Mo Liu, VI Form
The President Who Made Apollo: John F. Kennedy and The U.S. Soviet Moon Race, From His Speeches, Letters, and Memos
Editors’ Note: Mo Liu conducted her History Fellowship research on J.F. Kennedy and his decision to go to the Moon. Below is the introduction and you can click here for the full paper:
Soviets, Space, and Sputnik
As the gunpowder smoke of the Second World War slowly faded away, the United States and the Soviet Union were the only two superpowers remaining, and the formal allies soon turned into bitter rivals.The United States believed it stood supreme in ideals, leadership, and influence, while the Soviet Union was determined to contest that claim and “by any means necessary” secure its position at the top.Given the intense differences between their ideologies, cultures, and government structures, conflicts were inevitable. The Cold War, the longest war in modern history, began quietly without a shot of cannon.
Towards the end of WWII, the United States and the Soviet Union were competing for German rocketry technology as well as scientists working on the rocket development project. Rockets received attention primarily due to their potential as a military weapon; the sole function of rockets was thought to be as carriers of atomic warheads. The United States and the Soviet Union’s desperation to gain the secrets to German rocketry was, therefore, a result of their desire to strengthen each nation’s military arsenal. The rocketry competition rose to new heights on October 4, 1957, when the Soviets launched the first satellite into orbit.The Soviet Union accomplished this great feat without making any previous announcement, so, when amateur space enthusiasts in the United States picked up Sputnik’s radio signals as it flew across the American sky, the entire nation reacted with amazement and disbelief. In an open letter to The New York Herald Tribune, economist Bernard Baruch described America’s reaction to Sputnik: “Suddenly, rudely, we are awakened to the fact that the Russians have outdistanced us in a race which we thought we were winning. It is Russia, not the United States, who has had the imagination to hitch its wagon to the stars and the skill to reach for the Moon and all but grasp it.”The space race, as people would later call it, had officially begun.
Sputnikwas a wakeup call, reminding Americans that a power whose ideologies completely deviated from their own, was seriously jeopardizing the United States’ leadership in the world. President Eisenhower calmly claimed that Sputnik“does not raise [his] apprehensions,” but in sharp contrast, the American public responded to the Soviets’ satellite launch with a mix of fascination and increasing anxiety, fearing that the next object the Soviets place in orbit was not a satellite but a nuclear bomb.Lyndon B. Johnson, then the Democratic Senate Majority Leader, argued that Sputnikwas a disaster that “amounted to a latter-day Pearl Harbor,” and his comment accurately represented the explosive effect Sputnikhad in the context of the Cold War.For the first time, the United States fell behind in an area that attracted global attention, and the Soviets forced the United States to swallow an “unprecedented national humiliation” with a small metal object weighing less than 200 pounds.Although Johnson showed little interest in space before the launch of Sputnik, he quickly realized how it was potentially heavy political leverage in the country’s war of tug with the Soviets, and was later appointed the chair of the recently created Senate Committee on Aeronautical and Space Sciences.Sputnikopened a new arena in the Cold War rivalry that, in the words of Neil Armstrong, then a test pilot in the Navy, “changed [The United States’] view of what was happening, the potential of space.”Like Armstrong, many quickly realized that space held, within its dark vacuum, an immense political power that could tip the balance between the two world superpowers, and the Soviet Union was the first one to enter it. As the foreign policy analyst Herbert Dinerstein warned, if the Soviets continued to improve their technology and acquire military strength, they could possibly defeat the United States in the Cold War because countries would then perceive the communist system as superior.
America was desperate to catch up with the Soviets. On December 6, 1957, the United States Navy launched its Vanguard TV3with the satellite Explorerfrom Cape Canaveral.The launch attracted global attention since Vanguardwas the American response to the Soviets’ launch of Sputnik Iin October and its subsequent, Sputnik II, within a month of the first satellite.The rocket was in the air for only ten seconds. Vanguardthen collapsed towards the ocean and eventually landed on the shore of Cape Canaveral. All the build-up of expectations came down to nothing but a “massive, roiling ball of red fire and black smoke.”The Vanguardproject did the exact opposite of its creators’ intention: it showed the weakness of the United States’ space program and further emphasized the Soviets’ success. Foreign newspapers made jokes about Vanguard, calling it “Kaputnik” or “Stayputnik” to the chagrin of the Eisenhower administration, and even Americans journalists tried to lighten the embarrassment with self-mock.In an article published in the Daily Herald after the launch failure, the journalist humorously titled the article “Oh, What a Flopnik!”, representing Americans’ own recognition that the Vanguard humiliation had become an international amusement.If Sputnikchallenged the United States’ prestige, Vanguard’s failure proved to magnify its scientific failure and national humiliation.Fear of losing its reputation as the world’s superpower caused the United States to establish a crash space program: the National Aeronautics and Space Agency (NASA), came into being on July 29, 1958.The United States began a serious effort to compete with the Soviets in space.
The Camelot Warrior
Born in Brookline, Massachusetts into a well-off Irish Catholic family in May 1917, John Fitzgerald Kennedy was what the Irish ambassador called a “good New Englander.”With an Ivy League education, a vigorous presence, and an affecting personality, Kennedy won the Presidential election of 1960 and became the youngest President to take office.The 42-year-old Kennedy exuded an inspiring youth and confidence, presenting America with a refreshing image that sharply contrasted with Eisenhower’s more dour style.Kennedy’s popularity was unprecedented: he was skillful in dealing with the press, and his class, charisma, and appeal to the general public won him the title, the “Camelot” President, a reference to King Arthur’s fantastic, romantic castle.Jack was what America was looking for at the peak of the Cold War — an invigorating leader who could lead the nation in the struggle with the Soviets.
