I’m sitting here in the bleachers at Rice, on the stadium’s east side, where most of the 40,000 people had gathered to hear Kennedy speak. It was Sept. 12, 1962 and reportedly it was quite hot but clear that day. The crowd included not only the mayor of Houston, the county judge, and the president of Rice, but also the Texas governor and various Texas congressman.
“It was blazingly hot. And poor Lyndon Johnson was drenched with perspiration.”
Bob Gomel was photographing Kennedy that day for LIFE magazine. He says the president, unbelievably, didn’t seem sweaty at all.
“He was cool, man. He just didn’t, he just somehow or other, was oblivious to it. He looked perfectly fine.”
Houston was the third stop on a presidential tour of aerospace facilities.
Gomel had gone with him to the rocket facility in Huntsville, Alabama and to Cape Canaveral.
At Rice he was so busy taking photos that he didn’t realize the importance of the speech until later.
“It was very daring, it was very daring. I mean the Russians were out there in space. And he elected to put us in competition.”
Excerpt from speech:
“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? Why does Rice play Texas? 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 …”
Rice presidential historian Douglas Brinkley says this was not only the most important event in Rice’s 100-year history, but it was also one of Kennedy’s best and most successful speeches, in which he sold the American public on a vast public works project, that despite its expense, united the country.
“It was a way to get Congress to appropriate hundreds of billions of dollars into the space program. This was the single largest public discovery project ever. In scope, it dwarfed the Panama Canal. Maybe only the interstate highway system of Eisenhower is comparable.”
Brinkley says Kennedy wisely sold the project as more than just a Cold War space race with the Soviets.
“Kennedy framed it as the march of human civilization into the galaxies. And framed it in that language of breaking the shackles of earth.”
Brinkley notes that this was the last time a U.S. President managed to unite the country around a vast, expensive, and noble goal.
The tragedy of the Vietnam war, followed by Ronald Reagan’s call to shrink government, made Americans more skeptical about public spending, especially on infrastructure and exploration.
“We aren’t seeming to do public discovery anymore. It’s all become private sector. And you don’t have the government leading the charge on one big grand possibility like Kennedy threw out in front of the 40,000 people at Rice Stadium.”
You can see Bob Gomel’s photographs from that day on our website, kuhf.org. All of the photos have never been published until now.
For more visit, The 50th Anniversary of JFK’s “Moon Speech” page.