Remarks by Vice President Biden Marking the 50th Anniversary of President Kennedy’s “Moon Shot” Speech, As Prepared For Delivery
President John F. Kennedy Library & Museum
I want you to imagine—I want you to imagine the benefits to the first country that develops smart anti-cancer therapies that kill cancer cells and leave ordinary cells untouched.
Imagine the first country that develops regenerative medicines that can re-grow damaged organs, eliminating the agonizing wait for an organ transplant, allowing patients to recover from spinal cord injuries, and curing diseases like diabetes.
Imagine the first country that makes solar power as cheap as fossil fuels, and builds the first buildings that are able to produce all the energy they consume.
Imagine the first country to build a supercomputer capable of performing a million-trillion calculations a second – a computer fast enough to not only sequence every gene in the human body, but to test every combination of genes – giving us a new ability to fundamentally decode the complex interactions between genetics and disease.
Imagine the first country that creates a car battery that’s even lighter and cheaper than the new lithium ion batteries of today – able to store enough energy from one charge to take a car 1,000 miles.
Of one thing I am convinced: If President Kennedy were standing here today, this is what he would imagine, this is what he would envision – and then he would challenge America to accomplish all of these goals and more. He would challenge us to push the boundaries of our own knowledge and our present capacity. To bridge the gap between the possible and the unimaginable.
For it would have been beyond his comprehension that the United States would fail to invest in visionary new ideas. Ideas needed to make the 21st century livable.
I don’t believe he could have imagined the United States continuing to rely on fossil fuels. I don’t believe he could have imagined the United States failing to cultivate new brilliant young scientists, and to challenge them to end the diseases that have plagued humanity for generations.
In an ever-more complicated and interconnected world, Ladies and gentlemen, I believe if he were standing here today, he would tell us, as he did 50 years ago, that we have a choice about what kind of country we are going to be. That vision should not be a hard sell today, in 2011. For because of President Kennedy’s vision, leadership, and confidence, we’ve already met such a challenge – by relying on all the resources and talents America possesses today.
50 years ago, President Kennedy said, “I believe we possess all the resources and talents necessary. But the facts of the matter are that we have never made the national decisions or marshaled the national resources required for such leadership. We have never specified long-range goals on an urgent time schedule, or managed our resources and our time so as to insure their fulfillment…”
He said that we needed, “a degree of dedication, organization, and discipline which have not always characterized our research and development efforts.”But because of him, we don’t have to say that.
We have made national decisions on this scale and of this magnitude. We have marshaled the national resources required for such leadership. We have specified long range goals on an urgent time schedule. Because of the visionary leadership of a young president, we know it can be done. We know we can mobilize to meet the challenges of the moment.
I was 18 years old when President Kennedy gave his moon shot speech. An 18 year old kid from Scranton, who never dreamed that he would one day be standing here to pay tribute to the power and vision and achievement that grew out of President Kennedy’s words that day – and to urge a new generation to honor his actions with our own. What a great honor.
I remember President Kennedy saying it was up to us—up to the nation—to decide whether to commit ourselves to the challenge of sending a man to the moon and bringing him safely back to earth. That if we weren’t going to go for it full tilt, we might as well not go for it at all.
In 1961, President Kennedy’s character and makeup was a reflection not only of his generation, but of America’s character. Well, I am confident my generation and yours is not only up to the task – but even better position to meet the daunting challenges of this young century.
Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “Society is like a wave….”America has not changed, it’s gotten better. Nothing incremental. He had, as I do, an unlimited faith in the character and the aspirations of the American people. He knew that the American people had never failed to rise to a challenge, never failed to overcome adversity, and never let their country down.
From a revolution for independence, to a war to keep us united, the throes of a Great Depression, to building and deploying an arsenal of democracy and expanding democracy at home through Civil Rights and civil justice American has always been at its best when challenged. That’s when you see our national grit. Determination. Ingenuity.
That’s why President Kennedy said, speaking of the challenge to go to the moon, that if we came together and took up the challenge, then “in a very real sense, it [would] not be one man going to the moon…for all of us must work to put him there.” I knew, as a young man, how bold it was. How exciting it was. It appealed to America’s essential exceptionalism, the idea that we were a special nation, meant to do extraordinary things. Even then, my friends, I sensed that this challenge was about more than landing on the moon.
It was bigger than that. It was about a truly new frontier.
You just knew in your gut that the process of getting there, the pursuit of the moon, would open whole new vistas to humanity. It would be a new measure of possibility—a new mark of human achievement.
President Kennedy knew that going to the moon would change the way we lived on earth. That it wasn’t about going to a distant world, but bringing the United States into the modern world, and making sure we didn’t lose our place in it. And he was right.
The pursuit of the moon inspired thousands in my generation to pursue careers in engineering, science and technology. It unleashed one of the most significant expansions of scientific capacity the world had ever known. And my impression was that he never had a doubt that it would. Because he knew our history. He knew the equation of America: challenge plus investment equals progress.
A half century later, President Obama and I share that same conviction, that same faith, and that same certitude. For the new frontiers here on earth are equally as challenging, and equally capable of being conquered. A new energy policy that will save the planet from global warming, increase our independence, and renew our economy.
Advances in science and health that will increase the quality of life for millions of Americans and tens of millions of people the world over. This is an incredible time in which we live, a time of extraordinary possibilities. We are a nation of people who are always about – possibilities.
What is truly unique about America is that we have the political system, the economic system, the education system, and, most importantly, the will to turn those possibilities into realities.
But like President Kennedy we understand that it takes a national vision, it takes a leader to set the goal, and if he does, investment and innovation, and ultimately, commercialization will follow. Over and over again, that’s been the American model of innovation, allowing us to lead the world in technological advancement the past 250 years. It’s part of our nation’s DNA; it’s embedded in our nation’s history.
