The Dark Side of the Moon

John Kennedy’s commitment to put a man on the Moon in the 1960s is often quoted as an inspired civic vision. Gerard DeGroot sees the reality somewhat differently.

30k USSR postage stamp depicting Sputnik 1The Soviet launch of Sputnik on October 4th, 1957, plunged the American people into black despair. In one dramatic stroke, the Russians had undermined the credibility of the United States as a modern, dynamic nation. Worse still, it seemed that if the Russians could put a satellite into orbit, they could surely fire intercontinental ballistic missiles at American cities with deadly accuracy, a point made repeatedly by Senator Lyndon Johnson, the Democratic frontrunner in the race for the presidency. He warned his fellow Americans that, if they did not wake up to the problem, before long the Russians ‘will be dropping bombs on us from space like kids dropping rocks onto cars from freeway overpasses’.

A few days later, when rockets were on everyone’s mind, Senator John Kennedy was enjoying a drink at Boston’s Loch Ober Café. The bartender introduced him to Charles ‘Doc’ Draper, a physics professor at Massachusetts Institute of Tech­nology (MIT) who specialized in rocket guidance. Kennedy got into a good-natured argument with Draper about the value of rockets. While he accepted that they had some practical uses, like propelling nuclear weapons, the idea of exploring space seemed to him a fantasy suitable only for comic books.

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