THE SPACE RACE
In 1957, the nation got its second technological shock from the Soviet Union. Just eight years after the Soviets developed an atomic bomb, they launched Sputnik (1957), the world's first satellite. The supposedly backward and politically challenged Soviets now seemed dangerously ahead of the U.S. After an early attempt to loft a tiny American satellite blew up on the launching pad, the Soviets brazenly sent up another tin moon; this one contained a dog astronaut named Laika.
Science fever swept the U.S.; the nation had to catch up. Eisenhower established the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) (1958) to coordinate a program that would take the U.S. from launching pad zero to moon walking hero in just over ten years. In addition, the National Defense Education Act (1958) offered almost a billion dollars in science and other scholarships.
CASTRO IN CUBA
The Americans got another bad surprise when Fidel Castro (1959) took over as head of Cuba from a corrupt, U.S.-supported dictator. Castro was a Communist who allied himself with the Soviet Union, and the Soviets threatened a missile attack if the U.S. messed with Castro.
Almost a million Cubans left their island for the United States, where many of them worked without end to keep American policy vehemently anti-Castro.
THE ELECTION OF JOHN KENNEDY
Despite the Cold War and other problems during his administration, Eisenhower tried to stay positive. In his eight years as president, the country enjoyed unprecedented prosperity and a national unity of purpose that's hard to imagine in the 21st century. Eisenhower was a successful old soldier who, as president, ended one war and avoided all the others. He left trouble on the horizon, but there was peace on his watch.
The 1960 presidential election featured Ike's vice president Richard Nixon against dashing young senator John F. Kennedy. The nation picked Kennedy in a close race, showing that it had become unprejudiced enough to elect an Irish Catholic. Television, the medium that had saved Nixon through his Checkers speech eight years before, now did him in. In the first televised presidential debates, Kennedy looked fresh and Nixon looked tired. That visual was enough to swing a few thousand votes and, in turn, the election.