morning, 25 May 1961, in a speech to a joint session of Congress, President
John F. Kennedy challenged Americans to rebound from their recent second-place
finishes in the space race. "First, I believe that this nation
should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out,
of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth. No single
space project . . . will be more exciting, or more impressive . . .
or more important
At first, no one at NASA's Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, could quite believe it. If President Kennedy had in fact just dedicated the country to lunar landing, he could not be serious about doing it in less than nine years. It was just not possible. NASA had been studying the feasibility of different lunar missions for some time. But sending an astronautone that landed on and returned from the surface of the Moon safely by the end of the 1960s? NASA was not exactly sure how that lunar mission could be accomplished at all, let alone achieved in so little time.
Not even Robert C. Gilruth, the leader of the Space Task Group (STG) located at Langley and the long-standing site of spacecraft expertise in the young Federal agency, was prepared for the sensational announcement. When he heard the news, he was in a NASA airplane somewhere over the Midwest on his way to a meeting in Tulsa. He knew that Kennedy planned to say something dramatic about the space program in his speech, and he asked the pilot to patch it through live on the radio. Looking out the window over the passing clouds, he heard every word and was struck by the incredible goal.
The message stunned him. "An accelerated program, yes," he wanted that. "A lunar landing, yes, in an orderly fashion, with time to work through all the difficulties that such an enterprise was bound to encounter," he wanted that, too. "But not this," he thought to himself.2 This was too much, too fast. Talk about overconfidencethe first piloted Mercury flight by Alan Shepard had taken place only three weeks ago, on 5 May; NASA had made this one brief fifteen-minute suborbital flightnot even a complete orbit yetand the president announced that the nation is going to the Moon and on a very ambitious schedule. Suddenly, the STG really had more than it could handle. It already was busy preparing for another suborbital flight (Virgil I. "Gus" Grissom's, on 21 July 1961) and for the first orbital flight sometime early next year (John Glenn's, on 20 February 1962). The group's top talent was still "involved almost exclusively" preparing for the first manned orbital flight, and Gilruth himself, before the president's announcement, "had spent almost no time at all" on lunar studies, so demanding were the activities of Project Mercury.3
Only one word described Gilruth's feelings at that moment: "aghast." Aghast at the audacity of the president's goal: for American astronauts to fly a quarter of a million miles, make a pinpoint landing on a familiar but yet so strange heavenly body, blast off, and return home safely after a voyage of several days through spaceall this by the end of the decade. Only one thought was more daunting, and that was that he was one of the people who would have to make it happen.
But only the project managers directly responsible for making Mercury a success felt so burdened in 1961 by the prospects of having to meet the lunar commitment. Other planners and dreamers about space exploration inside NASA, whose natural curiosity and professional inclination led to speculation about the profiles of future missions, were elated.
For example, inside the small Theoretical Mechanics Division set up inside the old stability wind tunnel building at NASA Langley, Clinton E. Brown and his mathematically oriented colleagues, having heard about Kennedy's announcement, said, "Hooray, let's put on full speed ahead, and do what we can." In their minds, landing astronauts on the Moon as quickly as possible was obviously the right thing to do next if the United States was going to win the "space race." Moreover, Brown and his teamplus one other key Langley researcher, Dr. John C. Houbolt, a rendezvous expert not part of Brown's group, who later became the leading actor in the lunar-orbit rendezvous dramawere confident that they had figured out the best way to accomplish it some time ago.4 To understand this confidence, however, an understanding of earlier developments provides necessary context.