Outer space has long captured the popular imagination, fascinating people of all ages and backgrounds, including Members of Congress. For generations, the cosmos seemed beyond humanity’s reach. But in 1957 the Soviet Union launched the satellite Sputnik, and four months later the United States launched the Explorer 1 satellite. Suddenly, the unimaginable became possible. The consequences raised by Sputnik and Explorer 1 made space a new frontier in the ongoing Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. Each nation poured billions of dollars into research and development to gain an edge in what came to be called the “space race.” In the United States, this led to the creation of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in 1958 and a new committee in the House of Representatives to support it.
The presidential administrations of John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, and Richard Nixon aggressively pursued milestones in space exploration. Astronaut Alan Shephard became the first American in space in 1961, and John Glenn (a future U.S. Senator from Ohio) became the first American to orbit the Earth in 1962—remarkable accomplishments despite the fact that in each case the Soviet Union had gotten there first. The United States finally overtook the Soviets when the Apollo 8 spacecraft circled the Moon in 1968; on Christmas Eve that year the astronauts sent back the now-iconic image of the Earth with the barren surface of the Moon in the foreground.
Seven months later, on July 20, 1969, Americans from all walks of life gathered around television sets to witness a truly remarkable event. Broadcast live to half a billion people, Commander Neil Armstrong stepped down from the lunar lander onto the surface of the Moon at 10:56 p.m. EDT and uttered his iconic phrase, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”
The Committee on Science and Astronautics
On July 21, 1958, House Resolution 580 authorized the establishment of the Committee on Science and Astronautics. Five months into the “space race” with the Soviet Union, the new committee boasted noteworthy bipartisan leadership. Future Speaker of the House John McCormack of Massachusetts chaired the panel and former Speaker Joseph Martin of Massachusetts served as ranking member.
The First Major NASA Appropriation for the “Moonshot Program”
On May 6, 1965, the House voted in favor of a $5.18 billion authorization for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. “If any fault is to be found hereafter with the progress of our space program,” Claude Pepper of Florida remarked during debate over the continuation of funding for NASA’s quest to land on the Moon, “I do not want it to be on my hands at least and more importantly, I do not want it to be on the hands of this House of Representatives.”
A Congressional Delegation Witnesses the Apollo 11 Spacecraft Launch
On July 16, 1969, more than 250 Members of Congress traveled to Cape Kennedy, Florida, to watch the Apollo 11 spacecraft launch to the Moon. As a token of gratitude for supporting the Apollo 11 project, the names of some Members had been etched into a small disc that the astronauts would leave on the Moon.
The Apollo 11 Crew Members Appear Before a Joint Meeting of Congress
On September 16, 1969, Speaker John McCormack of Massachusetts introduced the Apollo 11 crew members—Neil Armstrong, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, and Michael Collins—before a Joint Meeting of Congress. The moment marked the culmination of a determined American effort to best the Soviet Union in the “space race” that had begun in 1957. “We are honoring today three men who represent the best in America and whose coordinated skill, fantastic daring, and visionary drive have made history that constitutes a turning point of paramount importance in the journey of mankind,” Speaker McCormack proclaimed.
Patricia “Tish” Speed Schwartz
Tish Schwartz joined the staff of the House Science and Astronautics Committee in 1969 at the height of the space race. Schwartz had originally intended to find work in a Member’s office but quickly took to the very different atmosphere of a House committee. In the first video below, she talks about the thrill of working for the committee responsible for overseeing the space program.
Working on the committee with jurisdiction over NASA led to unique opportunities. Soon after being hired, she was selected to witness a space launch at Cape Kennedy, today known as Cape Canaveral. Schwartz shares the excitement she felt at being invited to view liftoff as a new employee.
George P. Miller of California
George P. Miller served 28 years (1945–1973) as a Representative from San Francisco, California, and in the final 12 years of his career he chaired the House Science and Astronautics Committee, which oversaw the funding and research of the spaceflight program. Introducing a resolution to honor the men and women of the Apollo Project a few days after the lunar landing, Miller declared, “Those of us who are privileged to be alive today will pass this on to our children and our grandchildren, and they in turn will brag about the fact that we were here.”
Spark Matsunaga of Hawaii
Space exploration didn’t stop at the Moon. Spark Matsunaga combined his love of outer space with his commitment to world peace in his pursuit of manned spaceflights to Mars and the creation of an international space station. The latter became a reality in 1998, when the United States, Canada, Europe, Japan, and Russia combined resources. Writing in 1982 in support of a mission to Mars, he said, “Space—the last and most expansive frontier—will be what we make it.”
A First in the Rayburn Building
The Science and Astronautics Committee had the honor of being the first committee to meet in the new Rayburn House Office Building on January 26, 1965, only weeks after it opened. The new committee spaces in the Rayburn Building adopted a more modern style, with straight, tiered daises more appropriate for television coverage. One Member commented, “It’s a little like sitting on the Supreme Court.”
Gemini 5 Astronauts Address Congress
On September 14, 1965, the House welcomed Gemini 5 astronauts L. Gordon Cooper and Charles Conrad Jr. back to Earth after an eight-day orbital flight. The trip, at that point the longest-manned space flight in history, was designed to gauge the feasibility of making a trip to the Moon. Cooper opined on the grandeur of space, saying that it "made a man feel small and insignificant," while Conrad concluded that he was "ready to fly again."
Don Fuqua Committee Portrait
Science Committee Chairman Don Fuqua of Florida had a longstanding interest in the U.S. space program and NASA’s facilities in his home state. Appropriately, space related events are prominent across his unusual portrait. The entire left side of the painting is dominated by imagery of the Moon, including the 1969 lunar landing.
NASA Appropriations Bill
In 1959 House Resolution 7007 authorized an appropriation of $480,550,000 to the recently created National Aeronautics and Space Administration. This matched the exact amount requested by the fledgling institution and showed that funding for space exploration had moved to the top of Congress’s list of priorities in the wake of the Soviet launch of Sputnik in 1957.
John F. Kennedy’s Message to Congress
In May 1961, only months after delivering his annual address, President John F. Kennedy returned to Congress to announce his administration’s goal of sending a man to the Moon by the end of the decade. In asking Congress to commit the funds to NASA, he said, “For while we cannot guarantee that we shall one day be first, we can guarantee that any failure to make this effort will make us last.”
Out of the Blue: UFOs and the Freedom of Information Act
The existence of UFOs may seem like the exclusive domain of science fiction, but in 1966, as Representative John Moss of California laid the groundwork for legislation that eventually became the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), he didn’t discriminate in his pursuit to open as much government information as possible to the public.
Bridging the Divide
During the second half of the twentieth century, the world watched as the United States and the Soviet Union clashed in a Cold War struggle that had many fronts: military, economic, cultural, and ideological. By the mid-1980s, a chilly relationship began to thaw as leaders in both countries engaged in renewed dialogue. Recognizing an opportune moment, Congresswoman Claudine Schneider of Rhode Island and a few of her House colleagues hoped to bridge the divide between the two nations by using new satellite technology to open communication between Moscow and Washington.
This is part of a series of blog posts for educators highlighting the resources available on History, Art & Archives of the U.S. House of Representatives. For lesson plans, fact sheets, glossaries, and other materials for the classroom, see the website's Education section.Follow @USHouseHistory