Category THE RACE

Increasing U. S. Rocket Lifting Power

Linking Soviet space achievements to the Russian ballistic missile program, as John Kennedy had done during the presidential campaign, was a reason­able thing to do, since even in the 1957-1960 period it was well known in U. S. intelligence and technical circles that the Soviet Union had used its initial R-7 Intercontinental Ballistic Missile as its space launch vehicle. Soviet engineers had been developing this missile since the early 1950s, giving them a several-year head start on the United States. The launch of Sputnik 1 on October 4, 1957, was thus not only a propaganda loss for the United States; it was also a very visible demonstration that the Soviet Union possessed the capability to launch a nuclear warhead across intercontinental distances, and that the United States could be vulnerable to a Soviet nuclear attack.33

Among their other impacts, the launches of Sputnik 1 and Sputnik 2 demonstrated that the Soviet Union possessed the capability to lift much heavier payloads into space than did the United States. Sputnik 1 weighed 184.3 pounds, and Sputnik 2 weighed 1,120 pounds. Moreover, the second stage of the R-7 booster also went into orbit on each launch, so in reality the Soviet Union had placed some 12,000-13,000 pounds into space; it was the rocket’s upper stage, not the satellite itself, which was visible to the naked eye of observers around the world. By contrast, the first U. S. satellite, Explorer 1, which was launched by the Army team led by Wernher von Braun on January 31, 1958, weighed only 30.8 pounds, with half of that weight being the satellite’s last-stage booster rocket.34

This disparity in satellite-lifting capability was the by-product of the dif­ficulty the Soviet Union had several years earlier in designing a warhead for an ICBM launch. The three megaton nuclear warhead which was the payload for the R-7 ICBM weighed approximately 11,000 pounds, thus requiring the development of a powerful booster to send it on its intercontinental trajec­tory. By contrast, the United States a few years later was able to develop a thermonuclear warhead weighing only around 1,600 pounds; this meant that U. S. Atlas and Titan ICBMs did not have to be nearly as powerful as the Soviet R-7 in order to accomplish their military mission. This was accept­able in terms of strategic rocket relationships, but meant that the United States was at a severe disadvantage in sending heavy payloads into space. The United States might be able to launch scientifically sophisticated satellites, but it would not be able to match the Soviet Union in publicly visible space achievements using a converted ICBM as a launch vehicle.

There were two approaches taken during the Eisenhower administration to closing the U. S.-USSR gap in rocket-lifting power. One was to develop the Saturn C-1 launcher, with its first stage having 1.5 million pounds of lift-off thrust. The other was to develop the large F-1 rocket engine, which at some future time could be used to power a much larger launch vehicle. President Eisenhower on January 12, 1960, had indicated his strong support for the Saturn program, and on January 14 told Glennan that “it is essential to push forward vigorously to increase our capability in high thrust space vehicles.” Four days later, the Saturn project received the highest national priority, DX, authorizing the use of overtime work and giving it precedence for scarce materials and other program requirements.35

However, the Bureau of the Budget (BOB) was determined that the bud­get to be submitted by Dwight Eisenhower a few days before he left office in January 1961 would be balanced, and this determination took priority over Eisenhower’s support for accelerating the Saturn program. NASA had hoped to get a FY1962 budget of $1.4 billion approved; such a budget would have enabled NASA to accelerate its booster and rocket engine development efforts. After tough negotiations with BOB, NASA was held to a $1.1 billion total.36 At that budget level, there would necessarily be a delay in closing the weight-lifting gap with the Soviet Union. It would be up to the new presi­dent to decide whether this was an acceptable situation.

Space Science Board Endorses Human Participation. in Space Exploration

The Wiesner task force had told John Kennedy that human space flight could not be justified solely on scientific grounds; this had also been the position of most members of the PSAC, who continued their committee membership during the change in administrations, and of many other nongovernmental scientists. This position was counterbalanced in March 1961 by support for the scientific value of humans in space from the Space Science Board of the National Academy of Sciences. The National Academy is a body designated by congressional charter as scientific adviser to the federal government. It is also an honorary body; election to the National Academy is one of the highest scientific honors available to a U. S. scientist. The board was com­posed of sixteen scientists, many of them National Academy members, and chaired from its inception by Lloyd Berkner, a geophysicist. Berkner was a supporter of a strong space program and a decades-long friend of James Webb. Members of the board in addition to Berkner included Bruno Rossi, Joshua Lederberg, Harrison Brown, John Simpson, Harold Urey, James van Allen, and Donald Hornig, all well known and highly respected members of the scientific community.

At its February 10-11, 1961, meeting, the board discussed the possibil­ity of a national decision on whether or not to send humans to the Moon. Berkner pointed out that “many related decisions and programs are being held in abeyance awaiting this overall national policy decision.” Initially, all board members “were strongly for landing someone on the moon.” But as the discussion continued, “doubts began to creep in.” Berkner was critical of the emerging negativism in the discussion, saying that he had “learned from experience that this is a good way to get left behind” and that there was a need for “a clear-cut national decision now.” The board then had a lengthy discussion about issuing a statement on lunar and planetary exploration that included the possibility “that man could be included in the exploration.” The board authorized Berkner to “pull together” such a statement. By doing so, they almost guaranteed that the statement would support the human role in space exploration, given Berkner’s well-known views on the subject.43

The board’s statement was formally transmitted to NASA administrator Webb on March 31, although Berkner had informed Webb of the emerging recommendation at least a month earlier. The statement took the form of a position paper on “Man’s Role in the National Space Program.” It recom­mended that “scientific exploration of the Moon and planets should be clearly stated as the ultimate objective of the U. S. space program for the foreseeable future" The Board added that it “strongly emphasized that planning for the scientific exploration of the Moon and planets must at once be developed on the premise that man will be included. . . From a scientific standpoint, there seems little room for dissent that man’s participation. . . will be essen­tial.” The board statement went beyond scientific issues to declare that the board “was not unaware of the great importance of other factors associated with the man-in-space program.” Among these was “of course, the sense of national leadership emergent from bold and imaginative U. S. space activity.” In addition, “the members of the Board as individuals regard man’s explora­tion of the Moon and planets as potentially the greatest inspirational venture of this century and one in which the whole world can share,” since “inherent here are great and fundamental philosophical and spiritual values which find a response in man’s questing spirit and his intellectual self-realization.”44 James Webb himself could not have written a more positive affirmation of NASA’s plans for human space flight.

