When John F. Kennedy became President of the United States in January 1961, many Americans perceived that the United States was losing the Space Race with the Soviet Union, which had successfully launched the first artificial satellite, Sputnik 1, almost four years earlier. The perception increased when, on April 12, 1961, Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space before the U.S. could launch its first Project Mercury astronaut. American prestige was further damaged by the Bay of Pigs fiasco five days later.
Convinced of the political need for an achievement which would decisively demonstrate America's space superiority, Kennedy asked his vice president, Lyndon B. Johnson, in his role as chairman of the National Aeronautics and Space Council, to identify such an achievement. He specifically asked him to investigate whether the United States could beat the Soviet Union in putting a laboratory in space, or orbiting a man around the Moon, or landing a man on the Moon, and to find out what such a project would cost. Johnson consulted with officials of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Its new administrator, James E. Webb, told him that there was no chance of beating the Russians to launching a space station, and it was uncertain as to whether NASA could orbit a man around the Moon first, so the best option would be to attempt to land a man on the Moon. This would also be the most expensive option; Webb believed it would require $22 billion to achieve it by 1970. Johnson also consulted with Wernher von Braun; military leaders, including Lieutenant General Bernard Schriever; and three captains of industry: Frank Stanton from CBS, Donald C. Cook from American Electric Power, and George R. Brown from Brown & Root.
Kennedy stood before Congress on May 25, 1961, and proposed that the US "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." Not everyone was impressed; a Gallup Poll indicated that 58 percent of Americans were opposed.
Kennedy's goal gave a specific mission to NASA's Apollo program. This required the expansion of NASA's Space Task Group into a Manned Spacecraft Center. Houston, Texas was chosen as the site, and the Humble Oil and Refining Company donated the land during 1961, with Rice University as an intermediary. Kennedy took a two-day visit to Houston in September 1962 to view the new facility. He was escorted by astronauts Scott Carpenter and John Glenn, and shown models of the Gemini and Apollo spacecraft; he also viewed the Mercury spacecraft, in which Glenn had made America's first orbital flight. He took advantage of the opportunity to deliver a speech to drum up support for the nation's space effort. Initial drafts of the speech were written by Ted Sorensen, with changes by Kennedy.