Friday, November 22, 2013

JFK's Scientific Legacy, Part I: The Space Program

November 22, 1963 is a day that will live forever in the minds of many Americans.  Much like my own generation will always equate the date of September 11th with the terrorist attacks on New York City and the Pentagon in 2001, those of the Baby Boomer generation will always think of November 22nd as the day that John F. Kennedy was assassinated.

Despite any personal flaws that he may have had, JFK was a man who inspired a lot of people.  He was well-known as a champion of civil rights and social justice.  He was also a champion of science.

Let's talk about one area of science and technology where JFK had a tremendous impact: the US space program and moon landing.  In 1961, JFK set the goal for the US to land a man on the moon and bring him back by the end of the decade.  It sounded crazy at the time.  In hindsight, today it seems even crazier that it was actually accomplished.  So crazy that some people believe it didn't really happen.  In reality, though, it really did happen.

When Neil Armstrong stepped onto the moon in 1969, he represented a monumental achievement in the history of humanity.   The landscape of science and technology was forever changed by the massive effort that went into NASA's Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo space programs leading up to the moon landings.

On the 50th anniversary of JFK's assassination, I wanted to revisit his impact on the space program and some contributions to science and technology that resulted from it.  Read on after the jump.

John F. Kennedy's warmth with the scientific community was somewhat shocking after he succeeded Dwight Eisenhower, who served two terms as president in the 1950's.  Many scientists of the 50s considered the Eisenhower administration to be rather cold with the scientific community in general.  Eisenhower publicly tried to distance himself from anything that seemed too highbrow or too intellectual so as to make himself appear to be more in touch with the average middle class American.  This strategy had tremendous political sucess.  In both of Eisenhower's victories over Adlai Stevenson in the 1952 and 1956 presidential races, his campaign worked hard to paint Stevenson as too intellectual and too out of touch with the common man (sometimes called the "plowman-versus-professor" strategy).  

Eisenhower once said that an intellectual is "a man who takes more words than are necessary to tell more words than he knows."  While Eisenhower was not unintelligent by any means, he was skeptical of things that couldn't be explained and understood simply and concisely.  He preferred to focus on the countries efforts on building infrastructure and roads over sending people to space.  He was against manned space flights.  However, Eisenhower did recognize the value of science, as he had a presidential science advisory committee (PSAC) that he actively consulted with behind closed doors.  In public, though, he kept his distance from science to make sure he never seemed "too intellectual."        

Kennedy touring a government facility
Kennedy was quite the opposite.  He recognized that science didn't necessarily have to be "too intellectual" to be related to every day life.  He felt that the people needed to understand it better, especially as it related to challenges that the country faced.  He often surrounded himself with scientists, visited government research facilities and labs, and talked about science, technology, and environmental issues in many of his speeches.  He embranced science, partly because he saw that the 1960s would be characterized by civilian and military advances driven by new science and technology.  Chief among these were nuclear energy  weapons.

Kennedy's presidency itself owed a lot to new technology, particularly television.  People watched as Kennedy crushed then-Vice President Richard Nixon in the first-ever televised debates in 1960.  Kennedy was charismatic and confident while Nixon was flustered and nervous.  It helped sway political opinion away from the incumbent Vice President Nixon.  Without these televised debates, some speculate the Kennedy may not have been elected.  Kennedy's performance and its importance was a sign that TV had created an era of politicians as performers and celebrities.

Signing the nuclear test ban treaty
Despite his celebrity and charisma, Kennedy was extremely intelligent and savvy.  He knew that, in order to suceed, he would have to surround himself with intelligent people.  Part of that strategy was having a key place for scientists in his cabinet who could help him make important decisions in the face of the expanding technology of the 1960's, including developments of atomic power and weaponry.  Kennedy's science advisors took a greater role in developing policies related to civilian and military technology, education, and environmental issues than the science advisers under Eisenhower.

Kennedy formally established the position of presidential science advisor in June 1962 through his Cabinet Reorganization Plan No. 2, which created the Office of Science and Technology.  Kennedy's chief science advisor was Dr. Jerome Wiesner, an electrical engineer who later went on to serve as president of MIT and as a member of the National Academy of Sciences.  Wiesner even served a key role in military policy by negotiating with Yevgeny Fyodorov, a science advisor to Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, to help broker a treaty to ban above-ground nuclear testing.  This treaty was a major treaty of the cold war and a major event in Kennedy's presidency. 

Kennedy giving the speech about going to the moon.
The scientific advancements most associated with JFK's presidency are those involving the US space program.  In a speech delivered on May 25, 1961, JFK famously challenged the US to put a man on the moon and bring him back by the end of the decade.  This ushered in the start of a serious US commitment to manned space flights.  It was a tremendously gutsy move, done  largely in response to the Soviet Union's success of being the first country to send a human being.  The USSR sent cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin into space and brought him back on April 12, 1961.  At the time, the US had not yet put a man in orbit.  The US space program was in its infancy, particularly because Kennedy's predecessor, Eisenhower, had strongly discouraged any pursuit of manned space missions. 