This ringing endorsement of the human role in exploring space com­ing from a prestigious group of scientists was controversial in later years. In 1965, a committee on “The Integrity of Science” chartered by the American Association for the Advancement of Science called such advocacy by scien­tists “closely associated to professional scientific judgments. . . inherently dangerous both to the democratic process and to science,” since its associa­tion with organized professional scientific activity, such as the deliberations of the Space Science Board, gave that advocacy “a wholly unwarranted cloak of scientific objectivity.” But in 1961, the statement had a “profound influ­ence” on PSAC members and other scientists, making it hard for them to criticize President Kennedy’s call two months later for a national effort to send Americans to the Moon.45

NASA and DOD Present Their Views

Johnson lost little time in getting started with his review. At 10:30 p. m. on April 20, he called Welsh and asked him to arrange a meeting with NASA administrator Webb and “such other NASA people as NASA requires” for 9:30 a. m. on April 22, a Saturday, to outline “what now needs to be done in the space program, what it would cost, and whether more funds are required at this time (FY1962).” A similar meeting with Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara was set up for later the same day; the two organizations were told not to coordinate their views in advance of meeting separately with the vice president.5

Hugh Dryden accompanied Webb to the meeting with the vice president and presented the NASA response to the questions in the president’s April 20 memorandum. Dryden said that there was “no chance of beating the Soviets in putting a multi-manned laboratory in space since flights already accomplished by the Russians have demonstrated that they have this capabil­ity.” He told Johnson “with a determined effort of the United States, there is a chance to beat the Russians in accomplishing a manned circumnaviga­tion of the moon,” perhaps by 1966. He added, “there is a chance for the U. S. to be the first to land a man on the moon and return him to earth if a determined national effort is made.” Dryden thought it “doubtful” that the

Russians had a meaningful head start on a manned lunar landing program and “because of the distinct superiority of U. S. industrial capacity, engineer­ing, and scientific know-how. . . the U. S. may be able to overcome the lead the Soviets might have up to now.” A first landing might be possible in 1967 “with an accelerated U. S. effort.” Other areas in which the United States might be first included “returning a sample of the material from the moon surface to the earth in 1964” and “developing communications satellites,” which, “although not as dramatic as manned flight,” would have benefits to people throughout the world. NASA at this point in the review estimated the cost of an accelerated effort in all areas over the period through 1970 as $33.7 billion, an increase of $11.4 billion over its then-current ten-year plan.6 Although the potentials of a lunar landing program had been discussed with President Kennedy in the April 14 cabinet room meeting, Dryden’s report was likely the first time that Lyndon Johnson had heard a top-level analy­sis of what it would take to surpass the Soviet lead in human space flight. Although others, especially Wernher von Braun, are often credited with being first to propose a lunar landing to the White House as the “space pro­gram which promises dramatic results in which we could win,” it seems that honor should go to Hugh Dryden, who had also raised the lunar landing possibility at the April 14 cabinet room meeting with President Kennedy.

Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara’s response to Vice President Johnson drew heavily on material provided by John Rubel, deputy direc­tor of Defense Research and Engineering, who was the top space official within the Office of the Secretary of Defense. Rubel was an engineer who had worked for Hughes Aircraft before coming to Washington during the Eisenhower administration and who had strong views on how best to orga­nize the national space effort. Rather than provide responses to the ques­tions in President Kennedy’s April 20 memorandum, McNamara articulated a particular philosophy with respect to space. He remarked that “all large scale space programs require the mobilization of resources on a national scale. They require the development and successful application of the most advanced technologies. Dramatic achievements in space, therefore, symbol­ize the technological power and organizing capacity of a nation.” For these reasons, “major achievements in space contribute to national prestige” and “constitute a major element in the international competition between the Soviet system and our own.” (These words, most likely written by John Rubel, would reappear in a May 8 memorandum to the vice president rec­ommending the lunar landing goal.) “Because of their national importance and their national scope,” McNamara added, “it is essential that our space efforts be well planned. It is essential that they be well managed.” Effective management was needed so that “engineering resources be focused and not spread too thin,” for “our national posture may be worsened rather than improved if added expenditures result in the still greater dispersal of scien­tific, engineering and managerial talent.” McNamara called for an orderly but accelerated program to close the booster gap. With respect to various Department of Defense space programs, he recommended no budget increases above those that had already been approved by the White House the previous month.7

White House Oversight of NASA

One impact of his decision to send Americans to the Moon “before this decade is out” was to make the progress of the space program of direct personal interest to President Kennedy. As he planned for his presidency, Kennedy could not have anticipated making such a decision within four months of taking office, and thus he had been willing to delegate to Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson the administration’s lead role in space policy, and to symbolize that role by making the vice president the chairman of a revitalized National Aeronautics and Space Council. When asked whether President Kennedy would have assigned such an apparently central role with respect to space to the vice president if he had realized how significant space efforts would become in the months immediately after his inauguration, Theodore Sorensen in 2009 responded, with a note of skepticism, “that’s a very interesting and thoughtful question, to which I don’t know the answer. . . I think, being very frank about it, that at the time he gave Johnson the chairmanship of the Space Council it was not a position that was among the highest priorities he faced, or among those that most interested him.”4

