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John F. Kennedy and the Race to the Moon

by AMNH on


Image courtesy of Flickr/Manchester-Monkey

On Monday, March 5, 2012, John Logsdon, space history and policy expert and former director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University, traced the factors leading to President John F. Kennedy’s decision to send astronauts to the Moon and the steps Kennedy took to turn that decision into reality. The program, hosted by Hayden Planetarium Director Neil deGrasse Tyson, concluded with a signing of Logsdon’s book John F. Kennedy and the Race to the Moon. Below, Logsdon answers a few questions about Kennedy’s legacy in the field of space exploration.

How did Kennedy’s thoughts about a Moon mission evolve throughout his presidency?

John Logsdon: When Kennedy entered the White House, he had no strong views of the future of the U.S. space program. His first inclination was to make space an area of U.S.-Soviet cooperation. But the world’s positive reaction to the 1961 launch of Yuri Gagarin convinced Kennedy that the United States had to enter, and win, a space race. Thus Project Apollo was born. Over the final two years of his tragically shortened presidency, Kennedy re-examined his decision and worried about its costs, but never regretted his choice. He also returned to a cooperative theme, suggesting in a United Nations speech in September 1962 that the U.S. and USSR should go to the Moon together.

What is the legacy of Kennedy’s space program in the 21st century?

Logsdon: To win the race to the Moon, NASA became a large engineering organization focused on human space flight. It remains so today, but the willingness of the country to provide the funding to match NASA’s ambitions and capabilities has not been forthcoming. Landing on the Moon was a remarkable human achievement, but it left a mixed legacy for the U.S. space program. A strong second act in the space narrative has been elusive.

How are considerations of human spaceflight different in 2012 than they were in the 60s?

Image courtesy of Flickr/Manchester-Monkey

Logsdon: Apollo cannot be re-created. It was a war-like, but peaceful, mobilization of financial and human resources to achieve a challenging goal through unilateral action. The conditions that made it possible will not reoccur. In today’s constrained financial situation, without a single compelling reason to undertake a major space exploration initiative, only a global cooperative effort to return to the Moon and then go beyond makes sense.