Kennedy believed that America had lost both prestige and power under the Eisenhower administration and that only active leadership from the new administration could restore national pride.He labeled his campaign platform the New Frontier, dreaming of carrying the United States into a new era of success, and this success was measured by winning the Cold War. Kennedy entered the White House as a cold warrior, bringing a four-year plan that rotated around the demolishing of the Soviet Union.In his inaugural address, he emphasized that the nation must take actions to demonstrate its strength: “Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”Kennedy declared on the first day of his presidency that he would make any sacrifice necessary to ensure that the United States continued to hold supreme influence in the world, and he was determined to spread the democratic ideology, which implied the suppression of contradicting ideologies like Communism. The entire speech was Cold War orientated, and its delivery resembled a pep talk, creating an image of the United States crusading around the world, saving those who suffer under undemocratic regimes. In this speech Kennedy showed his primary characteristics as a politician: anti-communist, goal-driven, and practical.The President’s cabinet, like Kennedy himself, was hopeful that, with enough planning, determination, and caution, the administration could accomplish the president’s “lofty goals of winning the Cold War, ending racism…and eliminating poverty.”The anti-communist cause remained the root of Kennedy’s legislative and diplomatic decisions, and he was anxious to achieve an astounding accomplishment early on.
While Kennedy was still a Senator from Massachusetts and campaigning for the presidency, he indicated his support for a more robust space program in correspondences that inquired his position on the issue. In a letter to a constituent, Kennedy stated that he believes the “disparity of quality and versatility” between the US’s space efforts and that of the Soviet Union’s “must be filled during the immediate years that lie ahead,” and that the United States should spend “too much rather than too little” on the space program in order to achieve success in the field.This letter was dated October 23, 1959, several months before Kennedy officially announced his official candidacy.Kennedy politically aligned himself with the importance of funding for a crash space program, but it should be noted that Nixon had already announced that he “saw no need” for an increase in government support for the space program.Kennedy’s statement, therefore, could have been an effort to establish a distinction between himself and Nixon on the issue in the early stages of the campaign. The Soviet space achievements were also immensely useful to him politically because Kennedy based his entire campaign on attacking the Eisenhower presidency. Kennedy might not personally believe that the United States space program was as endangered as he had claimed, but the issue gave him the ammunition to prove that America had “become dangerously weak on Eisenhower’s watch.”Regardless of his intention, Kennedy labeled himself as a space program advocate when he entered the presidential race.
In his personal correspondence to William Everdell from Princeton University in February 1960, Kennedy expanded on his beliefs about the space program. In the opening paragraph Kennedy emphasized that, regardless of the scale of the American space program, its “ventures should remain seriously scientific in their purpose.”He stressed that the space program should remain a civilian project that focused primarily on scientific research and discovery and not for economic, military, or political purposes. However, in subsequent paragraphs, Kennedy acknowledge the powerful political implication of what he called a “space lag.” He explained that although the space program should remain strictly a scientific effort, the United States’ unsatisfactory performance had resulted in a “loss in international prestige.” This loss had a broader significance than national pride and confidence; it prompted governments around the world to question “the strength and capabilities of the U.S.” at a time when the United States and the Soviet Union were competing for international respect.Contradictory to the comment he made at the beginning of the letter, Kennedy knew that he could not limit the space program to a purely scientific endeavor. Achievement in outer space had risen to become a parameter that indicates the ability of a country, a way to measure the strength of the democratic system that America so proudly preached.
Kennedy acknowledged a space program’s potential impact, but it was not a top priority during his 1960 campaign. Nuclear power was his gravest concern, and America’s “inferior position” in space exploration only came in fifth after NATO and inflation.In August 1960, Kennedy’s campaign team presented him with two programs regarding his position on space. The first program proposed a modest NASA budget increase over time, while the second program aimed at “space supremacy”: NASA’s budget would double and eventually triple the budget previously set for 1961.Either choice would fulfill Kennedy’s promise to build a more robust space program, but only the later would give America a shot at beating the Russians in the manned space competition. By the time Kennedy entered the White House, he was aware of the underdevelopment of the American space program and had voiced support on its behalf, but it was not an urgent issue that required his immediate attention.
The JFK Perspective
“Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.”These were the first words Armstrong said after the Apollo 11 crew landed on the lunar surface. July 24, 1969, was a special day for the United States and the entire world because humans traveled to and left their mark on an extraterrestrial body for the first time in history.The success of Apollo 11’s lunar landing was a historical achievement that realized Kennedy’s bold proposal eight years ago. As an amateur historian, Kennedy knew if his dream of going to the Moon came true, it would be recorded in history books. In addition, his own name would be associated with “heroism and boldness of space exploration,” making him comparable to other visionary leaders of the world.
President John F. Kennedy had a direct and lingering impact on the American advancement in space exploration. A few months into his presidency, Kennedy recognized the political significance of space exploration as a new arena of the Cold War, and how the United States’ leadership in space, especially through manned missions, could aid the country in its struggles against the Soviets. As seen from his public speeches, letters, and memos, Kennedy intended to utilize space exploration as a form of propaganda and incorporated space exploration into his comprehensive Cold War agenda. His dedication to landing an American on the Moon remained the focus of NASA’s efforts throughout the rest of the decade, and the success of Apollosecured the United States’ absolute leadership on the space frontier.
