The first tries were not very indicative of the country's will to succeed. In full view of press and public, NASA watched their first Mercury-Atlas rocket disintegrate and fall into the ocean.
Months later, and after a number of other "plunkers," the spectacular explosion of yet another rocket sent the population wondering if the mission's goals were even plausible.
Meanwhile, the Soviet Union continued to excel where Americans floundered. April 12, 1961 saw Major Yuri A. Gagarin become the first man to orbit earth. It was clear that the U.S. had lost something essential; perhaps even fundamental to its sustaining equality with its rival superpower.
Convinced it was necessary invigorate the country and galvanize support for the badly mauled space effort, President Kennedy gave this now famous speech on May 25, 1961:
Now it is time to take longer strides - time for a great new American enterprise - time for this nation to take a clearly leading role in space achievement which in many ways may hold the key to our future on earth... I believe that 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 earth. No single space project in this period will be more exciting or more impressive to mankind or more important for the long-range exploration of space and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish... In a very real sense, it will not be one man going to the moon - it will be an entire nation. For all of us must work together to put him there.
Whatever powers John Kennedy held over the country, these words trickled down to every individual who wondered what contribution their time would bring for the world. From every walk of life, from adult to child, thousands wished for and hundreds sought out a chance to participate; any thing to help the country accomplish the grand goal of putting the first people on the moon. Suddenly, the mission had new significance of vision and duty. "We had to get there first," reflects Astronaut Buzz Aldrin, "we just had to."
Nearly nine years later, on July 20, 1969, making his first steps on the moon's surface, Neil Armstrong delivered these immortal words to an awaiting nation: "That's one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind."
Never before in peacetime, and never since these words reached this planet, has this nation been so deliberate, so remarkably purposeful.