09/19/2012 04:15 pm ET Updated Nov 19, 2012

Onward to the Stars!

Last week was my first full week of my sophomore year of college and thus, as you can probably imagine, pretty busy. As busy as I was, though, I still found the time to honor two prominent historical anniversaries. Tuesday, of course, was the 11th anniversary of the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001, but the following day marked a lesser-known anniversary.

The date "September 12th, 1962" doesn't conjure up immediate recognition, and mentioning "President John F. Kennedy's speech at Rice University" may not help very much. But if I quote from that speech, you'll definitely recognize it:

We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon -- we choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.

In casual conversation, we sometimes hear people mentioning "JFK's moon speech," but President Kennedy actually gave two famous speeches about traveling to the moon that are sometimes conflated (as well as several less-famous ones). More than a year before his speech at Rice, Kennedy had proposed the goal of landing on the moon before Congress in words that are also immediately recognizable:

"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 the Earth."

We're familiar with those quotes from hearing them in documentaries, movies, and news programs, and I sometimes find myself reciting them in tune with Kennedy inadvertently when I hear them there, just because I've seen them so many times.

But Wednesday was the first time I was able to listen to the entire Rice speech, and I was surprised I hadn't done so sooner. Hearing the speech in full and not as a few selected quotes revealed more historical background, humor and some great passages that were quotable in their own right.

First of all, I hadn't known that then-NASA-Administrator James Webb had been there at Rice, but at the beginning of his speech, Kennedy addresses "Mr. Webb" along with the other dignitaries present. That's a small thing, but it's always cool to discover some little bit of history you didn't know about before.

Second, I didn't know that President Kennedy had made several jokes in his speech! I chuckled at the one he made in the very first line of the speech proper: "I appreciate your president having made me an honorary visiting professor, and I will assure you that my first lecture will be very brief." Later on, he described the heat of re-entry as "about half that of the temperature of the sun -- almost as hot as it is here today". (I haven't been to Texas in September, but I was in Alabama in July for Space Academy, and it certainly felt like I was on the surface of the sun! Not that I didn't enjoy myself there anyway... )

The beginning of Kennedy's speech is just as powerful as the more-quoted-middle:

The greater our knowledge increases, the greater our ignorance unfolds.

Despite the striking fact that most of the scientists that the world has ever known are alive and working today, despite the fact that this Nation's own scientific manpower is doubling every 12 years in a rate of growth more than three times that of our population as a whole, despite that, the vast stretches of the unknown and the unanswered and the unfinished still far outstrip our collective comprehension.

And then, a very striking visualization of human history:

No man can fully grasp how far and how fast we have come, but condense, if you will, the 50,000 years of man's recorded history in a time span of but a half-century. Stated in these terms, we know very little about the first 40 years, except at the end of them advanced man had learned to use the skins of animals to cover them.

Then about 10 years ago, under this standard, man emerged from his caves to construct other kinds of shelter.

Only five years ago man learned to write and use a cart with wheels. Christianity began less than two years ago.

The printing press came this year, and then less than two months ago, during this whole 50-year span of human history, the steam engine provided a new source of power.

Newton explored the meaning of gravity. Last month electric lights and telephones and automobiles and airplanes became available.

Only last week did we develop penicillin and television and nuclear power, and now if America's new spacecraft succeeds in reaching Venus, we will have literally reached the stars before midnight tonight.

The spacecraft Kennedy was talking about was Mariner 2, which had been launched just over two weeks before, on August 27th, 1962. It completed a successful flyby in December of that year. Kennedy mentions Mariner again later on in his speech: "The Mariner spacecraft now on its way to Venus is the most intricate instrument in the history of space science. The accuracy of that shot is comparable to firing a missile from Cape Canaveral and dropping it in this stadium between the 40-yard lines."

From the portions of the speech I'd heard before, I hadn't known that Kennedy had talked about Mariner at all, or that it had been traveling through space as he spoke. But seeing this, hearing him talk about that "current event" in space science, made the speech more meaningful for me, helping me imagine the time in which it was delivered.

Being a student myself, it was easy to superimpose these events onto the schedule of a college semester. If I were one of the Rice students... I would have watched the Mariner launch just before leaving home to come back to campus... I would be thrilled to be taking some time off from my busy first week to see the president... and I would be looking forward to reading about Mariner's discoveries at Venus just before finals began!

And I would have known the president was talking to me when he said: "And this will be done in the decade of the sixties. It may be done while some of you are still here at school at this college and university. It will be done during the term of office of some of the people who sit here on this platform. But it will be done."

