You could cut the humidity with a knife that day in Houston. It was 12 September 1962 and more than 35,000 spectators had gathered at the Rice stadium to hear President John F. Kennedy speak. The temperature was 94 degrees (34.5 degrees Celsius). It was fiercely hot.

There are certain moments in history that define the future of a nation. Kennedy’s speech in Houston was one of this moments. Before the decade was finished, Kennedy said, America was determined to land a man in the moon and bring him safety back to Earth.

 We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.

President Kennedy, at Rice Stadium in 1962, prepares the nation for the lunar landing

President Kennedy had a bold vision. He shared it with his fellow Americans, he inspired generations of Americans to think big. He called them to think what kind of country they want to build. It was the day that project Apollo’s race to the Moon began. Kennedy’s vision came true, on 20 July 1969, when the astronaut Neil Armstrong stepped onto the lunar surface.

But Kennedy’s attitude toward the U.S. space program was more complex and not all about going to the moon. On a special message to the congress on urgent national needs on 25 May, 1961, he asked for additional funds to accelerate the use of space satellites for world-wide communications; 75 million dollars- “of which 53 million dollars is for the Weather Bureau–will help give us at the earliest possible time a satellite system for world-wide weather observation.”

NASA had already built a satellite programme that was yielding excellent results both in terms of scientific knowledge and practical application. The pictures, transmitted by TIROS and Nimbus satellites, were of high value to meteorologists and other scientists, as for the first time they could see images of entire weather systems, and allowed them to create maps of the entire Earth.

Space exploration has rarely been the top priority for NASA. The National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958 specified that the new agency would contribute materially to eight separate objectives.  With the retirement of James E. Webb on October 1968, NASA’s Deputy Administrator, Dr Thomas O. Paine, a man obsessed with space exploration, was named Acting Administrator of NASA.

When Nixon took office, Paine submitted his resignation, but when all Nixon’s candidates declined the position, Nixon decided to stick with Thomas Paine. He was nominated as NASA’s third Administrator on March 20, 1969.

Wernher von Braun talks with NASA Associate Administrator Dr. Thomas Paine at the Launch Control Center of the Kennedy Space Center prior to the launch of Apollo 6 on April 4, 1968. (NASA Photo 107-KSC-68P-125.)

Paine’s aspiration was to develop an Apollo like programme that could get men to Mars in 30 years. But support and interest in space exploration had waned. At the end of 1967, The New York Times reported that a poll conducted in six American cities showed that public issues, such as air and water pollution and poverty, held priority over efforts on outer space. And the following year Newsweek wrote: ‘The U.S. space program is in decline.  The Vietnam war and the desperate conditions of the nation’s poor and its cities – which make space flight seem, in comparison, like an embarrassing national self‑indulgence – have combined to drag down a program where the sky was no longer the limit.”

Tighter budgets, imposed by the Nixon administration, had been a major impediment to space exploration, and amongst NASA officials there were concerns whether the money spent in space exploration were money well spent. In the meantime, the  technological and scientific priorities of the administration had been changed. In a statement  issued on 7th March, 1970, Nixon said that while space exploration was worthwhile, and that a “great nation must always be an exploring nation”, a space effort should also have practical applications and produce benefits for life on Earth. He stated that “We should hasten and expand the practical applications of space technology,” because “many critical problems here on this planet make high priority demands on our attention and our resource.”

In less than six months after Apollo 11 landed on the moon, NASA announced the cancellation of Apollo flights. Thomas Paine’s dream to go to Mars died with a whimper.

Until now.  On September 2016, in Guadalajara, Mexico, at the 67th International Astronautical Congress, the SpaceX founder Elon Musk has disclosed his ambitious vision for manned missions to Mars, which he said could begin as soon as 2022.

A few months later, on 21st March, 2017, President Trump signed the National Aeronautics and Space Administration Transition Authorization Act of 2017. The mandate: get people to Mars by 2033.

Sources and further reading:
  1. Special Message to the Congress on Urgent National Needs, May 25, 1961, http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=8151
  2. National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958, https://history.nasa.gov/spaceact.html
  3.  Roger D. Launius, “A western Mormon in Washington, D.C.: James C. Fletcher, NASA, and the final frontier,” Pacific Historical Review, 64:2 (May 1995) :222
  4. Homer E. Newell, “Beyond the Atmosphere:Early years of Space Science” Appendix J, National Aeronautics and Space Administration (1980) [http://history.nasa.gov/SP-4211/cover.htm]. Available from NASA History Series SP-4211
  5. Humans to Mars: Fifty Years of Mission Planning, 1950–2000, David S. F. Portree, Monographs in Aerospace History #21 NASA SP-2001-4521
  6. Launius, Roger D. “Public Opinion Polls and Perceptions of US Human Spaceflight.” Space Policy 19, no. 3 (2003): 163–75. doi:10.1016/S0265-9646(03)00039-0.
  7.  Nicky, Woolf, SpaceX founder Elon Musk plans to get humans to Mars in six years https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2016/sep/27/elon-musk-spacex-mars-colony
  8. President Donald J. Trump signs NASA Transition Authorization Act of 2017, https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2017/03/21/president-donald-j-trump-signs-nasa-transition-authorization-act-2017
  9. Featured image: A view of the Apollo 11 lunar module Eagle as it returned from the surface of the moon to dock with the command module Columbia. A smooth mare area is visible on the Moon below and a half-illuminated Earth hangs over the horizon. Source: http://nssdc.gsfc.nasa.gov/imgcat/html/object_page/a11_h_44_6642.html