Vice President Johnson Was Assigned the Task of Unifying the U.S. Satellite Programs
June 24, 1961

If you look up into the sky on a clear night, you might see among the sparkling stars and planets an object that is moving slowly across the dark sky. That little light is no star; it’s a satellite orbiting the earth. There are many out there, thanks in part to the efforts of John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson.

On June 24, 1961, the public learned of President Kennedy’s letter assigning Vice President Johnson the high-priority task of unifying the United States satellite programs. After the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the world’s first artificial satellite, in 1957, the U.S. space program skyrocketed. But the program was plagued with rivalries between competing government agencies and expanding costs. It needed strong leadership.

Under Vice President Johnson, the National Space Council recommended that National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) provide policy coordination with all government agencies involved in space flight. NASA established its command and control center, the Manned Spacecraft Center (now known as the Johnson Space Center), in Houston, in Johnson’s home state of Texas.

The U.S. space program had two main goals: one, develop a system of unmanned satellites that would orbit the earth and provide global telecommunications; and two, pursue manned and unmanned space exploration. Working toward both goals, NASA truly launched the U.S. into the space age.

NASA has greatly advanced satellite technology since the first U.S. earth satellite, Explorer I, was launched from Cape Canaveral in 1959. The 1965 satellite, Early Bird, had the capacity to provide a two-way television link between the U.S. and Europe. Now, satellites provide us with phone and computer communication, radio and television broadcast, accurate mapping, weather information, and so much more.

NASA’s Mercury Program made rapid progress in meeting its second goal by sending its first manned missions into space in its first year, 1961. By the summer of 1969, Americans walked on the moon.

On June 24, 1983, exactly 22 years after Kennedy assigned Johnson to oversee the satellite program, the first American woman, Sally Ride, traveled into space aboard the space shuttle Challenger. Perhaps, someday, space travel will become a common form of transportation for many Americans.

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