Early Attempts at Space Cooperation

Theodore Sorensen recalls that “it is no secret that Kennedy would have preferred to cooperate with the Soviets” in space rather than compete with them.1 In light of his soon-to-be-made decision to enter a space race in com­petition with the Soviet Union, it is worth noting that JFK’s initial priority on becoming president was to make space an area for U. S.-Soviet cooperation. Kennedy came into the White House believing that science and technology could be used as tools to advance foreign policy interests and to reduce inter­national tensions, and hoping that the habits of cooperation developed in sectors such as science and technology could spill over into areas more cen­tral to security interests. As a presidential candidate, Kennedy had said that “wherever we can find an area where Soviet and American interests permit effective cooperation, that area should be isolated and developed.”

Space was one of those areas; Kennedy noted that “when the United States has at last developed rockets with larger thrust, certain aspects of the exploration of space might be handled by joint efforts; for the cost of space efforts will mount radically as we move ambitiously outward.”2 Kennedy’s transition task force on space reinforced the view that space offered a prom­ising area for cooperation. The report of the Wiesner panel said that “our space activities, particularly. . . in the exploration of our solar system, offer exciting possibilities for international cooperation with all the nations of the world. The very ambitious and long-range space projects would prosper if they could be carried out in an atmosphere of cooperation as projects of all mankind instead of in the present atmosphere of national competition.”3 President Kennedy soon followed up the call in his inaugural address “to explore the stars together” with a more detailed and specific proposal. In his State of the Union address on January 30, 1961, Kennedy announced:

This Administration intends to explore promptly all possible areas of cooperation with the Soviet Union and other nations “to invoke the wonders of science instead of its terrors.” Specifically, I now invite all nations—including

the Soviet Union—to join with us in developing a weather prediction program, in a new communications satellite program and in preparation for probing the distant planets of Mars and Venus, probes which may someday unlock the deepest secrets of the universe.

Today this country is ahead in the science and technology of space, while the Soviet Union is ahead in the capacity to lift large vehicles into orbit. Both nations would help themselves as well as other nations by removing these endeavors from the bitter and wasteful competition of the Cold War.4

The launch of Yuri Gagarin on April 12 shifted Kennedy’s attention from how to cooperate in space to how to enter, and win, the space race. Even so, the notion that cooperation was a more desirable path than competition stayed with him, and the White House in late May 1961 made one more attempt to engage the Soviet Union in a cooperative mission to the Moon, even as Kennedy announced his decision to send Americans to the lunar surface. Again in 1962, after the successful flight of John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth, Kennedy offered to Premier Nikita Khrushchev a range of cooperative possibilities, this time in areas other than lunar explo­ration. Khrushchev agreed to discuss these possibilities, and in 1962 and 1963 there were NASA-Soviet Academy of Sciences discussions that reached agreement in principle to cooperate. However, there was only modest sub­stantive cooperative activity in subsequent months and years.

This chapter focuses on attempts during 1961 and 1962 to foster U. S.-Soviet cooperation in space, since they were of direct personal inter­est to President Kennedy. In a reversal from the position taken during the Eisenhower administration, where the emphasis with respect to space cooperation was on developing international arrangements and controls, Kennedy believed that direct cooperation between the two Cold War rivals was likely to make a greater contribution to an overall reduction in bilateral and thus global tensions.5 The development of cooperative relations in space with other countries rarely rose to the presidential level for decision. NASA from its inception did develop such relations, particularly with Canada and the countries of Western Europe, but those emerging relationships are not discussed here.6

Khrushchev Seems to Accept Kennedy’s Offer

What was correct on October 31 changed dramatically on the following day. Nikita Khrushchev finally addressed President Kennedy’s proposal in a state­ment at a November 1 Kremlin reception. He said that “it was with great attention that we studied President Kennedy’s proposal for a joint moon project.”51 He suggested that “were a relaxation in international tension in relations between states not only reached morally, so to speak, but were it supported by practical steps in the field of disarmament, then the sphere of cooperation between states in exploring outer space could be materi­ally expanded. We consider, with due attention to the proposal of the U. S. President, that it would be useful if the USSR and the US pooled their efforts in exploring space for scientific purposes, specifically for arranging a joint flight to the moon. Would it not be fine if a Soviet man and an American or Soviet cosmonaut and an American woman flew to the moon? Of course it would.”52

This statement appeared to represent a decision by Nikita Khrushchev to reverse Soviet policy and to accept President Kennedy’s offer of cooperation in going to the Moon. According to Khrushchev’s son Sergey, this indeed is what happened in the weeks following Kennedy’s United Nations speech. The Soviet leader “for the first time openly spoke about cooperating with the United States on a lunar landing project.” Khrushchev was “steeling for a fight to change the military’s position on the issue, certainly a difficult undertaking given the kind of secrets that would be put at risk in imple­menting such a joint project.”53 According to Sergey Khrushchev, there were several reasons for this shift in his father’s views. In contrast to 1961, when a positive response to Kennedy’s Vienna offer of cooperation was rejected because such cooperation would provide the United States a way of knowing how few long-range missiles the Soviet Union possessed, in 1963 “we had a sufficient number of the R-16 missile, and from the combined work the Americans could learn about our strength and not our weakness.” Also, “he [Nikita Khrushchev] was attracted by the perspective of sharing expenses and in this way economize his own resources.” Finally, “the political climate had changed after the Cuban missile crisis, and my father began to trust Kennedy more.”54

