American astronaut Alan Bartlett Shepard Jr. spent a scant 15 minutes in flight aboard his Mercury capsule, Freedom 7, but it was enough to electrify the nation's space program, sagging in the face of repeated Russian triumphs.
Two days later, Shepard was hailed by newly inaugurated President John F. Kennedy and paraded through downtown Washington right to Capitol Hill, where he addressed Congress and urged the nation to move forward into space exploration.
Although neither Shepard nor his fellow astronauts knew it at the time, his brief space journey had given the final push to internal deliberations Kennedy and his aides had been pursuing on what future course the space program should follow. Shepard's Mercury flight came exactly six months to the day after Kennedy's razor-thin election victory as the 35th U.S. president. Three weeks earlier, on April 12, Russian Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin had become the world's first spaceman and had managed, unlike Shepard, to orbit the Earth. The Communist accomplishment had humiliated the country.
Now, with at least one successful manned flight -- albeit a short one -- the U.S. space program appeared to be back in the chase with the Russians for space dominance. Two weeks after Shepard's visit to the White House, Kennedy went before Congress and, literally, asked for the moon.
His May 25, 1961, call for a manned moon landing would be regarded as the clarion call ushering in the space program's golden age. The result was six lunar landings from 1969 through 1972, beating the Russians and establishing U.S. space leadership.
Now, President George W. Bush has made a second substantive call for sending astronauts to the moon, but his vision is being met with silence and skepticism. Contrasted with history's memory of Kennedy's 1961 vision, some have suggested Bush's effort lacks a comprehensive element, a plan and a pricetag.
Yet a comparison of the 1961 and 2004 proposals reveal surprising similarities, as well as to-be-expected differences across the generations. To a degree seemingly unappreciated by critics, however, Bush has followed a path closely resembling Kennedy's to achieve his interplanetary goals.
Although the fate of the Bush space vision is uncertain, history suggests the first few months after a U.S. space plan has been offered do not necessarily set its ultimate political course.
The spring of 1961 saw an initial wave of public skepticism in the lunar landing idea, based on the congressional hearings held and public opinion sampled. Likewise, in 2004, the administration has been criticized by what some congressional observers say was a confused start in briefing Congress.
Several key congressional staffers tallied the initial moon-Mars funding proposals and said the numbers did not add up. Such confusion gave rise to increased concern the administration was concealing billions of dollars that actually would be needed to fund the project.
Some observers also wondered if existing NASA projects, which the agency had used for years to justify the construction of the International Space Station -- such as microgravity research and space-made materials -- would be hastily terminated. NASA, some said, was guilty of mixed messages over the importance of the moon.
When Kennedy announced his moon plan, NASA also sent mixed signals to congressional leaders. Just four days before he spoke to Congress announcing the lunar goal, Hugh Dryden, the agency's deputy administrator, testified before the Senate Appropriations Committee. Hill politicos had been hearing for weeks something big was under consideration for NASA, especially because Vice President Lyndon Johnson -- the former Senate majority leader -- was calling key senators getting their input on new space goals -- and feeling them out on a possible Kennedy moon push.
One senator asked Dryden what practical use he could see for sending a man to the moon.
"It certainly doesn't make any sense to me," Dryden remarked. His comment reached the White House hours later, and JFK sent word to NASA chief James Webb to clamp down on all public statements before the big speech. Later, NASA lent support for the new policy, with both Webb and Dryden making the rounds of members and hearings. NASA needed a big budget boost to get the elements needed for Apollo going.
Unlike Bush's situation today, NASA in 1961 needed all new facilities to build, test and launch the lunar ships.
Kennedy's plan, however, would make maximum use of the existing rocket hardware in design or testing, such as the Saturn 1, then being developed by the Army, and powerful booster and upper stage rocket engines being developed by the Air Force. All ultimately would be folded into the Kennedy plan.
Today, the Bush administration is planning to use variants of the existing Atlas and Delta boosters to lift the Project Constellation spacecraft -- as it is now called -- and a possible unmanned derivative of the space shuttle's launch elements to lift larger payloads, such as lunar landers or other heavy lift elements.
The administration also is expected to convert facilities now in use for the shuttles to service the moon-Mars missions. New construction, which Kennedy needed, is likely to be minimized this time to keep costs low.
Following the Bush space speech of Jan. 14, public opinion polls suggested the administration had a tough sell ahead to get the public to support his space vision.
Depending on the poll, anywhere from 58 percent to 65 percent of the public opposed the idea. Kennedy's initial public backing also was weak. Polls taken days after his speech showed only 42 percent supported sending astronauts to the moon, with more than half the public against the idea.
In the halls of Congress, the Kennedy plan also faced initial skepticism, although not as extensive as what has arrayed against Bush. Kennedy's critics, though concerned about costs, also worried whether a human could even survive a flight to the moon and back. With Shepard's scant, 15-minute flight as the only U.S. manned space experience, many concerns were expressed about whether such a trip was possible.
NASA officials, who worried whether they could push the Mercury capsule into Earth orbit, quietly wondered how they would be able to track a moon-bound craft.
The final decisions on the Kennedy moon plan did not emerge until the fall of 1962, when a specific series of rocket and spacecraft designs were chosen. Today, some in Congress are faulting Bush and his space chief, Sean O'Keefe, for lacking those same types of details, just weeks after the announcement.
Eventually, the Democratic leadership, which controlled both the House and Senate during JFK's presidency, pushed through full initial funding for Project Apollo. Attempts made in 1961 and 1962 to derail the plan failed. Public support slowly rose, but by the time the landings began in July 1969, large majorities of the public thought the nation was spending too much on sending people to the moon.
In a list of public policy priorities set by respondents to a 1969 Gallop Poll, space expenditures were at the bottom -- and the public chose space spending as one area that could be reduced.
That the Apollo flights were able to obtain funding and accomplish their goal in the face of such public opposition should give some solace to Bush-era space planners.
Like Bush, Kennedy retained his skeptics. In 1963, two years after his go-to-the-moon speech, a group of six Republicans filed a minority position to the House Astronautics Committee report that approved ramped-up spending for Apollo that year.
The group questioned whether the moon should be the centerpiece of the civil space program, a position eerily similar to what is being expressed today. Others called for military space spending increases, saying a broader space agenda should be Kennedy's aim -- not just targeting the moon.
One of the six congressmen was a young Illinois representative.
"This country should place its emphasis on inner space, and not place our top priority on the moon," Kennedy's congressional critic said. His name? Donald H. Rumsfeld.
Ultimately, the group failed to slow down or dislodge the moon as the focus for the space program for the next decade. The project survived in Congress, was funded and, as they say, the rest is history.
Kennedy launched his lunar goal in the middle of the Cold War, which helped in large measure to sustain the program through its years. He also used the lure of technology and jobs as justifications for the massive increase in spending he sought, and for the use of the new space facilities that would be required.
In contrast, Bush cannot use the war on terrorism to rein in critics. So his supporters are touting the plan's role in stimulating U.S. competitiveness by creating new technology -- and new jobs -- as the reason to back the space vision.
Frank Sietzen covers aerospace for UPI Science News. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org