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Lyndon Johnson’s Unsung Role in Sending Americans to the Moon

Lyndon Johnson did not blend easily into a crowd. At six feet three inches tall and more than two hundred pounds, he was a towering figure, physically and otherwise, and when he came upon a group of people, his instinct was to address them, or to throw himself into the scrum and become its focus, its center of gravity. But on July 16, 1969, in the reviewing stands at Cape Kennedy, in Florida, Johnson appeared to be just another spectator—looking up at the sky, squinting behind his sunglasses, as the Saturn V rocket lifted off, carrying the Apollo 11 spacecraft toward its destination.

In an interview five days later, when the astronauts were on their way home from the moon, the CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite referred to former President Johnson as “the Father of the Program,” but the label never stuck. Few understood then—and perhaps fewer understand now—that no one did more than L.B.J. to commit the U.S. to landing men on the moon and returning them safely to earth. It was John F. Kennedy, of course, who issued that call, but only after Johnson had led the charge for years.

On October 4, 1957, within hours of learning that the Soviet Union had put the first satellite, the Sputnik, into orbit, Johnson—then the Senate Majority Leader—seized on the issue of space exploration. Before the evening was out, he was working the phones, talking to aides, sketching out plans for an investigation of the anemic U.S. program. George Reedy, a member of Johnson’s staff, advised him that the issue could “blast the Republicans out of the water, unify the Democratic Party, and elect you President. . . . You should plan to plunge heavily into this one.”

So Johnson plunged in—while Kennedy, his Senate colleague and potential rival for the Democratic nomination in 1960, hung back, showing little interest in space. (When Kennedy talked about “Russian satellites,” he usually meant Poland, East Germany, Czechoslovakia.) In November, 1957, after the Soviets sent a dog, Laika, into orbit (without bringing her back, alas), Johnson began congressional hearings in an “atmosphere of another Pearl Harbor,” as he himself described it. Life put him on its cover: “a man of urgency,” the magazine said.

Read entire article at New Yorker