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America's Space Commanders-in-ChiefOn May 25, 1961, President John F. Kennedy announced a bold new plan for NASA and the nation: To send an American to the moon, and to return him safely, by the close of the decade.
Kennedy's speech, which came just six weeks after cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first person to reach outer space, had a huge impact on NASA and space exploration. It jump-started the agency's Apollo program, a full-bore race to the moon that succeeded on July 20, 1969, when Neil Armstrong's boot crunched down into the gray lunar dirt.
Kennedy, of course, isn't the only leader who had a vision for the nation's space program. Since NASA's founding in 1958, every president from Eisenhower to Obama has left his mark. Take a look at how each U.S. commander-in-chief helped shape and steer American activities in space.
Editor's note: This slideshow was updated on Dec. 27, 2017.
Dwight Eisenhower (in office 1953-1961)Slide 2 of 26
Dwight Eisenhower (in office 1953-1961)President Dwight Eisenhower was president when the Soviet Union launched the world's first artificial satellite, Sputnik I, in October 1957. This seminal event shocked the United States, started the Cold War space race between the two superpowers and helped lead to the creation of NASA in 1958.
However, Eisenhower didn't get too swept up the short-term goals of the space race. He valued the measured development of unmanned, scientific missions that could have big commercial or military payoffs down the road.
For example, even before Sputnik, Eisenhower had authorized a ballistic missile and scientific satellite program to be developed as part of the International Geophysical Year project of 1957-58. The United States' first successful satellite, Explorer I, blasted off Jan. 31, 1958. By 1960, the nation had launched and retrieved film from a spy satellite called Discoverer 14.Slide 3 of 26
John F. Kennedy (1961-1963)Slide 4 of 26
John F. Kennedy (1961-1963)President John F. Kennedy effectively charted NASA's course for the rest of the 1960s with his famous speech before Congress on May 25, 1961.
The Soviets had launched Sputnik I in 1957, and cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin had become the first person in space on April 12, 1961, just six weeks before the speech. On top of those space race defeats, the U.S. plan to topple the Soviet-backed regime of Cuban leader Fidel Castro — the so-called Bay of Pigs invasion — had failed miserably in April 1961.
Kennedy and his advisers figured they needed a way to beat the Soviets, to re-establish American prestige and demonstrate the country's international leadership. So they came up with an ambitious plan to land an astronaut on the moon by the end of the 1960s, which Kennedy laid out in his speech.
The Apollo program roared to life as a result, and NASA embarked on a crash mission to put a man on the moon. The agency succeeded, of course, in 1969. By the end of Apollo in 1972, the United States had spent about $25 billion on the program — well over $100 billion in today's dollars.Slide 5 of 26
Lyndon Johnson (1963-1969)Slide 6 of 26
Lyndon Johnson (1963-1969)President Lyndon Johnson was instrumental in both ratcheting up and scaling back the United States' space race with the Soviet Union.
As Senate majority leader in the late 1950s, he had helped raise the alarm regarding Sputnik, stressing that the satellite launch had intiated a race for "control of space." Later, Kennedy put Johnson, his vice president, in personal charge of the nation's space program. When Johnson became commander-in-chief after Kennedy's assassination, he continued to support the goals of the Apollo program.
However, the high costs of Johnson's Great Society programs and the Vietnam War forced the president to cut NASA's budget. To avoid ceding control of space to the Soviets (as some historians have argued), his administration proposed a treaty that would outlaw nuclear weapons in space and bar national sovereignty over celestial objects.
The result was 1967's Outer Space Treaty (OST), which forms the basis of international space law to this day. The OST has been ratified by all of the major space-faring nations, including Russia and its forerunner, the Soviet Union.Slide 7 of 26
Richard Nixon (1969-1974)Slide 8 of 26