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JFK’s legacy at NGA

Revisit the lasting legacy of President John F. Kennedy’s influence at NGA and its predecessor organizations, from the Space Race to the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Space Race

The launch of Sputnik in 1957, the first artificial Earth satellite, was the crack of a starting pistol beginning the space race between the Soviet Union and the United States.

While President Dwight D. Eisenhower oversaw the launch of Explorer I, the first United States satellite, in 1958, no president embodied the spirit of exploration and American achievement of the U.S. space program more than John F. Kennedy.

On May 25, 1961, Kennedy addressed a special joint session of Congress with a dramatic and ambitious proposal, to land a man on the moon and return him safely to earth.

Now it is time to take longer strides — time for a great new American enterprise — time for this nation to take a clearly leading role in space achievement, which in many ways may hold the key to our future on earth.

Years before that speech, NGA predecessor organizations were already hard at work to meet the challenge of space. Beginning in 1957 and 1958, respectively, the Air Force Aeronautical Chart and Information Center and the Army Map Service initiated efforts to collect telescope observations and photographic data with an eye toward composing maps of the moon. With this step, the cause of lunar mapping enlisted for the first time the services of professional cartographers experienced in the production of terrestrial maps of the highest quality.

The National Aeronautical and Space Administration, then a relatively new government agency, played the lead role in the mission, but NASA didn’t do it alone. Cartographers from predecessor agencies of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency created detailed maps and charts of the lunar surface, which provided NASA scientists and technicians precise coordinates and optional landing sites.

ACIC and Army Map Service, another NGA predecessor organization, support to the space program continued throughout the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo space programs.

Astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin stepped out of the Apollo 11 spacecraft and onto the moon’s surface July 20, 1969. When they and fellow astronaut Michael Collins returned to Earth four days later, they fulfilled President John F. Kennedy’s promise to put a man on the moon and return him home safely.

Without the work of the ACIC and AMS — and later the Defense Mapping Agency — NASA would not have had the critical knowledge of the moon necessary for the American manned space missions.

Cuban Missile Crisis

For 13 days in October 1962, the U.S. and Soviet Union stared down the barrel of mutually assured destruction. Throughout the Cuban Missile Crisis, the National Photographic Interpretation Center — a heritage organization of NGA — provided timely, vital intelligence that shaped President Kennedy’s understanding of the threat, and armed him with crucial details that formed the basis for the sound judgment and decision making Kennedy and his administration exhibited in tense negotiations with Soviet Premier Nikita S. Khrushchev.

After successful brinkmanship and diplomacy by the Kennedy administration de-escalated the nuclear crisis, NPIC photo interpreters provided key support to confirm through imagery analysis that Khrushchev’s Soviet nuclear forces were, in fact, being withdrawn from Cuba.

Following the crisis, Kennedy commended NPIC Director Arthur Lundahl in a personally-signed letter. The letter thanked Lundahl and his team for their tireless efforts during the crisis, and acknowledged the quality of the imagery analysis he considered so vital to his decision making. Kennedy also had a desk calendar custom-made by Tiffany’s presented to Lundahl. On the calendar, the thirteen days of the crisis are highlighted and Lundahl and Kennedy’s initials are inscribed at the top.

Image courtesy of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency Historical Research Center
Image courtesy of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency Historical Research Center

The same professional analysis that averted nuclear war in 1962 and informs the President and other policymakers is still produced at NGA today.