The Space Race between the United States and Soviet Russia was one of the greatest rivalries of the 20th century. From 1955 to 1972 these two superpowers battled each other for supremacy in space flight technologies, with each country launching multiple satellites and manned missions into space.   The ultimate goal of both countries was to put a man on the Moon,  which the U.S. successfully did on July 20th, 1969.  This image shows the immense rivalry between the United States and Soviet Russia.

On September 12th, 1962 at Rice Stadium, President John F. Kennedy gave one of his most famous speeches and possibly one of the greatest space speeches ever given. Towards the end of his speech he quoted the famous mountaineer George Mallory.  “Many years ago the great British explorer George Mallory, who was to die on Mount Everest, was asked why did he want to climb it. He said, “Because it is there.”Well, space is there, and we’re going to climb it, and the moon and the planets are there, and new hopes for knowledge and peace are there. And, therefore, as we set sail we ask God’s blessing on the most hazardous and dangerous and greatest adventure on which man has ever embarked.” It was Kennedy’s leadership skills that exited the American public and sparked their interest in the Pace Race.The Space Race was one of the most significant events in U.S. and world History. Many things such as science, global economy and global relations were affected during this time period, but one thing that is overlooked is the effect of the Space Race on American Politics. The space race impacted the presidencies of Eisenhower and Kennedy in many ways, such as the questioning of President Eisenhower’s assertiveness after the Soviet’s launched Sputnik. This paper explores the idea by analyzing historical documents, newspaper articles, journals and books to directly show how the Space Race impacted the presidencies of Eisenhower and Kennedy.


An article I read by John Swaine was written to give an insiders view of what was going on inside the White House during the time period of the Space Race. This article was written around a series of more than 260 hours worth of  Kennedy’s Presidential recordings which are currently being reviewed by the Kennedy Presidential Library. Towards the end of Presidents Kennedy’s life he feared that the Space Race was “loosing its glamor”. Kennedy hoped that the Soviets would ramp up their efforts and once again excite the American public and re spark their interest in the Space Race. He also feared that he was spending “a hell of a lot of dough to go to the Moon” and that U.S. citizens  would only see the Space Program as a money wasting stunt. Kennedy continued his public promotion of NASA, during a speech the day before he was killed he said “This nation has tossed its cap over the wall of space, and we have no choice but to follow it. Whatever the difficulties, they will be overcome. Whatever the hazards, they must be guarded against.”

Kennedy made it an important matter to keep the Space Race a “race” meaning that the United States must try to stay ahead of Russian advancements and that the U.S. must never work with the soviets on any aspect of the race. On September 20th 1963 Kennedy contradicted everything he had stated about human space flight being a race by offering a proposal in front of the U.N. for the United States and Russia to join forces on a mission to the moon. The American public, the media and the world became deeply confused by this proposal. The affects of Kennedy proposal on his presidency were instantly felt, support for the space program by the public decreased significantly.

Another written source of information I came across was from a book titled Eisenhower’s Sputnik Moment: The Race For Space and The World by Yanek Mieczkowski. The authors main argument centers around the launch of the the Soviet satellite Sputnik in October of 1957. Sputnik was launched during the same time that President Eisenhower was in office and it had a great deal of affect on his presidency. The launching of Sputnik changed the course of Eisenhower’s presidential career and helped define his legacy. The author argues that the launch of Sputnik created and intensified questions about Eisenhower’s presidency and put to question his assertiveness as president. The issue of Eisenhower’s assertiveness became a main topic in many newspaper and political debates.

The author also makes three main points throughout the book. One point being that Sputnik tested Eisenhower’s leadership ability during its existence.  Number two being that the creation of NASA and its sister institution the Advanced Research Project Agency (ARPA) were the results of Eisenhower trying to reassert the United States military and space superiority and the final one being the Space Race itself, saying that Eisenhower’s response to Sputnik ended with many impressive achievements by the U.S.

A book titled The Sputnik Moment backs up the questioning of Eisenhower’s assertiveness by stating that the launching of sputnik sparked a  uproar of Democratic Senators saying that not enough funding was put into national defense, that Eisenhower had neglected this vital necessity for the safety of the United States and that Sputnik was a “devastating blow to the prestige of the United States as the leader in the scientific and technical world”. In return the Eisenhower administration tried to minimize the significance of the Sputnik  launch





The author of the article “Race, Gender and Space Exploration: A Chapter in the Social History of the Space Age” from the Journal of American Studies argues that not much was written about the social history of the American space program. Most historical documents focus on the scientific and technological aspects of the race and the social aspect was overshadowed. Little is known about how political thoughts and actions from presidential leaders of the time affected changes in the social structure of the U.S. such as women’s rights, civil rights and environmentalism. One historic detail is the firing of Ruth Bates from her position at NASA. Bates was the highest ranking women in the NASA program. Her termination was an indication that NASA’s equal opportunity program put in to affect by Nixon was a “near total failure”. Another historical detail was NASA’s lack of a civil rights program in employment, even though a majority of its research centers were in segregated black states. The final historical detail is NASA’s decision to change its standings with women and minorities. They did this by press releasing an announcement that Ruth Bates would once again be hired by NASA, becoming the new Directory of Equal Employments.

The article “Kennedy Asks 1.8 Billion This Year to Accelerate Space Exploration, Add Foreign Aid, Bolster Defense” was written by W. H. Lawrence and was published on May 26th, 1961 by The New York Times. The intended audience of the article was the general American public and countries in which the New York Times was circulated. The general American public and residents of other countries could be of any gender, race or socioeconomic class possible compared to the author W. H. Lawrence who is a white, upper class male writing for the New York Times.The historical context in which the article was written and read was during the height of the space race between the United States and the Soviets. The purpose of the article is to inform the reader about the budget of the space program and how President Kennedy is dealing with it and growing concerns from the public on the expense of the program. This article supports my thesis because it shows the growing lack of support from the American Public to fund the space program which puts strain on President Kennedy to keep their support.

The Space Race between the Soviet Union and the United States had a great deal of affect on American Politics. The presidencies of Eisenhower and Kennedy were put under great strain during this intense rivalry between theses two world super powers. Eisenhower assertiveness was questioned after the Soviet launching of their Sputnik Satellite. President Kennedy had to keep morale and support for the Space Race afloat when the American public question the purpose, necessity and budget for the en devour. the affect of the Space Race on American Politics is often greatly overlooked even though it was majorly impacted because of it.




The Space Race and ICBMs

Space Race Photo Gallery, Taken 1962

NASA Ousts Top Black Women

Man on Threshold of Space Travel, October 5th, 1967


Works Cited:

Swaine, John. “JFK longed for the Soviets to spice up the space race; More competition from U.S.S.R. would have made program easier to sell.” The Vancouver Sun, May 26, 2011

Mieczowski, Yanex. Eisenhower’s Sputnik Moment: The Race For Space and The World. New York: Cornell University Press, 2013

NASA. “John F. Kennedy Moon Speech – Rice Stadium.” Accessed September 21st, 2014.

McQuaid, Kim. “Race, Gender, and Space Exploration: A Chapter in the Social History of the Space Age.” Journal of American Studies 41, no. 2 (2007): 405-343

Lawrence, W. H. “Kennedy Asks 1.8 Billion This Year to Accelerate Space Exploration, Add Foreign Aid, Bolster Defense” New York Times, May 26th, 1961

Divine, Robert. “The Sputnik Challenge” New York: Oxford University Press, 1993

Kay, W. D. “Problem Definitions and Policy Contradictions: John F. Kennedy and the “Space Race” Wiley Online Journal, March 25th, 2003