63 years after John F. Kennedy’s ‘we choose to go to the moon’ speech, NASA’s Artemis program plans to return humans to the lunar surface

President Kennedy addressing a crowd at Rice University Stadium in Houston on September 12, 1962.CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

  • In 1962, President John F. Kennedy delivered his famous “moonlight speech” at Rice University in Texas.

  • With the Artemis missions, NASA plans to land astronauts on the moon for the first time since 1972.

  • Artemis I is the first step: an uncrewed flight test scheduled to begin on August 29.

On September 12, 1962, President John F. Kennedy told 40,000 people in Rice University’s football stadium that by the end of the decade, the United States would put astronauts on the moon.

“But why, some say, the moon?” posed in the crowd. “Why should we 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 moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they’re easy, but because they’re hard.”

In the 60 years since Kennedy’s speech, space exploration has helped us discover much about the world and humanity’s place in it.

As NASA prepares to launch the Artemis 1 mission on August 29, the space agency is poised to return to the moon for the first time in half a century — this time to stay.

President John F. Kennedy addressing a crowd at Rice University Stadium in Houston reaffirming his support for America's space program, including landing a man on the moon.

“We choose to go to the moon this decade and do the other things, not because they’re easy, but because they’re hard,” Kennedy told the crowd.NASA

Kennedy gave the iconic speech in the midst of a fierce space race with the Soviet Union. It had been a year since the USSR’s sensational achievement of putting the first person, Yuri Gagarin, into space in 1961.

In the speech, Kennedy wanted to explain to the nation why the Apollo program was such a high priority. He emphasized 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 are now looking 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 liberty and peace,” he said. “We have vowed that we will 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 descended the ladder of the Lunar Module and onto the surface of the Moon.

Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong, the first man to set foot on the Moon, stands near the Lunar Module (LM) 'Eagle' in July 1969.

Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong, the first man to set foot on the Moon, stands near the Lunar Module in July 1969.NASA

NASA landed five more missions on the moon, with the last of them – Apollo 17 – landing in 1972. And while there have been no moon boots since then, the space agency has continued to send humans 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 re-enter 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 Endeavor — flew 135 missions, carrying more than 350 astronauts into space.

And since November 2, 2000, humanity has had a continuous presence on the International Space Station.

ISS in 2022.

The International Space Station in 2022.NASA

In an effort to return astronauts to the lunar surface, NASA has spent 17 years and an estimated $50 billion developing the Space Launch System and the Orion spacecraft.

The bright new SLS rocket is taller than the Statue of Liberty, at 23 stories, with the spacecraft secured on top. Four car-sized engines and two rocket boosters should give it enough thrust to push Orion across the moon — farther than any human-built spacecraft has ever flown. That’s where NASA’s first SLS mission, named Artemis I, is located.

When it launches, as early as August 29, the SLS rocket should deliver the Orion spacecraft into an orbit to circle the moon and return to Earth.

illustration shows orange rocket launch system in space

An illustration of the Space Launch System taking off from the launch site in Cape Canaveral, Florida.NASA

There will be no humans on board, but if the spacecraft successfully completes its mission, NASA plans to put astronauts in the Orion module for another trip around the moon and then land them on the lunar surface in 2025.

“This is now the Artemis generation,” Bill Nelson, NASA’s administrator, said at an Aug. 3 press conference. “We were in the Apollo generation, but this is a new generation, this is a new type of astronaut. And to all of us who look up at the moon, dreaming of the day when humanity returns to the lunar surface, folks, here we are. We’re coming back and this journey, our journey, begins with Artemis I.”

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