Early Attempts at Space Cooperation

Theodore Sorensen recalls that “it is no secret that Kennedy would have preferred to cooperate with the Soviets” in space rather than compete with them.1 In light of his soon-to-be-made decision to enter a space race in com­petition with the Soviet Union, it is worth noting that JFK’s initial priority on becoming president was to make space an area for U. S.-Soviet cooperation. Kennedy came into the White House believing that science and technology could be used as tools to advance foreign policy interests and to reduce inter­national tensions, and hoping that the habits of cooperation developed in sectors such as science and technology could spill over into areas more cen­tral to security interests. As a presidential candidate, Kennedy had said that “wherever we can find an area where Soviet and American interests permit effective cooperation, that area should be isolated and developed.”

Space was one of those areas; Kennedy noted that “when the United States has at last developed rockets with larger thrust, certain aspects of the exploration of space might be handled by joint efforts; for the cost of space efforts will mount radically as we move ambitiously outward.”2 Kennedy’s transition task force on space reinforced the view that space offered a prom­ising area for cooperation. The report of the Wiesner panel said that “our space activities, particularly. . . in the exploration of our solar system, offer exciting possibilities for international cooperation with all the nations of the world. The very ambitious and long-range space projects would prosper if they could be carried out in an atmosphere of cooperation as projects of all mankind instead of in the present atmosphere of national competition.”3 President Kennedy soon followed up the call in his inaugural address “to explore the stars together” with a more detailed and specific proposal. In his State of the Union address on January 30, 1961, Kennedy announced:

This Administration intends to explore promptly all possible areas of cooperation with the Soviet Union and other nations “to invoke the wonders of science instead of its terrors.” Specifically, I now invite all nations—including

the Soviet Union—to join with us in developing a weather prediction program, in a new communications satellite program and in preparation for probing the distant planets of Mars and Venus, probes which may someday unlock the deepest secrets of the universe.

Today this country is ahead in the science and technology of space, while the Soviet Union is ahead in the capacity to lift large vehicles into orbit. Both nations would help themselves as well as other nations by removing these endeavors from the bitter and wasteful competition of the Cold War.4

The launch of Yuri Gagarin on April 12 shifted Kennedy’s attention from how to cooperate in space to how to enter, and win, the space race. Even so, the notion that cooperation was a more desirable path than competition stayed with him, and the White House in late May 1961 made one more attempt to engage the Soviet Union in a cooperative mission to the Moon, even as Kennedy announced his decision to send Americans to the lunar surface. Again in 1962, after the successful flight of John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth, Kennedy offered to Premier Nikita Khrushchev a range of cooperative possibilities, this time in areas other than lunar explo­ration. Khrushchev agreed to discuss these possibilities, and in 1962 and 1963 there were NASA-Soviet Academy of Sciences discussions that reached agreement in principle to cooperate. However, there was only modest sub­stantive cooperative activity in subsequent months and years.

This chapter focuses on attempts during 1961 and 1962 to foster U. S.-Soviet cooperation in space, since they were of direct personal inter­est to President Kennedy. In a reversal from the position taken during the Eisenhower administration, where the emphasis with respect to space cooperation was on developing international arrangements and controls, Kennedy believed that direct cooperation between the two Cold War rivals was likely to make a greater contribution to an overall reduction in bilateral and thus global tensions.5 The development of cooperative relations in space with other countries rarely rose to the presidential level for decision. NASA from its inception did develop such relations, particularly with Canada and the countries of Western Europe, but those emerging relationships are not discussed here.6