But the goals are not America’s alone. Other nations are seeking to win the future as well. You see it in China and India and Brazil, countries that are making massive investments in research, development, infrastructure, education.
If we shrink from President Kennedy’s bold approach, we run the risk of being left behind. We and the world are at a critical juncture, and the United States needs to reassert its commitment to competitiveness – competitiveness that puts us in a position to be the global economic leader of the 21st century.
That is why President Obama has set such bold goals to meet the challenges of this generation. Think about it: We know we can be generating 80% of America’s electricity from clean sources by 2035. We launched what we call a “SunShot” to make solar energy as affordable as traditional forms of energy. And I assure you, just as in the moonshot – in pursuit of that goal – we will develop new technologies that will leapfrog anything we’re thinking about right now.
We know that with the seed money we’ve already provided through the Recovery Act, that private industry can put a million advanced technology vehicles – electrics and plug-in hybrids – on the road by 2015. But we also know, along the way, they will develop a whole new generation of batteries that will ultimately be able to carry a car father than 1,000 miles on a single charge – and batteries that can store the energy we harvest from the sun, not only from automobiles but for industrial use as well.
We know that we must and will lead the world in the percentage of college graduates by the end of the decade, because we know our people. We know America. There is no reason why, in the 21st century, America cannot have the best educated, best trained population mankind has ever known. We have the talent, resources, and know-how.
In the process of doing all this, your generation will be responsible for fundamental breakthroughs not only in the far reaches of space, or the depths of the sea, in the confines of our own bodies, and in the mysteries of the human brain.
A great deal has been written about the advances we’ve made in the last quarter century in understanding the brain functions and the potential that will come from further study. There’s been a great of research in the last half decade, research that has attracted the interest not only of neuroscientists and surgeons, but gifted persons from other disciplines – psychologists, sociologists, and journalists.
One example that I recommend to you all is David Brooks’ new book, “The Social Animal” – that points out with greater understanding of the potential we have to affect social interaction in ways we haven’t ever thought of before.
The promise in this area is unlimited, and the need for further research is immediate. Thousands of our wounded warriors are retuning with Post Traumatic Stress and Traumatic Brain Injuries. For these and other reasons, our administration has made an unprecedented commitment to advancing understanding of the brain – through the NIH, through the National Science Foundation, through the Department of Defense, and through the VA.
We’re supporting the Human Connectome Project – dedicated to discovering the “wiring diagram” for the human brain. The Human Connectome Project will lead to major advances in our understanding of how our brain circuitry changes as we age and how it differs in people with neurological or psychiatric illnesses.
We’re supporting a consortium of researchers to create stem cells from patients with Parkinson’s, Huntington’s, Lou Gehrig’s disease, and Alzheimer’s. This allows researchers to better understand the progression of these diseases, and to screen potential drug candidates.
We’re supporting the development of “neural prosthesis,” which is in the nascent stages of allowing individuals with prosthesis to control them by their thought process.
We’re also supporting Congressman Patrick Kennedy’s bold new campaign, called One Mind for Research.
Many of you are here today as part of that effort. Your work truly is a modern moonshot. There’s no question that President Kennedy’s spirit is alive today in this nation, in this audience, and in the DNA of Patrick Kennedy.
The truth is, just as JFK couldn’t have known that shooting for the moon would create the semiconductor industry, which would give birth to the personal computer industry, which would give us IBM and Microsoft and Apple, who gave us the iPhone – and who knows where this goes next?
We cannot know with certainty what our fundamental recommitment to science, and research and development will yield. But we do know, from experience that the results will be greater than the sum of the parts, and the rewards will be far greater than the original investment. And we also know that the march into the future will continue whether we lead it or not.
President Kennedy understood this 50 years ago. Here’s what he said, “The exploration of space will go ahead whether we join in it or not…and no nation which expects to be the leader of other nations can expect to stay behind in this race for space.”
No nation that expects to be the leader of others can afford to be a follower on confronting the critical challenges of today. But just as there were naysayers in 1961, there are naysayers in 2011. They say our economy is too fragile for us to be so bold. I say, our economy will stay fragile, unless we are bold. They say we cannot afford to invest in these endeavors. I say, we cannot fail to invest.
This argument is not new to America. There are those in the political leadership who hold the view that government has no role, and should not be setting out a vision for America’s future. I would argue that at every juncture, they’ve been proven wrong.
If we had listened to those voices in 1774, private enterprise and government would not have collaborated to build the rifles with interchangeable parts needed to win the Revolutionary War.
If we had listened to these voices in 1843, Congress never would have collaborated with Samuel Morse build a demonstration telegraph line, from Washington to Baltimore and unleashing a telecommunications revolution.
If President Lincoln had listened to those voices in the middle of the Civil War, he wouldn’t have paid private railroad companies $16,000 dollars for every 40 miles of track on a transcontinental railroad they laid down.
If President Eisenhower had listened to those voices in 1957, he never would have invested millions of government dollars in a new research endeavor called ARPA, which invented the Arpanet, which became the Internet.
And if President Kennedy has listened to those voices, we never would have reached for the moon, and reaped the incredible benefits that flowed from that effort. And I assure you that neither President Obama and I are going to listen to those voices, and mortgage the future of your generation.
In his inaugural address, President Kennedy said, “In your hands, my fellow citizens, more than in mine, will rest the final success or failure of our course. Since this country was founded, each generation of Americans has been summoned to give testimony to its national loyalty.”
Today, we are summoned again. Let us have the strength, courage, and vision to answer that call.
For in the words of President Obama, “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.”
Thank you. May God bless America. And may God protect our troops.