05/25/2011 02:42 pm ET Updated Jul 25, 2011

The 50th Anniversary of Kennedy's "Go to the Moon" Speech

"I believe 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."

Those words, spoken fifty years ago today -- John F. Kennedy addressing a joint session of Congress -- came just weeks after Alan Shepard became the first American in space. At the time of the speech, though, it looked much more likely that Russia would be the winner of what became widely viewed as "the race to the moon." Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin was the first man in space, on April 12, 1961, four weeks before Shepard's American space debut. And Shepard's flight lasted only fifteen minutes and twenty-eight seconds -- the Mercury capsule rising 116.5 miles before turning nose and heat shields down to return only three miles from its launch pad -- while Gagarin had made a full orbit of the earth.

President Kennedy had no idea how we might accomplish the goal of putting an American on the moon when he announced the goal, either. No one did. The necessary technologies -- rockets, computers, breathing mechanisms -- had yet to be invented. The race for the moon was driven by the same things that drive us now: global divisions, suspicion, hatred. The fear of Russia ruling the heavens was the spark that lit the American rocket to the moon; communist domination was as real a threat then as terrorism is now. Indeed, the relevant part of that "Go to the Moon" speech began, "Finally, if we are to win the battle that is now going on around the world between freedom and tyranny..."

We started out well behind, too. Russia was winning the unmanned space exploration race as well as the manned on: Soviet Luna 1 had come closer to the moon than any man-made object in January of 1959. Luna 2 was the first object to travel from earth to the moon later that year. Luna 3 circled around the far side of the moon and returned to earth.

Given all that, Kennedy might have fallen to the same kind of fear mongering that seems the go-to method for politicians these days. But instead he took the threat we faced and turned it on its head, making it an inspiration. We had a long way to go in the space race but, as Kennedy said, this was a new ocean.

That spirit of optimism he instilled in the effort in his speech to Congress continued despite the fact that we were eating Russian space dust for quite some time: Valentina Vladimirovna Tereshkova of Russia became the first woman in space, piloting the Vostok 6 on June 16, 1963, two decades before America put its first woman in space; Russian Cosmonaut Alexey Arkhipovich Leonov became the first human to walk in space on March 18, 1965, months before the first American spacewalk during the Gemini 4 mission in June; and the Luna 10 became the first mission to actually orbit the moon -- again months before America accomplished the goal.

Kennedy didn't live to see his charge realized, but by 1968, Americans were making the first broadcast from space, and becoming the first to leave earth's gravity, voyaging to the far side of the moon.

The cold war wasn't substantially less chilly when, on July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong stepped onto the moon. But even in countries hostile to the U.S., crowds watched the landing on outdoor television screens. A fifth of the world's population -- 600 million people -- watched live television transmission of the landing. Countless millions more listed on radio, or saw it on film within hours of that first step. One imagines that in the few places where people weren't given the opportunity to experience the moment -- in China, for example, listeners were treated to praise of Mao on the radio instead -- the reaction would have been the same. Most of the world celebrated it as not an American accomplishment, but a human one. The words spoken all over the world were, "We did it."

It isn't hard to trace the roots of current cooperative efforts in space, including the international space station, back to that collective reaction, and even further. Jim Lovell, in a 1968 Christmas Eve telecast from space, said, "The vast loneliness is awe-inspiring and it makes you realize just what you have back there on Earth." On Earth. Not "In America." Neil Armstrong's "That's one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind" embraced the whole of humanity in the accomplishment. And Kennedy himself invited Russia to work together -- an offer they declined. The words chosen were important then, as they are today.

Much is being made now of the end of the shuttle program. After the final Atlantis flight currently expected to occur in July, America will be buying seats on Russian rockets to send our astronauts into space. But that isn't necessarily a bad thing; private enterprises are working on developing commercially viable space travel, and America's willingness to rely on other sources of transportation to the space station will free up capital to develop the technologies to travel further.

It would be a shame, though, to let the continued exploration of space wither for lack of funding, and not just because of the scientific knowledge that might be gained. You don't have to spend five minutes looking at the footage of the world's "we did it" reaction to the lunar landing to feel there is more to be gained than scientific information in our travels into space. As Premier Golda Meir of Israel suggested after that first lunar landing, "Man's capacity to venture into the unknown will bring a new dimension into the relationship on earth of human beings to one another, which may yet open the way to that era of universal peace presaged by the prophets."