John. F. Kennedy didn’t care that much about space.
But he understood its potential as a political tool—to pull himself from a jam, and to assert America’s dominance in the Cold War.
That is what motivated him, in the rocky first months of his presidency, to issue one of the most daunting peacetime challenges in the nation’s history: putting a man on the moon.
The move was bold, calculated, visionary—quintessential Kennedy. It would burnish the country’s prestige at a crucial moment and make him an enduring symbol of America’s pioneering spirit.
But records and recordings that have become public in recent years indicate that Kennedy was more interested in a lunar landing’s political benefits than the scientific potential. He harbored misgivings about the Apollo program through much of his time in office, and spent his last months alive worrying that cost overruns and the slow pace of progress would cost him re-election.
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Kennedy died six years before his challenge was met, leaving the two presidents who succeeded him, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, to arguably do more to shape U.S. space policy than he had.
Five decades later, it remains debatable whether the lunar landing was a good thing for America’s long-term goals.
NASA, the federal agency that ran the project, remains burdened by its early success, unable to sustain its momentum and lumbering into an uncertain future, said John Logsdon, professor emeritus at George Washington University and author of “John F. Kennedy and the Race to the Moon.”
“Kennedy’s decision to set a lunar landing as a national goal was bad for the space program in the sense that it turned the program into a non-sustainable effort linked to international policy and security goals,” Logsdon said. “Once those goals were achieved…there was no reason to sustain the kind of program that Kennedy had put in place.”
To fully appreciate the spirit in which Kennedy made a moon landing a national priority, it is important to consider the trouble he was having.
In April 1961, just three months after he’d taken office, a Soviet astronaut became the first human to orbit Earth—the Communist regime's second major advancement since the 1957 launching of the Sputnik satellite. A few days later, Kennedy was humiliated by his botching of the CIA-led invasion of Bay of Pigs in Cuba, a Soviet ally.
The twin setbacks gave fuel to skeptics who saw him as inept. They also made America appear weak at a time when developed countries in the Southern Hemisphere were considering which side to choose in the Cold War.
With fears of nuclear missiles on everyone’s minds, advances in science and technology were seen as proof of a country’s superiority.
Kennedy, desperate to save face and live up to his campaign promise to “get America moving again,” ordered his administration to come up with something that the United States could do to beat the Soviets.
The answer was space.
Kennedy waited for his big announcement until after American astronaut Alan Shepard safely completed a 15-minute televised voyage into suborbital space a few weeks later. Then, on May 25, 1961, Kennedy appeared before Congress and said: “I believe 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 earth."
The speech barely got a rise out of lawmakers, but Kennedy got what he wanted: changing the conversation to America’s idealism and ambition.
“Politically, it was more important than the actual landing,” said Howard McCurdy, a public affairs professor at American University and a space policy scholar. “It reinforced the aura that Kennedy had presented during the 1960 campaign.”
Then reality set in. Kennedy’s advisers told him how costly it would be to actually land a man on the moon by the end of 1969. He even asked Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev if he wanted to partner on the lunar project. Khrushchev said no.
It turns out that the Soviets were farther from a lunar landing than America was. But U.S. intelligence officials didn’t know it. And so Kennedy and NASA proceeded as if they were still in a race.
In February 1962, John Glenn made three orbits around the Earth, essentially equaling the Soviets’ effort less than a year earlier. But Kennedy soon grew concerned about Appolo's runaway budget. He worried that NASA administrators were too focused on scientific and technological discoveries that he saw as tangential to the prestige of getting to the moon first. Time magazine had just printed a story suggesting the Apollo was getting bogged down in disputes.
In a meeting with top aides, Kennedy stressed that a manned landing needed to be the top priority. “Otherwise, we shouldn’t be spending this kind of money because I’m not that interested in space,” Kennedy said, according to transcripts of the meeting. The only legitimate reason to spend all that money, he added, was “because we hope to beat them and demonstrate that starting behind, as we did by a couple years, by God, we passed them.”
In September 1963, as Kennedy was preparing to run for re-election, he worried aloud that Apollo had “lost its glamour and had became “a political struggle.” He suggested arguing that the project “has got some military justification and not just prestige.”
He made another appeal to partner with the Soviets, but publicly remained commited to his original goal.
Then, in late November, he was assassinated. His successor, Johnson, who’d long been interested in space exploration, picked up the mantle, and Apollo became, in Logsdon’s words, “a memorial to a fallen president.”
The mission was completed in July 1969. Johnson was out of power by then, and Nixon was president. But the mission would forever be credited to Kennedy, who, in the end, was right: America did become pre-eminent in space.
“The first thing you’ve got to say is this was the first and only time in history where humans set foot on another body in the solar system,” said Roger Launius, former chief historian for NASA and a curator at the National Air and Space Museum. “I believe it’s really significant. It’s a part of the Kennedy legacy. Whatever else you want to say about the program, costs or other issues, that is foremost the most significant thing.”
America's moon missions ended in 1972, replaced by Nixon with the space shuttles. They flew from 1981 to 2011, when President Barack Obama ended the program.
Today, NASA is an agency searching for a big, new vision—and the budget to cover it. It still has the Curiosity rover on Mars and plans for a better version of the Hubble Space Telescope. It sends astronauts to the International Space Station and receives data from spacecraft traveling to the edge of the solar system and beyond. But no one can agree on where humans should explore next. Rockets capable of sending someone to Mars or beyond are many years away.
“This has been fought since Apollo, and more than 40 years later we’re still debating it,” said Marcia Smith, editor of SpacePolicyOnline.com.
Meanwhile, other countries, including China and members of the European Union, are building up their space programs. And private companies are establishing themselves as big players, running cargo to the space station and developing plans for tourists flights into suborbital space.
With each new development, NASA— and Kennedy’s legacy—weakens, experts say.
But Logsdon points out there other lasting impacts of Kennedy’s push into space that don’t carry the same prestige, but in some ways more profound.
For instance: Kennedy helped set up the framework to create the communications satellite industry that impacts our everyday lives in intimate ways.
“Kennedy’s influence has been more lasting in areas where not he’s acknowledged for than the fact that he sent people to the moon,” Logsdon said.
That said, the images of the Earth from the moon, and of the American flag on the lunar surface, “are part of our national heritage,” he added.
“In Kennedy’s terms, I believe Apollo was a total success.”