20 July 2009

Moon rhetoric from Neil Armstrong, JFK & Werner von Braun

About twelve years after the moon landing in 1969, I started writing about the power of rhetorical techniques like the contrast, and remember being vaguely amused and delighted when I realised that, of all the possible things that Neil Armstrong could have said 40 years ago, it was a simple contrast that was beamed back to earth.

[A] That's one small step for man;
[B] one giant leap for mankind.


But this historic achievement was also the fulfillment of earlier memorable rhetorical flourishes from President Kennedy, who’d committed the USA to land a man on the moon within a decade. And here he is cranking out a contrast and rounding off his message off with a three-part list:

We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things,

[A] not because they are easy,
[B] 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

[1] one that we are willing to accept,
[2] one we are unwilling to postpone
[3] and one we intend to win.

(The full text of the speech is HERE).


Rocket scientist though he may have been, Werner von Braun, without whose brains NASA might never have met Kennedy’s deadline, was no slouch when it came to coining memorable quotations.

When the first of the V2 rockets he’d designed for Hitler hit London, it’s been claimed that his mind was already on space – as he was quoted as saying: "The rocket worked perfectly except for landing on the wrong planet."

Other famous lines from von Braun include the following:

“Man is the best computer we can put aboard a spacecraft, and the only one that can be mass produced with unskilled labor.”

“Our sun is one of 100 billion stars in our galaxy. Our galaxy is one of billions of galaxies populating the universe. It would be the height of presumption to think that we are the only living things in that enormous immensity.”

“Research is what I'm doing when I don't know what I'm doing.”

“Don't tell me that man doesn't belong out there. Man belongs wherever he wants to go -- and he'll do plenty well when he gets there.”

“We can lick gravity, but sometimes the paperwork is overwhelming.”

“There is just one thing I can promise you about the outer-space program - your tax-dollar will go further.”

“Crash programs fail because they are based on theory that, with nine women pregnant, you can get a baby a month.”

“It will free man from the remaining chains, the chains of gravity which still tie him to this planet.”

“For my confirmation, I didn't get a watch and my first pair of long pants, like most Lutheran boys. I got a telescope. My mother thought it would make the best gift.”

For someone who helped the Nazis to develop the V2 rockets that launched so much terror and destruction on London, US citizenship wasn't such a bad gift either.

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