Revisiting inspirational quotes and speeches during these times? JFK’s “go to the moon” speech is a good one—especially the less-famous part of its most quoted sentence.
- An insightful presenter at a conference I attended a couple years ago drew my attention to this part of JFK’s speech.
Before I share my thoughts about an inspiring speech from 57 years ago, I’d like to thank all the medical professionals and caregivers who are on the front lines of this health crisis right now and truly inspiring us every day.
“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.” — President John F. Kennedy, Address at Rice University on the Nation’s Space Effort, September 12, 1962
The first half of that quote gets printed onto motivational posters and placards, and is the oft-used sound bite in archival footage of President Kennedy, standing before a large crowd in Houston. I personally have always liked the second part, though. I interpret JFK’s words as stating that while the destination is putting a man on the moon, the journey to get there—to create, to innovate, to find bold solutions to new problems—is what will truly benefit the nation in the long term.
A few sentences later Kennedy inserts a mention of “winning,” and the fact that the U.S. did beat the U.S.S.R. to the moon in 1969 was a point of national pride. But the collaboration—the “meeting of the minds”—of the best entrepreneurs, experts, scientists and engineers led to a new era of technological advancements in health care, public safety, transportation, computing and more. And the journey that began with that speech still has not ended. To borrow another iconic quote from these events, the “giant leap for mankind.”
A thought for these times
I’m reminded of how we are now being forced to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills today, amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. While we as a nation did not “decide” to take this journey, and perhaps we were instead un-prepared in many ways, I think it’s important to remember that we as Americans and as humans are capable of re-inventing the world as we know it for the better.
Sometimes we are challenged to do so, like emerging mere decades after World War II with not only a powerful, greatest-nation-on-earth United States but also a rebuilt and productive Europe and Japan. Other times governments or entrepreneurs set a goal, like someday relying completely on autonomous vehicles to save time, lives and natural resources. I’ve been a skeptic of when and if a driverless society will happen, but I am very certain that the energies and skills involved in that quest have already led to safer vehicles today.
Now we face a new challenge, and this health and financial crisis may be the biggest we’ve seen as a nation and as a global community. On March 20, 2020 these events seem scarier than any world war or terrorist attack. We’re all looking for reassurance, and my article here can’t give you a whole lot of that. All I do offer to those who are reading this is a reminder that the United States has shown a great tendency for collaborating and innovating toward a long-term goal, with a complete acceptance that the journey to that goal will require a lot of hard work and heartache. Another passage just a bit later in Kennedy’s speech:
“We ask God’s blessing on the most hazardous, and dangerous, and greatest adventure on which man has ever embarked.”
We need to control the spread of, treat, and find a vaccine for COVID-19, that is no doubt the goal. And we must organize the best of all our skills and energies for the journey toward that goal and beyond. We can find better ways to minimize and control viruses. We can discover effective new ways to travel, educate and work, even as we return to our old airports, schools and offices. We can re-invent logistics and the supply chain. We can improve how we care for our elderly and protect our children. These are unprecedented times that will require unprecedented vision and innovation, and these qualities are embedded in our nation’s DNA.
When social distancing ends, we can also end cultural and political distancing. We can emerge from this less divided, and more whole. The years since our last all-encompassing crisis in 2008 have also been among our most divisive culturally and politically. But now it’s time to re-examine our shared DNA, to re-discover who we really are—a nation built on one moon shot after another.