“Not because it’s easy, but because it’s hard.”

John F. Kennedy gave the most famous speech in the history of space travel in 1962, announcing that the United States would put an American on the moon by the end of the decade, while painting a picture of space travel as a great mission for all of humanity. The speech is peppered with spine-tingling imagery, but is it still meaningful today? We played it for German astronaut Reinhold Ewald to get his reaction.

Ewald Source: NASA

Dr. Ewald, President John F. Kennedy said the following in a speech at the beginning of the Apollo program: “We choose to go to the moon in this decade, not because it’s easy, but because it’s hard.” It sounded like a challenge—an adventure. Did he strike a chord with astronauts as well?

First of all, astronauts are not adventurers. They don’t seek out risks, at least, not in my experience. When I applied to become an astronaut, my own space flight was still far in the future. But getting there was exciting: The training, the experiments, and, admittedly, there was also the fun of facing a challenge. All of that motivated me during training.

And what about when it finally happened? Did the enormity of the undertaking become clear to you then?

When you stand in front of the rocket, taking in the growling monster—even the Soyuz is 55 meters tall, after all—it’s pretty impressive. But there’s no going back. You’re curious about all the things awaiting you in outer space.

Kennedy’s speech at Rice University wasn’t aimed at astronauts, though—he wanted to inspire everyone. What makes the speech so interesting from today’s perspective?

The fact that someone would promote such a vision, even though the idea surely didn’t come from an interest in researching moon rocks. But Kennedy—or perhaps his advisors—saw the Apollo project as an opportunity to unite the nation behind a worthwhile goal.

And a big vision calls for a big speech?

That’s how it is with visions. Many factors play into uniting people behind a vision: the size of the pitch, its presentation, and the ability to implement the project. As president, Kennedy had the stature to begin a new chapter and make the United States a nation of space exploration. And, at least in the early years, he had the financial resources to push it through.

Do you think Kennedy’s speech is still significant today?

Yes. I sometimes mention the speech in my lectures—as a lesson in how important the right word choice, good timing, and the necessary charisma are to such projects. And it’s an example of how a bold statement can keep subsequent administrations from being fainthearted and debating away a project. The presidents who came just after Kennedy all got on board, or the Apollo program never would have materialized.

Does space travel today lack the appropriate vision and visionaries, especially in Europe?

Although we are well positioned in Europe for navigation and Earth-observation satellites, which we can launch with the Ariane rocket, we always have to work with international partners on manned space flights. It would be a little disingenuous for Europe to announce its own vision for space exploration without having the funds to back it up.

Kennedy Source: NASA

At the end of the year, the ESA member states will decide whether to participate in the Gateway project, an international space station planned to orbit the moon. But there is not much sense of enthusiasm.

Sometimes Europeans are just a little more detached than Americans, but they nevertheless achieve their goals. And it’s my impression that there is not much opposition from the public or in the press. That’s something, anyway.

But it is miles removed from the euphoria that followed Kennedy’s speech.

Once a mission gets underway, fascination and enthusiasm follow. Take Rosetta, the European comet mission, for example: people around the world shared in the excitement when the probe landed in 2014.

Nevertheless, do we need a new speech needed to inspire everyone? Or how can more enthusiasm for space travel be generated?

By making science exciting. The ways in which information about science is communicated have changed: You can no longer rely on everyone tuning in to a science show on a Wednesday evening after the news. Astronautics and the world of science know this. It works differently today.

How, exactly?

One way would be through influencers such as Alexander Gerst or the other ESA astronauts. Their posts on social media about their flights are the best advertisement for space travel. We didn’t have this opportunity back in the age of television, radio, and newspapers. Fortunately, the new generation of astronauts knows how to inspire enthusiasm with their posts. The next concrete step would be to return to the moon with partners and have a European astronaut with a German passport on the flight.

Ewald Source: Picture Alliance / dpa

From the point of view of an astronaut, what is so fascinating about the moon?

Its proximity, at least on a cosmic scale. The space station, 400 kilometers above the Earth, has taught us how to sustain a human presence in outer space. Explorers have never been content with what they’ve found. They always wanted to keep going: heading inland from the coast, on to the next continent, to the South Pole. It is just this element of adventure and exploration that leads us back to the moon. And we have some unfinished science, too.

For example?

There’s the question of how the moon came into being. How people can live on the surface of the moon, and, for example, how to supply them with water. It would include astronomy on the dark side of the moon, that is never turned to Earth: undisturbed by light and radio signals from Earth.

Private companies are aiming to join NASA in outer space. Would you willingly climb into a new rocket operated by a private carrier with the same trust you put in the Soyuz?

It sounds a little canned if I say no. At least, I wouldn’t climb into a spaceship that had skipped several stages of development, wasn’t tested sufficiently, or was going to be launched only to try to score a political win before the end of a legislative period. That kind of thing really makes an astronaut think. You can’t rush something like that.

But if someone were to put a tried and tested rocket in front of you and ask, “Hey, Herr Evald, do you want to fly to the moon?”—then you’d climb in, wouldn’t you?

I certainly wouldn’t say no. But I would be conscious that I was squandering the crew’s time—I’m at the end of my career and simply don’t have the same training as my active colleagues. I would be flying with them as more of a tourist, which would be a waste of precious time. So I wouldn’t be upset if other, better-trained colleagues who are more familiar with the scientific missions took my place.

About Reinhold Ewald:

Dr. Reinhold Ewald, a native of Mönchengladbach, Germany, was 12 years old when the first Americans landed on the moon. In February 1997, he flew into outer space on a Soyuz rocket to the Russian space station Mir, about 400 kilometers above the earth. Dr. Ewald has a Ph.D. in physics, and after leaving the European Space Agency, he was appointed Professor for Astronautics and Space Stations at the Institute of Space Systems (IRS) at the University of Stuttgart.