“First, I believe 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 the earth (…)”
Address to Joint Sessions of Congress, May 25th 1961.
Mission Mercury-Atlas 8, October 3, 1962. NASA, Huntsville, Alabama
When John. F. Kennedy in his Special Message to the Congress on Urgent National Needs committed the United States to this grand goal, it kickstarted a space program the likes of which had never been seen before. The Apollo Program was one of the largest and most expensive projects in peace time, only comparable to the building of the Panama Canal and the Manhattan Project during World War Two.
Kennedy did not live to see the program finally succeed in 1969, when Neil Armstrong took humanity’s first steps on the moon. The image of “Mankind’s huge leap” reverberated around the world, and still constitutes one of the most well-known events in the history of space flight. But what did the American Space Program look like during Kennedy’s time prior to Apollo?
One of the main fields of contest between the Soviet Union and the United States started with Sputnik’s flight around the earth in 1957: Satellite technology.
The first satellite itself was a great shock for the Americans, as it manifested the Soviet Union’s technological edge over the United States – the event has also been described as the “technological Pearl Harbor”. On top of that, the Americans kept on straggling behind in this competition.
So, as a countermeasure, early on the emphasis was put on sending an American into space – ideally, before the Soviets. At the very end of the 1950s, the first US human spaceflight program was initiated: Project Mercury. The chosen astronauts, the Mercury 7, were revealed with great fanfare in 1959: John Glenn, Walter Schirra, Alan Shepard, Scott Carpenter, Gordon Cooper, “Gus” Grissom, and Donald Slayton became celebrated American heroes almost at once with significant help from the press. The program moved along at a measured speed – until the pivotal year of 1961.
On April 9, 1959, NASA introduced its first astronaut class, the Mercury 7. NASA
Kennedy, in contrast to his predecessor Eisenhower, was in favor of a more aggressive space program. However, even though human space exploration was part of his “New Frontier” rhetoric he touted from early on during his presidential campaign, he was not interested in the ideal of humanity heroically striking out to the stars. For him, the political and strategic reality of the Cold War was crucial.
The world was – and still is – an international stage, and prestige and capability were equal to power. Part of Kennedy’s calculation was that gaining the technological edge would incite newly-forming nations in Africa, the Middle-East, and Asia to side with the US rather than with the Soviet Union – an international tug-o-war.
Additionally, especially nerve-wracking was the concept of the so-called “missile gap,” the idea that the Soviet Union allegedly possessed more nuclear missiles than the USA, a prominent but faulty assessment at the time. With Kennedy’s support, not only was the space program expanded, but the missile research connected to it. Kennedy in particular laid a strategic focus on the Mercury program, whose public support and dramatic impact gave an apt arena to build national prestige.
In light of this, the flight of Yuri Gagarin proved catastrophic. Together with the highly embarrassing Bay of Pigs fiasco, the United States frantically responded. Less than a month later, Alan Shepard of the Mercury 7 became the first American in space in a high-risk, rushed, and publicized mission. But even so, the 5 minutes in space of Freedom 7 hardly held up to the whole orbit of the Soviet Vostok. The Soviet Union was still ahead.
A few weeks later, Kennedy officially launched the space program into high gear, declaring the goal before the nation.
Behind the scenes, Kennedy made sure to hammer home the strategic top priority of his objective. Listen to the president and Jim Webb, NASA Administrator, in 1962:
The later phases of the Mercury program were planned with the lunar goal in mind, and several manned spaceflight missions took place; one of the most prominent was John Glenn’s flight in Friendship 7 in 1962, the first American in true orbit.
To get to the moon, the appropriate rocket was needed. Propulsion systems – which would not only carry astronauts, but also warheads – were furiously researched. While civil unrest was percolating in the South, the principal rocket research took place in racially segregated Huntsville, Alabama. It was led by Wernher von Braun, one of the most prominent rocket developers, who initially had come to the US under a secret operation called “Project Paperclip” along with many other scientists from Nazi Germany. There, Von Braun’s team developed the most powerful rocket to ever fly, the Saturn V. At the end of the decade, it would bring the first man to the moon.
Wernher von Braun and John F. Kennedy at Cape Canaveral, September 10, 1962. NASA, Huntsville, Alabama
Program Mercury ended in 1963, a few months before Kennedy’s death, and provided the basis for the following projects, Gemini and Apollo.