John F. Kennedy’s Space Legacy and Its Lessons for Today

Fifty years ago, on May 25, 1961, President John F. Kennedy, only four months in office, proposed before a joint session of Congress that “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.” Kennedy was blunt; he said that agreeing to his proposal would involve a burden that “will last for many years and carry very heavy costs,” and that “it would better not to go at all” if the United States was not “prepared to do the work and bear the burdens to make it successful.”

In the 30 months remaining in his tragically shortened presidency, Kennedy proved willing to follow through on his proposal, approving an immediate 89% increase in the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) budget and then, in the next year, another 101%. These increases started the lunar landing program, Project Apollo, on its way to becoming the most expensive peacetime mobilization of U.S. financial and human resources ever undertaken in pursuit of a specific goal. In 2010 dollars, Apollo cost $151 billion; by comparison, the Manhattan Project cost $28 billion and the Panama Canal, $8.1 billion.

In my new book John F. Kennedy and the Race to the Moon, I trace the factors that convinced Kennedy that the United States had to undertake what he termed a “great new American enterprise” and the steps he took to turn his decision to go to the Moon into the effort that led to Neil Armstrong’s first step onto the lunar surface in July 1969. I also reflect on what lessons the Apollo experience may have for today’s situation, in space and elsewhere.

Before Kennedy decided that the United States should send people to the Moon, the U.S. reaction to a series of Soviet Union space successes, beginning with the launch of Sputnik 1 in October 1957, had been relatively muted. President Dwight Eisenhower did not believe it wise to try to compete with the Soviets in space achievements undertaken primarily for prestige purposes and thus was unwilling to approve a fast-paced U.S. effort in response to Soviet successes. In reality, there was in 1957 no “Sputnik moment” that led to accelerated government support of innovative space technology. That acceleration came only after Kennedy, seeing the global and domestic reaction to the first orbital flight of Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin on April 12, 1961, decided that the United States by default could not cede control over outer space to the Soviets and thus must enter a space race with the intent of winning it. It was a “Gagarin moment” rather than a “Sputnik moment” that precipitated massive government support for the technological innovations needed for success in space.

In retrospect, the impression is that Apollo moved forward without political problems; this is not correct. In 1961 and 1962, there was widespread political and public support for Kennedy’s lunar initiative, in part propelled by the enthusiasm of the initial flights of Project Mercury, including Alan Shepard’s suborbital mission on May 5, 1961, and John Glenn’s three-orbit flight on February 20, 1962. But by 1963, there was rising criticism of Apollo from several fronts. Eisenhower called the race to the Moon “nuts.” Many Republicans suggested that Kennedy should be spending more money on military space efforts nearer the Earth rather than on a lunar adventure. Leading scientists and liberals joined forces to suggest that Project Apollo was a distortion of national priorities and that there were many more worthy uses for the funds being spent on going to the Moon. Congress cut the NASA budget by 10% in 1963, slowing down its exponential increase.

Kennedy was quite sensitive to these criticisms, and in April, August, and October 1963 mandated major reviews of the Apollo commitment. The last of these reviews examined the options of slowing down Apollo, giving up on the Moon goal but continuing to develop the heavy-lift Saturn V Moon rocket, or canceling Apollo altogether. It concluded that none of these options were preferable to staying the course.

This review was not completed until November 29, 1963; by then, Kennedy had been dead a week. It is probable that Kennedy would have agreed with its conclusion; he was speaking of the space program in very positive terms in the days before his assassination. But Kennedy was also in the fall of 1963 pursuing another option: turning Apollo into a cooperative project with the Soviet Union. This is another aspect of the lunar landing program that has disappeared from memory.

Indeed, the 1961 decision to race the Soviet Union to the Moon was a reversal of Kennedy’s preference as he entered the White House. In his inaugural address he suggested “let us explore the stars together,” and in the first months of the Kennedy administration a White House task force worked on identifying areas of U.S.-Soviet space cooperation. Gagarin’s flight demonstrated to Kennedy that the United States had to focus on developing its own leading space capabilities, but the hope for cooperation never completely vanished from Kennedy’s thinking. As he met Nikita Khrushchev face to face in Vienna on June 3–4, 1961, Kennedy suggested that the United States and the Soviet Union join forces in sending people to the Moon. Khrushchev in 1961 was not open to such a prospect.

