Taking the possibilities one at a time, Launius first sketched out a potential history in which the moon race never happened. The Cold War competition was certainly important, he said, with both the U.S. and the Soviet Union seeking to demonstrate their superiority in science and technology.

But had Dwight Eisenhower been in the White House in the early 1960s, it seems likely that his response to the Soviets’ successful launch of Yuri Gagarin, the first person in space, would have been different than President John F. Kennedy’s, Launius said.

Eisenhower certainly supported NASA, which was created during his administration in 1958. “But he spent all of the 1960s moaning about NASA wasting all this time, and saying that we needed to do something else,” Launius said. “I think there’s no reason to believe his response would have been, ‘Let’s go to the moon.'”

Eisenhower, Launius speculated, might have instead spent the enormous sums of money that the Apollo program ate up elsewhere, likely on beefing up the United States’ military strength, which for Eisenhower was largely what the Cold War was about. And as a result, perhaps the country’s moon aspirations would have languished.