A Space Race of Cooperation?

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The Moon had been hovering in the heavens, minding its own mysterious business, almost since the Dawn of Time. For thousands of years it quietly served human civilization as an object of superstition, worship, chronology, poetry, and various other pursuits, before it gradually became an object of science and politics. Even though the Moon had that come and gaze on me look in its monthly phases and that come and discover me look in its gleaming fullness, being vastly closer to Earth than any other celestial object, it was only at the beginning of the 20th century that human civilization seriously considered landing a man on its timelessly inviting surface.

In July of 1969, after nearly a decade of technological trial and technological error, a rivalry of mixed ideological, political and militaristic maneuverings, directly and indirectly aimed toward global supremacy, the Space Race had reached its climax. America was the winner by default over the Soviet Union and would land the first human beings on the lunar surface: the Moon shone brightly across the USA all through that distant summer of over forty years ago.

President Kennedy’s proclamation 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 the earth” reverberated throughout the turbulent Sixties. Everything that NASA attempted and/ or achieved was based on this goal and gave America a feeling of pride in believing that some sort of magnificent future awaited humankind despite the imminent less-than-magnificent present-day realities. Ironically, the man most responsible for inspiring the Space Age was, privately, far less inspired by space himself.

“I’m not that interested in space” he flatly told NASA chief James Webb in late 1962. He said this during a meeting at the White House eighteen months after his historic proposal to the nation of achieving the very goal that, effectively, promulgated two ventures: the scientifically-based Space Age and the politically-based Space Race. In short (and, arguably, in fact), Kennedy was apparently interested in space exploration only for its political advantages. Indeed, even when space exploration began in earnest, as the world marveled at the Mercury Seven and Project Mercury, JFK had other plans. During a September 20, 1963 address before the 18th General Assembly of the United Nations, he made a startling proposal:

Finally, in a field where the United States and the Soviet Union have a special capacity—in the field of space—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. Space offers no problems of sovereignty; by resolution of this Assembly, the members of the United Nations have foresworn any claim to territorial rights in outer space or on celestial bodies, and declared that international law and the United Nations Charter will apply. 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 someday in this decade to the moon not the representatives of a single nation, but the representatives of all of our countries. Space Review

In a day and age when the Cold War was forever on the verge of getting hot (as it had during the Cuban Missile Crisis), nations that weren’t with us were against us was boldly written on the walls of the Pentagon; since the war hawk logic was that America could win any war anywhere in the world with a sufficient supply of men and weaponry, Kennedy’s proposal would have been regarded with extreme disfavor if not utter disdain. Many corporations and governmental departments had a lot invested in keeping the Cold War cold and their profits hot, as well as having still more riding on the rockets that were soaring into space. Kennedy’s idiosyncrasies would have greatly diminished these profits and, hence, could have jeopardized his presidency…or worse.

We’ll probably never know the specific reasons for Kennedy’s apathy towards space exploration or the reason for his envisioned joint USA / USSR Moon mission. Did he feel that the Space Age, while exhilarating for Americans was merely a Space Race and, consequently, an extension of the Nuclear Arms Race. Kennedy had foreseen that the venture would be extremely expensive (as it indeed was) and this alone may have concerned him. (Money wasn’t always the abstract hilarity it was to become.)

In 1964, Kennedy advisor Ted Sorenson, though unfamiliar with this particular space issue, stated: “He wished to find ways to spend less money on the program and to cut out the fat which he was convinced was in the budget. How much that motivated his offer to the Russians, though, I don’t know.”

After the excitement of Apollo 11 died away, the Moon slowly but surely became less interesting for nearly everyone and soon returned to its timeless routine of hovering in the heavens and minding its own mysterious business.

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