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John F. Kennedy and the Race to the Moon: Looking Back Fifty Years

President John F. Kennedy’s decision to establish the national goal of landing men on the moon 50 years ago was more that of a pragmatic politician than a futuristic space visionary, according to space experts and historians.


U.S. astronaut Buzz Aldrin with the Apollo 11 Lunar Module, 20 July 1969. | Public domain photo by Neil Armstrong/NASA

Whatever the motive, however, the decision had far-reaching effects on the national character and resulted in a moon program that inadvertently had lasting scientific impact, they said at a commemorative symposium held 21 April at AAAS headquarters and moderated by AAAS senior policy advisor Al Teich.


Although Kennedy was not a space enthusiast, the Apollo moon project ended up being a hallmark of his short presidency. John M. Logsdon, professor emeritus of political science and international affairs at George Washington University and a leading expert on space policy, said Kennedy was initially cautious about expanding the space program he inherited from the Eisenhower administration. In fact, the last major administrative appointment of the new president was that of James E. Webb to head the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

Everything changed on 12 April 1961, when the Soviet Union’s Yuri Gagarin became the first human to orbit the Earth. Two days after the flight, Kennedy gathered his advisors to plan how to react. Logsdon, author of the new book John F. Kennedy and the Race to the Moon (Palgrave Macmillan) said he believes the president had already made up his mind to launch some kind of space initiative. On 14 April, Kennedy was told the United States could win a race to the moon, a notion validated on 24 April by rocket pioneer Wernher von Braun, provided the country devoted enough resources.


John M. Logsdon | Photos by Carla Schaffer

Kennedy announced his goal of going to the moon before a joint session of Congress on 25 May. The decision came only after Alan Shepard became the first American in space on 5 May and Kennedy had met him and the other original astronauts three days later at the White House. If Shepard’s flight had failed, Logsdon said, it is possible Kennedy would not have announced the moon goal.


There is a myth that the Apollo program proceeded with little opposition, he said, but there was by 1963 resistance from Congress because of the high costs, and some scientists saw little scientific value in the effort. Apollo ended up costing $151 billion (in 2010 dollars), the largest peacetime project in history.

Logsdon said most people do not realize that Kennedy sought to avoid an expensive moon race with the Soviet Union by suggesting that the two superpowers cooperate in space. Kennedy offered to explore space with the Soviets during his 1961 inaugural address, an overture rejected by the Soviets, and again during a September 1963 address to the United Nations, where he suggested “a joint expedition to the moon.” However, in 1963, the Soviets did not have a lunar program with which to cooperate, Logsdon said.

“During Kennedy’s presidency, the United States was racing itself, not the Soviet Union,” he said.

Roger D. Launius

Roger D. Launius, a senior curator with the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum who has written extensively on the space program, said that during the buildup of the Apollo program in the 1960s, fewer than 50% of the people felt the lunar program was worth the cost. However, when questions about Apollo were not tied to money, a large majority supported it.

The same situation exists today, he said. People like and support space until you attach it to money. “People love space but don’t want to pay for it,” Launius said.

From beginning to end, the Apollo program became a symbol of the American “can do” spirit. The first astronauts were viewed as everyman heroes and not a corps of elites. Most of the astronauts were graduates of state colleges and not the Ivy League, and they were seen as masculine, fun-loving daredevils with typical American family lives, Launius said.

The U.S. flag planted by Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin and the American boot prints left in the lunar dust during the first moon landing remain some of the most popular symbols of national prestige, he said.

Paul D. Spudis, senior staff scientist at the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston, noted that the moon program had a bigger impact on science, particularly geology, than most scientists had predicted. Scientists considered Apollo an engineering program to get to the moon with science tacked on as almost an afterthought. There were scientists, such as Eugene M. Shoemaker, who felt the moon was worth studying for its own sake but they were not in the mainstream, he said.

Paul D. Spudis

The real moon race came as a run-up to Apollo, when the U.S. and the Soviets sent a series of robotic spacecraft to the moon beginning in the late 1950s. Spacecraft from both powers flew by the moon, crashed into it, orbited it, landed on it, and eventually roved over its surface.

Although “science was added in the margins” of the Apollo flights, Spudis said, the six lunar landings added a treasure trove of data about the moon that still is being studied. Some of the lunar findings, such as evidence that the early Earth-moon system was subjected to steady violent impacts by numerous objects, spurred interest in the effects of impacts on Earth geology. Studies of impact science have significantly changed thinking about how life has evolved on Earth over time, and linked big impacts with periodic mass extinctions of life throughout the planet’s history, Spudis maintained.

With Apollo, he said, “we ended up learning a lot more than we set out to find.”

During a panel discussion at the end of the symposium, the experts said Apollo had lasting significance, both good and bad.

Launius said Apollo succeeded in showing the world that the United States could execute a complex project that had a very specific end point.

Logsdon said he has concluded that, overall, Apollo was bad for the space program because it has been a poor model to use to sustain a long-term effort to explore space. Noting the current policy disarray about the future of NASA in exploration, he said, “We still don’t know where we are going, or why.”