COMMENTARY: 60 years ago, Kennedy commanded the moon. The success was mainly ensured by the Cold War

With a speech on September 12, 1962, Kennedy followed up on his speech to the US Congress from May of the previous year, in which he first appealed for the United States to commit to sending a man to the moon by the end of the decade. The White House chief was primarily reacting to the previous successes of the space program of the Soviet Union, a Cold War rival that beat the United States to send both the first artificial satellite and the first man into space and into orbit.

The competition between the Soviet Union and the United States in space flights at the time stemmed from the ongoing Cold War, and above all from the efforts of both Moscow and Washington at the time to prevent the other side from gaining an advantage in important military technologies. At Rice University, Kennedy emphasized that space research must be conducted “under the banner of freedom and peace” and must not become a tool for the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, but a tool for knowledge. In reality, however, it was closely associated with the military from the beginning.

The rocket technology that, to the astonishment of the whole world, delivered the Sputnik satellite into earth’s orbit in October 1957 and Yuri Gagarin three and a half years later, could just as well have delivered a devastating Soviet nuclear bomb to the territory of the United States. The same was true in reverse. The reason why Moscow and Washington did not hesitate to devote extensive resources to the development of the most powerful missile carriers was thus derived far more from the effort to ensure superiority over the other party in this area (or at least not to allow themselves to fall behind) than from the “irreversible” human desire for knowledge mentioned by Kennedy and progress.

The development of space technologies under the guise of scientific research and the peaceful expansion of knowledge put expensive projects in a better light in the eyes of the domestic public – this was of course true in the case of the United States, in the Soviet Union there was never a public debate about the cost of the space program – and their successes could be used well for propaganda increased the international prestige of both superpowers. Rhetorically very capable Kennedy, with the help of his speechwriters, was also able to sell the given vision to a significant part of the public. His explanation that America decided to conquer the moon and other goals because it was not an easy task, but a difficult one, went down in history. For many, these words are still inspirational today.

The result is widely known. Despite numerous difficulties, the United States was able to develop completely new technologies with unprecedented speed, erased the lead of the Soviet Union in the field of heavy rockets, and was the only country in the world to acquire a carrier capable of successfully carrying a manned spacecraft to the moon. At the turn of the 1960s and 1970s, a dozen Americans gradually walked over its surface. This victory in the “space race” was not free. At its peak, funding for NASA’s space agency swallowed up over 4.4% of the federal budget, nearly ten times its share today. No other power has invested such resources in a space program before or since.

The Apollo program, at the beginning of which Kennedy’s speech stood, marked a huge scientific and technological achievement and brought about the historic moment of the first human steps on another space body. But it also provided the United States with the ability to respond promptly to the militarization of space if necessary. However, it only happened to a limited extent by the end of the Cold War, even though the space programs of both superpowers continued to retain military elements and military potential (which, after all, also applied to the iconic Space Shuttle and Energy-Buran shuttles). At the same time, the overwhelming American victory brought into the public debate there also unpleasant questions about whether it was really necessary to spend such enormous resources on it and whether it was not an unnecessarily expensive, although undoubtedly fascinating spectacle.

One of the consequences is, even with slight fluctuations, but basically a constantly decreasing share of funds that the US federal budget provides to NASA every year. Today it is the lowest since the late 1950s. In this light, it is not difficult to understand the long-term problems of the United States’ current most ambitious space program, SLS-Artemis. Recall that after years of delays, the recent attempt to launch his first mission ended in repeated failure.

How is it possible that the development of a rocket based on already known and practically proven technologies takes much longer than the development of completely pioneering technology in the 1960s, which was literally a technological prehistoric age compared to today? One reason is that it is not driven by the imperative to preserve its own security. In addition, the United States currently does not have a direct rival in space over which it could maintain superiority only at the cost of very expensive investments. The Russian program is not moving anywhere (and with regard to the war in Ukraine and Western sanctions, it probably faces even more significant stagnation), the Chinese program has not yet broken any boundaries and is only slowly repeating the old American and Soviet missions.

The rapid succession of successes of the American, and before that, the Soviet space program stemmed from the mutual rivalries, distribution of power, and Cold War realities that made it a priority. In the conditions of a pluralistic society, however, it was able American politicians, such as John Kennedy, who were able to secure the necessary public support for the costly effort. The question is whether they would find similarly capable followers today if a similar rival to the United States’ Soviet Union in the 1960s emerged in spaceflight—be it a state or a private actor.

The author is a historian.

Source: EuroZprá by

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