Nikita Khrushchev’s comment that he was open to cooperation acceler­ated the U. S. planning process; the need to create a coherent proposal from the ideas put forward in the preceding month was evident. Schlesinger of the White House and Harlan Cleveland and Richard Gardner of the State Department’s International Organization Bureau visited NASA on November 5 for a briefing on NASA’s planning on “the stages which might be involved in exploring whether collaboration might be possible.” Schlesinger noted that NASA’s plans were “procedural rather than substantive in character,” focusing, as was the consistent NASA preference, on exchange of informa­tion on existing programs and plans. It was Schlesinger’s impression “that NASA remains rather negative about the whole idea” of lunar collabora­tion. The NASA view, as expressed in its response to the October 14 U. Alexis Johnson letter, was that “eventual substantive steps would depend on the confidence established by these early procedural steps.” Schlesinger sug­gested that to move the effort forward “an expression of Presidential interest in their progress” might be appropriate.55

Missing from the discussion both before and after the presidential initia­tive regarding cooperation in going to the Moon had been Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson and the National Aeronautics and Space Council. By this point in the Kennedy administration, the vice president often had not been included in the development of new space initiatives; even so, his seem­ing lack of involvement in a fundamental shift in U. S. space policy is nota­ble. Schlesinger comments that by 1963 Johnson “had faded astonishly into the background” and that the vice president “appeared almost as a spectral presence.”56 On November 1, Space Council executive secretary Welsh had told Johnson that the significance of the Khrushchev statement was “further support to the view that the Soviets have a lunar program”; it was “neither an acceptance nor a refusal of President Kennedy’s proposal for cooperation— just an expression of interest,” reflecting “the standard Soviet line that they are for peace and disarmament, and that cooperation is dependent upon ten­sions first being relieved.”57 This memorandum suggests how far Welsh and by implication Johnson were from the main thrust of White House thinking on cooperative prospects.

The White House moved quickly on Schlesinger’s suggestion of an expres­sion of presidential interest in moving forward on planning for cooperation. On November 8, Schlesinger and National Security Council staff person Charles Johnson drafted a presidential directive in this vein, and “checked [it] in substance” with “dependable people in NASA and State,” who were reported to be “enthusiastic” about such a message. NASA administrator Webb also “heartily” concurred with the draft directive. The plan was to get the president to sign the directive before his planned trip to visit the space and missile facilities at Cape Canaveral on November 16, so that Kennedy in his conversations with Webb during the trip could “be saying the same things we have put in the directive.”58

The directive was signed by President Kennedy and issued on November 12 as National Security Action Memorandum 271, “Cooperation with the USSR on Outer Space Matters.” Unlike the February 1962 memo on space cooperation, which had been addressed to the secretary of state, this directive was addressed to NASA administrator Webb, and ordered him “to assume personally the initiative and central responsibility within the Government for the development of a program of substantive coop­eration with the Soviet Union in the field of outer space, including the development of specific technical proposals.” The directive added that “these proposals should be developed with a view to their possible discus­sion with the Soviet Union as a direct outcome of my September 20 pro­posal for broader cooperation between the United States and the USSR in outer space, including cooperation in lunar landing programs.” Kennedy asked for “an interim report on the progress of our planning by December 15.”59

Ten days later, President John F. Kennedy was dead, felled by an assassin’s bullets in Dallas. With him died the possibility of U. S.-Soviet cooperation in going to the Moon, although there was sufficient momentum behind the Kennedy initiative to keep it alive for a few more months.

Understanding Kennedy’s Commitment to Apollo

In the American public memory, John F. Kennedy stands as one of the most successful and important of U. S. presidents. This public image, however, is not universally shared by scholars of the presidency and of American gov­ernment. A half century after John Kennedy entered the White House, they disagree on how best to evaluate the Kennedy presidency. Some por­tray Kennedy as “a worldly, perceptive, strong, and judicious leader exud­ing confidence and charisma, deeply affected by the early crises of his administration, recognizing the rapid changes taking place in the world, and responding with a New Frontier of foreign policy initiatives.” Others have portrayed Kennedy as “a shallow, cynical, passionless and vainglorious politician, a traditional Cold Warrior, a weak and vulnerable president not always in control of his own foreign policy.” A more nuanced assessment is that President Kennedy was a “complex figure whose personality embraced elements of both images.”4

I believe that the narrative in the preceding chapters supports this last view, but also suggests that in the case of Kennedy’s commitment to the race to the Moon, it is the more positive of the two general portrayals that best describes his choices and behavior. In deciding to go to the Moon, and then reiterating that choice several times after extensive White House reviews, Kennedy demonstrated with respect to space a steadiness of pur­pose and a clear understanding of the arguments for and against imple­menting his choice. He had the flexibility to pursue a cooperative path if it were open to him, but his judgment that space leadership was in the U. S. national interest made him determined to compete if competition was necessary. Kennedy as he announced his decision to go to the Moon warned the American public and their congressional representatives that the undertaking would be “a heavy burden, and there is no sense in agree­ing or desiring that the United States take an affirmative position in outer space, unless we are prepared to do the work and bear the burdens to make it successful.” As his science adviser Jerome Wiesner commented, “I think he became convinced that space was the symbol of the twentieth century. It was a decision he made cold bloodedly. He thought it was good for the country.”5

The decision to go to the Moon was a choice that reflected particularly American characteristics, such as the assumption that the U. S. democratic system of government was superior to all alternatives, that the United States was rightfully the exemplar for other nations, and that meeting challenges to the U. S. position as the leading world power justified the use of extensive national resources to achieve success.6 Not only the security of the United States was seen at stake; the decision reflected an almost messianic, expansive drive, one resulting in a sense of destiny and mission, which has for a long time been part of the American world view. The validity of this assumption of American exceptionalism is, of course, open to challenge, but that is not my point. Rather, I conclude that it was this perspective that justified in the minds of President Kennedy and many of his key advisers the decision to begin, as Kennedy said in his speech announcing the decision, what they knew would be an expensive and difficult “great new American enterprise” aimed at winning the battle between “freedom and tyranny” for the “minds of men everywhere who are attempting to make a determination of which road they should take.”

