History Stories


Watch JFK Tour NASA 6 Days Before His Assassination

Although he was not alive to see it happen, getting an American to the moon was John F. Kennedy's ultimate dream.

History Flashback takes a look at historical “found footage” of all kinds—newsreels, instructional films, even cartoons—to give us a glimpse into how much things have changed, and how much has remained the same.

On October 4, 1957, the USSR launched the first satellite into space. As Sputnik—which means “traveler” in Russian—began its orbit around the earth, the realities of the new age it heralded set in.

Sputnik was partly a provocation. In the midst of the deadly tensions of the Cold War, it was proof that the Russians had successfully developed intercontinental ballistic missiles and that they were—at least for the moment—winning the arms race between the two nations. But it was also a resounding success for humankind. As a New York Times report noted, it was a “step toward escape from man’s imprisonment to earth and its thin envelope of atmosphere, and opened new vistas of knowledge and travel in space.”

Three years later, John F. Kennedy was sworn in as the 35th President of the United States. Before his presidency was tragically cut short, Kennedy embraced the hope of this “new vista of knowledge” and rallied the country around the challenge and possibilities of exploring the skies above.

Kennedy Sets His Sights on the Moon:

The start of 1961 was a tough one for the U.S. The Soviets had not only beaten the country in the race to launch a satellite into space, but in April, they also sent the first man into orbit around the Earth. The next month, Alan Shepard became the first American in space, but he merely reached it on that first flight. He didn’t orbit the planet.

Kennedy knew that the country needed a major pep talk. So he devised an impressive goal that all Americans could rally around. On May 25, 1961, he challenged the United States to beat the Soviet Union to the moon before the decade was out. He put his money where his mouth was, not only restoring the budget for the space program—it had previously been cut—but actually increasing it in line with the new national goals.

“For the eyes of the world now look into space…and we have vowed that we shall not see it governed by a hostile flag of conquest,” Kennedy said later in a 1962 speech at Rice University. He famously added, “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.”

A Space Race for Peace:

The space race was one of the defining features of the Cold War, and Kennedy wasted no opportunity to champion his goals for the country in this competition. But, behind the public rhetoric, what Kennedy really hoped was that he could use this new frontier to encourage the two countries to come together in collaboration rather than aggression.

In 1961, Kennedy and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev attended a summit in Vienna in which Kennedy first proposed that the two countries jointly attempt a lunar landing. The rival leader ultimately declined the offer. Two years later at the United Nations, Kennedy once again suggested cooperation over competition. The Soviet representative said the president’s speech was a “good sign,” but that’s as far as he went. Just two short months later, and only six days after Kennedy toured Cape Canaveral for the last time, the President was assassinated.
On July 20, 1969, Kennedy’s dream came true. After the first American astronauts landed on the moon, an anonymous visitor placed flowers and a note on his grave that read, “Mr. President, the Eagle has landed.”

If All Else Fails, Try Puppy Diplomacy

Kennedy’s dream of space collaboration between the Russians and Americans may not have been realized, but not all interactions between the two countries were adversarial.

In August of 1961, two Soviet envoys unexpectedly arrived at the White House with a puppy in tow. When Kennedy wondered why he was being gifted with a dog, his wife Jackie confessed that during a dinner party earlier that summer, she had been seated next to Khrushchev and she ran out of things to say. So, she found herself asking the leader of the Soviet Union if it would be possible for the Kennedys to get a puppy birthed from one of the first dogs the Soviets had sent into space.

Khrushchev delivered and the puppy Pushinka became the newest resident of the White House. In his thank you note, Kennedy wrote to Khrushchev that “her flight from the Soviet Union to the United States was not as dramatic as the flight of her mother, nevertheless, it was a long voyage and she stood it well.” After a canine romance with the Kennedy’s other dog, Charlie, Pushinka gave birth to four puppies of her own. The President nicknamed them “the pupniks.”

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