Main Content


The Cold War witnessed the United States and the Soviet Union competing to dominate outer space with the same intensity as their earthly contests. Each people’s scientific gains were looked upon as proof of the superiority of their way of life. The Soviet Union’s successful launching of its Sputnik satellite initiated America’s frantic quest for the technology to overcome their perceived slow start. This monumental effort produced some of the most tragic and heroic moments of contemporary American history.

Since President Dwight D. Eisenhower tackled questions about why America was not the first nation in space, the president has orchestrated America’s "space race." Many critical decisions about what the United States wanted to accomplish with this bold and expensive program were made at the White House. At the same time, the White House was a stage to honor a new breed of hero: the American astronaut. Competition between superpowers spurred space exploration, but scientific inquiry sustained it. Mercury, Apollo, Challenger and Pathfinder symbolize America’s boundless thirst for knowledge.

Download Lesson Plan


Jumpstarting the Space Race

On November 7, 1957, President Dwight D. Eisenhower (1953-1961) spoke on television from the Oval Office. He tried to explain to the American people why the United States had failed to become the first country to launch a satellite into outer space. The questions began soon after October 4, 1957, when the Soviet Union had caused a panic in the United States by putting a small satellite called Sputnik into orbit around the earth. Now the communist nation had sent up a second satellite. Many Americans feared that the Soviets might use their new technology to make it easier for their nuclear missiles to hit the United States. President Eisenhower had once served as America's top general during World War II. When he spoke, Americans were relieved to hear that "the overall military strength of the free world is distinctly greater than that of the communist countries." Eisenhower then moved quickly. He appointed a White House science advisor and supported the creation of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). He also signed the National Defense Education Act that encouraged the study of science. Some thought Eisenhower should spend even more money on the space program. On January 31, 1958 the United States launched its first satellite into earth's orbit. It was called Explorer. At a White House dinner on December 18, 1958, Eisenhower announced that the United States had launched the largest object ever -- an entire missile — into space. People all over the world were astonished the next day when they heard the president's voice coming to them from space. The missile had launched a satellite that was able to broadcast a recording of Eisenhower wishing the world "peace on earth and good will toward men."

Race to the Moon

President John F. Kennedy (1961-1963) awoke on April 12, 1961, to the news that the Soviet Union had won the race to put a man into space. Kennedy immediately met with Vice President Lyndon Johnson in the White House to discuss the embarrassment of the Soviets beating America again. "Can we put a man on the moon before them?" Kennedy asked. A few weeks later, Kennedy challenged the nation to "commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth." The president was feeling more confident in that possibility because Commander Alan Shepard Jr. had returned from a flight to space in a Mercury capsule. Kennedy became a strong supporter of Project Mercury, the American program to put a man into orbit around the earth. On February 20, 1962, Kennedy congratulated John Glenn from the Oval Office when Glenn safely returned from orbiting the earth three times at a speed of 17,000 miles per hour. Kennedy was assassinated before he could see the American flag planted on the moon, but he did succeed in energizing America's space program. Glenn became a national hero and went on to serve in the United States Senate. As an astronaut, Glenn would receive another White House congratulations from the president, but it would come from President Bill Clinton in 1998. "Space Shuttle Payload Specialist" John Glenn, at 77, became the oldest person to fly into space.


"Hello, Neil and Buzz. I'm talking to you by telephone from the Oval Room at the White House, and this certainly has to be the most historic telephone call ever made." President Richard Nixon (1969-1974) spoke by radiotelephone to Apollo 11 Commander Neil Armstrong and Lunar Module Pilot Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin on July 20, 1969. It was more than eight years since President Kennedy had first committed the United States to putting a man on the moon. Half a billion people around the world had watched Armstrong step on the lunar surface. A short while later, Aldrin joined him. The moon landing and telephone call were triumphant victories for America's space program. When Nixon congratulated the astronauts he represented the thanks of Presidents Kennedy (1961-63) and Lyndon Johnson (1963-1969), both of whom supported the country's most important space exploration. The Apollo missions would continue for three more years and spacecraft would land on the moon five more times. Some have wondered if the great cost of these missions was too expensive. They question whether the scientific discoveries were worth it. But for those who saw the first walk on the moon, they would have to agree with President Nixon, who told the astronauts, "Because of what you have done, the heavens have become a part of man's world."

The Challenger Disaster

On January 28, 1986, America experienced a shocking disaster when the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded 73 seconds after it was launched. Millions of horrified people around the world, including President Ronald Reagan (1981-1989), watched the explosion that killed the entire crew of seven. Schoolchildren across the United States were viewing the live broadcast because one of the crew, Christa McAuliffe, was going to be the first schoolteacher in space. President Reagan was planning to give his State of the Union message on television that night, but changed his mind. From the Oval Office he spoke about the bravery and sacrifices made by the Challenger Seven. He spoke directly to schoolchildren: "I know it is hard to understand, but sometimes painful things like this happen. It's all part of the process of exploration and discovery. It's all part of taking a chance and expanding man's horizons. The future doesn't belong to the fainthearted; it belongs to the brave. The Challenger crew was pulling us into the future, and we'll continue to follow them."

Life on Mars?

While NASA was working to ensure that America would be the first country to put a man on the moon, other scientists there were busy trying to learn more about Earth's planetary neighbor, Mars. NASA launched the Mariner IV probe in 1964. A probe is an unmanned spacecraft equipped to gather information from space. Mariner IV took the first close-up photographs of Mars. Myths about Martians were destroyed when the photos made clear that no such civilization existed there. But was there life of any other kind? After the success of the Apollo mission, the U.S. space program was anxious to look beyond the moon and get even closer to Mars. President Gerald Ford (1974-1977) spoke to NASA scientists while the probe, Viking I, landed on Mars. In 1997, Pathfinder brought even more sophisticated ways to learn about life forms on Mars. Evidence has been found that there may have been large floods on Mars long ago. Where there is water, there is the possibility of life forms. The Pathfinder delivered scientific instruments to the Martian surface that investigated the atmosphere, geology and the composition of rocks and soil.

The Soviet Union's Sputnik satellite.


President Kennedy and astronaut John Glenn, 1962.


President Nixon speaks to the Apollo 11 astronauts, 1969.

National Archives

President Reagan watches the Challenger disaster, 1986.

Ronald Reagan Library

The surface of Mars.


Lesson plan PDF