To the Moon
The President’s Pledge
On May 25, 1961, President Kennedy delivered a special message to a joint session of Congress. Only congressmen and women were present in the room, but Kennedy was sending a message to the entire nation. He challenged the United States to put a man on the Moon and return him safely to Earth before the end of the decade. Kennedy asked the country to join him in this effort and be ready to “bear the burdens to make [the challenge] successful.”In his historic speech, Kennedy appealed to America’s adventurous spirit, patriotic pride, and belief in freedom.Overnight, a lunar landing became the United States’ most “urgent need.”Although Kennedy did not call out the Soviet Union by the name, there was no doubt that he posed this challenge to confront America’s most dangerous rival. In its nature, the race to the Moon was a race to a new frontier of power and leadership that aligned with Kennedy’s vision of a vigorous, triumphant “New Frontier” for America. The speech was a signal from the White House that the United States was on the move again, confidently displaying its desire to take affirmative action in a time of unprecedented peril.
Kennedy did not envision himself delivering that speech in 1961 when he first began his presidency. In early 1960, Kennedy had little knowledge of or interest in space beside his awareness of the growing Cold War space race. In a dinner conversation with aerospace pioneer Charles Draper before the election, both Robert and John Kennedy voiced their total ambivalence regarding efforts in space exploration. The Kennedy brothers said that they thought designing and manufacturing rockets was a “waste of money,” and it is safe to assume from the quote that Kennedy was by no means a space enthusiast.Eisenhower once said that he “couldn’t care less whether a man ever reached the moon,” and although Kennedy attacked Eisenhower on every topic imaginable during the presidential campaign, his actions during the beginning stages of his presidency seemed to align with Eisenhower’s beliefs about the space program.Kennedy did not subscribe to the “romantic prospects of space travel,” and he was not a visionary regarding the science behind it.The sole purpose of his space agenda was to surpass the Soviets. During an interview with the President, Hugh Sidey, the White House correspondent for Time andLifemagazines, wrote that “of all the areas of bafflement when Kennedy took office, space seemed more perplexing than the others. Kennedy seemed to know less about it [and] be less interested in it.”He saw space as a new arena of conflict within the bigger Cold War struggle, and his interest in space exploration stopped there.
Despite Kennedy’s passionate promises during the presidential campaign about building a stronger space program, his immediate actions after inauguration did not match his lofty campaign rhetoric. There were two options concerning NASA’s future that Kennedy pondered: he could choose the first program for a steady build-up of the agency, or he could decide on the second option, which would triple NASA’s funding. He chose neither of them. According to biographer Richard Reeves, in early 1961, Kennedy even contemplated abolishing NASA altogether under the influence of his science advisor, Jerome Wiesner, who shared Eisenhower’s apathy towards manned space voyage.Ted Sorensen, Kennedy influential advisor, encouraged the President to eliminate the White House’s National Aeronautics and Space Council (NASC).Although partially due to Vice President Johnson’s advocacy for a strong human spaceflight program, Wiesner and Sorensen’s initiatives did not carry through, the majority of Kennedy’s cabinet opposed increased expenditure in space and agreed with Eisenhower’s plan to downsize the agency. In February 1961, Kennedy rejected NASA’s request for an additional $182,521,000 in funding which would have boosted the development of manned missions. In March, he decided to withhold federal funds for Apollo.While the Soviet Union accelerated its preparation for Vostok 1— the spacecraft that would eventually carry Yuri Gagarin to become the first human in space, NASA continued to operate under insufficient funding and lack of attentiveness from the administration.Not until January of 1961 did Kennedy replaced the NASA administrator Eisenhower appointed with his own appointment, James Webb.
Kennedy’s indifference towards space exploration remained, even after his ringing declaration of going to the Moon in May 1961. In front of the media, he was an enthusiastic advocate for a space program that concentrated on scientific discovery, but behind closed doors he made his intentions clear: his support for the space program was solely focused on the lunar manned mission, because only a dramatic success like landing on the Moon would put the United States ahead of the Soviets. In a tape recording of a White House meeting that occurred on November 21, 1962, Kennedy dismissed the concerns of NASA Administrator James Webb that the United States risked a public failure in its vigorous effort to achieve a lunar landing:
Webb asserted that we should have broader goals in space activities. “This is, whether we like it or not, a race,” Kennedy said. “Everything we do [in space] ought to be tied into getting to the moon ahead of the Russians.” Kennedy told Webb that winning the moon race “is the top priority of the agency and except for defense, the top priority of the United States government. Otherwise, we shouldn’t be spending this kind of money, because I’m not that interested in space.”
The tape recording shows an apparent contradiction between Kennedy’s public announcements and his opinions during private meetings. The space race, from Kennedy’s perspective, was not a race the United States voluntarily participated in. The Soviet Union compelled the United States to enter this competition in outer space, and its results were of life-and-death importance to the Cold War public relations campaign. NASA should designate every single penny to the manned space program, because “getting to the moon ahead of the Russians” was the “top priority” of the President, of the agency, and of the entire country. Kennedy confessed his nonchalance towards space exploration, and he was convinced that his investment would only be sound if NASA could achieve something spectacular in space that would surpass those of the Soviets.
A Cold War Battlefield
Even though Kennedy’s personal interest in space might not have grown, in the public’s eyes his attitude towards Apollo, which NASA launched in July 1960, transformed from ignorance to staunch support in the few months before his speech in May 1961.Kennedy changed his stand in such a short amount of time for various reasons. In his Inaugural Address, Kennedy made it clear that, under his leadership, the United States would be rebirthed into a superpower with unquestionable status. They would actively fight back the growing influence of the Soviet Union, and the nation “shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”Although the speech did not mention space, the President showed that he was ready to embrace challenges as well as opportunities in any domain to surpass the Soviets. Indeed, once Kennedy realized the substantial political weight that leadership in space exploration embodied, and that Apollowas the key to achieving such leadership, he threw his support behind the cause.
