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JFK and the Space Race

On May 25, 1961, President John F. Kennedy gave a landmark speech before Congress in which he put forth his bold goal, "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 Earth." What an incredible - and some might have thought crazy - proposition! Only a few weeks prior, the U.S. had launched its first astronaut, Alan Shepard, on a suborbital flight.  Alan Shepard had not even orbited the Earth, yet - that would not happen for an American astronaut until John Glenn's flight in 1962 - and President Kennedy already looked to the future of a manned Moon landing.  Unfortunately, President Kennedy did not live to see his dream realized, but largely thanks to his legacy upheld by President Lyndon Johnson, we achieved the goal before the decade was out, and a little afterwards, of landing a total of twelve men on the Moon and returning them all to the safety of our home planet.  What is not as well-known is that NASA Administrator James Webb, while supporting Kennedy's manned Moon missions, also was a huge proponent of unmanned scientific missions; in other words, science for science's sake. 

I was born at the very end of the Space Race.  I was only a few months old when the last two Apollo astronauts arrived at, worked at, and left the Moon, so I have absolutely no direct memory of that time, but I have always lived in a period of space exploration.  My earliest space-related memories were of the Voyager missions, Dr. Carl Sagan's "Cosmos" television series, shuttle launches, and family trips to the Adler Planetarium. I went to Space Camp.  I experienced the entire breadth of the space shuttle program. I have seen spacecraft crisscross the entire Solar System, studying the Earth, Moon, Sun, planets, comets, asteroids, heliosphere, Milky Way Galaxy, galaxies in the nearby and distant Universe, and for every question that scientists answer, a hundred more appear.  I am sure many people take space exploration for granted since NASA and other space agencies make it look so easy, but I know it is not easy.  Thousands and thousands of people work to achieve success in space.

When I read news stories about a new spacecraft that has launched, the description of the mission is often preceded by its cost: the (insert price tag here) mission to Mars, or the (insert price tag here) X-ray telescope.  In my work here at the Adler Planetarium, though, I am often asked a short question, "Is it worth it?"  Did President Kennedy and Administrator Webb set us on a good course? The short answer I would give is, "Yes, absolutely, the space program is worth every penny." Those dollars are not put into a big box and shipped off into space.  Those dollars are spent all over the country, supporting jobs, companies, and industries in every state. Our knowledge of the entire Universe has ballooned in all areas of space exploration - Administrator Webb's "science for science's sake" (quotes added as emphasis).  The added benefit to all of this is the realm of "spinoffs" - commercialized technologies that come out of space program development that are unintended bonuses.  I used the word "unintended" deliberately because space research programs are not developed solely for spinoffs.  Need some examples of space program benefits?  Well, first, let's get some misconceptions off the table...Tang, Teflon, and Velcro are not NASA spinoffs.  Do you know someone who has a Dustbuster? Thank the Moon landing program for the development of the small battery-operated motor that was incorporated into a handheld vacuum.  The development of transparent ceramics was originally supported by NASA's Advanced Ceramics Research program and was used as protection for infrared antennae on heat-seeking missile trackers.  Know anyone who has invisible braces? That person is wearing transparent ceramics.  The same scratch-resistent material used in NASA helmet visors is in scratch-resistant eyeglass lenses. Do you have a first-aid kit containing a thin aluminized blanket? That blanket material was developed by NASA in 1964.  A fibrous material that is stronger than steel was used in the Viking Mars lander's parachute shrouds. The same material was later used to improve radial tires. You might have similar technology on your car right now. And those are just a few examples. There are over a thousand more, according to NASA.

I look forward to the next generation of rockets and crewed spacecraft that are in development right now, I am excited by the voluminous science results coming from our spacecraft and telescopes, I am amazed by NASA's aeronautical research (the first A in NASA, after all), and I am awed by the International Space Station, a truly worldwide project celebrating its 15th anniversary on November 20, 2013. The James Webb Space Telescope, the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope, is scheduled for launch in 2018.  We have a lot more work to do, but I think President Kennedy would be pleased to see the results.

Share your memories of the Space Race with us in the comments below or on Facebook and Twitter.

Written by Michelle Nichols, master educator for NASA forum programs at the Adler Planetarium.

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