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The Space Race

Grade Level

Grades 2-5

Subject Area

Social Studies, ELA, Science

Time Required

60 minutes


This social studies lesson uses the topic of the space race to develop students’ historical thinking skills. By examining an elementary student’s letter to President John F. Kennedy, students will place a primary source document within its historical context and use that information to interpret the source.

Students will place a primary source within its historical context to examine how Cold War tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union turned early space exploration into “the space race.”

Essential Question

How does an historical narrative and timeline help us understand a primary source?


  • Use an historical narrative to interpret the historical context of a primary source.
  • Place historical events in temporal order.
  • Identify and correct spelling and grammatical errors in a primary source document.

Connections to Curriculum (Standards)

National History Standards
Historical Thinking Skills Standard 1 Chronological Thinking
B. Identify the temporal structure of a historical narrative or story.
E. Interpret data presented in time lines.
F. Create time lines.

Massachusetts History and Social Science Curriculum Frameworks

Grade 2 Concepts and Skills: Explain the information that historical timelines convey and then put in chronological order events in the student’s life (e.g., the year he or she was born, started school, or moved to a new neighborhood) or in the history of countries studied. (H)
Grade 5 Concepts and Skills: Interpret timelines of events studied. (H)

Prior Knowledge and Skills

This is a stand-alone lesson and does not require any specialized knowledge or skills. However, it may be useful to introduce the concepts of the Cold War and space exploration by showing students a map of the United States and the former Soviet Union and images of the moon and the first moonwalk.

Historical Background

Early space exploration was fueled, in part, by the Cold War competition between the United States and the Soviet Union. Space was another venue for the two nations to demonstrate technological superiority and leadership.

Americans were shocked when the Soviet Union launched the Sputnik satellite in 1957, intensifying fears that the United States was falling behind the Soviet Union in technology and arms. Although the United States matched the feat with its own satellite a few months later, tensions grew when the Soviets reached another first by launching Yuri Gagarin into orbit on April 12, 1961. Although publicly congratulating the Soviet Union on achieving such a milestone, President Kennedy quickly sought ways to demonstrate American superiority. The solution: send a man to the moon. The President escalated the space program and set the goal to send an astronaut to the moon by the decade’s end.

The two nations continued to mark new achievements, moving closer to the moon with each milestone. The race was on and the question became who would get there first. Ultimately, the United States prevailed. On July 20, 1969, Americans Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, as part of the Apollo 11 mission, became the first men to land a manned spacecraft on the moon and walk on the moon. The Soviet Union never matched the feat, choosing instead to focus on creating technology that supported unmanned moon exploration and developing a space station.

The space race captured the attention of many Americans. To illustrate how some Americans felt about the issue, this lesson features a letter written to President Kennedy by a young girl named Joan Grant. Joan’s letter was written on May 2, 1961, weeks after Yuri Gagarin’s historic flight, although days before Alan Shepard’s suborbital flight. This letter is one of many letters sent to President Kennedy on this topic in the collections of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library. Since the JFK Library does not have additional information about Joan Grant, this lesson models how historians interpret primary sources by using historical context and close textual analysis.


Student Handouts (included in downloadable pdf)

  • Letter to President Kennedy from Joan Grant
  • “The Space Race in the 1960s” narrative
  • Race to the Moon timeline
  • Race to the Moon chronology game


In this lesson, students will read a letter to President Kennedy and hypothesize what they think the letter is about. Then, they will read a short historical narrative and look at a chronology of events related to the topic of the letter. Finally, they will apply this information back to the letter and re-evaluate their understandings of the letter and topic. Additional activities include an ELA extension and a chronology game.

Part I: Letter from Joan Grant

1. To introduce the lesson, tell students that they will be learning about the race to send the first man to the moon and hand out the student packet.

2. Have students read the letter to President Kennedy from Joan Grant either individually, in groups, or as a whole-class read-aloud.