If military strength was a rigid competition in the Cold War because it was measured by numbers and performances, then space exploration was the “fluid front.”The United States conducted space efforts in the name of scientific advancement, communication, and other benefits seemed rather detached from the political arena, but the Kennedy administration was perfectly aware of the “real point” of sending men to the Moon.In a top secret tract that the Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and the NASA administrator James Webb drafted, the two men revealed Kennedy’s true intention: “attainments [in space] are a major element in the international competition between the Soviet system and [that of the United States’].”A so-called civilian project, Apollo was only able to attract the President’s attention because of its immense political implications in the context of the Cold War.
Kennedy’s attitude toward the space program changed after three incidents between April and May of 1961: The success of Yuri Gagarin’s orbit, the failed invasion at the Bay of Pigs, and Alan Shepard’s suborbital flight. These three events occurred within a span of less than a month. All three factors exerted significant influence on Kennedy’s conversion to support Apollo, although it is hard to determine which one of them was most vital. The short interval between these events surely contributed to convincing Kennedy that a mission to the Moon should be a national urgency.
Yuri Gagarin’s Earth orbit was a national celebration for the Soviets and a nightmare for Americans. In Vostok 1, meaning “East” in Russian, Yuri Gagarin became the first human to enter space and orbit the Earth on April 12, 1961.The name of the spaceship itself was a manifestation of the Soviets’ intention: to demonstrate to the world, the United States especially, the formidable strength of the Communist superpower in the East that was quickly rising to challenge the power concentration in the West. Four years after the shock of Sputnik 1, the Soviets once again greatly embarrassed the United States by winning another “first.”In a telephone conversation between Nikita Khrushchev and Yuri Gagarin, the Prime Minister congratulated Gagarin for completing an “unprecedented exploit” that “let the whole world see what [the Soviet Union] is capable of,” and Gagarin responded with equal excitement: “Let all other countries catch up with us now!”Kennedy could not disregard the significance of Gagarin’s flight the same way Eisenhower overlooked Sputnik because Vostokhad fulfilled the most ancient of “the soaring dreams of human race.”In a New York Times article published on the same day as Gagarin’s flight, the journalist revealed the American sentiment in reaction to the grand Soviet accomplishment: Gagarin had “nudged Americans into cold self-examination,” and that President Kennedy must soon make choices in “areas of national necessities” to maintain the freedom of democratic institutions.Kennedy received criticism for his lack of achievement and indecisiveness in a similar manner he attacked Eisenhower after the Sputnikincident.
In his telegram to Khrushchev, Kennedy offered his sincere congratulations on the success of Vostok, but inside he was extremely frustrated by another Soviet “first.”Two days after Gagarin’s flight, Kennedy hosted a cabinet meeting to discuss issues regarding space, and the President’s exasperation was evident: “If somebody can just tell me how to catch up. Let’s find somebody — anybody. I don’t care if it’s the janitor over there, if he knows how.”The Soviets knew, with Gagarin’s epic orbital flight, they had risen to the top of international prestige and influence, which Kennedy was desperate to regain. During the White House news conference following Gagarin’s flight, Kennedy said: “These dictatorships enjoy many short-range advantages that we saw in the ‘30s…I think our system suits the qualities and aspirations of people, the desire to be their own masters.”Kennedy asked the country to have confidence in their democratic system, and they would prove that the idea of freedom embodied in American values would help the United States to eventually surpass the Soviets in space achievements. Regardless of the President’s statement, Gagarin’s unprecedented orbit posed a concrete threat to the United States’ international prestige, and it made Kennedy realize that he needed to accelerate the American space efforts.
Kennedy’s plan to destroy the Communist regime in Cuba also fell apart a week after Gagarin’s flight. On April 17, 1961, upon President Kennedy’s command, a brigade of Cuban exiles invaded the Bay of Pigs in Cuba, and the Cuban forces dismantled the invasion.Kennedy inherited this attack plan from Eisenhower, and because the young President accused Eisenhower of being soft on the Castro government, he decided to employ the dangerous operation three months into his presidency against warnings from his advisors.The whole fiasco put pressure on Kennedy, as the Americans and foreign countries began to question his leadership and credibility.American prestige received a heavy blow, and the already treacherous U.S.-Soviet relationship reached a freezing point.Kennedy was aware of the political backlash that Bay of Pigs brought him, and he needed an immediate reaction to prove to the world that he could rebound from a disaster “born of inexperience and foolishness,” that he was in every way a qualified leader for the United States of America.He turned his eyes to Apollo.
Immediately after the incident, on April 22, Kennedy held an emergency National Security Council meeting to discuss the Cuban situation. Towards the end of the meeting, Kennedy requested a report from Vice President Johnson on ways and means to accelerate the space program.Kennedy was looking ahead for an alternative matter that could distract public attention from the recent military failure. Three days after the National Security Council meeting, Kennedy issued a statement amending the National Aeronautics and Space Act that was first signed by President Eisenhower in 1958.He appointed Johnson to be the head of the National Space Council with the intention that the United States “will have a future in space second to none.” In the same statement, he asked Congress for additional funds for NASA and promised that the agency would use every single penny effectively.Instead of trying to overthrow the Communist regimes by direct military missions, Kennedy was gradually switching his approach to attacking the Soviets’ leading position in outer space.
