By the time a youthful Massachusetts senator who talked of a “new frontier” was elected the 35th president of the United States, the American space program was already in trouble.
The Soviet Union had already launched the first successful satellite into space, with the first man soon to follow, while NASA’s first rockets were stalling and exploding on their launch pads.
Kennedy often spoke about the “space gap” between the U.S. and the Soviet Union as a part of his new American frontier. After Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space — and a rallying point for Soviet national pride — Kennedy declared there was “nothing more important.”
Weeks after Kennedy cheered along with millions of Americans for astronaut Alan Shepherd’s first American manned space flight, he personally asked Congress for up to $9 billion dollars to fund NASA’s future successes.
“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. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish,” Kennedy said in May 1961.
Six months later, there were Apollo spacecraft schematics, Saturn V launch rocket production facilities, custom computer contracts and successful new rocket test launches.
“But this is the new ocean, and I believe the United States must sail on it and be in a position second to none,” Kennedy said in greeting astronaut John Glenn from his first American low-Earth orbit space flight.
Time magazine captured the mood that captured the nation: “In terms of national prestige, Glenn’s flight put the U.S. back in the space race with a vengeance, and gave the U.S. and the entire free world a huge and badly needed boost.”
“We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too,” Kennedy said at Rice University in September 1962.
“The exploration of space will go ahead, whether we join in it or not. And it is one of the great adventures of all time, and no nation which expects to be the leader of other nations can expect to stay behind in this space race. We mean to lead it, for the eyes of the world now look into space, to the moon and to the planets beyond, and we have vowed that we shall not see it governed by a hostile flag of conquest, but by a banner of freedom and peace,” Kennedy said.
It was the flood of space-program support — both in money and morale — that allowed the Unites States to take the technological lead around the world. NASA created entirely new areas of research and development, which in turn created new industries and jobs.
Technology, defense, education, energy, health and scientific understanding as a whole sped forward as NASA raced to the moon, putting America in the lead toward the horizon of the future.