 25, 1961
Even the White House ushers were abuzz on the morning of October 10, 1963, because President John F. Kennedy was honoring the Mercury Seven—astronauts Lieutenant Scott Carpenter (USN), Captain Leroy "Gordo" Cooper (USAF), Lieutenant Colonel John Glenn (USMC), Captain Virgil "Gus" Grissom (USAF), Lieutenant Commander Walter "Wally" Schirra (USN), Lieutenant Alan Shepard (USN), and Captain Donald "Deke" Slayton (USAF)—with the coveted Collier Trophy that afternoon in a Rose Garden affair. (Robert J. Collier had been an editor of Collier's Weekly
in the early twentieth century; he promoted the careers of Orville and Wilbur Wright, believing deeply that flight was going to revolutionize transportation.) The trophy had been established in 1911 to be presented annually for "the greatest achievement in aeronautics in America," with a bent toward military aviation. At the Mercury ceremony were representatives from such Project Mercury aerospace contractors as McDonnell Aircraft Corporation (designers of the capsule) and Chrysler Corporation (which fabricated the Redstone rockets for the U.S. Army's missile team in Huntsville, Alabama). Kennedy wanted to personally congratulate the "Magnificent Seven" astronauts, all household names, for their intrepid service to the country. And his remarks marked the end of the Mercury projects after six successful space missions.
At the formal ceremony, Kennedy, in a fun-loving, jaunty mood, full of gregariousness and humor, presented the flyboy legends with the prize. It was the first occasion for all seven spacemen and their wives to be together at the White House since the maiden astronaut, Alan Shepard, accepted a Distinguished Service Award for his Mercury suborbital flight of fifteen minutes to an altitude of 116.5 miles on May 5, 1961. Surrounding Kennedy as he spoke were such aviation history dignitaries as Jimmy Doolittle, Jackie Cochran, and Hugh Dryden. Instead of recounting the Mercury Seven's space exploits in rote fashion, Kennedy used the opportunity to drive home his brazen pledge of 1961, that the United States would place an astronaut on the moon by the decade's end. Scoffing at critics of Project Apollo (NASA's moonshot program) as being as thickheaded as those fools who laughed at the Wright brothers in 1903 before the Kitty Hawk flights, he turned visionary. "Some of us may dimly perceive where we are going and may not feel this is of the greatest prestige to us," Kennedy said. "I am confident that its significance, its uses and benefits will become as obvious as the Sputnik
satellite is to us, as the airplane is to us. I hope this award, which in effect closes out the particular phase of the program, will be a stimulus to them and to the other astronauts who will carry our flag to the moon and perhaps someday, beyond."
For Kennedy, much depended on the United States going to the moon, beating the Soviet Union, being first
, winning the Cold War in the name of democracy and freedom, and planting the American flag on the lunar surface. Just five weeks later, Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas. Writing the president's obituary in Aviation Week & Space Technology
on December 2, 1963, editor Robert Hotz, who had been at the Collier Trophy ceremony that October, predicted that when a NASA astronaut walked on the moon in less than six years' time, Kennedy, America's thirty-fifth president, would be honored as a spacefaring seer whose eternal marching command to his fellow countrymen was "Forward!"
Even though Kennedy wasn't alive for the fulfillment of his May 25, 1961, pledge to a joint session of Congress to land a "man on the moon" and return him safely to Earth, the marvel of television made it possible for more than a half-billion people to watch the historic Apollo 11
mission in real time, and I was one of them. On July 20, 1969, when Neil Armstrong gingerly descended from the spider-like lunar module the Eagle
with his hefty backpack and bulky space suit, becoming the first human on the moon, I cheered like a banshee. I was only eight years old that summer, and watching all things Apollo 11
—from the nearly two-hundred-hour galactic journey out of the Space Coast of Florida to splashdown in the Pacific Ocean—became my obsession. I didn't miss a moment of the long, nerve-racking chain of events that led to the Eagle
establishing the moon base Sea of Tranquility (named in advance by Armstrong). I vividly remember our astronauts planting the American flag on the lunarscape, bouncing on the desolate moon's surface, handling instruments, and procuring moon rocks.