Americans soon welcomed their first success in space. Alan Shepard, one of the original seven NASA astronauts, reached a suborbital level of 115 miles in theFreedom 7capsule and remained in space for roughly 15 minutes.For NASA and the entire country, Freedom 7was a significant milestone, although short and suborbital in comparison with to Gagarin’s Earth orbit.The United States hoped that the success of Shepard would be the beginning of a series of American space spectaculars. In a New York Timesarticle covering the exchanges between Kennedy and Shepard, the journalist emphasized that America still need its “utmost speed and vigor” in the future development of the manned space program.The nation should rejoice in its latest space achievement, and it should also be an incentive for NASA and all related institutions to “redouble their efforts” in space activities.Shepard’s flight generated public support for space activities, and the overwhelming support for a more vigorous space program convinced Kennedy to allocate significantly more fundings to NASA as suggested by his campaign team back in 1960. Freedom 7 was the cue for Kennedy to make his commitment to a Moon landing, as his fellow Americans were eager to experience a more ambitious achievement in space.
Why the Moon
Kennedy chose the Moon after deliberate consideration. The majority of Kennedy’s Cold War strategy followed Kennan’s policy of containment. The United States aimed to suppress and reduce the Soviet influence through means including financial programs and proxy wars instead of direct military conflicts since both countries were terrified of a nuclear war. Therefore, the Cold War resembled not a military combat but an ideological and political struggle, in which national prestige played an important role. In Johnson’s memorandum to Kennedy on space activities, he recognized the propaganda value of a Moon landing: “this country should be realistic and recognize that other nations, regardless of their appreciation of our idealistic values, will tend to align themselves with the country which they believe will be the world leader — the winner in the long run.”To prove that democratic ideologies were superior to communist principles, the United States must showcase more advanced technological achievements and regain leadership in all aspects. Regarding space activities in particular, “dramatic accomplishments in space,” a manned exploration of the Moon, for example, were more commonly recognized by other countries as an indicator of leadership. The Cold War battlefield was no longer just a juxtaposition of destroyers or missiles; the struggle expanded to include a more subjective measurement of national development and global leadership.
A year after his pledge to send an American to the Moon, Kennedy explained to the nation why he made that decision. The President, in his address at the Rice University in September 1962, said: “we choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills.”The majority of Americans accepted the government’s policy during the Cold War, but Kennedy was asking for not just acceptance but an unreserved endorsement from the public to carry out such an expensive project.A Moon landing, apart from the purposes that Kennedy pointed out in his speech, would also be a dramatic accomplishment in space that more and more countries had identified as a “major indicator of world leadership.” Kennedy had to concede to Sputnik, Vostok, and the failure of Bay of Pigs, but he did not intend to stay behind in landing on the Moon.In the first draft of Kennedy’s Rice University speech, Ted Sorensen added the following phrase in red marking that Kennedy emphasized in his delivery: [the United States have to] “do it right and do it first.” This particular phrase reinforced the purpose of go to the Moon: to prove that the United States was capable of accomplishing such a challenging mission and to win international prestige by achieving an incredible “first” before the Soviet Union.If nothing else, a manned lunar mission appealed to Kennedy’s well-known competitive nature: Kennedy wanted to be the first and the best, and there was nothing else he cared more about than beating the Soviets in the Cold War.
Johnson had reportedly said in a speech that the position to control the Earth “lies somewhere in outer space,” and Kennedy’s decision to go to the Moon aligned with that belief.Although Kennedy did not live to see the realization of the grand challenge he proposed, he was the man who built up NASA and made Apollopossible. He was sober and cautious, but he knew to initiate challenges and risks — the sort of adventure associated with visionary leaders.Kennedy might not be a visionary regarding scientific and engineering achievements, but he was surely a leader ahead of his time in seeing the immeasurable value in going to the Moon.
Accomplishment of Apollo
After Kennedy made the decision to go to the Moon, he kept his promise to “bear the burdens” and support Apollountil the mission was accomplished.In 1960, as Kennedy first assumed office, the Federal Space Activity budget had a total of 960 million current dollars, with 401 million for NASA and the rest divided between the Department of Defense, Energy, and Commerce.* By 1961, the numbers nearly doubled.The significant increase in funding, particularly for the manned space program, indicated Kennedy’s intention to shift the American space effort from “low to high gear.”On July 21, 1961, President Kennedy signed the bill to expand Apolloright after Virgil Grissom’s flight in Mercury-Redstone 4, the United States’ second successful manned flight in history. In the bill, Kennedy allocated more funds for the preparation of “even more ambitious missions” in competition with the vigorous Soviet space agenda.Regardless of his personal interest in the scientific benefits of space exploration, Kennedy remained a staunch advocate of the Apollo program throughout his presidency. In 1962, a year after Kennedy’s pledge to land on the Moon, the total budget for space activities soared to 3,295 million dollars, and NASA received more than half of it. In 1963, before Kennedy’s assassination, the NASA budget doubled once again.Like he promised, Kennedy elevated the American space program to an unprecedented level. Vice President Johnson, who had shown interest in space since the launch of Sputnik 1, also rallied for the massive appropriations required to sustain a robust space agenda.
Kennedy’s proposal was a bold challenge. At the time, NASA had little experience and knowledge about human space travel. For example, NASA was not certain whether human beings could survive prolonged exposure to microgravity.Regardless, Kennedy showed Moscow and the American allies that he was determined to win his race to the Moon with his bold proclamations and a generous budget. As Kennedy said in his speech at the University of Washington in November 1961, the United States must “make the best of new problems and new opportunities, whatever the risk and the cost.”The final cost of the Apollo program was around $23 billion, equivalent to more than $120 billion in current value. However, the total cost was still lower than the $40 billion budget Kennedy originally set.At this point, advancement in space was unquestionably Kennedy’s top priority, and he was resolved to mobilize every American resource to score a victory against the Soviet Union in the race to the Moon.
