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Monday, September 19, 2005

Kennedy Proposes Joint Moon Mission, September 20, 1963

Today in 1963, President John F. Kennedy put forth a proposal that shocked his political allies, enemies and the nation. It stirred debate around the world and was even discussed at the United Nations. What did Kennedy say? Simply, that the United States and the Soviet Union should consider the possibility of planning and executing a joint mission to the moon.

In this first decade of the 21st century, multi-national space missions have become commonplace. American satellites are regularly launched on Russian rockets while European probes with Japanese instruments explore our solar system. But the world as it existed 42 years ago treated the idea of multi-national missions with a large degree of skepticism. After all, the space race was as much about politics as about science and exploration. In fact, recently released audio tapes from the Kennedy White House show that President Kennedy personally pushed for a program to put an American on the moon over the objections of NASA officials. One wonders when or if the moon landings would've taken place without this high-level prodding.

Kennedy's proposal was probably driven by three things. First, there were economic factors to consider. NASA managers speculated that a program aimed at putting men on the moon would cost $20 billion in 1963 dollars. Spending of this nature would be very unpopular with a significant portion of the voting public. Splitting the cost with the Soviets would make the expenditure more palatable, or so it was thought.

Second, relations between the Soviet Union and the United States were experiencing a mild thaw in 1963. The decade has started roughly for the two superpowers. The Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961 drew the Soviets even closer to the Cuban government and ensured them a seat in America's backyard. That same year, East Germany began construction of the Berlin Wall. It would come to be seen as a physical manifestation of the Iron Curtain and a constant reminder of the Soviet domination of eastern Europe.

The Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 made both superpowers realize that it was necessary to keep the lines of communication open. A hotline was installed between Moscow and Washington and the two nations began regular discussions of various issues. Even Nikita Kruschev, the man who was famous for pounding his shoe on his desk at the UN, softened his tone. It looked to all the world as if the two nations were on the brink of getting along.

Finally, the Soviets were making significant strides in the space race in the late 50's and early 60's. They were the first nation to put a satellite into orbit; they were also the first to put a man into space. While the American space program achieved those things, NASA seemed to always be playing a game of catch-up. A joint mission to the moon would level the playing field.

Of course, it was not to be. Two months after putting forth his proposal, President Kennedy was killed in Dallas, Texas. President Lyndon Johnson wanted nothing to do with a US/Soviet mission to the moon and the idea soon faded away.

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