Kennedy's Quest: Leadership in Space

Students do a close reading of four primary sources related to the US Space Program in 1961, analyzing how and why public statements made by the White House regarding space may have differed from private statements made within the Kennedy administration.

About this Resource

Grade Level
Time Required
1-2 hours
Curricular Resource Type
Lesson Plans & Activities
Curricular Resource Subject Area
US History
Curricular Resource Topic
The Cold War
Curricular Standards
Common Core
C3 Framework for Social Studies
National History Standards (UCLA)
National Council of Teachers of English
Massachusetts Framework - English Language Arts
Massachusetts Framework - History and Social Science

Download this lesson plan, including handouts, as a PDF.


Topics:The Cold War; Space


Subject Area:US History

Time Required:1–2 hours

Goals/Rationale:The decision by the Kennedy Administration to make a manned lunar landing the major goal of the US space program derived from political as well as scientific motivations. In this lesson plan, students do a close reading of four primary sources related to the US space program in 1961, analyzing how and why public statements made by the White House regarding space may have differed from private statements made within the Kennedy Administration.

Essential Questions: How was the "Space Race" connected to the Cold War? How and why might the White House communicate differently in public and in private? How might the Administration garner support for their policy?


Students will be able to:

  • analyze primary sources, considering the purpose of the source, the audience, and the occasion.
  • analyze the differences in the tone or content of the primary sources.
  • explain the Kennedy Administration’s arguments for putting a human on the Moon by the end of the 1960s.


Prior Knowledge and Skills

Students should have general background knowledge of Cold War tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union.

Historical Background and Context

After World War II, the United States and its allies, and the Soviet Union and its satellite states began a decades-long struggle for supremacy known as the Cold War. Soldiers of the Soviet Union and the United States did not do battle directly during the Cold War. But the two superpowers continually antagonized each other through political maneuvering, military coalitions, espionage, propaganda, arms buildups, economic aid, and proxy wars between other nations. Achievements in space by either country were seen as signs of technological superiority.

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 believed the United States needed to restore America's confidence and intended not merely to match the Soviets in space, but surpass them. On May 25, 1961, he stood before a joint session of 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.

To achieve this end, Congress appropriated the funding for NASA’s Apollo lunar landing program. It took eight years of work and sacrifice, including the loss of three astronauts in a fire aboard Apollo 1, but President Kennedy’s goal was finally achieved on July 20, 1969 when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first men to walk on the Moon as part of the Apollo 11 mission.


(All materials included in the downloadable PDF.)


  1. For homework, have students read the following items and answer the accompanying questions in Handout A.
  • The Kennedy Administration and the "Space Race"
  • April 12, 1961 telegram from President Kennedy to Premier Khrushchev
  • April 20, 1961 memo from President Kennedy to Vice President Johnson
  1. In class, go over the answers to the homework questions, focusing on the public and private nature of the communications.
  2. Split students into groups of 3-4, providing each group with Vice President Johnson’s April 28, 1961 memo to President Kennedy. Tell students we do not know who marked up the document—that these were the original markings of the document in the President’s Office Files. Have students answer the following questions (Handout B):

a. How does Vice President Johnson connect the "Space Race" with the Cold War?

[Answers might include: Johnson notes that other countries “will tend to align themselves with the country which they believe will be the world leader”—and major achievements in space are identified as a sign of world leadership.]

b. Why does Vice President Johnson think the US should devote significant resources to boost American achievement in space?

[Answers might include: Not only do we need to show other countries our strength and leadership through space achievements, but we may miss “great technological breakthroughs” if we do not invest in space.]

c. Based on this memo, what are some main points you might include in a speech that JFK could give to Congress in order to get them to appropriate enough funds for a manned Moon mission? Have students write these as bullet points.