The Camelot President’s rhetoric was appealing, but his charm did not last long. Months after Kennedy’s initial announcement of a Moon landing, public enthusiasm began to abate. Many started to question the efficiency of NASA’s huge budget. In 1963 Kennedy noticed a declining congressional and public support for Apollo. In his conversation with James Webb in the Oval Office*, the President pronounced that in the long run, the United States would be glad that it had accomplished such a deed, and it was crucial that they “hold on to the [Moon landing].”Kennedy knew that his own confidence in Apollowas not enough to see it through when everyone around was asking, in the President’s own words, “what the hell are we making this trip for?”By 1963 Apollowas still focusing on increasing the carrying capacity of its Saturn Vrocket, and NASA was nowhere close to manufacturing a spaceship that could reach the Moon, let alone with astronauts on board.Regardless of whether Kennedy made an optimistic comment to convince Webb or to boost his own confidence, he never voiced his doubt on Apolloin public. In his speeches, Kennedy insisted his belief in America’s ability to “survive and succeed” in the long run, and, as the leader of the free world, he knew he had to deepen his own faith in Apollo before he could convince others.Apollo needed a reason bigger than science to survive; it needed to be a military effort, a menacing political weapon that Kennedy could use to intimidate the Soviets.
Kennedy, however, did consider the scenario where Apollowould fail to land on the Moon before the decade. He pondered whether a joint lunar mission with the Soviets was a possible solution that could both save the United States from embarrassment and ease tension with the Soviet Union. As early as June 1961, Kennedy was already testing the possibility of a U.S.-Soviet joint space mission. Kennedy asked Khrushchev about his opinions on a collaborative lunar mission at a summit meeting in Vienna, but Khrushchev declined by demanding that the two countries must reach a disarmament agreement prior to any form of cooperation, even though space projects were supposedly civilian.In March 1962, Kennedy continued to seek cooperation with the Soviet Union on a lunar landing. His proposals were “free of Cold War agenda” and meant to find potential beginning steps in collaboration.When 1963 came and NASA was making no significant progress on Apollo, Kennedy felt that time was running out. He continued to rally support for Apollo, but he was leaning more and more so towards cooperating with the Soviet Union. In his U.N. Address in September, Kennedy emphasized that there “is room for new cooperation” in space and nations all over the world should take advantage of “joint efforts.”Two months later Kennedy requested a report from James Webb on cooperation in space with the Soviet Union, and instructed him to “initiate substantive cooperation with USSR in outer space.”Webb responded immediately, advising the President to approach the matter carefully without showing a sign of incompetence while conducting a thorough background check the Soviet Union’s strength, plan, and intention.Kennedy’s eagerness to cooperate with the Soviet Union could be a result of his decreasing confidence in NASA and lack of information on the Soviet progress since the Soviets kept their space program under unparalleled secrecy.
Another plausible reason behind Kennedy’s decision to seek out the cooperation route was the Cuban Missile Crisis that lasted for 13 days in October 1962. The crisis, scary as it was, proved to be the turning point of U.S.-Soviet relations as both the White House and Kremlin smelled the horror of a nuclear catastrophe that nearly exploded because of mistrust, miscalculation, and miscommunication. Kennedy and Khrushchev realized that the poor communication between the two countries had pushed them to the brink of a nuclear war, and they decided to establish a “hotline” that connected the White House directly with Kremlin to prevent another stalemate.Lingering fear from the Cuban Missile Crisis led the Cold War into a period of detente. As the Cuban leader Fidel Castro said in an interview in 1985, he believed that the reduced tension between the United States and the Soviet Union was a direct result of the almost nuclear war. “’When the war came very close,’” Castro said, “’then the leaders of the two big powers became more aware of that danger. They worked.”Whether or not the Cuban Missile Crisis caused Kennedy to reconsider his role as a cold warrior, he learned to be a careful one. He could not afford a nuclear catastrophe regardless of how much he wanted to beat the Soviet Union, and he needed to resolve the tension with the Soviets in order to ensure the nation’s safety. Therefore, his offer to conduct a cooperative lunar landing mission with the Soviet Union was an olive branch to demonstrate the United States’ sincere intention to alleviate the Cold War frenzy.
Unfortunately, Kennedy’s assassination, which occurred only ten days after his correspondences with James Webb, blew the chances of a joint lunar mission into thin air.The President’s attempt to cooperate with the Soviet Union did reveal a different side of his Cold War agenda. Kennedy had always held a competitive approach on issues regarding the Soviet Union, but on space exploration, his plan seemed more uncertain. On one hand he was gathering all power to ensure the American flag would be the first to stand on the lunar surface, but on the other hand, he was offering an olive branch to his Soviet enemies and allowing them to jointly participate in this venture. Kennedy was simultaneously pursuing two paths — competitive and cooperative — to achieve his political goal of gaining international prestige.If the United States landed on the Moon before the Soviets, the merits were obvious. If the United States could not achieve it alone but attained the same goal with the Soviet Union, then it would still receive a fair share of the scientific and technological achievements that would at least put it on the same level with the Soviets.
