In 1961, President John F. Kennedy began a dramatic expansion of the U.S. space program and committed the nation to the ambitious goal of landing a man on the moon by the end of the decade.

In 1957, the Soviet Union launched the satellite Sputnik, and the space race was on. The Soviets' triumph jarred the American people and sparked a vigorous response in the federal government to make sure the United States did not fall behind its Communist rival.

A new space program, Project Mercury, was initiated two years later, during President Dwight D. Eisenhower's administration. Seven men were selected to take part in the program: Scott Carpenter, Leroy Gordon Cooper, John Glenn Jr., Virgil "Gus" Grissom, Walter Schirra Jr., Alan Shepard Jr., and Donald "Deke" Slayton. Project Mercury's goals were to orbit a manned spacecraft around Earth, investigate the ability of astronauts to function in space, and recover astronauts and spacecraft safely.

Then, in 1961, the nation suffered another shock when Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first man to orbit the Earth. The United States, it seemed, was still falling behind.

President Kennedy's Challenge

President Kennedy understood the need to restore America's confidence and intended not merely to match the Soviets, but surpass them. On May 25, 1961, he stood before Congress to deliver a special message on "urgent national needs." He asked for an additional $7 billion to $9 billion over the next five years for the space program, proclaiming that "this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before the decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth." President Kennedy settled upon this dramatic goal as a means of focusing and mobilizing the nation's lagging space efforts. Skeptics questioned the ability of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to meet the president's timetable. Within a year, however, Alan Shepard and Gus Grissom became the first two Americans to travel into space.

An American in Orbit

On February 20, 1962, John Glenn Jr. became the first American to orbit Earth. Launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida, the Friendship 7 capsule carrying Glenn reached a maximum altitude of 162 miles and an orbital velocity of 17,500 miles per hour. After more than four hours in space, having circled the earth three times, Glenn piloted the Friendship 7 back into the atmosphere and landed in the Atlantic Ocean near Bermuda.

Glenn's success helped inspire the great army of people working to reach the Moon. Medical researchers, engineers, test pilots, machinists, factory workers, businessmen, and industrialists from across the country worked together to achieve this goal. By May 1963, astronauts Scott Carpenter, Walter Schirra Jr., and L. Gordon Cooper had also orbited Earth. Each mission lasted longer than the one before and gathered more data.

To the Moon

As space exploration continued through the 1960s, the United States was on its way to the Moon. Project Gemini was the second NASA spaceflight program. Its goals were to perfect the entry and re-entry maneuvers of a spacecraft and conduct further tests on how individuals are affected by long periods of space travel. The Apollo Program followed Project Gemini. Its goal was to land humans on the moon and assure their safe return to Earth. On July 20, 1969, the Apollo 11 astronauts—Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins, and Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin Jr.—realized President Kennedy's dream.

Senator Smathers of Florida and President Kennedy at Cape Canaveral, Florida, 16 November 1963 

1962-09-12 Rice University

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1998 Interview with US Senator John Glenn

ST-A13-60-62  President Kennedy inspects the interior of the Friendship 7 Mercury capsule with Astronaut Col. John Glenn, Jr.

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JFK Exchange with NASA on Priority of Moon Landing

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Freedom 7 Space Capsule Special Exhibit

Launch of the Mercury MR-3 Space Capsule Freedom 7

Learn about our special installation featuring Freedom 7, the iconic space capsule that US Navy Commander Alan B. Shepard Jr. piloted on the first American manned flight into space.

Space Gallery

John Glenn being inserted into the Friendship 7 spacecraft

View photographs featuring JFK's space program in this media gallery.