"They can put a man on the moon..." So, what's next?

Historian Douglas Brinkley on a 21st century moonshot
Historian Douglas Brinkley on a 21st century ... 02:47

On May 25, 1961 President John F. Kennedy pledged to Congress that America would put astronauts on the moon by the end of the decade and bring them home alive. A lunar voyage, he insisted, was the surest way to leapfrog the Soviet Union in the realm of space exploration and win the Cold War. Instantly, incredibly, with a spontaneous burst of American can-doism, Kennedy's challenge was embraced by a bipartisan majority of Washington lawmakers.


Some political leaders, however, worried that spending the $25 billion needed for Project Apollo - $185 billion in today's terms - was a moondoggle. Former President Dwight Eisenhower derided the gambit as a "stunt."   

The term moonshot was first popularized in 1959, a year after NASA was established, to describe the towering home runs of Los Angeles Dodgers slugger Wally Moon. Radio broadcaster Vin Scully dubbed them "moonshots," and before long the term was baked into American culture.  

When Kennedy announced that NASA's Manned Spacecraft Center would be built in Houston, the press called it the "Moonshot Command Post."

Undoubtedly, Kennedy's moonshot was expensive. But the spinoff technology created was spectacular: next-generation computers, virtual reality devices, advanced satellite television, medical imaging, and weather forecasting. 

This summer marks the 50th anniversary of that moment when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin fulfilled Kennedy's pledge. Once the Apollo 11 astronauts had safely returned, Mission Control posted JFK's clarion call on a large screen, followed by "Task Accomplished July 1969."

These days there is an enormous wistfulness for a new American moonshot. Joe Biden has ballyhooed for a cancer cure. Buzz Aldrin thinks the next moonshot should be a Mars shot.  Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Amazon, hopes to temple NASA's monopoly on space exploration with his company Blue Origin. Sadly, none of these efforts are galvanizing the public imagination.  

For minus high and shining presidential leadership – like JFK provided in the early 1960s – a 21st American moonshot probably will never lift off.

To watch the trailer for the enthralling new documentary "Apollo 11," which recounts the efforts to fulfill Kennedy's promise, click on the video player below.

APOLLO 11 [Official Trailer] by NEON on YouTube

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Story produced by Julie Kracov.