President Dwight Eisenhower had come to a different judgment of the importance of space achievement (or rather its lack of importance) in terms of preserving U. S. global leadership, which he saw as being based more on a sound defense, fiscal soundness, and social stability. John Kennedy, with his much more activist approach to government, had an opposing view. Kennedy was not at all a visionary in the sense of having a belief in the value of future space exploration; rather, his vision was that space capability would be an essential element of future national power, and thus that the United States should not by default allow the Soviet Union to have a monopoly of large-scale capabilities to operate in “this new ocean.” I believe that this was a wise judgment, one from which the United States has benefitted over the past half century. Perhaps the technical capabilities developed for Apollo were in fact too large and too expensive for subsequent regular use, but the principle that the United States should be the leading spacefaring nation has served the country well.

As Walter McDougall observed, “perhaps Apollo could not be justified, but, by God, we could not not do it.” Even the fiscally conservative Bureau of the Budget (BOB) agreed, commenting in a 1963 analysis that “we are inclined to agree with the conclusion that the fundamental justification at this time for a large-scale space program lies. . . in the unacceptability of a situation in which the Russians continue space activities on a large scale and we do not.”

The Future of Human Space Flight

The initial U. S. human space flight effort, Project Mercury, was a very basic undertaking, intended primarily to investigate the human ability to sur­vive being launched into space and returning to Earth and to perform vari­ous simple tasks in the weightless environment while in orbit. Planning for a human space flight program to follow Mercury began within NASA in 1959. The first task was to select the objective for that program. To do this, NASA formed a Research Steering Committee on Manned Space Flight in April 1959. At the committee’s first meeting the next month, George Low, who was responsible for human space flight at NASA headquarters, sug­gested that the committee “adopt the lunar landing mission as its present long range objective with proper emphasis on intermediate steps, because this approach will be easier to sell.” The committee concluded its meeting without agreeing whether such a mission, or a less ambitious mission to fly around the Moon without landing, was the better choice of a long – range objective.37 By the time the group met the following month, Low had convinced his colleagues that the lunar landing mission was indeed the appropriate long-term goal for NASA’s human space flight program. Operating without top-level political guidance and basing their choice on what constituted from a space program point of view a rational program of human space flight development, NASA planners thus chose the lunar land­ing objective almost two years before John F. Kennedy made his decision to send Americans to the Moon.

In late July 1960, Administrator Glennan approved the suggestion of the NASA director of space flight programs, Abe Silverstein, that the post-Mer­cury program be named Project Apollo. Silverstein had picked the name out of a Greek mythology book because he thought that the image of the god Apollo riding his chariot across the Sun gave the best representation of the grand scale of the proposed project. Project Apollo faced a high degree of political uncertainty, however. President Eisenhower and many of his advis­ers were skeptical of the long-term value of human space flight, and were not inclined to approve an undertaking as ambitious as sending U. S. astronauts to the Moon. As NASA and the BOB developed a space budget for fiscal year 1962, no funds were included for the Apollo spacecraft.

The leadership of the U. S. scientific community reinforced skepticism from White House regarding the human space flight. In December 1960, eighteen months after leaving his position as Eisenhower’s science adviser, James Killian suggested that “many thoughtful citizens are convinced that the really exciting discoveries in space can be realized better by instruments than by man.” Killian was aware of NASA’s ambitious plans, and cautioned that “unless decisions result in containing our development of man-in-space systems and big rocket boosters, we will soon have committed ourselves to a multi-billion dollar space program.” He asked, rather rhetorically, “Will sev­eral billion dollars a year additional for enhancing the quality of education do more for the future of the United States and its position in the world than several billion dollars a year additional for man-in-space?”38

Killian’s successor as science adviser, Harvard professor George Kistiakowsky, also was skeptical of the concept of a fast-paced human space flight program intended to win a “space race” with the Soviet Union. In a 1959 discussion paper on “To Race or Not to Race?” Kistiakowsky noted that “there is a well-established military maxim that advises against engag­ing in battle on the field of the enemy’s choosing, but that is precisely what we have committed ourselves to, publicly interpreting Soviet achievements as a challenge for a contest based on that unique and narrow technological specialty—rocketry—in which they excel.” He asked “to what extent and how?” should the United States disengage from such a space race and noted that “our strength is that our satellites and space probes have provided us with more scientific information than the Soviets’ did.” He suggested that “we should hammer this home” and “dismiss the current weight superiority of Soviet payloads as unessential.”39 Kistiakowsky formed an ad hoc panel of the President’s Science Advisory Committee (PSAC) in September 1960 “to present the costs of our [human] space activities to the President and to the attention of the next administration.” In an early meeting of the panel, Kistiakowsky asked its members to spell out in its report “what cannot be done in space without man.” His view that there were relatively few things that met this criterion, and thus building the rockets necessary for ambitious human missions “has to be thought of as mainly a political rather than a scientific enterprise.”40

The six-person Ad Hoc Panel on Man-in-Space completed its report in December. The panel was chaired by PSAC member and Princeton University chemist Donald Hornig. The panel worked closely with NASA during its investigation. The panel’s report noted that “the most impelling reason for our [space] effort has been the international political situation which demands that we demonstrate our technological capabilities if we are to maintain our position of leadership.” The report called Project Mercury “a somewhat mar­ginal effort, limited by the thrust of the Atlas booster.” As a result of this limitation, there was not “a high probability of a successful flight while also providing adequate safety for the Astronaut.” The report noted that “a dif­ficult decision will soon be necessary as to when or whether a manned flight should be launched” and that “ the chief justification for pushing Project

