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Just days after JFK’s assassination, Jackie Kennedy made a big bet we would make it to the Moon

How Cape Canaveral became Cape Kennedy—with a single meeting and phone call.

Just days after JFK’s assassination, Jackie Kennedy made a big bet we would make it to the Moon
[Photos: NASA; chuttersnap/Unsplash; Mathew Schwartz/Unsplash]

This is the 31st in an exclusive series of 50 articles, one published each day until July 20, exploring the 50th anniversary of the first-ever Moon landing. You can check out 50 Days to the Moon here every day. 

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President John F. Kennedy was killed in Dallas on Friday, November 22, 1963.

Five days later, on the Wednesday after the assassination, Jacqueline Kennedy had a 15-minute meeting with President Lyndon Johnson to thank him for the extraordinary period of mourning the nation had provided for her husband, and to talk about some of the logistics of her family moving out of the White House.

At that meeting, the grieving first lady had a request of Johnson: She asked him to rename Cape Canaveral, and the Cape Canaveral Space Center, after her husband—as a tribute to his having launched the race to the Moon.

It was a remarkable request in several ways. Cape Canaveral, at a moment when any actual Moon mission would turn out to be five years away, was already referred to routinely in press accounts as the nation’s “Moon port.” And just five days after her husband’s murder, Jackie Kennedy wasn’t just thinking about her husband’s legacy, but she was thinking about it with enough creativity to imagine the power of having future Moon-landing missions launched from “Cape Kennedy.”

View showing the main entrance to the Cape Kennedy Missile Test Annex, formerly named Cape Canaveral, Cape Kennedy, Florida, mid-1960s. The change of name became effective November 29, 1963, one week after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. [Photo: PhotoQuest/Getty Images]
The request also, in its own way, represented a leap of faith by Jackie in both the nation and in NASA: You don’t ask someone to rename a spaceport in honor of your slain husband if you think those Moon-missions-to-come are going to fail, or simply aren’t going to happen. The reverse was true, as well: In a subtle way, Jackie Kennedy was putting her own marker down on behalf of fulfilling the promise her husband had made in May 1961, to get astronauts to the Moon and back by 1970: Just try to cancel, or defund Apollo, when your Moon port is named after the martyred president.

Johnson not only agreed to Jackie’s request, he liked it so much that, right in the Oval Office, right at that moment, he picked up the phone and called the governor of Florida, Farris Bryant, to win his help and support.

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The very next day was Thanksgiving, the seventh day after Kennedy’s assassination. Both the nation and the world were still reeling. A single death had changed the global political landscape. Johnson had to give a Thanksgiving address, an almost unthinkable task, which he pulled off with grace and eloquence.

All of us have lived through seven days that none of us will ever forget. We are not given the divine wisdom to answer why this has been, but we are given the human duty of determining what is to be, what is to be for America, for the world, for the cause we lead, for all the hopes that live in our hearts.

A great leader is dead; a great nation must move on. Yesterday is not ours to recover, but tomorrow is ours to win or to lose. I am resolved that we shall win the tomorrows before us. So I ask you to join me in that resolve, determined that from this midnight of tragedy, we shall move toward a new American greatness.

More than any generation before us, we have cause to be thankful, so thankful, on this Thanksgiving Day. Our harvests are bountiful, our factories flourish, our homes are safe, our defenses are secure. We live in peace. The good will of the world pours out for us.

But more than these blessings, we know tonight that our system is strong—strong and secure. A deed that was meant to tear us apart has bound us together.

And in that speech to the nation, Johnson announced that he was renaming the space center in Florida the John F. Kennedy Space Center and renaming the piece of land it sat on Cape Kennedy, “to honor his memory and the future of the works he started.”

Before noon on the next day, not even 18 hours after Johnson’s announcement, painters hung a sign with the new name on it over the southern security gate for Kennedy Space Center.

As it turned out, Floridians never appreciated having their cape renamed for the 35th president. It had been called Cape Canaveral for 400 years, well back into the Spanish era. As soon as the Apollo Moon missions were over, 10 years after the assassination, in 1973, the legislature of Florida changed the name of the physical peninsula back to Cape Canaveral. The space facility itself still bears Kennedy’s name.


One Giant Leap by Charles Fishman

Charles Fishman, who has written for Fast Company since its inception, has spent the past four years researching and writing One Giant Leap, his New York Times best-selling book about how it took 400,000 people, 20,000 companies, and one federal government to get 27 people to the Moon. (You can order it here.)

For each of the next 50 days, we’ll be posting a new story from Fishman—one you’ve likely never heard before—about the first effort to get to the Moon that illuminates both the historical effort and the current ones. New posts will appear here daily as well as be distributed via Fast Company’s social media. (Follow along at #50DaysToTheMoon).

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About the author

Charles Fishman, an award-winning Fast Company contributor, is the author of One Giant Leap: The Impossible Mission that Flew Us to the Moon. His exclusive 50-part series, 50 Days to the Moon, will appear here between June 1 and July 20.

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