Kennedy’s Speech Was a Preview of the Future of Space Exploration

On September 20, 1963, President John F. Kennedy gave a speech before the General Assembly of the United Nations in which he called for the United States and the Soviet Union to cooperate on a program to send the first humans to the moon. Fifty years later, that idea sounds somewhat curious to us; but, in reality, it was a prognostication of what was actually to come.

Originally, Kennedy had been a firm advocate of the U.S. going it alone to achieve history’s greatest feat of exploration. Just two years earlier, he had given a very different speech that had roused the public during the height of the “space race” with the Soviets. “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard,” he argued.

Yet, in his 1963 speech, Kennedy proposed that the two world superpowers cooperate in mounting “a joint expedition” to the moon. “Why should the United States and the Soviet Union, in preparing for such expeditions, become involved in immense duplications of research, construction, and expenditure?” It was a controversial stance to take in the middle of the Cold War; but it was realistic (even the Soviets thought so).

As we all know, history intervened two months later, and the notion of major nations cooperating to share their engineering and scientific expertise in space would have to be shelved for years. Eventually, though, Kennedy’s more clear-eyed stance on space exploration became the model for international efforts in the “high frontier.” First, the Americans and Soviets cooperated on a project called Skylab (one of the world’s first space stations) in 1973, which was quickly followed by the joint Apollo-Soyuz mission of 1975. Then they opened participation to all willing nation’s in 1993 with the announcement of the International Space Station (ISS).

Today, we still have individual nation’s making major strides in mastering the technology needed for manned spaceflight, but we also have many programs in which a variety of countries (and even private enterprises) work together to get things done up there, such as equipping the ISS. And this is likely to be the favored model for most future spaceflight breakthroughs going forward.

We were thinking about all this, because the folks here at Behlman have had some small measure of participation in the U.S. space program. Several years ago, we supplied some of the power supplies used to test the electronics associated with the launch rocket.

All these decades later, space exploration still has the power to fascinate us, as well as to remind us that we all share a very small planet.

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