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When Lyndon Johnson assumed the presidency after Kennedy's assassination, he continued the push for space exploration, but he shifted the focus of the American struggle for "leadership in space."  While Johnson maintained the position that the U.S. and the Soviet Union were racing for technological dominance, he was the first president to publicly "[take] personal responsibility for making sure that the U.S. did not fall behind" in the space race.[10]  Johnson also emphasized the importance of "technological achievement, scientific discoveries, commercial applications, domestic political benefits, economic stimulus, and military insurance."[11]  His administration approached the space program with a similar level of energy to that of Kennedy's administration.

At the same time, and in slight contrast to this position, however, Johnson often spoke of images of "peace and peaceful exploration…commonality, unity, and humanity" in his speeches.[12]  Krug attributes this softening of America's competitive edge to the new photographs of Earth available.  For the first time, humans could see the Earth from space; this new perspective helped to ease in some people (especially Johnson) the perceived differences of nationality.  Therefore, an alternative arose to the traditional "us vs. them" model of geopolitics in Johnson's rhetoric.[13]

Apollo 11 Lift-off - Click HERE to hear Apollo 11's Countdown to Lift-OffHowever, in other ways the competition between the U.S. and the USSR was still very real.  On July13, 1969 at 5:55 AM Moscow time, the Luna 15 mission blasted off from the Soviet Union's space base.  The Soviets timed the liftoff, Americans discovered, so that Luna would land on the moon just as Apollo 11 was taking off from Earth—if everything went as planned.[14]  This continuing element of competition kept the public's attention riveted: Historian Robert Reeves commented, "the fantastic story of the first manned landing on the moon was exciting, but the race with the Russian mystery ship made the adventure even more thrilling."[15]  Besides all this, the news media soon discovered that the Soviet government declined to comment on Luna 15.  This element of secrecy heightened everyone's excitement.[16]

The Russian Luna 15 mission ended up failing to land on the moon, though the Soviet government never announced this (in keeping with the policy of secrecy they were pursuing).  Had this mission succeeded in beating the Americans to the moon, it would undoubtedly have been "a Soviet scientific triumph and a political embarrassment for the United States."[17]

Fortunately for the U.S., Apollo 11 landed on the moon on July 20, with Luna 15 nowhere in sight.  The entire country was elated, and the fact that the U.S. had so narrowly beaten the Soviets to glory fed the excitement.  "After twelve years of cosmic competition," observed Reeves, "American astronauts walked on the moon and claimed the political and scientific lunar prize as a Soviet mystery ship circled overhead."[18]  Americans were captivated with the triumph of American achievement. 

Man on the Moon - Click HERE to hear Neil Armstrong on the MoonThe July 21, 1969 issue of The New York Times reflects the degree to which this event pervaded American consciousness.  Though sometimes controversial, everyone agreed that the moment was of great historical significance.  With an entire section devoted to the mission and the largest front-page headline in history, the Times was filled with news and commentary about the space flight.  Included among the articles were an essay "comparing [the] nation's ability to send men to the moon with its failure to solve its domestic problems."[19]  Another article cited "the [19]66 treaty stipulating that [the] moon could be freely explored and used by all nations, [and the hope that] such accord will be reached between the U.S. and the USSR on Earth."[20]  Yet another was a poem by Stanley Kunitz on the Apollo 11 mission and the flight to the moon.[21]  Evidently, the first manned mission to the moon captured the imaginations of all Americans.  Though it may have inspired controversy, everyone paid attention.

by Leah Krauss

[1] Information Bank Abstracts, New York Times, July 20, 1969.

[2] Information Bank Abstracts, New York Times, July 21, 1969.

[3] Astronauts Hall of Fame ~ Online! -

[4] ibid.

[5] Linda T. Krug, Presidential Perspectives on Space Exploration: Guiding Metaphors from Eisenhower to Bush (New York: Praeger, 1991), 30.

[6] Krug, 31.

[7] Ibid., 32.

[8] Ibid., 36.

[9] Cass Schichtle, The National Space Program: From the Fifties into the Eighties (Washington, DC: National Defense University Press, 1983), 62.

[10] Krug, 40.

[11] Schichtle, 66.

[12] Krug, 37. 

[13] Ibid.

[14] Robert Reeves, The Superpower Space Race: An Explosive Rivalry Through the Solar System (New York: Plenum Press, 1994), 138.

[15] Reeves, 138.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.,139.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Information Bank Abstracts, New York Times, July 21, 1969

[20] Information Bank Abstracts.

[21] Information Bank Abstracts.

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