September 12, 2018

On This Day: 'We choose to go to the Moon'


Public Speaking , Seen|Read|Heard , Great Speeches

"It is a great speech, one that encapsulates all of recorded history and seeks to set it in the history of our own time. Unlike today’s politicians, Kennedy spoke to our best impulses as a nation, not our worst."

– Texas Monthly Editor Paul Burka, in the audience for President Kennedy’s speech September 12, 1962

He was speaking crowd of 40,000 people, gathered on a sunny day in the Rice University football stadium in Houston on September 12, 1962.

And President John F. Kennedy delivered a speech that many remember—and refer back to—today: 

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’re willing to accept, one we’re unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win, and the others, too

We take for granted photos of Hurricane Florence shot by astronauts on the international space station. It’s easy to forget that less than 60 years ago, this might’ve seemed like science fiction.

Leaders are often required to provide a vision for something that no one has yet experienced.

If you watch the speech, you’ll note techniques that Kennedy uses that you might want to try:

  • A condensation of time to that puts the rapid, impressive progress of the space program into context

  • Repetition, to build intensity and drive certain ideas home: “the first wave…the first wave…” is one of many examples

  • Humor and multiple opportunistic references to appeal to the audience, including a series of rhetorical question that concludes with “Why does Rice play Texas?”—which causes the audience to break into applause

You will also see that:

  • President Kennedy gets off to a typical, slow start--thanking many dignitaries before launching into his subject

  • he uses a lot of long sentences that are hard to follow, helped only by his deliberate delivery with carefully timed pauses

  • the peak of the speech comes midway—“We choose to go to the Moon!”—then lumbers along with details that include space expenditures that don’t exactly excite, despite Kennedy’s efforts to put those numbers in context

  • Kennedy seems incredibly cool and perspiration-free while the audience in the background is mopping their sweaty faces and shifting uncomfortably in the heat. Toward the end, he acknowledges that heat with some humor, saying “I’m the one doing all the work.”

Here, a link to the complete speech text. Below, a video of the entire speech:

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