May 25, 1961
President Kennedy paced backed and forth nervously in the holding area. He hefted the binder in his left hand. He opened it and leafed through it. He didn’t read it. He didn’t need to, having committed most of it to memory, but he flipped through it none the less, idly turning the pages at random. The speech that the President was about to give had been prepared more thoroughly than the State of the Union Address, yet despite that he was nervous, for he was about to make a momentous announcement.
The door to the holding area opened and Ted Sorensen entered. “They’re assembled and waiting for you upstairs, Mr. President.”
“Thank you, Ted,” said Kennedy. The President, Sorensen, Pierre Salinger and several other high ranking White House staffers, along with a Secret Service contingent walked up a flight of stairs and through the rotunda, under The Apotheosis of Washington and past the National Statuary Hall. This was not the first time that the President had addressed a joint session of Congress, but it seemed to Kennedy that the soles of his shoes clacked extra loudly on the highly polished marble floor. In what seemed like no time at all, the Presidential party stopped in front of the door leading to the floor of the House of Representatives.
“Please wait here, Mr. President. I will announce you.” The House Sergeant at Arms opened the gilt and oak double doors and slipped inside, shutting it behind him. Kennedy had a brief glimpse of the Congressmen and assembled dignitaries gathered inside to hear him speak. Through the door, Kennedy heard a voice intone solemnly, “Mr. Speaker, the President of the United States.” The door opened and thunderous applause spilled out. Kennedy stepped through the doors and on to the floor of the House of Representatives. As one, the assembled Congressmen, Senators and other dignitaries rose to their feet, clapping loudly. Kennedy slowly made his way to the speaker’s podium, stopping frequently to shake hands, receive a hug or to autograph a copy of his speech. He eventually made his way to the rostrum and mounted the steps to the speaker’s podium. As dictated by custom, he handed a copy of his speech to Vice President Lyndon Johnson and the Speaker of the House. After a round of handshakes with Johnson and the Speaker of the House, Kennedy turned to the podium. The deafening applause turned to deafening silence.
“Mr. Speaker,” Kennedy began, “Mr. Vice President, my co-partners in Government, ladies and gentlemen, as you know the Constitution of the United States requires me to ‘from time to time give to Congress information of the State of the Union,’ ordinarily, this is done on an annual basis, however, this tradition has been broken in extraordinary time, and it is for this reason that I have deemed in necessary to address you today.” Kennedy paused momentarily,
“We live in extraordinary times and we are faced with an extraordinary challenge. Our strength, as well as the strength of our convictions, has resulted in this nation taking up the cause of the defence of freedom.
“The great battleground for the defence of freedom is the southern half of the globe, Asia, Latin America, Africa and the Middle East. These are the lands of the rising peoples and they seek an end to injustice and tyranny. Moreover, they do not simply seek an end, they seek a beginning.”
President Kennedy spoke at length about a number of issues and challenges facing the United States. He began with economic and social progress, both at home and abroad, reassuring the American people that the American economy was strong, and arguing that American gold stocks had actually gone up by seventeen million dollars over the course of his term in office.
The President then turned to self-defence, the armed forces and intelligence. “The key to the defence of freedom,” he said, “is our network of global alliances. These alliances began with NATO, which was proposed by a Democratic president, and approved by a Republican Congress. These critical alliances were expanded to include SEATO, which proposed by a Republican President, and approved by a Democratic Congress. These alliances were built in the 1940s and 50s. It is our task, in the 1960s to preserve and strengthen these alliances for the future.
“I would like now to turn to the subject of space,” said Kennedy. “If the United States is to sail on the ocean of space, I believe that it must do so in a position of dominance second to none.” Kennedy paused, allowing his words to sink in. “In recognition of the head start obtained by the Soviets with their large rocket engines, and in recognition of the fact that they will continue to exploit this lead for some time to come, we are forced to make to new efforts on our own. We can not guarantee that we shall one day be first, but we can guarantee that any failure to make this effort will make us last.” Kennedy took a deep breath. “In that spirit, I therefore ask Congress, above and beyond the increases I have already requested for space activities to provided the funds for the following national goal. I believe this nation should commit it self, to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon, and returning him safely to the Earth.”
* * *
There. He had said it. All over the United States, the millions of people who had tuned in to listen to Kennedy’s speech on the radio, or watch him on television, looked at each other in amazement.
“Did he say the moon?”
“Did I hear that right?”
“Is that even possible?”
Langley Air Force Base
In his office at Langley Air Force Base, James Webb traded a look with Dr. Robert Gilruth. “Well,” mused Webb, “we received a memo warning us to expect a change in space policy, but that’s a hell of a change.”
“Yes,” agreed Gilruth. “I’ve already receive a memo from LBJ pressing us to achieve a manned landing by 1967.”
Webb looked pensive. “Is this even possible?” he asked.
Now it was Gilruth’s turn to look thoughtful. “We’ll need technologies, materials and procedures that aren’t even on the drawing board yet.”
“Yeah,” agreed Webb, “but can we do it?”
“Of course,” said Gilruth. “We have to do it.
An outside observer would have thought that the success of Alan Shepard’s flight would have earned NASA a break, but they’d be wrong. There were two months to go before the launch of Liberty Bell 7 and the astronauts and the flight engineers were as busy as ever. Grissom was deep into training for the flight, which was intended to be a repeat of Freedom 7, a quick suborbital hop, and there were future missions to think about too. The first orbital flight of the Mercury Program would be on the horizon after the completion of the Liberty Bell 7 flight. In the last few weeks leading up to Grissom’s flight the technicians made a number of minor adjustments to Grissom’s spacecraft based on the careful analysis of telemetry from Freedom 7. Grissom would be given more to do, as well. Shepard’s flight had proven that it was possible for the human body to survive the forces of launch and re-entry. Grissom’s flight would demonstrate that the success of Freedom 7 wasn’t a fluke or an accident. It attempt prove that it was possible to function in the micro gravity environment of outer space.
In order to get ready for the flight, the astronauts spent much of their time at Cape Canaveral running spacecraft simulations and going over the flight plan. In the wake of Kennedy’s surprising announcement, they also began to find their procedures were outstripping the capabilities of their hardware, which was limiting their ability to train. As a result, the astronauts and engineers began to talk about building a bigger, more capable command and control centre, but in the meantime, there was still a mission to fly.