On November 22, 1963, Lee Harvey Oswald fired two bullets at President Kennedy as the presidential motorcade reached downtown Dallas. The shots proved to be fatal. The 43-year-old John F. Kennedy became the fourth assassinated President in the history of the United States. The Secret Service escorted The First Lady and Vice President back to Air Force One. Flanked by Jackie Kennedy, her pink Chanel suit still covered by her late husband’s brain and blood, Johnson was sworn in as the 36th President of the United States.Apollo, however, did not follow its creator to rest in Arlington. NASA historian John Logsdon wrote in his reflection on Kennedy and Apollo:
With JFK’s tragic death, Apollobecame a memorial to a fallen president, and no longer a topic for intense political criticism. Whether, if Kennedy had lived to campaign for a second term as president, his support of the lunar landing program would have been a political vulnerability is a question that cannot be answered.
Kennedy’s death was the rebirth of Apollo, as the nation strived to promote the President’s legacy by protecting and supporting his brainchild. Moreover, President Johnson, being an ardent supporter for Apollofrom the very start, ensured the continuation of the program. On Thanksgiving Day, 1963, only several days after Kennedy’s tragic death, Johnson announced in a televised speech that he had combined the Pentagon Atlantic Missile Range and the NASA Florida Launch Operations Center, and the new facility was named Kennedy Space Center as a memorial to “the man who had pointed the nation toward the Moon.”Today, the Kennedy Space Center remains the only launch facility for manned missions in the western hemisphere.
If the tragedy had not happened, Apollo’s fate could have been unimaginably different. In the remarks that Kennedy prepared to deliver in Dallas on November 22, he would have said, “the United States of America had no intention of finishing second in space. The effort is expensive — but it pays for its way for freedom and for America.”He would have appealed to the heart of the democratic values and competition with the Soviets with the same earnest passion and confidence like he did, two years ago, the first time he asked to bring America to the Moon. Kennedy’s personal charm and rhetoric were still captivating, but he was already struggling to rally support for a dying cause. Considering the general attitude towards Apollo before Kennedy’s assassination, the lunar program could have faded out because lack of funding or congressional rejection, and Americans might have never landed on the Moon. Kennedy’s death was a game changer: his tragedy appealed to the American people’s respect and compassion that overpowered their previous doubt. Apollo, now an orphan, was no longer subject to criticism but attention and support. After Kennedy’s death, NASA’s budget reached a new high of 5,016 million dollars in 1964, which translates to 40 billion dollars in today’s value, and it continued to increase in the years after.Dying, as some would argue, was Kennedy’s greatest contribution to the success of Apollo.
Winning the Race
Kennedy’s death prompted Apolloto accelerate its agenda. Starting in 1964, NASA launched a total of nine Apollo/Saturnuncrewed missions. These missions successfully tested the capacity of the Saturn Vrocket and paved the road for the following lunar test flights and manned missions.The missions were progressing smoothly until January 27, 1967. On the launch pad of Apollo 1, a fire occurred in the Command Module (CM) during a pre-flight test, killing three astronauts.This shocking tragedy was a dramatic setback to NASA. With three years left on the countdown, the explosion of Apollo 1was devastating: Kennedy promised the United States to land on the Moon before the end of the decade, but after nearly six years of work and millions of federal dollars, three astronauts died in the first manned mission and the rocket did not even lift off the ground. Critics in Congress, who were already doubting the feasibility of Apollo, questioned the effectiveness of the five billion dollars NASA received every year.The Apollo 1accident interrupted NASA’s slow but steady progress towards a lunar landing, and for the first time after Kennedy’s death,Apollo received major criticism.
The program, however, survived dangerously with strong support from the Johnson administration. Vice President Hubert Humphrey, who was also the chairman of the National Aeronautics and Space Council at the time, expressed determination to complete Apollodespite the lost lives, stating “the United States will push ever forward in space and the memory of [the deceased astronauts] will be an inspiration to all future spacefarers.”Others also believed that a single unfortunate event was insufficient to put a halt to the Moon program. Astronaut Colonel Ed White, who walked in space in 1965, gave his support toApolloby saying that the space program had to “keep progressing” even if astronauts were lost on a mission.The three astronauts who died in Apollo 1fire were martyrs to scientific exploration and also patriotism. They sacrificed their lives for a mission that would expand the reach of the human race, and, more practically, a mission that would help prove that American democracy could create a more advanced and rigorous society than communism. If Kennedy were alive, he would have agreed with Vice President Humphrey and Colonel White: the Apollo 1tragedy should not deter the space effort but rather inspire others to continue the work. As the President said in his speech at the University of Washington, the United States needed to learn how to “bear the burdens of a long twilight struggle,” that is, the struggle with the Soviet Union and its communist ideologies.Frustrations and setbacks were inevitable on the route to achieving something grand, and the Apollo 1tragedy was such a setback that the American people needed to overcome before receiving international recognition as the leader in space exploration. The decision to continue Apollo reflected the confidence and determination that Kennedy brought to the United States along with his rigorous Cold War agenda.
Apollorecovered from the tragedy and made rapid accomplishments. Between 1967 and 1968, six Apollo missions successfully launched the Saturn Vrocket and tested the newly designed Lunar Module (LM).The later flights learned from the successes and mistakes from previous missions, especially the tragic fire. The new SaturnCM used new wiring, removed all inflammable items, and introduced the Launch Escape System (LES), which allowed the astronauts to eject themselves from the capsule if the spacecraft malfunctions during launch.In 1968, the Apollo 8 mission completed the first crewed observation of the Moon, and Apollo 9and 10 finalized the details for a crewed landing, including testing the LM in lunar orbit.
By May 1969, with only half a year left on the calendar to fulfill Kennedy’s challenge, NASA was finally prepared to land on the Moon. On July 16, 1969, theApollo 11crew landed at the Sea of Tranquility and returned safely to Earth eight days later. They beat Kennedy’s deadline by a few months. After nearly a decade, the United States had eventually won the long twilight struggle.
