JFK's Call to Beat Soviets to the Moon
When John Kennedy moved into the White House in 1961, speculation swirled about how the young president would deal with the Soviet Union in the ongoing battle for global supremacy. His claims during the presidential campaign of a strategic Soviet missile advantage were demonstrably false, but they bolstered Kennedy’s anti-communist bona fides with voters. That confidence proved to be short lived.
Three months after Kennedy took office, the Bay of Pigs disaster failed to topple the fledgling pro-Soviet government and rid Cuba of Fidel Castro. Kennedy was blamed for not sufficiently backing up the anti-communist insurgency with American air power and was labeled as soft on communism.
The blame Kennedy received for Cuba was not entirely justified. He had inherited the Bay of Pigs operation from his predecessor. The plan was already in place when he took office, and he put his trust in seasoned Cold Warriors who assured him that the operation would be a success. His hesitation to directly involve American forces was born of a fear of escalating the situation into a military conflict with the Soviets combined with the naivety of a freshman president.
Still, Kennedy was the boss, and the buck stopped with him. He needed to improve his political fortunes and give the Americans a much-needed Cold War win. And for this, Kennedy looked to the sky.
At the beginning of the 1960s, space was already considered fertile ground in the Cold War. The Soviets’ dramatic success with Sputnik and their accomplishments in rocketry gave them an early advantage in the conquest of the final frontier.
On April 12, 1961, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space. It was yet another milestone in space exploration for the Soviet Union and yet another embarrassment for the American space program.
The U.S. responded just three weeks later by sending Alan Shepard into space. Shepard earned the distinction of being the first American in space, but his 15 ½ minute flight into the sky and back to Earth paled in comparison to Gagarin’s 108-minute trip around the globe.
Kennedy turned to Vice President Lyndon Johnson, who was also head of the National Space Council, and inquired if there was any program in which the United States could beat the Soviets and establish America as a leader in space? Johnson consulted with officials from NASA, the military, and top American technology companies. NASA administrator James Webb and Defense Secretary Robert McNamara responded with a memo that suggested “that our National Space Plan include the objective of manned lunar exploration before the end of this decade.”
NASA was already exploring the possibility of lunar missions, and its “Manned Lunar Landing Planning Group” had produced a position paper on the subject in February 1961. Kennedy was intrigued by the idea. He spoke extensively with Webb about how to turn the position paper into reality. Conversations expanded to include other space and technology experts and covered everything from budgets to fast tracking technological development to the type of vehicles, propellants, and engines that would be needed.
Kennedy was emboldened by what NASA proposed, and he was also keenly aware that America needed a long-term goal that would prevent Soviet domination in space exploration. This goal needed to be bold. It needed to challenge the country, inspire the public, and marshal all of America’s resources.
Kennedy spoke to a joint session of Congress on May 25, 1961. After detailing America’s responsibilities and challenges in the struggle for worldwide freedom, Kennedy turned to the topic of space. He said that it was time for America to take a lead in space achievement, and that the country possessed all the resources and talents needed for the endeavor. Then he delivered a challenge.
“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. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish.”
The goal of sending Americans to the moon within the next nine years gave the space program direction and emphasis. NASA continued its other programs and experiments, but meeting Kennedy’s goal became the prime focus. Much of the agency’s resources were focused on this endeavor.
America reached the moon before the end of the decade, beating the deadline by six months. The Soviets had originally pledged to go the moon in 1967, on the 50th anniversary of the Russian Revolution. The death of their top rocket engineer, Sergei Korolev, in 1966, along with bureaucratic infighting and technological setbacks, threw their manned lunar program way off schedule. After the U.S. landed on the Moon on July 20, 1969, the Soviets abandoned their program altogether.
Kennedy’s vision gave the American space program a shot in the arm when it needed it most. He stirred the country’s powerful sense of discovery and adventure, and helped America secure its place as the leader in space exploration for decades to come.