By 1963, the context for U.S.-Soviet space competition had changed. The United States had demonstrated to the world its technological and military power; the Soviet Union in 1961 backed off from a confrontation over access to Berlin and then in October 1962 yielded to U.S. pressure to remove its missiles from Cuba. Sobered by how close the two superpowers had come to nuclear war, Kennedy in 1963 proposed a new “strategy of peace” to reduce U.S.-Soviet tensions; an early success of this strategy was the signing of the Limited Test Ban Treaty in August 1963.

Kennedy, returning to his original point of view, thought that space cooperation might be a good next step in his strategy. He also was bothered by the increasing costs of Apollo and the chorus of criticisms of the lunar landing program. In a September 20, 1963, address to the General Assembly of the United Nations (UN), he made an unexpected, bold proposal. “Why,” he asked, “should man’s first flight to the Moon be a matter of national competition?” and suggested that the United States and the Soviet Union explore the possibility of “a joint expedition to the Moon.” Kennedy was quite serious in this proposal. When NASA seemed to be dragging its feet in coming up with approaches to U.S.-Soviet cooperation, Kennedy on November 12, 1963, directed NASA Administrator James Webb to take charge of government-wide planning for “cooperation in lunar landing programs.” With Kennedy’s death 10 days later, Apollo became a memorial to the fallen young president, and any possibility of changing it into a cooperative U.S.-Soviet effort disappeared. The country remained committed to the goal set for it by Kennedy.

Post-Apollo decline

One conclusion of John F. Kennedy and the Race to the Moon is that the impact of Apollo on the evolution of the U.S. space program has on balance been negative. Apollo turned out to be a dead-end undertaking in terms of human travel beyond the immediate vicinity of this planet; no human has left Earth orbit since the last Apollo mission in December 1972. Most of the Apollo hardware and associated capabilities, particularly the magnificent but very expensive Saturn V launcher, quickly became museum exhibits to remind us, soon after the fact, of what once had been done.

By being first to the Moon, the United States met the deadline that had provided the momentum that powered Apollo; after Apollo 11, that momentum rapidly dissipated, and there was no other compelling rationale to continue voyages of human exploration. In 1969 and 1970, even as the initial lunar landing missions were taking place, the White House canceled the final three planned trips to the Moon. President Richard Nixon had no stomach for what NASA proposed: a major post-Apollo program aimed at building a large space station in preparation for eventual (in the 1980s!) human missions to Mars. Instead, Nixon decreed, “we must think of them [space activities] as part of a continuing process … and not as a series of separate leaps, each requiring a massive concentration of energy. Space expenditures must take their proper place within a rigorous system of national priorities … What we do in space from here on in must become a normal and regular part of our national life and must therefore be planned in conjunction with all of the other undertakings which are important to us.” Nixon’s policy view quickly reduced the post-Apollo space budget to less than $3.5 billion per year, a federal budget share one-quarter of what it had been at the peak of Apollo. With the 1972 decision to begin the shuttle program, followed in 1984 with the related decision to develop a space station, the United States basically started over in human spaceflight, limiting itself to orbital activities in the near vicinity of Earth.


The policy and technical decisions not to build on the hardware developed for Apollo for follow-on space activities were inextricably linked to the character of Kennedy’s deadline for getting to the Moon “before this decade is out.” By setting a firm deadline, Kennedy put NASA in the position of finding a technical approach to Apollo that gave the best chance of meeting that deadline. This in turn led to the development of the Saturn V launcher, the choice of the lunar orbit rendezvous approach for getting to the Moon, and the design of the lunar module spacecraft optimized for landing on the Moon. None of these capabilities were relevant to any politically feasible post-Apollo space effort.

The Apollo program also created in NASA an organization oriented in the public and political eye toward human spaceflight and toward developing large-scale systems to achieving challenging goals. It created from Texas to Florida the large institutional and facility base for such undertakings. Reflecting that base, which remains in place today, is a coalition of NASA and contractor employees, local and regional politicians, and aerospace industry interests that has provided the political support that has sustained the space program in the absence of a Kennedy-like presidential commitment to space achievement. With the Nixon White House rejection of ambitious post-Apollo space goals, NASA entered a four-decade identity crisis from which it has yet to emerge. Repetitive operation of the space shuttle and the extended process of developing an Earth-orbiting space station have not been satisfying substitutes for another Apollo-like undertaking. NASA has never totally adjusted to a lower priority in the overall scheme of national affairs; rather, as the Columbia Accident Investigation Board observed in its 2003 report, NASA became “an organization straining to do too much with too little.” All of this is an unfortunate heritage of Kennedy’s race to the Moon.

