On October 4, 1962, President John F. Kennedy announced that the United States would send a man into space within a year. Kennedy’s ambitious goal to send Americans to the moon by the end of the decade seemed too difficult to achieve with just one spacecraft. With the help of NASA and the aerospace industry, the U.S. was poised to answer the challenge of space.
On July 16, 1962, President John F. Kennedy announced that the United States would finally end its 22-year-old ban on military rocket flights into space, ushering in a new era of space exploration. “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,” Kennedy said. “They are hard, because they will require dedication, because the effort will be long, because the challenge is great.”
In 1961, the United States and the Soviet Union were locked in the Cold War. The two superpowers’ astronauts were launching to the moon at a dizzying pace. And in 1962, John Glenn and Yuri Gagarin became the first man to orbit the Earth and the first person to travel into space. One year later, President John F. Kennedy proposed a new program of action to benefit space exploration. “I believe 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. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind … and more important to the long-range health and welfare of our nation.” The program was called “Space
John F. Kennedy had not even had time to take the oath of office when the battle began. In December 1960, a month before the inauguration, the US Air Force struck first – not against a foreign enemy, but against NASA, the civilian space agency. In a letter to commanders, the Office of the Secretary of the Air Force says it is confident that the president-elect understands the need for military superiority in space and will therefore assign a primary role to the Air Force. After Kennedy understood, the Air Force circulated his letter.
Space Fight, according to Aviation Week. It was more than a turf war, though. At stake was the very purpose of the American space program. Will the nation continue to advocate a space of peace, a policy of
Dwight D. Eisenhower,
the outgoing president? Or will the new administration view space as the Air Force did: as an arena of the Cold War, a battlefield where armed conflict may be inevitable? The decision was to be made by Kennedy, but events revealed that it would be made by an astronaut named John Glenn.
The existence of NASA was an insult to Air Force leadership.
For the Air Force, the existence of NASA was an insult. The Space Act of 1958, which established NASA and gave it control over manned space flights, was a rejection of any military planner with fantasies of jet fighters in space or space stations full of rockets. At a time when the Soviet Union was achieving one first after another – the first satellite, the first animal in orbit, the first unmanned spacecraft to reach the moon – Eisenhower believed that space exploration was not in the interest of national security. As a concession, he allowed the Air Force to continue development of the X-20 bomber, but the Man-in-Space program, an Air Force project, was discontinued.
was NASA’s domain.
Kennedy’s election gave the generals a reason to hope. If the Soviets control space, he said during the campaign, they can control Earth. In the eyes of the world, he said, second place in space means second place in science and technology, second place in military power, second place in the struggle between freedom and totalitarian rule. In late 1960, a secret U.S. News Agency report, which caused a stir when it was released, indicated that Soviet superiority in space was undermining U.S. credibility in the world. Analysts have called this satellite pessimism. The pressure was mounting and demanded a show of force in the room.
And NASA raised a weakened hand. Astronauts are popular with the public, but the manned program is far behind schedule and has experienced many failures. The rockets exploded on the launching pad, the cargo landed in the sea. There were rumors that Kennedy would turn Project Mercury over to the military or scrap it altogether, as his scientific advisor Jerome Wiesner had advocated.
According to the internal history of the Air Force, it was time for the U.S. Air Force to mount an aggressive public information campaign to convince Kennedy to abandon the approach of his predecessor. Speeches were made, articles launched, and the Air Force Committee sounded the alarm about the military implications of the frequency and scale of Soviet spacecraft launches.
The BBC misjudged its audience. Despite his bellicose rhetoric, Kennedy was no more ready for the militarization of space than Eisenhower. Kennedy wanted to surpass the Russians in space, but on the basis of technology, not weapons. (The situation on earth was different: the arms race had intensified). He thought it would have a chilling effect in space. He also saw the propaganda benefits arising from the exploration of space for the benefit of mankind, as provided for in the Space Act. In March 1961, he issued a reprimand: I do not intend, nor have I ever intended, to subordinate NASA’s space activities to those of the Department of Defense.
But that wasn’t the last word. The next month, Soviet air force pilot Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space to fly once to orbit and return safely. I want the country mobilized for war, thundered a congressman at a hearing the next day. Because we’re at war. Others spoke of the prospect of Soviet tanks or a missile base on the moon. It seemed unlikely that a missile fired from the lunar surface would be as accurate as one fired from, say, Irkutsk, but few doubted that Russia would test the proposal. The Cold War is entering a more dangerous phase: In August, the Soviet Union begins building a wall in Berlin and testing new nuclear weapons of nightmarish power.
John Glenn on historic flight with Friendship 7, 20. February 1962.
As the most dangerous hour approached, Kennedy pinned his hopes on the fate of John Glenn, who, as a Navy pilot in World War II and the Korean War, brought the values of self-reliance from small-town Ohio into the fiercest air battles. Glenn’s genial, pleasant demeanor made him the most revered of the Mercury astronauts, and in late 1961 he was given his most important mission: the first orbital flight. In mid-1961, NASA successfully sent a human into space twice, but these were suborbital flights – ascent and descent in 15 minutes. Glenn was to end the Soviet monopoly on orbital flights.
Glenn is confident, but secretly begins to consider the possibility of becoming the first person to die in space.
Glenn feigned confidence. Secretly, however, he begins to think that he may be a victim of the Cold War, the first human to die in space. Ten times in four months his flight was cancelled – postponed because of bad weather or what NASA, with its usual inaccuracy, called technical difficulties. Left alone in the crew quarters, he wrote a cassette tape for his teenage children, Lyn and Dave, in case he didn’t make it back alive. The handwritten text – never before published – begins on a rather dark note. If you hear this, he wrote, I’ve been killed. He encouraged his children to rejoice, as I did, that my life was not wasted….. We have made efforts and reached a high level. Now it’s up to the others to go a little higher.
On the 20th. For five exhilarating hours in February 1962, Glenn flew higher than any American had ever flown. His Druzhba-7 capsule circled the planet three times and landed safely. All over the free world, people were crying with relief. The spell has been broken, proclaims a West German newspaper; no more Soviet space flights will be evidence of a profound lack of democratic order. For the Air Force, however, Glenn’s success was not objectionable. As an internal report acknowledges, the campaign to get a bigger role in space and change space policy is over, at least for now.
Now, six decades later, a new space race is taking place, raising old questions about the goals of the American program. A revitalized NASA is at the forefront of scientific discovery, but space is increasingly becoming a forum for military confrontation, not only with Russia, but now with China as well. Accepting the challenge, the President
expressed its full support for the U.S. Space Force, whose mission is to protect our way of life on Earth through our interests in space. Thirty years after the end of the Cold War, the US military’s presence in space is established and expanding.
-This essay is from Mr. Shezol’s new book, Mercury Rising: John Glenn, John Kennedy and the New Cold War Battlefield, will be published soon. June at W.W. Norton.
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