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The History of the World: President Kennedy and the moon landing

25 May 1961


The following is a brief extract from The History of the World: Sixth Edition by J.M. Roberts and O.A. Westad.

Possibly spurred by a wish to offset a recent publicity disaster in American relations with Cuba, President Kennedy proposed in May 1961 that the United States should try to land a man on the moon (the first man-made object had already crash-landed there in 1959) and return him safely to earth before the end of the decade… Kennedy said nothing of the advancement of science, of commercial or military advantage – or, indeed, of what seems to have been his real motivation: to do it before the Soviets did.

Photograph of Astronaut Edwin E. (Buzz) Aldrin, Jr. Posing on the Moon Next to the U.S. Flag, 07/20/1969. (c) Public Domain, courtesy of the National Archives.

During the early 1960s the Soviets continued to make spectacular progress. The world was perhaps most excited when they sent a woman into space in 1963, but their technical competence continued to be best shown by the size of their vehicles – a three-man machine was launched in 1964 – and in the achievement the following year of the first ‘space walk’, when one of the crew emerged from his vehicle and moved about outside while in orbit (though reassuringly attached to it by a lifeline). The Soviets were to go on to further important advances in achieving rendezvous for vehicles in space and in engineering their docking, but after 1967 (the year of the first death through space travel, when a Soviet cosmonaut was killed during re-entry) the glamour transferred to the Americans. In 1968, they achieved a sensational success by sending a three-man vehicle into orbit around the moon and transmitting television pictures of its surface. It was by now clear that ‘Apollo’, the moon-landing project, was going to succeed.

In May 1969 [an American] vehicle … approached to within six miles of the moon… A few weeks later, on 16 July, a three-man crew was launched. Their lunar module landed on the moon’s surface four days later. On the following morning, 20 July, the first human being to set foot on the moon was Neil Armstrong, the commander of the mission. President Kennedy’s goal had been achieved with time in hand.

Reprinted from THE HISTORY OF THE WORLD: Sixth Edition by J.M. Roberts and O.A. Westad with permission from Oxford University Press, Inc. Copyright © 2013 by O.A. Westad.

J. M. Roberts CBE died in 2003. He was Warden at Merton College, Oxford University, until his retirement and is widely considered one of the leading historians of his era. He is also renowned as the author and presenter of the BBC TV series ‘The Triumph of the West’ (1985). Odd Arne Westad edited the sixth edition of The History of the World. He is Professor of International History at the London School of Economics. He has published fifteen books on modern and contemporary international history, among them ‘The Global Cold War,’ which won the Bancroft Prize.

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