3. After reading the letter, students can answer the questions listed on the handout individually or as a whole-class discussion. It is important to reassure students that they will not know all of the answers and that they may have many questions about Joan’s letter. The second part of this lesson will help address their questions. Have students consider the following:

a. Who was Joan Grant? (We don’t know who she was, but we can look at her handwriting, word choice, and grammar to infer that she was an elementary student. Ask students to think about how old they are and whether or not they would be able to write this letter in the same way. Do they think the letter is written by someone older or younger than they are?)

b. What subject is Joan writing about?

c. Why do you think Joan wrote this letter? (Joan wrote “Secret” at the top of her letter so this is a clue that suggests she might have felt the topic was very important.)

d. What questions do you have about this letter? (This is to help students realize that they are not able to fully understand the letter without additional information. Hopefully, some of their questions will be answered by the end of the lesson, but some of them will not. That is part of the nature of the study of history.)

Part II: Using Historical Context to Understand a Primary Source

1. Now that students have questions about the letter, they will use historical context to answer some of their questions. Have students read the historical narrative “The Space Race in the 1960s” and the accompanying “Race to the Moon” timeline, found in the student packet. This could be done individually, in groups, or as a whole-class read-aloud.

2.After reading the narrative, have students answer a few reading comprehension questions such as:

a. What was the space race?

b. What two nations were involved in the space race?

c. Which nation had early success in the space race?

d. Which nation sent the first man to the moon?

3. Now that students have some background knowledge about the space race in the 1960s, have students go back to Joan’s letter. Using their new knowledge, have students consider the following questions about Joan’s letter:

a. When did Joan write her letter?

b. Name one thing that happened in the space race before Joan wrote her letter.

c. Do you think that event influenced Joan’s letter? If so, why? If not, why not?

d. What is Joan concerned with?

e. Now, after reading about the space race, why do you think Joan wrote the letter? Is this answer different than when you answered this question before you read the historical narrative and looked at the timeline? If so, why?

f. Name one thing that happened in the space race after she wrote her letter.

g. What questions do we still have about Joan’s letter?

(See additional information about the letter below to help students better understand the historical context.)

4. Explain to students that reading the historical narrative helped them to understand what was happening at the time Joan wrote her letter and why Joan might have written what she wrote. However, they may still have questions about her letter. Some of these questions might be answered if they looked at other sources. But some of these questions only Joan could answer and they can’t ask Joan. Sometimes, historians can’t answer all of their questions.

Additional context:

  • Joan writes about a Russian plane that can go 90 days without stopping, but it is unclear what plane she is writing about. In 1961 the United States and the Soviet Union both had planes that could be refueled mid-air. It is possible, but unlikely, that the same Russian plane flew for that length of time. Joan might also be referring to Sputnik. The Russian satellite launched in October 1957 and was in orbit around the earth for 90 days. One other possibility is that she could be referring to Yuri Gagarin’s flight, which happened just weeks prior to her letter. His flight lasted just over 90 minutes. (This is an example of a question about the primary source that is difficult to answer without asking Joan. We can hypothesize about the answer and use evidence to support our hypothesis, but we do not have a definite answer.)
  • Joan’s address is listed on the top of her letter, but the zip code is missing. Although postal codes existed for some large cities at this time, they were not enforced. The zip codes we use today were established in 1963, which was after Joan wrote her letter.
  • Joan’s connection between the space race and Russia suggests that her ideas were shaped within that frame, whether her information and understanding of the issue was shaped by her parents, teachers, friends, or the media. This supports the argument that Americans saw space exploration as not only a scientific achievement but as a competition between the United States and the Soviet Union.

Part III: Chronology

The last page of the student handout consists of a Race to the Moon chronology game. Students can cut out the squares and follow the directions to test their knowledge on the chronology of the space race. Students should use the timeline to check their answers.


Evaluate students’ answers to the questions on the student handout.

Lesson Extension

1. For an English Language Arts lesson extension, have students discuss the audience, purpose, and tone of this letter and think about the elements of a persuasive or advice letter. In addition, students can identify and correct the spelling and grammatical errors in Joan’s letter.

2. For a lesson extension that addresses English Language Arts, current events, and science, have students examine elements of the new space policy presented by President Obama in June 2010. In this policy, President Obama echoes President Kennedy by promoting the idea that the United States should dedicate some of its resources to manned exploration of other destinations, such as an asteroid or Mars. Differing, however, from previous administrations, this new policy places an emphasis on international cooperation and collaboration in space. After learning about this policy, students could replicate Joan’s effort and write their own letter to the president advising him on how to move forward in space.