President John F. Kennedy, born 100 years ago on Monday, has earned an almost hagiographic status in American spaceflight history. His ambitious vision to send humans to the Moon within a decade—which came to fruition with Apollo 11 in July 1969—has been memorialized as a watermark of American technological achievement. NASA's Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, from which every Apollo mission was launched, lives on as a testament to JFK's central role in rocketing the United States to spacefaring glory.
But though Kennedy laid the inspirational groundwork for the Moon landings, which are widely mythologized in the West as symbolic victories over the Soviet Union, he was never fully committed to the lunar "space race" narrative. He preferred, instead, a vision of an outer space partnership with the USSR that might soften the dangerous earthly tensions between the rival nations at the height of the Cold War.
Mere days after Kennedy's famous May 1961 speech to Congress outlining his plan to put men on the Moon by 1970, the President discussed his lunar ambitions with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev at a summit in Vienna, and flat-out asked: "Why don't we do it together?"
Khrushchev flip-flopped in his response, and the pitch was subsequently sidelined by other issues like nuclear disarmament. But Kennedy did not quit on the idea of a binational lunar landing, and revived the possibility during a United Nations address on September 20, 1963.
Kennedy's speech to the UN. Video: United Nations/YouTube
"Why should man's first flight to the Moon be a matter of national competition?" he asked the UN general assembly. "Why should the United States and the Soviet Union, in preparing for such expeditions, become involved in immense duplications of research, construction, and expenditure? Surely we should explore whether the scientists and astronauts of our two countries—indeed of all the world—cannot work together in the conquest of space, sending someday in this decade to the moon not the representatives of a single nation, but the representatives of all of our countries."
Two months later, on November 22, 1963, Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, and the dream of a shared Moon landing died with him. While the Soviet government did not respond to the UN address, rumor has it that Khrushchev was considering accepting the invitation to join forces on crewed lunar missions. But the tumult of Kennedy's death, and the ousting of Khrushchev as premier one year later, severed this tentative connection, and the US and USSR reverted to their roles as competitive foils in space.
The world might have looked very different if Apollo 11's "giant leap for mankind" had been shared by an American astronaut and a Soviet cosmonaut. Much speculation has been generated about this alternate history, from a joint mission's potential to alleviate the severity of the Vietnam War, to the possibility that it may have led to the wholesale collapse of the Apollo program.
We can never know for sure how Kennedy's aspiration to unite the US and the USSR on the Moon might have played out, but his interest in cooperation over competition reflects his characteristic idealism. Eventually, the American and Soviet space communities made good on his vision by teaming up in space, beginning in 1975 with the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project. The International Space Station (ISS) is the modern incarnation of this longstanding American-Russian partnership off-Earth.
As tensions between the United States and Russia rise once more today, it's worth reflecting on Kennedy's optimism about the powers of space exploration as a salve for geopolitical hostility. "There is no strife, no prejudice, no national conflict in outer space as yet," Kennedy said in his speech to Rice University in 1962. "Its hazards are hostile to us all. Its conquest deserves the best of all mankind, and its opportunity for peaceful cooperation many never come again."
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