The Death of President Kennedy and the Loss of a Dream

Written by Frank White.

Worldwide, we are mourning the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s death. Much was lost that day, but sadly, few people know that the possibility of a global space program and, potentially, the beginning of the end of the Cold War, was also cut short.

President Kennedy and the Dream of Space

In doing research for my book, The New Camelot, I discovered that while President Kennedy supported Apollo as a race to the moon against the Soviet Union, he was also reaching out to the Soviet leaders, trying to make the lunar landing a joint mission. In the aftermath of the Cuban Missile Crisis, he began to make progress. Although they had initially rebuffed Kennedy, the Russians began to indicate a degree of interest in the idea.
In September of 1963, the president made a bold speech to the United Nations, in which he went even further, suggesting that Apollo be a multinational effort:
Finally, in a field where the United States and the Soviet Union have a special capacity…there is room for new cooperation, for further joint efforts in the regulation and exploration of space. I include among these possibilities a joint expedition to the moon. Why…should man’s first flight to the moon be a matter of national competition? Why should the United States and the Soviet Union, in preparing for such expeditions, become involved in immense duplications of research, construction, and expenditure? Surely we should explore whether the scientists and astronauts of our two countries—indeed of all the world—cannot work together in the conquest of space, sending someday in this decade to the moon not the representatives of a single nation, but the representatives of all of our countries. (1)
On November 12 of that year, just a few days before his death, Kennedy sent a memo to NASA director James Webb, asking him to begin laying plans for joint US/USSR space efforts:
I would like you to assume personally the initiative and central responsibility within the Government of a program of substantive cooperation with the Soviet Union the field of outer space, including the development of specific technical proposals. (2)
In hindsight, it is clear that the president was looking for numerous ways to begin unwinding the Cold War. Cooperation in space was one that showed great promise. In his seminal speech at American University in June of 1963, he had begun to reveal his “strategy for peace” and a new direction for relations between the world’s two superpowers.
The Apollo program still had a profound impact on the world, giving us a view of the whole Earth as seen by astronauts for the first time, and we should continue to honor President Kennedy for that alone.
Moreover, international cooperation on the high frontier is indeed happening today, but it could have been in place much sooner and would be far more robust if President Kennedy had lived.  We could have the “Human Space Program” that was proposed in The Overview Effect: Space Exploration and Human Evolution. (3)
For this reason, I would like to propose that the cupola of the International Space Station, from which astronauts are able to have such a profound experience of the Overview Effect, be named for President John F. Kennedy. Every astronaut from every nation using the ISS will then be reminded of the contribution the president made to space exploration, environmental awareness, and world peace.
F. White, The New Camelot, Kindle Book, 2010.
F. White, The Overview Effect: Space Exploration and Human Evolution, AIAA, 1998.