Mercury on the present schedule lies in the political desire either to be the first nation to send a man into orbit, or at least to be a close second.”41

With respect to future missions, the panel noted that they depended on the availability of the Saturn launch vehicle, and that a circumlunar mission could only be attempted only when the Saturn C-2 with a hydrogen-fueled upper stage became available. The panel estimated that this would be in 1968 or 1969, with an initial attempt at a circumlunar mission around 1970. This was several years later than what NASA had indicated was possible. The Saturn C-2 would also be needed to launch the three-person Apollo spacecraft into Earth orbit to function as a space laboratory, but the panel thought that “the valid scientific missions to be performed by a manned laboratory of this size could be accomplished using a much smaller instru­mented spacecraft.” The panel observed that “none of the boosters now planned for development are capable of landing on the moon with sufficient auxiliary equipment to return the crew safely to Earth. To achieve this goal, a new program much larger than Saturn will be needed.”

The PSAC report suggested that “certainly among the major reasons for attempting the manned exploration of space are emotional compulsions and national aspirations. These are not subjects that can be discussed on techni­cal grounds… It seems, therefore, to us at the present time that man-in­space cannot be justified on purely scientific grounds.” That being said, the panel observed that “it may be argued that much of the motivation and drive for the scientific exploration of space is derived from the dream of man’s get­ting into space himself.”

The panel estimated the costs of the Mercury, Apollo circumlunar, and lunar landing programs. It included in the costs of each program the expenses connected with robotic activities undertaken in its support, and used 1975 as the target date for the first lunar landing. The estimates were as follows:

Project Mercury—$350 million

Apollo circumlunar—$8 billion

Manned lunar landing—an additional $26 to $38 billion.

The cost estimates for Project Mercury and the Apollo circumlunar mission came from NASA. The PSAC panel developed the cost estimate for the lunar landing mission on its own; its estimate was dramatically higher than any that NASA was developing at the time.42

The panel’s report was presented to President Eisenhower at a National Security Council meeting on December 20, 1960. There are various accounts of his reaction, none of them suggesting a positive response. Kistiakowsky reported that Eisenhower “was shocked and even talked about complete ter­mination of man-in-space programs.” (Kistiakowsky also says that he had “learned secondhand that the president-elect was also shown our report before the inauguration and had a negative reaction to the moon-landing proposition.”) Glennan observed that “The president was prompt in his response: ‘He couldn’t care less whether a man ever reaches the moon.’ ” NASA’s associate administrator (the agency’s number three position), Robert

Seamans, who had joined the space agency in September 1960, said that Eisenhower asked for an explanation of the reasons for undertaking such an ambitious and expensive program, and that one response compared the lunar journey to the voyages of Columbus to America, which were financed by Spain’s Queen Isabella. Eisenhower reacted by asserting that he was “not about to hock his jewels” to send men to the Moon.43

Reflecting the president’s views as voiced at the December 20 meeting, the draft of Eisenhower’s last budget message said that there was no scientific or defense need for a man-in-space program beyond Mercury. Glennan went to see science adviser Kistiakowsky on January 3, 1961, to argue that such a statement was “unwise,” and succeeded in getting the statement modified. In his final budget message, Eisenhower instead said that “further test and experimentation will be necessary to establish if there are any valid scientific reasons for extending manned space flight beyond the Mercury program.”44 If there was going to be a follow on the Project Mercury, it would be new President John Kennedy who would have to approve it, and it was prob­able that such approval would have to be based on other than a scientific rationale.

Despite the negative signals from the outgoing administration, NASA’s internal planning for Project Apollo and a lunar landing project to follow it had continued. On October 17, 1960, George Low had told his boss, Abe Silverstein, “it has become increasingly apparent that a preliminary program for manned lunar landings should be formulated. This is necessary in order to provide a proper justification for Apollo, and to place Apollo schedules and technical plans on a firmer foundation.”45 Low formed a small working group to develop such a program. The Space Task Group at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Virginia, which was in charge of Project Mercury, and the von Braun team in Huntsville also were working on planning a lunar landing mission. The groups presented a status report on their efforts at a January 5 meeting of NASA’s Space Exploration Council. There was a “clear consensus” that such planning should continue under Low’s direction, but Administrator Glennan reminded his staff that there was no White House support for such an ambitious undertaking.46 While this was correct for the few days remaining in the Eisenhower administration, NASA’s preliminary planning for a lunar landing mission within months became a critical enabler of John Kennedy’s decision to go to the Moon.

First Decisions

As planning within NASA regarding future efforts continued, as NASA’s relationship with the Air Force was being stabilized, as a White House task force examined opportunities for U. S.-Soviet space cooperation,1 and as James Webb took the leadership reins at NASA, there were two major issues on which a short-term presidential decision was needed. One was the specific role with respect to space to be assigned to Vice President Lyndon Johnson. Although president-elect Kennedy had indicated in December 1960 that Johnson would have an important space role in his administration, the character of that role and how it would relate to the existing structure for space governance, in which the National Aeronautics and Space Council had played a peripheral role during the Eisenhower administration, remained to be defined. Second, by selecting James Webb as NASA administrator and asking him to recommend what he thought was the appropriate NASA pro­gram, President Kennedy virtually guaranteed that he would have to react to an early plea for an accelerated civilian space effort. Webb was a policy activ­ist, and he was unlikely to accept the relatively slow-paced space program that he had inherited from the Eisenhower administration. Although Kennedy and his policy, technical, and budget advisers hoped to delay decisions with respect to the space program until a fall 1961 review, Webb insisted that the president hear his arguments for budget increases as soon as possible.