John and Jackie Kennedy watching Alan Shepard's flight
Kennedy chose the goal of the moon after consulting with his science advisors, who told him that the Soviets couldn't reach the moon with their current rocket technology, and would need to build larger, more powerful rockets to get there.  Kennedy thought that, because both countries needed to develop better rocket technology, this leveled the playing field a bit.  He truly believed the US had a decent chance to get to the moon first.  This speech wasn't just an arrogant empty threat, but was rather meant to be a motivating push to a goal that his science advisors told him truly could be done, though it would require an enormous amount of money and man-power.


This decision to set the moon landing as a national goal pretty much set the direction of NASA as an organization for the next decade.  By focusing NASA on developing human space travel, it turned the agency into an engineering and technology powerhouse.

First came the Mercury program, which focused on getting a man into orbit.  The Gemini program followed, focusing on orbiting the earth for longer durations to gain experience with techniques and technology needed to get to the moon.  Lastly was the Apollo program, which actually focused on getting men to the moon.  All of these programs had to overcome tremendous scientific and technical obstacles that required an enormous amount of manpower and scientific and engineering problem-solving.  

Kennedy with John Glenn and Friendship 7
By May of 1961, Alan Shepard became the first American and second human being to go to space in a suborbital 15 minute flight as part of the Mercury program.  Less than a year later, in February of 1962, John Glenn became the 5th person in space and the first American to orbit the earth on board the Mercury spacecraft Friendship 7.  By 1963, the Gemini program was in full swing, and the US began to clearly pull ahead of the USSR in the space race.

Unfortunately, JFK was assassinated in 1963, long before Apollo 11 landed and Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon in 1969 to complete Kennedy's national goal.  Nonetheless, Kennedy was a pivotal figure that inspired the whole US space program.  Without Kennedy's challenge and his support, there never would have been a moon landing in 1969.

The moon landing may be perhaps the greatest physical achievement in the history of science and technology.  Perhaps the only thing that rivals this feat in terms of sheer scale and effort is the Manhattan project, the top secrete project that developed the atomic bomb.  The moon landing helped to unite and inspire the US population during a difficult political and social time period caused by civil rights unrest and the Vietnam War. 

The Apollo 11 lunar lander
In addition to social inspiration, landing on the moon also taught scientists new things about the lunar surface and the moon's formation.  Going to the moon additionally drove the development of a ton of new technology that spun-off into the civilian world.  Not only did the US need to develop better rockets, but they needed to develop better computer systems, food and waste disposal technology, safety and life support systems, and scientific instruments to study what the moon was like once they got there.  Below is a list of some of the "spin-off" technologies that were created during the space program's race to the moon in the 1960s or benefited tremendously from it. 

