Apollo 50: Vital Leadership Lessons from JFK Moonshot

How President Kennedy galvanized USA for moon landing

David B. Grinberg
Jul 20, 2019 · 8 min read
Photo courtesy of NASA

During the 1960s, a manned moonshot was a major longshot for America.

Our tremendous triumph in space — culminating on July 20, 1969 — may not have been possible without the astounding leadership and bold vision of President John F. Kennedy (JFK), who famously stated, “We choose to go to the moon…”

Therefore, as the USA celebrates the 50th anniversary of the landmark Apollo 11 mission (Apollo 50), it’s instructive to recall JFK’s vital leadership lessons which proved instrumental in facilitating this historic achievement for the ages.

Every generation can learn valuable lessons from JFK’s herculean efforts to galvanize the nation for the moon missions.

He artfully laid the foundation for the Apollo space program which successfully landed men on the moon and returned them safely to Earth from 240,000 miles away.

The Apollo 11 mission was so dangerous that President Nixon’s speechwriters prepared an obituary address to the nation to honor the fallen astronauts in case of a mission failure, a real possibility which many nervously anticipated.

Following are three critically important leadership examples from JFK which all Americans should recognize and respect, especially as the USA aspires to land women and men on the moon by 2024 in furtherance of building a permanent lunar base for a springboard to Mars:

1. Formulate and effectively communicate a bold vision to unify the nation.

2. Foster innovative thinking and leverage new technology to advance science.

3. Take big risks to demonstrate the immense possibilities of human ingenuity.

JFK’s courageous actions to effectuate space exploration yielded countless scientific and technological discoveries which have since altered the course of society for the greater good — and, by extension, the human race.

Photo courtesy of the JFK Library

Improbable Dream

While much focus has been directed toward the heroic Apollo 11 astronauts, and rightfully so, we should likewise pay homage to the heroic efforts of President Kennedy.

JFK led the charge for the USA to become the first nation in world history to land astronauts on the moon and return them safely — and in a specified time period, no less. He inspired the nation to thrive in space through NASA’s building of the powerful Saturn V rocket, in addition to the infrastructure and architecture of the celebrated Apollo program.

JFK’s cogent communication ability catalyzed the public, Congress and NASA to believe that the improbable dream of landing men on the moon was indeed possible by the end of the 1960s, even though the possibility appeared remote.

Unfortunately, JFK would not live to see his fearless vision and immense plans bear fruit when the Eagle touched down on the lunar surface.

That was due to his tragic and untimely death by an assassin’s bullet on November 22, 1963, on the streets of downtown Dallas.

The Apollo 11 mission turned JFK’s bold vision into a shining reality, while restoring public confidence in America during a turbulent and uncertain time in the country’s history.

Beating the Soviets

When JFK articulated his plans for a manned moon landing, the former Soviet Union (USSR) was already winning the space race.

The USSR had successfully put the first cosmonaut into low Earth orbit, leaving America to play catch up against the odds. Nevertheless, JFK led the nation to do what was once thought impossible.

JFK pushed hard in persuading Congress to boost NASA’s budget to the historic levels necessary to achieve the nation’s grand goals in space.

NASA’s new funding allowed the budding space agency to assemble a top notch team of scientists, engineers, designers, contractors and others which numbered 400,000 strong.

This national mobilization of hearts, minds and manpower — the likes of which were unseen since World War II — ultimately led America to prevail over the Soviets when Neil Armstrong stepped foot on the lunar surface and uttered the timeless words,

“That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

And indeed it was.

JFK understood the historical significance of America leading the world in space science, exploration, research and technology as the lone global superpower.

A Famous Challenge

John M. Logsdon is a space historian, professor, researcher and author. He was the founder and former director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University and a former member of the NASA Advisory Council.

Logsdon sits on the board of directors of the Planetary Society and is an expert on space policy. He wrote the following about JFK in Ten Presidents and NASA, which is worth reiterating as we commemorate Apollo 50:

  • “President Kennedy gave the infant agency its early focus with his famous challenge to land astronauts on the moon by the end of the decade.”
  • “Kennedy in 1961 had set the United States on a course to enter, and win, a race to the moon.”
  • “On May 25, 1961, Kennedy addressed a joint session of Congress to announce his decision to go to the moon. He backed up this decision with remarkable financial commitments.”

