Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Not Because They are Easy, but Because They are Hard

Nuno Bettencourt was the lyricist and frontman for the 80's rock band, Extreme. He wrote lots of glam metal rock ballads, but achieved his greatest success with an acoustic pop song.

Bettencourt felt that the phrase "I love you" was becoming meaningless. In a 1991 interview with the Albany Herald, he said, "People use it so easily and so lightly that they think you can say that and fix everything, or you can say that and everything's OK. Sometimes you have to do more and you have to show it – there's other ways to say 'I love you.'"  The result was the hit song More Than Words.

True, words can be meaningless if not backed up with actions, but sometimes words spark and inspire enormous actions.

Today marks the 50th anniversary of a speech that defined and explained the reasons why America decided to go to the Moon. President John F. Kennedy, speaking to a class of future engineers and scientists at Rice University, stood at a podium in the middle of a football stadium on a hot September morning and summarized the history and mission of American explorers. The scope was huge, covering 50,000 years in the first two minutes of the speech, then continuing through the period from the establishment of the Plymouth Bay Colony by William Bradford, and extending to the investigations of the Moon and the planets beyond which continues a half-century later.

Historians can point to a handful of Presidential addresses that encapsulate a moment in time clearly and succinctly. Abraham Lincoln, penning thoughts about the dedication of a national cemetery, summarized the reasons for the Civil War and its higher purposes in the 262 words that form the Gettysburg Address. Franklin Roosevelt, responding to a surprise attack by an enemy on the other side of the planet, formulated a speech that marked the Pearl Harbor assault as a "day of infamy" forever.

The Rice University speech by President Kennedy is undoubtedly on a par with these other historic addresses. JFK spoke not only to the Rice students, but to America and the world:

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.
The simple idea here is that going to the Moon is nothing new - - Americans have worked on tough projects before, and will do so in the future. Tying the Space Age to the founding of the country explained this new reach to the unknown as a familiar habit for the nation.
 If this capsule history of our progress teaches us anything, it is that man, in his quest for knowledge and progress, is determined and cannot be deterred. The exploration of space will go ahead, whether we join in it or not, and it is one of the great adventures of all time, and no nation which expects to be the leader of other nations can expect to stay behind in the race for space.

Those who came before us made certain that this country rode the first waves of the industrial revolutions, the first waves of modern invention, and the first wave of nuclear power, and this generation does not intend to founder in the backwash of the coming age of space.
 Remember, at the time of this speech, the Soviet Union was far ahead of America in manned spaceflight. They had spent more than several days in space - our three manned orbital flights totaled less than 12 hours. The sense of behind-ness rankled the nation.
We mean to be a part of it--we mean to lead it. For the eyes of the world now look into space, to the moon and to the planets beyond, and we have vowed that we shall not see it governed by a hostile flag of conquest, but by a banner of freedom and peace. We have vowed that we shall not see space filled with weapons of mass destruction, but with instruments of knowledge and understanding.
Kennedy continued the comparison between our conflict with the Soviets on Earth, and the new, unconquered frontier of space:
There is no strife, no prejudice, no national conflict in outer space as yet. Its hazards are hostile to us all. Its conquest deserves the best of all mankind, and its opportunity for peaceful cooperation that may  never come again.
The President then put out the Big Questions of the thesis:
But why, some say, the moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic?
On the trip into Houston - - realizing his audience -- Kennedy penciled in an additional Big Question:
Why does Rice play Texas?
And then he answered those questions with an epic response that will probably be quoted as long as Americans travel into space:
We choose to go to the Moon.
We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.
Because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, Because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too. 
 Bettencourt was right that actions are more important than words. But I think, sometimes, the words matter, too.
JFK's podium copy of the Rice Speech, @ the JFK Library
2,503 days after the speech.

No comments:

Post a Comment