Remarks to Representatives of the Young Astronauts Council on Their Departure for the Soviet Union
October 16, 1986
Thank you all very much. Thank you, Jack. When I met with Mr. Gorbachev last November in Geneva, we decided that it would be valuable for our two peoples to have a more open personal relationship with each other. And the trip that you are about to embark on is just the sort of exchange that we had in mind. Well, there are many fundamental differences between our two peoples and -- our countries, I should say, and our political and economic systems. Yet being different does not preclude better relations. Expanding the ability of our peoples to communicate with each other and to cooperate together on a personal basis remains a high priority in our dealings with the Soviet Union. Who knows, our two peoples, if we do this, may find out that they have much more in common than their governments do. Each one of you, then, going is a special ambassador for America. By being a member of the Young Astronauts program, you've already proven that you have a keen mind and an inquisitive spirit, so we have absolute confidence in you.
One of the subjects you will undoubtedly hear about when you visit the Soviet Union is our research of strategic defense, what is popularly being called Star Wars -- and I wish I could catch the person that first gave it that name -- [laughter] -- because it's more about peace than it is about wars. Some of the best minds of the United States are trying to find out if it's possible to build a system that protects our country and our friends from a ballistic missile attack. We call it the Strategic Defense Initiative, or SDI. And it was a major topic of discussion when I met with General Secretary Gorbachev in Iceland just a few days ago, or you've perhaps gathered that idea since. During those meetings in Iceland, considerable progress was made in narrowing the differences between our two countries on some mighty important issues. Mr. Gorbachev and I were able to come closer to finding the magic formula which would permit us to reduce the number of nuclear weapons in our respective arsenals, even eliminate them entirely. But there was a hitch. The Soviet leader demanded terms that would, in effect, kill SDI and scuttle our chances to develop technology that may someday protect you and your families from nuclear missiles. It might have been Columbus Day, but I wasn't about to give away the store for a deal that we couldn't afford. I couldn't give up your future.
Henry Ward Beecher once wrote: ``He who invents a machine augments the power of a man and the well-being of mankind.'' Well, America and the other free nations of the world are on the edge of a new era of technology and progress, one in which the well-being of mankind will soar as never before. Now, we can't be held back because of Soviet demands. What we can do -- as in the case of SDI -- is to share in the benefits of our innovations, even with our adversaries, to help make this a safer world. And that is exactly what I offered to him. But even when we finally had such a plan worked out -- yes, we would share so that neither one of us would have to live in fear, again. But we can't hold back the future or deny progress.
While it may be difficult for you to imagine that I was once your age -- [laughter] -- I mention this because I want to share with you something written back when I was 15 years old. A noted professor of physics wrote -- and listen to this, he was a very noted man in his field -- ``This foolish idea of shooting at the Moon is an example of the absurd length to which vicious specialization will carry scientists working in thought-tight compartments. Let us critically examine the proposal. For a projectile entirely to escape the gravitation of Earth, it needs a velocity of 7 miles a second. The7E 7E thermal energy7E 7E of7E 7E a7E 7E gramme7E 7E at7E 7E this7E 7E speed7E 7E is7E 7E 15,180 calories -- `The7E 7E energy7E 7E of7E 7E our7E 7E most7E 7E violent7E 7E explosive -- nitroglycerine' -- is less than 1,500 calories per gramme. Consequently, even had the explosive nothing to carry, it has only one-tenth of the energy necessary to escape the Earth gravity. Hence, the proposition appears to be basically impossible.'' And then there was a man that stepped off from a spacecraft and said something about one giant step for mankind as he took the first step of a human being on the Moon. Well, what I read was written back in 1926. Now, I admit I really didn't read this at the time, but it points out the importance of making decisions based on the future. In this century we have gone from Kitty Hawk to the Moon, from telegraph to satellites, and from pencils to computers. And I'm absolutely certain that you'll see even more change. The only question is whether it is for good or bad, more sophisticated missiles capable of killing more and more people or a new defense system to prevent war and save lives.
And that is what SDI is all about: the future, a future of innovations that we cannot now imagine. There are those like that physics professor I quoted who will label anything ``impossible'' because it cannot be done today. Well, we must not let them or our adversaries hold us back. In this case, I say it's better to build a defensive system, to have an insurance policy, that protects us from attack than to base the peace on mutual assured destruction. Mutual assured destruction -- those three words -- that is the system that was adopted by our two governments a few years ago. That is the ABM treaty. And what it says is: If we're both able to blow each other up, then we'll be afraid to try it, and we won't do it. And as Washington is prone to do, that shortened down to its initials; mutual assured destruction comes out a MAD policy. And that's just what it is: stark, staring, mad policy. It's little more than a threatened slaughter of millions of innocent people.
Reykjavik was a crossroads, not between having or not having an agreement, but rather between believing nothing can change or believing a future that offers hope that our world will someday be free of the awesome fear of nuclear attack.
So, I want all of these young people up here to know I wish you Godspeed on your great adventure, and remember to hold your heads high because you are Americans. God bless you.
Note: The President spoke at 1:29 p.m. in the Roosevelt Room at the White House. In his opening remarks, he referred to Jack Anderson, chairman of the Young Astronauts Council.