Others Consulted

As part of his review, Vice President Johnson reached out to a number of individuals whom he thought could provide informed advice. For example, on April 24 he received a thirty-four-page report prepared over the weekend by George Feldman, a former staff member of the House space committee who had sought the job of NASA administrator, and Charles Sheldon of the Congressional Research Service. He also asked Welsh to get the views of Cyrus Vance, in April 1961 the top lawyer at the Department of Defense but formerly a member of Johnson’s Senate preparedness subcommittee staff.8

On Monday morning, April 24, Johnson held a “hearing” to solicit the views on what course of action he should recommend to President Kennedy. Presenting their views were individuals representing the three military ser­vices. To get a “keen sense of public reaction” to the kind of accelerated program that was emerging from his review, the vice president invited three prominent businessmen who were also close personal friends to listen to the presentations. They were George Brown of the Houston, Texas con­struction firm of Brown and Root (who had been a major Johnson cam­paign contributor); Frank Stanton, president of the Columbia Broadcasting System; and Donald Cook, vice-president of the American Electric Power Corporation. The three service representatives were Vice Admiral John T. Hayward, deputy chief of naval operations for research and development; Lieutenant General Bernard Schriever, commander of the Air Force systems command and the recognized pioneer of the Air Force space program; and Wernher von Braun, who had been transferred in June 1960 from the Army Ballistic Missile Agency to work for NASA but from Johnson’s perspective still could represent the Army’s views. Johnson had sent each of the three a copy of President Kennedy’s April 20 memorandum directly, not through their chain of command. (In fact, when he learned of the meeting after it had taken place, Secretary of Defense McNamara reportedly told the vice president that if he wanted military representation at a future meeting, it would be McNamara who would decide whom to send from the Department of Defense.) Also attending the session were Webb and Dryden from NASA, Rubel from DOD, science adviser Wiesner, and BOB staff.9

In opening the meeting, Vice President Johnson told the group that he could not “overstate the fact that ‘our Freedom is at stake.’ Communist domination of Space could lead to control over men’s minds as well as their very existence.” Johnson spoke of the “propaganda aspects, as well as the technological and the defense aspects.” He said “The President wants the best hard-headed advice he can get—and he wants it now” and “this meet­ing, complemented by anything you want to send in later, is called to get your specific views on what we can do to get this country into the Space lead.”10

Hayward told the meeting that he supported a large-scale U. S. space program with a lunar landing mission as a central goal. He believed that, from a national point of view, only the lunar landing mission made sense as a way of accelerating the space program. The Navy was concerned, reported Hayward, that the practical applications of space technology that provided assistance to naval operations, such as the use of satellites for navigation, reconnaissance, communications, and weather forecasting, not be neglected in any accelerated program. He stressed the need for an integrated, orderly space program rather than emphasis on one project at the cost of neglecting others.11

Schriever also urged that a program aimed at a lunar landing be adopted, primarily because “it would put a focus on our space program. If we had this sort of an objective, there were so many other things that would be required that you couldn’t avoid having a major space program. I felt that we needed a major national space program for prestige purposes, for those things we could see as having national security implications and because of the need for advancing technology.” Although the Air Force in 1958 had proposed a very similar idea—a lunar landing effort as a central focus of a national space program—Schriever in 1961 did not suggest Air Force management of such an effort, noting, “that never came up. At that point, there was no argument about who was going to run the program.”12

In an April 30 follow-up letter to the vice president, Schriever said that he held “a strong conviction that achievements in space in the critical decade ahead will become a principal measure of this nation’s position in world leadership—a world in which it is becoming increasingly obvious that there will be no second.” This letter addressed directly the questions in President Kennedy’s April 20 memorandum. It indicated several areas in which “we have a high probability of scoring a dramatic ‘first,’ ” including a lunar land­ing by 1967, capturing an object in space and returning it to Earth by 1963,13 the first flight of a nuclear propulsion upper stage by 1965, and establishing a communication satellite network over the Atlantic Ocean by 1963 and worldwide by 1964. Schriever suggested that

our currently projected space effort is dangerously deficient. It has been characterized by an attitude of defeatism and a seeming resignation to second place for the United States in the space competition with the Soviet Union. Placing a man in orbit has been called a “stunt.” . . . This negative philosophy places at serious and unacceptable risk both our national prestige and our military security. It fails to recognize the military potential of space and the fact that achievements in space have been the single most important influence in the world prestige equation.

A greatly expanded and accelerated space program can—and should—be undertaken. There is clear evidence that we have the resources to more than double the magnitude of our present space effort. All that is lacking is the decision to do so—a decision comparable to that made by the late President Franklin D. Roosevelt shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor when he called upon the nation to increase its annual airplane production from a few thousand to the seemingly impossible figure of 50,000 aircraft per year. The timid souls were routed. The response to the call of our President in that critical hour is a highlight of our nation’s history.14

