Tuesday 20 August 2019

JFK 'wanted to work with USSR to put men on Moon'

Historian says US president invited Khrushchev to join forces in 1960s space mission, writes Sarah Knapton

JFK giving his famous speech
JFK giving his famous speech

Sarah Knapton

US president John F Kennedy wanted to work with the Soviet Union to put a man on the Moon - and never intended the programme to be a nationalistic American endeavour, an eminent historian has claimed.

Space race expert John Logsdon, a former member of Nasa's Advisory Council and founder of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University, said that in 1961, 10 days after announcing his goal for a manned Moon mission within a decade, Kennedy met with Nikita Khrushchev.

Please log in or register with Independent.ie for free access to this article.

Log In

According to Logsdon, the president invited the leader of the Soviet Union to join forces, but Khrushchev declined, setting up a bitter space race between the two countries that would only end when America succeeded in the mission on July 20, 1969.

Kennedy repeated his offer two years later in September 1963, when the Apollo programme was in danger of cancellation and frosty relations with the Soviet Union following the Bay of Pigs invasion and the Cuban Missile Crisis were beginning to thaw.

That offer was recorded in a long-forgotten speech to the UN, in which JFK said: "There is room for new cooperation, for further joint efforts in the regulation and exploration of space.

"I include among these possibilities a joint expedition to the Moon... Why therefore should man's first flight to the Moon be a matter of national competition? 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 some day in this decade to the Moon not the representatives of a single nation but the representatives of all our countries."

By 1963, Kennedy had ordered a sweeping review of all US space efforts and was considering relaxing the ''end of decade'' deadline or even cancelling Apollo entirely. Logsdon believes the offer to the USSR may have been an effort to cut costs and reduce tensions between the two countries. By that time the Soviets had set up two Moon programmes, and were essentially competing against themselves as well as the US in a chaotic internal space race.

Logsdon said: "Ten days after announcing the Moon mission, Kennedy met Khrushchev and said 'why don't we do it together? Khrushchev said no. I believe Kennedy was serious about that initiative. Others think it was propaganda.

"One of the things that is seldom noticed is that on September 20, 1963, just two months before he was killed, Kennedy went to the United Nations and in his speech to general assembly proposed that the US and USSR cooperate in going to the Moon.

"Khrushchev never formally responded to Kennedy's invitation. But I believe Kennedy was serious about that. If he had lived and Khrushchev had said yes and stayed in power, would Apollo have turned into a cooperative undertaking? Would he have continued to pursue cooperation with the Soviet Union? That's certainly what Kennedy would have liked to see happen. Could he have pulled it off, given the likely political criticism of his initiative in the US? We'll never know.

"Apollo had become a memorial to the fallen young president - and it was his assassination that made it certain that we would carry his goal to put a man on the Moon by the end of the decade."

According to Roger Launius, author of Apollo's Legacy: Perspectives on the Moon Landings, it was only the assassination of the president on November 22, 1963, that stopped Kennedy pursuing a mission with the USSR.

"By the fall of 1963, the international situation had eased so much that Kennedy proposed making the Moon-landing effort a joint programme with the Soviet Union in a September speech to the UN," he said. "It is possible that only Kennedy's assassination on November 22 prevented a joint US-USSR landing from taking place."

However others are less sure that Kennedy was serious about working with the Soviets. Doug Millard, of London's Science Museum who curated the Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age exhibition, said: "I have heard rumours that Kennedy had planned a mission with the USSR but I don't know how seriously we can take it."


Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Editors Choice

Also in World News