“In the immediate aftermath of his speech, NASA’s budget was increased by 89 percent, and by another 101 percent the following year.” — John M. Logsdon

  • “We know the public’s association of the space program with Kennedy was so strong that six days after Kennedy was assassinated, the new president, Lyndon Johnson, announced in a nationwide television address that the NASA center from which our moon voyagers would launch would be named in Kennedy’s honor.”
  • “A less grand but very fitting tribute to the assassinated president took place on the evening of July 20,1969, when an anonymous citizen placed a small bouquet of flowers on the Kennedy gravesite at Arlington National Cemetery with a note that read, ‘Mr. President, the Eagle has landed.’”

JFK accelerated America’s lift off via NASA to become a space and science role model for the world.

Original video footage courtesy of the University of Virginia, Miller Center of Public Affairs.

Moon Speech

As we stand in awe of Apollo 50, let’s also recall JFK’s notable “Moon Speech” at Rice University in Houston on September 12, 1962 (video above).

That’s when the 35th American President issued a clarion call for the USA to “become the world’s leading space faring nation.”

  • “We choose to go the moon this decade and do the other things not because they are easy, but because they are hard,” JFK illustriously remarked. “This country was conquered by those who moved forward — and so will space.”
  • “William Bradford, speaking in 1630 of the founding of the Plymouth Bay Colony, said that all great and honorable actions are accompanied with great difficulties, and both must be enterprised and overcome with answerable courage.”
  • “I regard the decision last year to shift our efforts in space from low to high gear as among the most important decisions that will be made during my incumbency in the office of the Presidency.”
  • “To be sure, we are behind, and will be behind for some time in manned flight. But we do not intend to stay behind, and in this decade, we shall make up and move ahead.”
  • “The growth of our science and education will be enriched by new knowledge of our universe and environment, by new techniques of learning and mapping and observation, by new tools and computers for industry, medicine, the home as well as the school.”

“This year¹s space budget is three times what it was in January 1961, and it is greater than the space budget of the previous eight years combined.”

JFK called the forthcoming moon mission “the most hazardous, dangerous and greatest adventure upon which man has ever embarked.” He said it was “part of a great national effort.”

This is the same type of unifying “great national effort” we need today if America aspires to future greatness in space and, likewise, on our own planet.

Final Thoughts

Today, NASA remains the crown jewel of public sector space innovation with big plans ahead. This is thanks in no small part to the leadership, fortitude and vision of President Kennedy during the early 1960s.

The elite space agency serves as a stark reminder of what’s possible when the federal government harnesses its full potential through presidential and congressional leadership, buttressed by strong public support.

Apollo 50 reminds us why JFK remains one of the most beloved and popular presidents in American history. His extraordinary legacy of leadership positively shaped our national interests in unparalleled ways.

JFK blazed a singular path for the NASA to embrace and overcome seemingly insurmountable challenges in landing the first men on the moon.

He helped make the improbable become the possible through a range of historic accomplishments from space exploration to civil rights.

JFK remains the youngest American President ever elected (at age 43), and the youngest to die in office (at age 46). The Washington Post reported the following on JFK’s 100th birthday (May 29, 2017):

  • “Kennedy was president for just 1,036 days. But in a Gallup poll, 74 percent of Americans ranked his presidency as either ‘outstanding’ or ‘above average,’ the highest of any president since World War II.”

That’s because JFK brought out the best in all Americans at a time when it was desperately needed. This is something sorely missing from today’s elected officials in Washington on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, from the White House to the halls of Congress.

Will we ever be graced again by the likes of President Kennedy in the Oval Office?

JFK transformed the USA for the better. He was a larger than life figure during a fluid and turbulent time in American history.

  • JFK transcended the times by leading the USA to new heights at home and abroad.
  • JFK lifted the spirit and conscience of America.
  • JFK defied conventional wisdom and beat the odds for the nation to succeed and prosper.

President Kennedy’s historic leadership lessons live on for new generations to learn from and benefit as America faces new challenges inherent with the fast evolving mobile, digital and virtual high-tech Information Age.

That’s why every American should pause and pay homage to JFK as we celebrate Apollo 50.

One of the greatest American presidents deserves no less.

Do you agree?

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR: David is a strategic communications consultant, freelance writer and former federal government spokesman. His work experience includes the White House, Congress, OMB and EEOC. A native New Yorker, David was a journalist prior to his career of public service. You can also find him on Twitter and LinkedIn.

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David B. Grinberg

Written by

Strategic communications consultant advancing social justice and corporate social responsibility | former career spokesman at U.S. EEOC | DC-based, NY-bred

The Startup

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David B. Grinberg

Written by

Strategic communications consultant advancing social justice and corporate social responsibility | former career spokesman at U.S. EEOC | DC-based, NY-bred

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +787K followers.

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