Wernher von Braun summarized the views he had expressed in the meeting, which he characterized as “strictly my own,” in an April 29 memorandum to Vice President Johnson. He told Johnson that the United States had a “sport­ing chance of sending a 3-man crew around the moon ahead of the Soviets (1965/1966)” and “an excellent chance of beating the Soviets to the first landing of a crew on the moon (including return capability, of course).” This was because “a performance jump by a factor 10 over their present rockets is necessary to accomplish this feat. While today we do not have such a rocket, it is unlikely that the Soviets have it.” Given this likelihood, said von Braun, “we would not have to enter such a race towards this obvious next goal in space exploration against hopeless odds favoring the Soviets. With an all-out crash program I think we could accomplish this objective in 1967/1968.” This estimate reflected von Braun’s confidence that with adequate resources his rocket team could develop the large launch vehicle needed more rapidly than could its Soviet competitors. Echoing the call for a more centralized approach to the management of large-scale technological efforts that had been articulated by Robert McNamara on April 22, von Braun noted that “in the space race we are competing with a determined opponent whose peacetime economy is on a wartime footing. Most of our procedures are designed for orderly, peacetime conditions. I do not believe that we can win this race unless we take at least some measures which thus far have been con­sidered acceptable only in times of a national emergency.”15

Edward Welsh later on April 24 summarized the main points that had come out of the day’s meeting. Among them were the following:

• “We have a lot of built-in handicaps which the Russians don’t have, i. e., contracting procedures, variety of government agencies and private com­panies in the act, freedom of the press, etc.”

• “A lunar landing and return is not just a ‘stunt.’ Rather, it should be pushed as a basically important achievement of great technical and scien­tific importance.”

• “The distinction between ‘peaceful uses’ and defense uses for space is a handicap.”

• “We have to have a basic philosophy—make our objectives clear. This means not a ‘catch up’ philosophy but a leadership philosophy.”

• “Idealism is fine, but we have to be realistic in dealing with the rest of the world, as they will align themselves with the leader.”

• “The Russians are not going to wait for us, so we should shoot for targets ahead of where they are now.”

• “More money, more definite policies, and more effort are needed.”16

Neither Secretary of State Dean Rusk nor chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission Glenn Seaborg were at the initial meetings organized by the vice president, even though both were members of the Space Council. Johnson apparently did consult with Rusk by telephone to learn if the secretary of state foresaw any negative foreign policy impacts from an accelerated space program and if Rusk agreed that a program aimed at capturing leadership in space for the United States was politically desirable. Rusk did agree to this proposition. The top State Department staff persons on space issues, Philip Farley and Robert Packard, interacted with Welsh during the consultations and attended at least one meeting; also, Richard Gardner, deputy assistant secretary of state for international organization affairs, wrote the vice presi­dent on April 24, saying that “I believe the United States could redeem much of its lost prestige in the space race by scoring ‘a first’ in the field of communication satellites,” since such a success “would have very dramatic and obvious practical benefits to millions of people around the world.”17

There were no dissenters among those consulted to the notion that the country should undertake a vigorous space program funded at a significantly higher level than had been the case under the Eisenhower administration. There was little question, Johnson was told repeatedly, that such a program would have considerable political, strategic, technological, and economic pay­offs for the United States. For example, Donald Cook in a letter to Johnson a few weeks later argued that “actions in this field must, I believe, be based on the fundamental premise that achievements in space are equated by other nations of the world with technical proficiency and industrial strength. This proficiency and strength is, in turn, equated with World power. And the conclusion reached by other countries on the question of our position in the world in terms of power is and will be of fundamental importance in their determination as to which group, the West or the East, they will cast their lot.”

This view of the world situation—as a bipolar struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union for global leadership at a time that Communist parties were strong in many Western European countries and as newly inde­pendent nations were deciding which form of social and political organiza­tion to adopt—was at the root of U. S. foreign policy in the early months of the Kennedy administration. Cook’s views were commonly shared among the U. S. political and intellectual leadership, including President Kennedy himself. Cook’s letter continued: “On this premise, the goal that we must seek is the achievement of leadership in space—leadership which is both clear-cut and acknowledged. Our objective must be, therefore, not merely to overtake, but substantially to outdistance Russia. Any program with a lesser basic objective would be a second-rate program, worthy only of a sec­ond class power. And, most important, a lesser program would raise serious questions among other countries as to whether, as a nation, we had the will and the discipline necessary for leadership in the struggle to preserve a free society.”18

As the Space Council review proceeded, Vice President Johnson kept President Kennedy informed of its progress. At the April 25 ceremony at which President Kennedy signed the bill making the vice president the chair of a reorganized Space Council, Kennedy noted that “enactment of this measure is symbolic of our Government’s intention to translate leadership and determination into action. . . Working with the Vice President, I intend that America’s space effort shall provide the leadership, resources and deter­mination to step up our efforts and prevail on the newest of man’s physical frontiers.”19

On April 28, the vice president sent the president a six-page memorandum summarizing his space review to date. Johnson told Kennedy:

• “The U. S. has greater resources than the USSR for attaining space leader­ship but has failed to make the necessary hard decisions and to marshal those resources to achieve such leadership.”

• “This country should be realistic and recognize that other nations, regard­less of their appreciation of our idealistic values, will tend to align them­selves with the country they believe will be the world leader—the winner in the long run. Dramatic achievements in space are being increasingly identified as a major indicator of world leadership.”

• “If we do not make the strong effort now, the time will soon be reached when the margin of control over space and over men’s minds through space accomplishments will have swung so far on the Russian side that we will not be able to catch up, let alone assume leadership.”

• “Manned exploration of the moon, for example, is not only an achievement of great propaganda value, but it is essential as an objective whether or not we are first in its accomplishments—and we may be able to be first.”

• “There are a number of programs which the United States could pursue immediately and which promise significant world-wide advantage over the Soviets. Among these are communication satellites, meteorological and weather satellites, and navigation and mapping satellites.”

• “More resources and more effort need to be put into our space program as soon as possible.”

Edward Welsh, who drafted the memorandum, has suggested that “the decision to go to the moon was made immediately upon the receipt of the April 28th memorandum.” This seems not to have been the case. While President Kennedy at that point in time had given strong indications that he was inclined toward such a choice, two more weeks of review would take place before the decision became final.20