As notes, May 29, 2017 is the 100th birthday of President John F. Kennedy. Kennedy is best known as having thrown down the gauntlet to the Soviet Union and challenged it to a race to the moon. He did not live to see the victory in that race, but the Apollo moon landing and the legacy it wrought for better and ill shaped the way we regard space exploration.

The moon race as a strategic gambit

56 years ago, President Kennedy was faced with a number of strategic challenges. The Bay of Pigs fiasco had tarnished his young administration to some extent.

Coupled with failure in Cuba was the fact that the Soviet Union has beaten the United States into space with the flight of Yuri Gagarin. Clearly, JFK needed what would be seen as some to be a Hail Mary pass, a challenge that was so bold and so overwhelming that the Soviets could not possibly meet it, so long as the United States kept the commitment.

Apollo was a near run thing

The Apollo program almost crashed on the shoals of politics a number of times. In the fall of 1963, Kennedy toyed with the idea of turning the race to the moon to a joint venture to the moon with the Soviets. That idea never got off the ground, however the price tag of Apollo caused the United States Senate at the behest of Sen.

William Proxmire, a lifelong foe of the space program, to cut Apollo’s budget, placing into doubt the goal of putting a man on the moon by the end of the 1960s. When Kennedy was assassinated, Apollo became a monument to his memory.

The Apollo Fire, when three astronauts died during a ground test, may have derailed the moon landing goal as well.

Another anti-space senator, Walter Mondale, made a great deal of political hay over the mistakes NASA had made that led to the fire. But, in the end, the fire taught the space agency enough valuable lessons that allowed it to fulfill the goal of the moon landing on July 20, 1969

What did Apollo wrought?

The moon landing so haunted the Soviets that it informed its policy decisions for decades, all the way up to the end of that evil empire.

When President Reagan proposed the Strategic Defense Initiative, the Kremlin was duly terrified and embarked on a huge effort to overcome it that eventually brought about the end of the USSR.

By every measure, the Apollo program was a success. It garnered a wealth of scientific discovery and technological innovation that still redounds to this day. Some analysis of Apollo, including one conducted by Chase Econometrics in the 1970s, suggests that the economic stimulus caused by the race to the moon more than paid for it, unique among government programs.

Can there be another Kennedy moment?

The question arises, can there be another Kennedy moment? Two presidents named George Bush tried it. The 1989 Space Exploration Initiative failed politically and never got off the ground.

President Barack Obama capriciously canceled President George W. Bush’s Constellation program, though the Journey to Mars survives from it. Rumor has it that President Trump has a keen understanding of how space contributes to national greatness and that a new Kennedy moment may be at hand. Stay tuned.