Before the United States had a space agency, the Air Force was researching how to send men to the Moon. Beginning in 1958 after the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the USAF Air Research Development Command initiated a series of Industry-Air Force studies to examine the military potential of space operations including this lunar goal. The resulting program was an audacious, four stage program to land men on the Moon by 1965. Scaled back and named for the original first stage, Man in Space Soonest, the Air Force’s program was passed over in favor of NASA’s civilian program, Project Mercury.
But not launching America’s first manned spaceflight program didn’t deter the Air Force from participating in space. Four days after President Kennedy’s May 25, 1961 call for the nation to land a man on the Moon and bring him safely back to Earth within the decade, the Air Force offered to complete this goal by 1967 for just $7.5 billion with its own lunar expedition plan called LUNEX. The next step after this initial landing was to establish a permanent base on the lunar surface. It was, as Commander of the Space Systems Division of the Air Force Systems Command Major General Osmond J. Ritland wrote in the proposal’s forward, a way to give the national space program a much needed goal.
LUNEX was the culmination of years of work; previous mission proposals from Air Force industry teams had been honed into this most economical, reliable, and feasible program. And the benefits went beyond a manned lunar landing. LUNEX promised to showcase American technological superiority over the Soviet Union in the short term, and in the long term expected to develop the hardware and proficiency that would secure America’s role as a leader among spacefaring nations for decades to come. It would also score a major coup for the country, capturing the world’s imagination with an historic feat.
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