I know I’ve written about this before, but I’ll be damned if I can find it, so here it is, once again, for posterity:
Most everyone can quote the first part of Kennedy’s speech, the part that ends, “not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” Most people cannot, however, quote the second part of that speech, which explains why the hard things are worth doing. We like to think of Kennedy as being some bold visionary when it came to all sorts of things — like most historical figures, he was, and he wasn’t — but he was absolutely a pragmatist when it came to goals for Apollo. In the context of 1962, seeing the Russians way ahead of the United States in space, knowing the US would never beat the Soviets in low-earth orbit, Kennedy needed a literal moon shot to get back ahead. That it provided an organizing goal, a task to which the entire nation could rally, was icing on the cake, a perfect win-win.
Starry-eyed fans of the space age sometimes find it difficult to look at the pragmatic, cynical way in which national space policy has been conducted. We look at things like STS and the International Space Station as weak because the political will was lacking, and we’re right, but we’re wrong about why. Great things like Apollo are historical accidents; NASA has spent 50 years pretending that the funding levels of the Apollo program were the normal, and that everything since then has been an aberration. It hasn’t, and they’re finally starting to grasp that, difficult though the concept may be. Those of us who are science fiction fans, who dream of a future in space, are having to face the unpleasant truth that this kind of future probably won’t happen — that barring great national pride issues, we aren’t heading back into space in a big way anytime soon.