JFK Part III: The Space Race

By Alejandro Freixes, CCNN Head Writer

This week, Clubhouse News examines the life of John F. Kennedy (JFK), leading up to the 50th anniversary of his assassination on November 22. In “JFK Part III: The Space Race,” we explore how JFK put into motion the US space program which still explores the universe to this day.

Space Race JFK rocket
Dr. Wernher von Braun, NASA Director of the Marshall Space Flight Center, and President John F. Kennedy at Cape Canaveral, Florida on November 16, 1963.

In 1957, the Soviet Union launched the first ever satellite called SputnikSince the US and Soviet Union were in the middle of a Cold War competition for influence over the world, this was seen as the official start of the Space Race between the two world powers. Two years later, during Dwight D. Eisenhower’s presidency, the US created the Project Mercury space program with the goal of orbiting a manned spacecraft around Earth. Seven men were chosen to take part in the program, which wanted to investigate the ability of astronauts to survive a journey to and from space.

On January 1961, JFK gave his State of the Union address, asking for international cooperation in developing space technology. The Soviet leader Nikita Kruschev, however, declined the invitation. Why? He didn’t want to give away how far along his country was in rocket and space science. Then, on April 12, 1961, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first person to ever fly in space, shocking Americans. JFK became eager for the US to take the lead in the Space Race, and announced on May 25, 1961, that the US was planning to land a man on the Moon.

Because JFK was much more motivated to develop space technology than Eisenhower (who was opposed to manned spaceflight), he asked for an additional $7 to $9 billion over the next five years for the US space program.

Many in the nation were doubtful about NASA’s ability to meet the president’s challenge, yet within a year, Alan Shepard and Gus Grissom became the first two Americans to travel into space. On February 20, 1962, John Glenn Jr. became the first American to orbit the Earth, inspiring many scientists, researchers, engineers, factory workers, and businessmen to get involved in helping NASA land a man on the Moon.

Space Race Neil Armstrong
Neil Armstrong, in the only photo taken of him on the moon from the surface.

Despite the intense competition, JFK again reached out to the Soviets during a September 1963 speech before the United Nations, calling for a “joint expedition to the Moon.” Kruschev turned down the invite again, and the Soviets didn’t commit to a manned Moon mission until 1964.

Because of the spark that JFK ignited, however, NASA’s Apollo program would eventually land a man on the Moon in 1969. In fact, in just the short time JFK was president, his passion for space technology launched a massive American industry that not only won the Space Race, but continues to dazzle us to this very day with incredible discoveries.

Experiments carried out in space, as well as in the process of developing space tech, have pushed forward a wide variety of fields, ranging from medicine to physics.

Image of JFK at Cape Canaveral courtesy of NASA.