In Retrospect: The Race to Space

This photograph courtesy of nasa.org.

This week, we’re venturing our back back into the Kennedy administration—if you haven’t read my blog post about JFK conspiracy theories, it is available here! Really, however, I suppose John Schlossberg would more likely approve of our topic, because instead of analyzing the ins and outs of that tragic day in Dallas in 1963, we’re going to be thinking about the space race, a cause JFK was deeply invested in during his time in office.

When I think of the space race in the 1960s, I tend to imagine images of the valiant Neil Armstrong—clad in the intergalactic bubble helmet and massive shiny suit— taking a slow-motion plod along the surface of the moon in 1969: “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind!” Of course, it was an exciting moment of scientific advancement for the United States, so it rightfully stands as a special moment in history.

Really, however, the journey to that fateful day began in the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations. President Kennedy, in particular, was deeply invested in the progress of the United States in space. The Johnson administration carried the torch, so to speak, and that passionate scurry for aeronautic advancement (and the reasons behind that scurry) are precisely what drive our conversation today.

While thinking about the space race more broadly, I stumbled upon two fascinating primary sources from 1961 that I found both humorous and insightful into the pressure to “keep up” in space. The first source I encourage you to view is available here and below, called Memorandum to Vice President Johnson, April 20, 1961. Afterward, I invite you to read this source, Vice President Johnson’s Response, April 28, 1961 (it is a bit longer). 

On the first read, I was surprised to find them humorous. President Kennedy was jfk to lbjinterrogating Vice President Johnson: “Are we working 24 hours a day on existing programs. If not, why not?” and “Are we making maximum effort? Are we achieving necessary results?” I imagine that even the bombastic and thick-skinned LBJ felt a bit flustered by President Kennedy’s jab. If they were working endlessly and effectively, there would be no purpose for the letter, after all. There was certainly nowhere to hide the United States’ space shortcomings—President Kennedy seemed to know that there were many.

As I read President Johnson’s response, I noticed that he was certainly willing to take a jab at general indecision’s tendency to hold up the necessary process: “This work can be speeded up through firm decisions to go ahead faster…” (from document pg 5). This is rather characteristic of LBJ; he was never one to back down.

More importantly, however, the document revealed the way LBJ perceived the importance of America’s preeminence in space: “If we do not make strong effort now, the time will soon be reached when the margin of control over space and over men’s minds [emphasis my own] through space accomplishments will have swung so far on the Russian side that we will not be able to catch up, let alone assume leadership” (from document pg 2). To LBJ, the space race was a means of proving to mankind that they were at the forefront of world power.

Vice President Johnson powerfully concluded his letter to the president with a response

Photograph via jfk.org.

to one of President Kennedy’s questions: “We are neither making maximum necessary effort nor achieving results necessary if this country is to reach a position of leadership” (pg 6). In their minds, floundering space advancements felt like a failure of international power struggle proportions. This is something to think about—and is this how we think about space technology today?


The space race, then, was less about space itself and more about the power struggle between the USA/USSR. Are billions of dollars of investment in space technology worthwhile when they reflect more of a power struggle than the necessity of advancing scientific knowledge? At what point is the investment worth the extraordinarily high federal government expenditures? How important should we consider space advancements, then and now? I believe these to be valuable questions to ask as we reflect on the space race and its distinctly 1960s importance. What do our governments invest in today, at great expense, more for power than for the actual cause at hand (in this case, meaningful scientific exploration and discovery)?

Robert Longley’s article, “Did politics fuel the space race?”, brings these concerns of politics over principle to the forefront, and I encourage you to read it. It takes a step back and looks at the space race more broadly (beyond the two 1961 sources that we have been focusing on), in a way that I believe is helpful to furthering the conversations and questions. Though the space race led to brilliant and powerful discoveries for the United States–discoveries to be proud of–what should we make of these motivations behind it? And what makes for a worthwhile government investment?

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