On April 4, 1961,
a clear message was sent to America, and it was a message we were not ready
to hear. The space race was on, and America was losing. With
the roar of a rocket engine, Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space.
It was a coveted honor sought deeply by America, but on that day, the Soviet
Union held the prize.
One month later on May 5, flying a Mercury-Redstone rocket designated Freedom
7, Alan Shepard became the first American in space with a suborbital flight
lasting about 15 minutes. Astronaut John Glenn followed on February
20, 1962 and became the first American to orbit the Earth. The flight
completed three orbits, and Glenn experienced approximately four and a half
hours of weightlessness.
With only a handful of launches comprising the sum total of U.S. manned space
flight experience, President John F. Kennedy spoke words that would transform
America's space program and leave little doubt that the space race was a
race America would win.
Speaking at Rice University in Houston, Texas on September 12, 1962, Kennedy
said, "We meet at a college noted for knowledge, in a city noted for progress,
in a state noted for strength, and we stand in need of all three, for we
meet in an hour of change and challenge, in a decade of hope and fear, in
an age of both knowledge and ignorance. The greater our knowledge increases,
the greater our ignorance unfolds."
Kennedy recalled the great achievements that marked America's rise to prominence,
and he also focused on two indelible traits of the American spirit:
our need to explore and our drive to discover.
"Those who came before us made certain that this country rode the first waves
of the industrial revolutions, the first waves of modern invention, and the
first wave of nuclear power, and this generation does not intend to founder
in the backwash of the coming age of space," Kennedy said.
"We mean to be a part of it -- we mean to lead it," the president added.
Kennedy said that the eyes of the world "now look into space, to the moon
and to the planets beyond," and he vowed that space shall not be "governed
by a hostile flag of conquest, but by a banner of freedom and peace."
And so with little collective experience, America received its first space
mandate. Kennedy called on the engineers, scientists, and support personnel
of a new organization called NASA to "go to the moon in this decade and do
the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard."
From that moment, by tapping into the American spirit, by inspiring America's
sense of exploration and discovery, the space race was won even though it
would be almost seven years before Neil Armstrong would first set foot on
In the decade following President Kennedy's historic speech, America explored
the moon and accomplished the president's goals. As Astronaut Gene Cernan,
the last man to walk on the moon, spoke the final words from the barren world,
"We leave as we came, and God willing as we shall return, with peace and
hope for all mankind," America was wondering what would come next.
A permanent base on the moon? A manned mission to Mars? There
were no limits on what America would do.
Without a doubt, much has been accomplished since America's last lunar landing.
The Space Shuttle showed that a reusable vehicle, one that could launch as
a rocket and land as a glider, was not only feasible, but would become the
workhorse for the entire U.S. manned space program for over 20 years.
The Hubble Space Telescope has delivered images never seen by human eyes
and has led to countless new discoveries about our galaxy and beyond.
Through the work of NASA, technologies were developed which are now used
in medicine on a daily basis. CAT scanners and MRI machines were developed
as a direct result of NASA research and application.
However, despite all the successes and spinoffs NASA has achieved and pioneered
since the last lunar landing, there has been something missing -- something
whose impact cannot be measured or quantified, yet is as real as the sun
warming our skin or the feeling when seeing the Grand Canyon for the first
time. Human exploration is vital to the health of the American spirit,
and it has been missing from NASA, the only agency capable of delivering
it, for over a generation.
That all changed when President George W. Bush put forward the second great American space mandate.
"Today I announce a new plan to explore space and extend a human presence
across our solar system," President Bush said from NASA headquarters in Washington,
"We will begin the effort quickly, using existing programs and personnel.
We'll make steady progress -- one mission, one voyage, one landing at a time,"
the president added.
I feel fortunate to have been there, probably only twenty feet away from
the president, as he changed the course of NASA and inspired not only an
agency and industry still mourning the loss of the crew of the Space Shuttle
Columbia, but also a country whose inherent need to explore and discover
has been stifled for so long.
President Bush called for a return of Space Shuttle flights as soon as possible.
He also pointed America to the moon, Mars, and beyond.
"This will be a great and unifying mission for NASA, and we know that you'll
achieve it," President Bush said to all assembled and all who were watching.
For me, the most touching moment of the speech came when President Bush quoted
Gene Cernan's final words from the moon. The president then turned
and, looking directly at Cernan, said, "America will make those words come
In addition to the hard work of talented engineers and scientists, there
are three factors which must be in place for America to explore the heavens:
vision and leadership from the president of the United States, financial
backing from the Congress, and support from the American people. President
Bush showed with his speech that presidential leadership and vision for renewed
space exploration are there. The American public has historically supported
manned space flight and continues to do so today.
The only variable is how far Congress will go in delivering on President
Bush's mandate for space. If America is to continue to lead in space
as the American public expects, if America is to satisfy its need for discovery,
then it is up to all Americans to let Congress know how we feel.
Following President Bush's speech, I talked with Gene Cernan to get his reactions.
He was moved, elated, and touched by the president's words. The emotion
that he conveyed is hard to put into words. When I asked him if he
thought decades would pass with no one following his walk on the Moon, he
"I thought we would return to the moon within five years of my mission,"
Cernan told me. "I figured by the end of the century, we would be undertaking
missions to Mars."
Despite disappointment in NASA's lack of manned exploration since he last
walked on the moon, Cernan said he has always been an optimist. "I'm
a person who looks at the glass half full rather than half empty," he explained.
"I've waited thirty-one years to hear this."
Former Astronaut Cernan then turned to me and said with obvious emotion, "The president just topped-off my glass."
Space travel is important, not only for what it provides in technological
advancements, medical breakthroughs, and scientific discoveries, but also
for what it does to the American spirit. We will explore the moon and
Mars and the planets beyond. We will do this because it is exciting.
We will do this because it is inspiring. But most importantly, we will
do this because it is who we are. We will do this because it is our
Bobby Eberle is President and CEO of GOPUSA.com.