Shepherding the Space Program: JFK and Liftoff

By Rulli, Daniel F. | Teaching History: A Journal of Methods, Fall 2005 | Go to article overview
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Shepherding the Space Program: JFK and Liftoff

Rulli, Daniel F., Teaching History: A Journal of Methods

On May 5, 1961, President John F. Kennedy, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, McGeorge Bundy, Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson, Arthur Schlesinger, Admiral Arleigh Burke, and Jackie Kennedy watched the television broadcast of Alan B. Shepard's flight into space from the office of the President's secretary. Shepard was launched on a suborbital flight that carried him to an altitude of 116.5 miles, for 15 minutes, at 5,134 miles per hour, pulling 11 g, to a landing point 303 miles downrange in the Atlantic Ocean.

Getting to this point in the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union was a rocky journey, not only for the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations but also for the American people. The pioneering event, which devastated and frightened Americans, occurred on October 4, 1957, when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik I, the first artificial satellite in space. Two weeks later, with Sputnik If, the Soviets successfully put a six-ton payload into space. The significance of these events was lost on no one: the Soviets had technological superiority in space over the United States. The cultural and military implications for the Cold War and the space race were both alarming and humiliating. In the next months, a string of American military rocket failures added to the embarrassment and led Congress, with President Dwight Eisenhower's recommendation, to create the National Aeronautics and Space Administration in October 1958.

Eisenhower was not enthusiastic about a manned space program, nor was his successor, John F. Kennedy. Like Eisenhower, Kennedy and his chief space advisor, Jerome Weisner, considered it too risky and a waste of money. He suggested that promoting public relations against the Soviets was its only real benefit. Weisner, in particular, concluded that instruments actually performed tasks more efficiently and reliably in space than humans. However, Kennedy's opposition to manned space flights evaporated on April 12, 1961, when the Soviet Union launched cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin 188 miles into space for 108 hours and 89 orbits. In the aftermath of this Soviet success, a pressured and defensive Kennedy listened as his advisors spelled out the situation: the Soviets probably would put the first crews into space, build the first space station, and put the first humans on the Moon. Kennedy's advisors recommended an accelerated program that would cost $20 billion and perhaps put an American on the Moon in ten years.

The first significant step for the United States came just a few weeks after Gagarin's flight when Shepard was launched into sub-orbit in the Mercury 7 capsule. Millions of Americans stopped to watch or listen to the news coverage of the first American-manned space flight. While it did not match what the Soviets had done, Americans did not care; the United States was in the race!

The featured document is a White House photograph of President Kennedy and others, watching Shepard's flight. Like all of America, they were riveted by what was happening and what was to come. In a special message to Congress on May 25, 1961, just twenty days after Shepard's flight, Kennedy asked Congress for funds necessary to put a man on the moon before the decade was out (

Teaching Suggestions

1. Focus Activity with Photo Analysis: America in the Space Race

Provide students with a copy of the photograph. A digital scan is available online in the Archival Research Catalog (ARC) on the National Archives website at (The most direct way to access the photo is by typing the identifying ARC #194236 into the keyword box.) The photo may be reproduced in any quantity. Also give students a copy of the photo analysis worksheet at worksheets.html.

Ask students in pairs to analyze the photo by completing the worksheet.

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