In 1961, when President John F. Kennedy challenged the United States to go to the Moon within the decade, it seemed impossible. After all, some people at the time could still remember the Wright brothers’ flight from one sand dune to another at Kitty Hawk, and America’s young space program was thought to be well behind that of the Soviets. But, in eight years, this country planted the Star-Spangled Banner on the lunar surface, where it remains today.
I was in my dormitory at Ole Miss on July 20, 1969, when I joined 600 million people around the world in celebrating this giant leap for mankind. Those of us who were alive then will always remember that moment. We do not know what historians centuries from now will remember about this era, but it is a safe bet that the Moon landing fifty years ago will never be forgotten.
America’s Investment Paid Off
President Kennedy’s challenge was a national call to action, and Mississippians were among the first to answer. The Saturn V rocket used for the Apollo Program was tested at Stennis Space Center – then called the Mississippi Test Facility. In the nearly 58 years since the center’s opening, from Apollo to the Space Shuttle Program, no Stennis-tested engine has ever failed a NASA mission. As Werhner von Braun, the leader of the United States’ early space efforts, said, “I don’t know yet what method we will use to get to the Moon, but I do know that we have to go through Mississippi to get there.”
America did not go to the Moon just to beat the Soviet Union in the space race or because of President Kennedy’s charge. We came in peace for all mankind to advance scientific, intellectual, and commercial progress. Technologies behind CT scans, intensive care monitoring equipment, GPS, and smart phones all have their origins in Apollo. The global commercial space sector alone, now valued at $400 billion, is expected to grow to nearly $3 trillion over the next two decades. The writers at Newsweek correctly called the moonshot “the best return on investment since Leonardo da Vinci bought himself a sketch pad.”
The New Space Race
Throughout history, men and women have looked up to the night sky and seen their heroes in the stars. We do the same today, but our heroes are not mythological. They are astronauts with names like Neil, Buzz, and Michael, who mapped new frontiers, and mathematicians like Katherine Johnson, who plotted the paths of the first space flights. These role models continue to inspire.
The United States is entering a new space race in the 21st century, and it is vital that we maintain our leadership to continue reaping rewards. As chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee – which oversees NASA – I have outlined three clear priorities for the agency: first, the United States should remain the partner of choice for all spacefaring nations, second, this country ought to be the most attractive place in the world for new space companies, and third, America needs to stay ahead of rising space powers.
Our country faces growing challenges today. Under my leadership, the committee is working on a bipartisan NASA Reauthorization bill to accomplish these goals. The model of Apollo 11 and the missions that came before and after show our common purpose and potential. The Moon landing was not the close of a new age of discovery; it was the start.