John F. Kennedy and the Two Faces of the U.S. Space Program, 1961-63

By Kay, W. D. | Presidential Studies Quarterly, Summer 1998 | Go to article overview

John F. Kennedy and the Two Faces of the U.S. Space Program, 1961-63


Kay, W. D., Presidential Studies Quarterly


Although the competition between United States and the Soviet Union in the area of spaceflight may actually have begun with the launch of Sputnik I in 1957, most historians give John F. Kennedy the primary credit (or blame) for actually heating up the so-called space race. In sharp contrast to President Eisenhower, who showed little enthusiasm for engaging in any sort of "contest" with the Russians,(1) it was Kennedy who made racing with--and beating--the USSR the centerpiece of the U.S. space program. He even went so far as to establish a sort of finish line in his famous "moon speech" of May 25, 1961, in which the president declared a lunar landing before 1970 as an "urgent national need."(2)

There is, however, another side to Kennedy's space policy that has received much less attention. This same president, who in word and deed raised space competition to such unprecedented heights, was simultaneously engaged in an equally unparalleled effort to promote U.S.-Soviet cooperation in space. Here too, his approach was significantly different from that of his predecessor. Aside from some general statements about the peaceful use of space, President Eisenhower was never directly involved in any negotiations regarding American-Russian collaboration in space. The little movement in this direction during the late 1950s (usually between individual scientists or at lower levels of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration [NASA]) never advanced beyond the preliminary stage.(3) President Kennedy, on the other hand, made several concerted, personal attempts to interest Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev in a variety of joint space projects.

Indeed, in one particularly important respect, the president's cooperative policy was virtually a mirror image of his competitive one: its culmination was a proposal for a lunar landing. On September 20, 1963, in a speech before the United Nations (UN) General Assembly, Kennedy invited the USSR to join the United States in developing a joint expedition to the moon, the same mission he had justified two years earlier primarily on the basis of American-Soviet rivalry. As might be expected, this proposal was met with incredulity, if not alarm, by a number of U.S. officials, including many members of Congress. The president would spend what were to be the last two months of his life trying--not altogether successfully--to reconcile what many saw as a blatant contradiction in his policies.

For the past thirty years, space policy analysts, historians, and even a few of the actual participants have sought to account for these apparent inconsistencies. Unfortunately, these explanations tend either to contain discrepancies of their own or else fail to account for or, in some cases, even mention all of the relevant circumstances. This article takes a somewhat different approach to the issue, arguing that from Kennedy's point of view, there was no contradiction. Competition and offers of cooperation were deliberate strategies, completely consistent with the way the president had defined the nature of the space race. The controversy generated by this approach--and subsequent charges of inconsistency--is a reflection of the fact that most other public officials (particularly in Congress) did not share or even understand this particular definition.

Kennedy and Competition

For President Kennedy, as for many Americans at the time, the USSR cast a very long shadow over the U.S. space program. Beginning with the 1960 presidential campaign and continuing up until the day before his death, Kennedy almost never referred to America's efforts in space without mentioning the Soviet Union as well.(4) Often, he adopted an explicitly competitive tone, complete with "racing" metaphors: "winning," "catching up," "being first," and so on. The 1960 Democratic Party platform, for example, claims that the Republicans had allowed the Russians to "forge ahead" in space.(5) The Kennedy campaign's position paper on space (the first section of which, significantly, is devoted to a direct U. …

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