The Mariner reference also shows that while we remember the Rice speech as talking about going to the moon, President Kennedy also talked about other projects the space program was undertaking, and considered them to be important to the country as well, discussing how navigation and weather satellites were helping improve commerce and everyday living.

Hearing the speech in full was definitely a rewarding experience -- it made it feel newer, fresher and more inspiring than hearing just the same old quotes I'd heard so many times before. And, in the spirit of another famous Kennedy speech, I asked myself what I could do to honor these great words and the monumental achievement they had inspired.

I should go to the Kennedy Presidential Library at UMass on Saturday! I thought. I had wanted to go anyway, to see Alan Shepard's Freedom 7 spacecraft on display, and what better time than this week?

I had visited the JFK Library with my father last year when he'd come to visit, and it was just as beautiful as I remembered, an I. M. Pei-designed black glass cube set on a point of land that stuck out into the harbor, with nearly uninterrupted views of the sea and city skyline. The weather was perfect, so, before heading inside, I walked down the steps to the area right near the water to take in the view. Victura, a sailboat used by the Kennedy family when vacationing on Cape Cod, sat next to a flagpole, behind a small stone barrier. I paused for a moment to listen to the sound of the waves breaking on the rocks.

As Kennedy was a former Naval officer and an enthusiastic sailor, it had been important to his family that the library be located near the sea, and the museum's location happens to overlook the channel into Boston Harbor that his ancestors passed through when immigrating from Ireland to the United States. This even, I thought, showed up in the Rice speech, where he had referred to outer space as being a "new ocean."

I headed inside and bought a ticket at the front desk. I decided to skip the introductory film, which I'd already seen, so I could get to Freedom 7 as soon as I could. The galleries proper begin with the 1960 Democratic National Convention with Kennedy's announcement as his party's official candidate. The campaign gallery cleverly simulates walking down a street during the lead-in to the election, with old televisions in a store window displaying campaign ads for both sides, and reproduction newspapers in old newspaper kiosks.

The "Space Program" gallery had been moved since I last visited, it was now the second room in the "White House Corridor" covering the events of Kennedy's presidency. And in the back of the room, there was the Freedom 7 capsule, behind a glass wall, with a panoramic photo of its launch as a backdrop!

Even without the backdrop or the other displays in the room, I would have recognized it as similar to the other Mercury capsules I'd seen in museums: black, roughly bell-shaped and small, built to carry one cramped-in astronaut into space for a few hours -- or, in Shepard's pioneering first flight, only 15 minutes. (I've joked that a Mercury capsule is just the right size for a teenage girl -- it's the adult men in spacesuits who must have been cramped!)

After taking a lot of pictures, I examined the other displays in the room. There were photographs of Freedom 7's recovery, the Washington Post's front page from the day of the flight, a very cool photograph of President Kennedy, First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy and Vice President Johnson watching the flight anxiously on a television in the White House, and vintage LIFE magazine photographs of the Mercury astronauts suiting up and hanging out. ("The silver-suited, techno-speaking astronauts who blasted into space with incredible coolness," as the museum plaque put it.)

Appropriately enough, a video featuring clips from the Rice speech and footage of the Mercury program was playing continuously in the gallery--sadly, though, it was mostly just the better-known clips and not the full speech--and some of the president's notes for the speech were right there in a case. Wow! I'd certainly come to the right place to celebrate the anniversary of the speech!

After seeing everything in the Space Exploration room, I wandered throughout the rest of the exhibits. The exhibits about the Civil Rights Movement felt even more poignant after having studied the speeches of Martin Luther King in my writing class the semester before. The archeologist and museum nerd in me was pleased to find a display about the Kennedy Administration's role in relocating the ancient Egyptian temples that had been threatened by the construction of the Aswan High Dam, including the Temple of Dendur, now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

The end of the museum is very moving -- the room dealing with Kennedy's assassination is dark, with a bank of television screens showing news footage of how the assassination was reported. Moving to the end of the room, you see Kennedy's quote: "A man may die, nations may rise and fall, but an idea lives on," and then turn a corner into the room about his legacy. And almost exactly where you come out into the "Legacy" room, you see a screen playing footage of the Apollo 11 moon landing, newspapers announcing the landing, and an actual moonrock. In the words that were displayed on a computer screen in the control room at the Johnson Space Center just after that first moonwalk: "Task accomplished, July 1969."

I'll admit it, I got a bit misty.

There's a guestbook in that final room, in which visitors are encouraged to record their impressions of their visit. I wrote my name and address, then paused for a moment, trying to think of something appropriate to write...

"On the 50th anniversary of the Rice speech -- Onward to the stars!"