  • Improved fire-resistant coatings and paints: A company called Avco Corporation was the NASA contractor that designed many of the materials that went into the heat shields of the Apollo capsules.  These materials helped to block the immense heat generated during atmospheric re-entry to prevent the capsule and astronauts inside from burning up. Eventually, these products, including fire-retardant paints, foams, and metal coatings, became used in commercial products and buildings and have likely saved many lives over the years.
  • Better Portable Power Tools, Vacuums and Other Electronic Devices:  Black & Decker, the company that invented the first cordless power tools in 1961, first developed a zero-impact wrench for NASA that would spin bolts in zero gravity without spinning the astronaut holding it.  This was done for the Gemini project.  NASA later wanted to develop a cordless rotary hammer drill that the astronauts could easily use to take samples of the lunar rock from below the surface for the Apollo missions. The drill had to be self contained, compact yet powerful, and able to be used while the astronauts were wearing space suits with thick gloves.  It also had to be designed to use as minimal power as possible.  Black & Decker also later got the contract to develop this space hammer drill.  They developed a magnet motor cordless drill that included circuitry to minimize power consumption and improve battery life.  The Black and Decker NASA drill technology led to much improved commercial cordless electric products including home drills that lasted longer, and it helped create the Dustbuster cordless vacuum.  
"Buzz" Aldrin on the moon
  • Better Drinking Water Filtration: Filtration was used to recycle fluids, including astronaut urine.  This helped to keep the amount of water that needed to be included on the ship to as small an amount as possible, and also allowed astronauts to recycle water in an emergency.  A lot of the silver ion and charcoal water filtration technology used in the today's filtration pitchers was studied and either developed or improved by NASA or its contractors in preparation for manned space missions.     
  • Improved Baby Formula and Protein Drinks:  Nutritional supplement drinks were developed and used to ensure that astronauts had adequate nutrition on their trips while taking up minimal space and weight.  Minimizing weight was a key component of the logistics of getting a rocket off the ground and to the moon.  Reducing food weight meant that more scientific equipment or safety equipment could be included.  Modern day protein drinks, baby formula, and nutritional supplements owe some of their development to NASA-funded research.
  • Freeze Dried Foods:  NASA worked on freeze drying because they new they needed a way to pack enough nutrient-dense food into the Apollo space capsule for the long duration mission to the moon.  Freeze drying seemed a logical method to use.  Freeze drying was first developed in 1938 by Nestle, and further improved during the 1960s by a company called Action Products.  Cooked foods are quickly frozen, then dried by warming back to room temperature in a vacuum chamber.  This removes all traces of ice formed during the initial freezing process.  The resulting food retains nearly all of its caloric and nutritional content, while taking up only a quarter of the weight and space.  As mentioned above, reducing weight was a key factor.  NASA used this technology to create meals as well as freeze-dried space ice cream and other snacks for the astronauts.  
A view of the moon after planting the US flag
  • Cushioned Running Shoes:  Padded foam polyurethane material was developed for cushioning the space boots worn by Neil Armstrong and the others who walked on the moon.  This material was later used to develop cushioned soles like many used in today's running and athletic shoes.
  • Computer Circuits and Other Computer Hardware:  In 1963, nearly half of all development of computer chips and circuits was done though research aimed at development of technology for the moon missions.  The space program was a major driving force in computer science in the 1960s.    
  • Emergency "Space" Blankets:  The shiny foil-like blankets that are included in some emergency kits were developed by NASA around 1964.  They reflect infrared radation, giving a lot of thermal insulation in a small package.  While this isn't an everyday technology, it is something that has helped to save several lives over the years.     
  • Scratch Resistant Lenses:  Plastics scratch more easily than glass, but they have an advantage over glass of being lighter, being less prone to shattering, and absorbing more UV radiation to better protect astronauts.  NASA wanted to use plastics for various space equipment, but they needed something to protect the plastic from scratches caused by lunar dust and debris.  This was particularly important for astronaut visors.  The sunglasses company Foster Grant developed scratch resistant coating technology for NASA that also later became used in prescription lenses and sunglasses lenses.  
  • Introduced Velcro to the World: It is a popular misconception that velcro was invented by NASA.  Velcro was actually developed by Swiss engineer George de Mestral in the 1948, but the Apollo astronauts used it to anchor equipment in zero gravity.  While NASA didn't invent velcro, the use of velcro by NASA introduced it to a wider audience and helped people to see its many utilitarian potential as a fastener.  Until NASA started using it, most people thought Velcro was a novelty.  
  • Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs): While not as universally a "good" technology to spin off of the space program, this is one that was inevitable.  Developing better and more powerful rockets to go to the moon meant that the technology could be used to develop better rockets to put nuclear warheads on.  ICBMs became a major part of the Cold War arms race between the US and USSR.  Space technology drove a lot of technology for developing new missiles on earth.   
The earth as seen from Apollo 11
  • A Better Sense of the Fragility of the Earth:  This sounds a bit more philosophical than scientific, but it may have had the most lasting impact on science.  Seeing the earth from the surface of the moon for the first time helped many people to realize just how amazingly tiny and fragile our planet is on the grand scale of the universe.   Images taken of the earth by the Apollo astronauts became some of the most publicly used and wide-spread images, and they helped inspire a generation of environmental scientists who wanted to preserve the fragile balance that sustains the life on this planet.  Despite all of our differences and conflicts, we all live on the same tiny spec of blue hurtling through the universe, and we all need to do our best to preserve it.  



Text © 2013 TheMadScienceBlog; Images are public domain.

Sources and Further Reading



  • NASA: Our First Lunar Program: What did we get from Apollo?  Available here.
  • BBC News: What did we get from going to the Moon?  Available here.
  • NASA's "Spinoff" site.  Available here.
  • JFK's speech about science and science research at the 100th Anniversary Convocation of the National Academy of Sciences.  Text available here.  Audio available here.
  • M. Wall.  "JFK's Moon Shot: Q&A with Space Policy Expert John Logsdon.  24 May 2011.  Space.com.  Available here

  • Other Sources


  • E. Pace.  "Jerome B. Weisner, President of M.I.T., Is Dead at 79."  New York Times.  23 October 1994.  Available here.
  • B.L.R. Smith.  American Science Policy Since World War II.  Brookings Institution Press.  1990.
  • Z.Wang. In Sputnick's Shadow: The President's Science Advisory Committee and Cold War America.  Rutgers University Press.  2009. 
  • E.T. Lim.  The Anti-Intellectual Presidency: The Decline of Presidential Rhetoric from George Washintgon to George W. Bush.  Oxford University Press.  2008.  


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