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Apollo 11: Why JFK believed his bold moonshot could actually happen

By Mike Wall
July 18, 2019, 6:42:38 PM EDT


Apollo 11 was truly a giant leap, but it was no miracle.

On May 25, 1961, President John F. Kennedy announced before a special session of Congress that the United States planned to put people on the moon, and return them safely to Earth, before the end of the decade.

At the time, the nation had a mere 15 minutes of human-spaceflight experience — and that had been accrued just three weeks earlier, when NASA launched astronaut Alan Shepard on a brief jaunt to suborbital space. Still, JFK had confidence that the agency could deliver on his bold promise.

"I think he thought it could happen," said Roger Launius, who served as NASA's chief historian from 1990 to 2002 and wrote the recently published book "Apollo's Legacy" (Smithsonian Books, 2019).

jfk apollo

President John F. Kennedy speaks before a joint session of Congress, May 25, 1961. In this address, the president announced that the United States would aim to put astronauts on the moon by the end of the 1960s. (Image: © NASA)


JFK came to that conclusion after discussing the idea with NASA. In 1959, just a year after it was established, the space agency had identified the moon as the long-term target for its human-spaceflight program, according to space policy expert John Logsdon. By early 1961, quick-and-dirty analyses had convinced the agency that, while a crewed lunar mission would be tough and require significant innovation, there were no technological showstoppers that would prevent it from happening.

"That formed the basis of NASA telling Kennedy, 'If you commit the resources, Mr. President, we think we can do it," Logsdon, a professor emeritus of political science and international affairs at George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs in Washington, D.C., told Space.com.

"So, the NASA leadership had a relatively high degree of confidence in the basic doability of a lunar-landing program, even though the way they thought it would happen at the time was not the way it happened," he added.

Getting the money, of course, was a big part of pulling the moonshot off. And JFK had a big advantage there: his vice president was Lyndon Johnson, a former majority leader of the U.S. Senate with a long history of pulling strings on Capitol Hill. (Robert Caro's famous biography of Johnson is called "Master of the Senate.")

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