On this 50th Anniversary of President John F. Kennedy's assassination, I am posting a section from a chapter in my book that deals with my interaction with President Kennedy's son during the planning of the Apollo 11 Twenty-fifth Anniversary in Los Angeles. I was Chairman of the Committee that put on that event in 1994, together with the National Space Society.
I'm old enough to remember watching the 3-year-old "John-John" Kennedy, live, on black and white television, fifty years ago this week, saluting his father's flag draped coffin. The chances that our paths would cross, thirty one years later, on a project commemorating his father's promise to land men on the moon, was well beyond my imagination, when I was myself a 12-year-old boy. And yet, here was John Kennedy, as he referred to himself (he didn't seem to like the Jr.) right on the telephone on July 1994, telling me he "could use a little bit of time," to write up a statement for our anniversary.
"Actually it's not going to be that easy for me to write the statement," he said, "I'd sort of like to give it a little bit of thought."
At the beginning of the next week, I received a statement of four paragraphs from John Kennedy Jr. I have that fax framed on my wall to this day. It's a historical link to an American President I still admire. Here is what President Kennedy's son said in that statement:
I want to thank all of you for inviting me to participate in this auspicious commemoration, and I wish that I could be there with you.
I know how proud my father would have been of the extraordinary record of excellence that our country has achieved in space during the past quarter century.
Perhaps the greatest lesson of the mission to the moon is the confidence it should give us that we can succeed in other missions too.
My hope on this impressive anniversary is that our success in space will inspire us to work harder together to meet and master the many challenges we face on earth.
- John Fitzgerald Kennedy Jr.
Five years, exactly, from the day that statement was read by NASA Administrator Dan Goldin at our Apollo 11 Anniversary; John F. Kennedy Jr. was dead.
On the hazy evening of July 16, 1999, John crashed his Piper (Saratoga) into a calm, clear ocean near Martha's Vineyard, accidentally killing himself, his wife and his sister-in-law.
July 16th also happened to be the precise day, 30 years earlier, when Apollo 11's Saturn V rocket had lifted off its launch pad, carrying my friend Buzz Aldrin, Commander Neil Armstrong, and Michael Collins on their epic journey to fulfill President Kennedy's promise to land men on the moon, "before the decade was out".
The memory rushed back to me now, of John's first question to me during our phone conversation. He wanted to know if the date of our Anniversary Gala, July 16th, was of "any historical significance?"
The date was significant; I was surprised he didn't know it. July 16, 1994, was 25 years to the day since America had launched its first flight to land men on the moon.
Those who believe, or do not believe, in coincidences may be intrigued by the strange confluence of events on July 16, 1969 and July 16, 1999.
I didn't look into the exact time that Apollo 11 launched, nor when John F. Kennedy Jr.'s plane hit the water.
It was remarkable enough to me that both flights had happened on the same day, 30 years apart. I didn't want to know any more.