JFK and Space

Saturn Rocket Briefing, 16 November 1963


President Kennedy will always be remembered for his call to land and return a man from the moon. He not only made the call, but he also did whatever he could to make it happen. JFK ensured sufficient budgets allocated for the project. He visited Cape Canerveral and other NASA locations, and did all he could to support his vision. It was his dream that set the United States on the successful road to the moon. In the nearly 50 years since, no other President has been able to present a new vision. As a result, the US Space program has been effectively stalled ever since.


In 1957, the Soviet Union surprised the world by launching the first satellite into space. The successful mission inaugurated the space race between the United States and the USSR. The US responded by sending Explorer I into orbit four months later. In 1958, the US government formed NASA, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.  Kennedy emphasized the Soviet advantage in space during his campaign for the presidency. Throughout the transition, a team studied the status of the US and Soviet space programs. They warned President-elect Kennedy that the Soviets could conceivably beat the United States in any race to the moon. In his first address to the UN, Kennedy called for cooperation between the Soviets and the US. He stated: " The cold reaches of the universe must not become the new arena of an even colder war. " The Soviets rejected his offer, believing they were far ahead and could surpass any American effort.

In April 1961, the Soviets successfully launched astronaut Yuri Gagarin into space, again besting the United States, which sent Alan B. Shepard into space a few weeks later in May 1961.

On May 25, 1961, President Kennedy addressed the Congress and called for the United States to land a man on the moon and return him by the end of the decade. Kennedy knew he would face opposition to this goal. Even as he spoke, Kennedy was not sure how enthusiastic Congress was regarding space exploration. So for the only time ever in a speech to Congress, he departed from his prepared text and added to his speech the words, " unless we are prepared to do the work and bear the burdens to make it successful. " Americans were divided about the value of the space program. Some believed the money could be better spent on other needs; others believed nothing could be achieved. But as Kennedy advisor Theodore Sorenson wrote in his book on Kennedy:

But the President, once started, was not backing out. To those who said the money could better be spent relieving ignorance or poverty on this planet, he pointed out that this nation had the resources to do both but that those members of Congress making this point seemed unwilling to vote for more welfare funds, regardless of the size of the space program. To those who criticized concentration on the moon shot, he pointed out that this was a focal point for a broad-based scientific effort, and that some sixty other unrelated projects comprised nearly one-quarter of the space budget. To those who argued that instruments alone could do the job, he replied that man was " the most extraordinary computer of them all . .. [whose] judgment, nerve and . .. [ability to] learn from experience still make him unique" among the instruments. To those who feared that the publicity given our launchings would cost us heavily in the event of failure, he replied that this risk not only demonstrated our devotion to freedom but enhanced the prestige of successes which might otherwise be written off as second-best.

Under President Kennedy's direction, the US made steady progress toward its goals in space. From Mercury, to Gemini and finally to the Apollo programs, the US made stead progress in its quest to achieve a man on the moon before the end of the decade. In July 1969, within the deadline set by the President years before, astronaut Neil Armstrong became the first man to set foot on the surface of the moon.