Yesterday marked the fiftieth anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s speech urging Congress, “I believe this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth.” Looking at that speech along side the images of Apollo 11 fulfilling that goal, Kennedy’s speech seems like a foregone conclusion. Yet, as Jesus Diaz’s article on Gizmodo pointed out, a lunar landing seemed at the time to be a crazy dream.
Consider where America’s space program was on 25 May 1961: The Soviets were first to launch a satellite with Sputnik in 1957. They were first to launch a human into orbit with Yuri Gagarin’s flight a month earlier. They had already sent their Luna probes to the moon. The United States had only just launched Alan Shepard into a suborbital flight a few weeks earlier. We did not have a rocket that would launch humans to the moon. Furthermore, the United States had just experienced the fiasco of the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba. We were coming out of the recession of the late fifties. A grand goal like landing people on the moon seemed as crazy as the idea today of sending people to Mars. And it would require more money than Americans might be willing to spend.
We would like to think that the simple nobility of fulfilling a dream would have convinced the Congress to open their checkbook and drive America towards the moon. But listen to Kennedy’s speech again. What really drove us into space is fear. Fear that the United States would fall further behind the Soviet Union in technological advancement if we didn’t increase our involvement in space. Fear that other nations would turn communist because they lacked the confidence that the United States would protect them. The cost of not pursuing a lunar landing became greater than the cost of doing it.
We often pursue a goal because the cost of not pursuing it is too great. We finish a college degree because we’re afraid we won’t get a good-paying job if we don’t. We lose weight because we’re afraid of the health risks if we don’t. We write a novel because we’re afraid of the regret we’ll feel if we don’t. Without that fear or that looming potential cost, there is no incentive for us to make changes. Why spend the money or make the effort if there is no benefit to it — or no loss if we don’t? That’s why Americans haven’t been to the moon in nearly 40 years and why we won’t send people into space after the last Space Shuttle launches. We don’t see a loss if we don’t.
Or is there? What technologies will we miss out on developing if we don’t send people into space? How big of a disadvantage will the United States give itself economically as compared to countries that do? What will this do to America’s image in the world or other nations’ confidence in us if we don’t go into space? Even without a Soviet Union to threaten us, there are still risks to the United States sitting out the human exploration of space.
What really motivates people and nations to pursue big dreams is when the cost of not pursuing them is too great. So, as you look at the goals you’ve been putting off or the dreams you’ve pushed aside, ask yourself: What is it costing me by not pursuing them? How long can I continue to afford it?