July of 1969 holds one of the greatest days in American leadership. Just a few years prior, President John F. Kennedy told his nation to do the impossible: send a man to the moon. At this point, the moon was the ‘next frontier,’ a goal that seemed too audacious to meet. Yet, with his leadership savvy and ability to inspire a nation, he convinced the public to go to the moon “not because [it is] easy, but because [it is] hard.”
Fast-forward seven years to July 20, 1969 when Apollo 11 touched down on the moon, allowing Neil Armstrong to walk its surface for the first time in the history. As the lunar module landed, with a mere 30 seconds left of fuel in the tank, Armstrong pronounced “the eagle has landed” to the NASA base in Houston. “You’ve got a bunch of guys about to turn blue,” Houston responded.
It was one small step for man, and one giant leap for mankind.
To be honest, I had this blog post written days ago. Unfortunately it wasn’t until about 24 hours ago that I even knew how to actually put up the story online (as a digital media and journalism student, I’m quite embarrassed to say the least). Ironic as it may seem, today, Sept. 12, marks the 50th anniversary of the day President Kennedy gave the speech at Rice University urging America to become the first nation to ever step on the moon, his most iconic about space travel.
As any good leader would, Kennedy not only threw out the goal, but also set a plan on how to achieve it. In his words, not only would the country have to invent materials to withstand the 240,000 mile trip to the moon, it would also have to be able to survive the trip home, ultimately entering the atmosphere at nearly 25,000 miles per hour and landing safely on the earth’s surface. The goal was, quite frankly, insane. But being the great leader that he was, the President inspired a nation to do what seemed like the impossible.
In his speech, President Kennedy had one other real memorable line, as mentioned in the linked Los Angeles Times article: “The exploration of space will go ahead, whether we join in it or not … And it is one of the great adventures of all time, and no nation which expects to be the leader of other nations can expect to stay behind in this race for space.” Here, Kennedy said what was hardest of all – we are moving into an unknown land. Be scared. But more importantly, understand that not going to this place means that our leadership as Americans will not be fulfilled.
The leadership shown by not only Neil Armstrong but also President Kennedy encapsulates the entire meaning of the word: dare, scare, challenge, believe, inspire and, most importantly, be gutsy. It isn’t easy walking on the moon, let alone telling a nation to do it “because it’s hard.” What was truly inspiring was that these two were able to put their ultimate faith in their country and team. The result was one of the greatest accomplishments in our nation’s history. That, to me, is what leadership is all about.