The program continued after the success ofApollo 11, but the crews that landed on the Moon following Armstrong steps received little attention and appreciation. In 1972 NASA launched its last Apollomission because there seemed to be no purpose in going back to the Moon now that the United States practically won the space race. The termination of Apollomarked the end of an era of rapid growth in space efforts. During the economic recessions of the 1970s, NASA suffered sharp budget cuts that “trimmed to the bone all preparations for future missions.”In comparison to the 5,138 million dollars NASA received from the federal government in 1965, by 1970 the budget had decreased to 3,547 million.The decline of Apolloand NASA further testified to the argument that Apollo’s existence was devoted entirely to one purpose: to restore the United States leadership in the world and prevail in the Cold War. After achieving that end, the lunar exploration project no longer had significant political capital or propaganda value.
Camelot in Retrospect
Over the years, historians had put forth various speculations about Kennedy’s motive behind his decision in 1961 to go to the Moon. In “Multiple Means to an End,” Steve Garber, the head historian of NASA’s history department, put forth four different models that rationalize Kennedy’s attitudes toward Apollo. Garber’s four options are: 1) the rational choice model, which argues Kennedy decided to go to the Moon out of competition with the Soviets; 2) the visionary space leader model, which argues Kennedy was genuinely interested in space exploration; 3) the cooperative track model, which argues Kennedy had thought about collaborating with the Soviets; and 4) the personality model, which argues Kennedy’s “ambitious and calculating” personality prompted him to initiate the challenge.Ted Sorensen, who was one of Kennedy’s closest advisors, published an article in The New York Timesin 1969 about Kennedy’s Moon decision. In the article, Sorensen painted Kennedy as a forward-thinking leader who wanted to promote science and engineering. According to Sorensen, Kennedy did want to win the competition with the Soviet Union, but he was more invested in the advancement of science exploration — the Moon race was not a race to win the Cold War but a “race between education and chaos.”Kennedy was not only a cold warrior but also a visionary leader who foresaw the scientific benefits of a lunar program in the long run.
Sorensen’s painting of a space-loving Kennedy could be true to some extent, but Sorensen’s “total loyalty and dedication” to President Kennedy and his legacy subjects him to a biased point of view.He was likely attempting to defend Kennedy’s decision as the fervor of the Cold War abated. Pieces of evidence cited in this paper show that Kennedy’s decision to establish Apollo was primarily to utilize it as political propaganda. Kennedy was committed to the American space program, but his devotion was purely an effort to regain international prestige and win the Cold War. From the beginning, Kennedy concerned himself only with the political benefits that Apollowould bring to the Cold War battlefield but not its scientific advancement, andApollo’s immediate death after its first landing confirmed that the Nixon administration had the same intention. Kennedy’s speeches, memos, and personal correspondences suggest that his decision to go to the Moon was motivated by Cold War propaganda purposes and by ones related to science or education. Apollobecame a symbol of freedom, and Kennedy is remembered as the inspiring leader who took the United States to the Moon. Apollo, and even Kennedy himself are later associated with romantic and fantastic concepts of space adventures, but ironically, Kennedy’s intention behind Apollowas primarily political — it was more about beating the communists than expanding the reach of the human race.
On December 12, 2017, President Trump signed the White House Space Policy Directive 1, calling for a return to the Moon almost five decades after the last Apollomission. According to the President, this time the United States will “not only plant [their] flag and leave [their] footprints” but dedicate the missions to “human exploration and discovery.” Trump’s words implied that, unlike the proposal Kennedy initiated in 1961, his administration is more concerned with the scientific benefits of the lunar program that would lead the United States as well as all humans to “many worlds beyond.”The NASA administrator, Robert Lightfoot, indicated that the space agency’s intention aligns with that of the President’s by repeatedly emphasizing that the purpose of this renewed interest in the Moon is to “reach new milestones in human achievement.”The phrasing of these announcements, from both the White House and NASA, contain striking resemblance to Kennedy’s justification of his decision to go to the Moon. Both Trump and Kennedy appealed to the idea of discovering new worlds and spreading the seeds of life on a limitless “New Ocean,” as Kennedy called it in his speech at the Rice University.An inspiring mission like a lunar landing was capable of generating resonation and support since few would remain emotionless in front of an opportunity to change the future path of the human race.
There are similarities in the geopolitical motives behind Kennedy’s decision to go to the Moon in 1961 and Trump’s decision to renew the program in 2017. Kennedy went to the Moon to win the Cold War, and Trump is going to the Moon because he feels the approaching political storm. With the ongoing difficult relationship with Russia and stalemate with North Korea, anti-communist sentiments and fear of nuclear attack are emerging again in the United States. Trump only mentioned explicitly his wish to gain scientific knowledge, but evidence shows that the administration’s real intention is focused on political propaganda. Vice President Pence commented that Trump’s directive has given the United States a chance to “lead in space once again in all fronts” and to “settle [the space frontier] with American leadership, courage, and values.”Lightfoot also commented that the new lunar missions will “strengthen American leadership in the boundless frontier of space.” The goal of returning to the Moon and exploring further into outer space has, it seems, little to do with scientific progress and more to do with promoting democratic values, or, more specifically, American values. Like Kennedy, Trump is utilizing space exploration as a political tool to gain international recognition in a time of tension and competition. However, instead of catching up with the Soviets like Kennedy did decades ago, this time Trump is calling for a head start in the international rivalry, hoping that he can gain an advantage by building upon the leading position that Apollohas already established.
Mo Liu is a VI Form boarding student from Beijing, China. She plays the piano, loves science, and is crazy about her cat.
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