[Answers might include:

  • Major achievements in space are identified as a sign of world leadership.
  • Our prestige in the world is tied to technological accomplishments.
  • We are currently not putting in the full effort or achieving the results we need to become the world leader in space—but we have the resources to do so.
  • Though we are currently behind the Soviets in space accomplishments, we are determined to move ahead.
  • We need to allocate more resources towards the space program as soon as possible.
  • We have a chance of putting a person on the Moon by 1966 or 1967, if we put in the resources and effort.
  • Technological breakthroughs are possible as we work on sending a person to the Moon.
  • We already have some proficiency in “communications satellites, meteorological and weather satellites, and navigation and mapping satellites”—and we may be able to surpass the Soviets in these areas.
  • The cost for a manned lunar mission and for additional work on our satellites would increase current funding for NASA by about $1 billion a year over 10 years.]
  1. Reassemble as a class and discuss the responses, noting the students’ bullet points on a white board.
  2. Distribute the textual excerpt from President Kennedy’s Special Message to the Congress on Urgent National Needs, May 25, 1961.
  3. Play the audio excerpt of JFK’s speech (beginning at 30:48 to 38:47) and have students take notes on which of their suggested bullet points were used by the President. Tell them they will use their notes for a homework assignment.

For homework, have students write a 1-2 page essay that compares the language Vice President Johnson used in his April 28, 1961 memo with President Kennedy’s May 25, 1961 speech to Congress, including answers to these questions (Handout C):

How are the arguments similar?

[Answers might include:

Both primary sources discuss how leadership in space is seen as a sign of world leadership and will impact how other nations view the US.

Both mention that the US has not made a concerted effort to take a leading role in space, but we need to do so now. Both mention that our country possesses the resources and talents necessary to be leaders in space. Both discuss the importance of the goal of putting a human on the Moon before the end of the decade.

Both discuss the significant monetary costs of space exploration, but maintain it is necessary to start appropriating funds as soon as possible.]

What are some differences between the private memo and the public speech?

[Answers might include:

Johnson mentions that manned exploration of the Moon is an achievement “with great propaganda value.” Kennedy does not use the word propaganda in his speech.

Johnson states that a manned trip to the Moon might be accomplished by 1966 or 1967. Kennedy says it can be done by the end of the decade.

Johnson mentions that the cost for a lunar landing would average approximately an additional $1 billion dollar per year over the next ten years. Kennedy says it will cost an estimated $7-9 billion additional dollars over the next 5 years.

Johnson mentions that “the American public should be given the facts as to how we stand in the space race, told of our determination to lead in that race, and advised of the importance of such leadership to our future.” Kennedy goes a step further in his speech, noting that the decision to move ahead with major investments in money and effort must be made by “every citizen of this country as well as the Members of the Congress,” noting that if we are not prepared to bear the burden to make this manned lunar landing venture successful, we should not move forward.]

How might the purpose, the audience, and the occasion have impacted the content of these primary sources?

[Answers might include:

Johnson’s memo is private and for the President’s eyes so that he can make some decisions. Kennedy’s address is for the Congress and the American people, and is intended to garner support for significantly increasing spending on space. Johnson’s assertion that the space program has “propaganda value” would not be a good way to “sell” the American people on something that would be economically burdensome. However, telling the Congress (and American people) that the choice of a strong commitment to space discovery is in their hands, and they must be part of the decision-making on whether or not to go ahead with this venture, would be an excellent way to get “buy in” from members of Congress.]

Connections to Curriculum (Standards)

National History Standards

  • US History, Era 9: Postwar United States (1945 to early 1970s)
    Standard 3: Domestic policies after World War II
  • World History - Era 9: The 20th Century Since 1945: Promises and Paradoxes
    Standard 1: How post-World War II reconstruction occurred, new international power relations took shape, and colonial empires broke up

Common Core State Standards

  • ELA College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Reading, Writing, Speaking and Listening, and Language
  • ELA – Reading Informational Texts, Writing, Speaking and Listening, Language, and Literacy in History/Social Studies for grades 9-10 and 11-12

C3 Framework for Social Studies State Standards

  • Discipline 2 - Applying disciplinary concepts and tools (History)
  • Discipline 4 - Communicating conclusions and taking informed action

National English Language Standards (NCTE) 1, 3, 5, 6

Massachusetts History and Social Science Framework

  • USII.T5: United States and globalization

Massachusetts English Language Arts Framework

  • Reading, Writing, Speaking and Listening, and Language