By Marshall Garvey
When the history of the U.S. space program is recounted, most people tend to give the lion’s share of credit for its success to Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson. After all, it was Kennedy who promised to put a man on the moon by the end of the 1960’s in his inaugural address, and Johnson who continued to support that vision. In 1962, during Kennedy’s second year in office, John Glenn became the first American astronaut in orbit, just one year after Russia sent Yuri Gagarin. President Johnson, afterward, oversaw critical developments such as the Gemini astronaut operations. Indeed, there is now a space center named after him near Houston in his home state of Texas.
However, the very origins of America’s interstellar efforts can be largely credited to the advocacy of Richard Nixon. After the Soviet Union launched the Sputnik satellite in 1957, many debated whether or not it was crucial for the U.S. to even challenge them in the midst of the Cold War. As Vice President, Nixon passionately argued in favor of answering the challenge posed by the Soviets, and eventually the Eisenhower Administration agreed to fund space research.
Even then, there was still the issue of who would run the U.S. space program. The Army and Air Force were considered as leading choices, as well as a joint military command. Nixon ended this debate when he suggested that a civilian agency be formed to combine all space missions to avoid the appearance of the program being dominated by the military. President Eisenhower agreed, and NASA was established in 1958.
While Nixon understood the significance of succeeding in the space race in the context of the Cold War, he also sought to turn competition into cooperation over time. In an address to the Russian people during his 1959 visit to the Soviet Union, he proclaimed, “Let us go the moon together.” As President thirteen years later, he would return to Moscow to sign the agreement that led to the first join U.S.-Soviet space mission, Apollo-Soyuz, which took place in July of 1975 after her left office.
The spirit of cooperative competition was in his inaugural address, when Nixon said to “those who would be our adversaries, we invite to a peaceful competition – not in conquering territory or extending domination, but in enriching the life of man.”
In 1969, during President Nixon’s first year in office, he observed perhaps the most awe-inspiring moment in modern human history with the Apollo XI moon landing in July. Astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins left a plaque on the lunar surface with a message and signature from the President that read, “May the spirit of peace in which we came be reflected in the lives of all mankind.”
Even though the Apollo program came to an end in December of 1972, President Nixon still oversaw many of the most critical developments in NASA history. The most important decision came in January of 1971, when he decided to go forward with the idea of the space shuttle, a reusable craft that could serve research, commercial, and military purposes. The program would go on to be a success for decades, leading to many scientific advancements and strengthening NASA’s capacity for exploration.
Seeing the space artifacts at the Nixon Library and birthplace reminds us of the 37th President’s importance in charting out the greatest feats of exploration in American history.