Lessons from Apollo?

Project Apollo also became the 20th-century archetype of a successful, large-scale, government-led program. The success of Apollo has led to the cliché “if we can put a man on the Moon, why can’t we …?” This is not a useful question. What was unique about going to the Moon is that it required no major technological innovations and no changes in human behavior, just very expensive mastery over nature using the scientific and technological knowledge available in 1961. There are very few, if any, other potential objectives for government action that have these characteristics.

The reality is that attempts to implement other large-scale nondefense programs during the past 40 years have never been successful, in the space sector or in the broader national arena. Both President George H. W. Bush in 1989 and President George W. Bush in 2004 set out ambitious visions for the future of space exploration, but neither of those visions became reality; the political and budgetary commitments needed for success were notably missing. In 2010, President Obama proposed a dramatic move away from the Apollo approach to space exploration, stressing the development of new enabling technologies and widespread international collaboration. He also declared that the Moon would not be the first destination as humans traveled beyond Earth orbit. This proposal has been met with skepticism and substantial political controversy. Even in its modified form as reflected in the 2010 NASA Authorization Act, its future is at best uncertain. The strength of the political coalition created by Apollo is very resistant to change.

In the nonspace sector, there have been few opportunities for large-scale government programs that do not require for their success a combination of technological innovation and significant changes in human behavior. The attempts to declare a “War on Cancer,” for example, required not only research breakthroughs but also changing the smoking habits of millions of Americans. Attempts to move toward U.S. “energy independence” run afoul of limited R&D spending and the complex ties between non-U.S. energy suppliers and the U.S. financial and government sectors. Providing adequate health care for all Americans turns out to be primarily a political, not merely a technical, challenge. Managing global environmental change has high technical uncertainties and challenging social inertia to overcome. And so on.

This record of nonachievement suggests that the lunar landing decision and the efforts that turned it in into reality were unique occurrences, a once-in-a-generation or much longer phenomenon in which a heterogeneous mixture of factors almost coincidentally converged to create a national commitment and enough momentum to support that commitment through to its fulfillment. If this is indeed the case, then there is little to learn from the effort to go to the Moon that is relevant to 21st-century choices. This would make the lament “if we can put a man on the Moon, why can’t we …?” almost devoid of useful meaning except to suggest the possibility that governments can succeed in major undertakings, given the right set of circumstances. Other approaches to carrying out large-scale government programs will have to be developed; the Apollo experience has little to teach us beyond its status as a lasting symbol of a great American achievement.

What future for space?

No one aware of today’s government deficits and the overall economic situation can suggest that the United States in 2011 commit the type of financial support to future space efforts that Kennedy made available to carry out Apollo. Kennedy made and sustained his commitment to developing the capabilities needed to reach the Moon before the Soviet Union because doing so was clearly linked to enhancing U.S. global power and national pride in the Cold War setting of the 1960s. Today, there most certainly is no pressing national security question, the answer to which for which the answer is “go to an asteroid,” or indeed anywhere else beyond Earth orbit. Space exploration is now a discretionary activity, not a national imperative. This country’s leaders need to decide, under very difficult circumstances, whether their image of the U.S. future includes continued leadership in space exploration, and then make the even harder choice to provide on a continuing basis resources adequate to achieving that leading position.

What faces the country today with respect to the future in space is in many ways a more challenging decision than that which faced Kennedy a half-century ago. In his final months in the White House, Kennedy was prescient enough to discern one path toward a sustainable space future: making space exploration a cooperative global undertaking. In the September 1963 UN speech, Kennedy observed that “Surely we should explore whether the scientists and astronauts … of all the world cannot work together in the conquest of space, sending some day … to the Moon not representatives of a single nation, but representatives of all our countries.” That admonition remains relevant today.

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Cite this Article

Logsdon, John M. “John F. Kennedy’s Space Legacy and Its Lessons for Today.” Issues in Science and Technology 27, no. 3 (Spring 2011).

Vol. XXVII, No. 3, Spring 2011