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50th Anniversary of the Kennedy Half-Dollar
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How Kennedy Became Determined to Send Men to the Moon

In July, 1955, the Eisenhower White House announced that the United States would launch an Earth-orbiting satellite during the International Geophysical Year 1957-1958.  While the U.S. was at work on the resulting Vanguard satellite, the Soviet Union was secretly working on its own program.  When the Soviets announced in 1957 that they had successfully launched the satellite Sputnik into an Earth orbit, with a launch vehicle that was also an intercontinental ballistic missile, Americans were shocked and dismayed. 

The following November, the Soviets launched Sputnik II, carrying a payload that included a dog named Laika.  Americans were alarmed and the U.S. government reacted. The Vanguard program was delayed in favor of the Explorer program run by the U.S. Army, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) was created.  The space race had begun with the Cold War, then at its height, as a backdrop.

Commemorative coin marking 500th anniversary of Columbus voyage to America showing ocean ship and space ship in merged image.
1992 Christopher Columbus Quincentenary Commemorative Silver Dollar depicting the Santa Maria and U.S. Space Shuttle Discovery on the reverse.

Early Space Challenges

The U.S. experienced more early failures than successes, and in 1959, the Soviets countered Explorer I with Luna 2, the first space probe to the moon.  The U.S. countered with Project Mercury, selecting seven astronauts to take part in a program to orbit manned spacecraft.  But before the U.S. could launch an astronaut into space, the Soviets announced that cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin had become the first man to orbit the Earth.  It was 1961, just three months into John F. Kennedy’s presidency.

U.S. astronaut Alan Shepard completed a short suborbital mission right after Gagarin’s flight, creating great public excitement, but the contrast in flights clearly demonstrated that the U.S. remained behind the Soviets.  President Kennedy became determined to catch up.  He believed the world was judging the U.S. and his presidency on the basis of the space race.  Hearing the news of Gagarin’s orbital flight, Kennedy turned to Vice President Lyndon Johnson and asked, "Can we put a man on the moon before them?"

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