September 20

This Day in History

Cold War

Sep 20, 1963:

Kennedy proposes joint mission to the moon

An optimistic and upbeat President John F. Kennedy suggests that the Soviet Union and the United States cooperate on a mission to mount an expedition to the moon. The proposal caught both the Soviets and many Americans off guard.

In 1961, shortly after his election as president, John F. Kennedy announced that he was determined to win the "space race" with the Soviets. Since 1957, when the Soviet Union sent a small satellite--Sputnik--into orbit around the earth, Russian and American scientists had been competing to see who could make the next breakthrough in space travel. Outer space became another frontier in the Cold War. Kennedy upped the ante in 1961 when he announced that the United States would put a man on the moon before the end of the decade. Much had changed by 1963, however. Relations with the Soviet Union had improved measurably. The Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962 had been settled peacefully. A "hot line" had been established between Washington and Moscow to help avert conflict and misunderstandings. A treaty banning the open air testing of nuclear weapons had been signed in 1963. On the other hand, U.S. fascination with the space program was waning. Opponents of the program cited the high cost of the proposed trip to the moon, estimated at more than $20 billion. In the midst of all of this, Kennedy, in a speech at the United Nations, proposed that the Soviet Union and United States cooperate in mounting a mission to the moon. "Why," he asked the audience, "therefore, should man's first flight to the moon be a matter of national competition?" Kennedy noted, "the clouds have lifted a little" in terms of U.S.-Soviet relations, and declared "The Soviet Union and the United States, together with their allies, can achieve further agreements--agreements which spring from our mutual interest in avoiding mutual destruction."

Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko applauded Kennedy's speech and called it a "good sign," but refused to comment on the proposal for a joint trip to the moon. In Washington, there was a good bit of surprise--and some skepticism--about Kennedy's proposal. The "space race" had been one of the focal points of the Kennedy administration when it came to office, and the idea that America would cooperate with the Soviets in sending a man to the moon seemed unbelievable. Other commentators saw economics, not politics, behind the proposal. With the soaring price tag for the lunar mission, perhaps a joint effort with the Soviets was the only way to save the costly program. What might have come of Kennedy's idea is unknown--just two months later, he was assassinated in Dallas, Texas. His successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, abandoned the idea of cooperating with the Soviets but pushed ahead with the lunar program. In 1969, the United States landed a man on the moon, thus winning a significant victory the "space race."

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