Category THE RACE

The Future of the Space Council

A contentious issue in developing the U. S. organizational approach to space during 1958 had been how best to coordinate the activities of the new space civilian space agency NASA, the Department of Defense and the military services, the Atomic Energy Commission, and other government agencies that might become involved in space activities. The Senate as it considered space legislation hoped to create a single integrated national space program, with civilian and military elements, rather than separate programs carried out by different agencies, and thought that some kind of formal policy­making and coordinating body was needed to achieve this objective. The White House did not want to interpose such a body between the operating space agencies and the president, and thus was resistant to the Senate pro­posal. After a July 7, 1958, one-on-one meeting at the White House between Dwight Eisenhower and Senate majority leader Lyndon Johnson, a primary advocate of the integrated approach to space, an agreement was reached on creating a policy-level body, to be chaired by the president. According to some accounts, at their meeting Johnson convinced President Eisenhower to chair the board. Other accounts suggest that it was Eisenhower who sug­gested this approach.27 Immediately after Johnson left the White House, Eisenhower phoned his deputy chief of staff, Wilton Persons, and told him that he and Johnson had “specifically agreed upon the President’s proposal of modeling the advisory group along the lines of the National Security Council: that the authority would be placed with the President.”28

Following the White House meeting, the policy board was named the National Aeronautics and Space Council. It would have eight members in addition to the president as chair. Other members would include the sec­retaries of state and defense, the NASA administrator, the chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, one additional government member, and three individuals from outside the government. Although Eisenhower had accepted the creation of such a Space Council, he made it clear to his associ­ates at the White House that

he had no intention of convening this body regularly, nor of acting as its pre­siding officer. He refused to use his discretionary power to appoint an execu­tive secretary or create a separate staff for the Space Council, and he asked [his science adviser James] Killian to preside at its infrequent meetings. Lyndon Johnson may have forced Eisenhower to accept the Space Council as his price for creating NASA, but the president would make sure it would remain a minor body that would never threaten his full control over the nation’s space policy.29

The Space Council indeed met infrequently and had little influence on space issues in the months following its creation. In a memorandum dated November 16, 1959, NASA administrator Glennan told President Eisenhower that the National Aeronautics and Space Council had not been “particularly useful or effective” and he doubted whether it could “usefully be employed in the management of the nation’s space program.” He rec­ommended that the president propose amendments to the 1958 Space Act to abolish the Council. However, when Glennan met with Eisenhower on January 8, 1960, he found that the president “seemed to have forgotten our earlier discussion,” even though in the interim the proposed changes in the Act had been drafted and were ready to be sent to the Congress. After this meeting, it was clear to Glennan that “discussions between the president and the legislative leaders (especially Lyndon Johnson) as well as with the mem­bers of the Space Council would be necessary before the amendment could be proposed to Congress.” Eisenhower and Glennan met with Johnson and senior Republican senator Styles Bridges at the White House on January 13 to let them know about the proposed changes in the Space Act; Glennan quotes Johnson as saying “Well, Mr. President, you will remember that you were the one who really wanted this Space Council, and if you want to do away with it now, I’m certain it will be all right with me.”30

The proposed amendment to the Space Act was sent to Congress in January 1960 and approved by the House of Representatives five months later, on June 9. But the Senate refused to act, primarily because Lyndon Johnson, majority leader and, at the time, still candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, opposed the changes, despite what he had told Eisenhower in January. Glennan met again with Johnson on June 23, but was unsuccessful in convincing him to bring the proposed changes before the Senate for approval. Glennan reports Johnson as saying “I don’t see any reason for giving you a new law at the present time. If I am elected president, you will get a changed law without delay.”31 On August 31, Johnson, speak­ing not only as Senate majority leader but also by then as the Democratic candidate for vice president, justified his opposition to changing the Space Act in a memorandum inserted in the Congressional Record: “One fact is of overriding importance. A new President will take office on January 20, 1961—less than five months from now. The next President could well have different views as to the organization and function of the military and civil­ian space programs. Any changes in the Space Act at this session will have little or no effect on the space program during the next few months, but could restrict the freedom of action of the next president.”32

It is unlikely that at this point Johnson envisioned a scenario in which John Kennedy, if elected president, would decide to revitalize the Space Council and turn over its chairmanship to his vice president, i. e., Lyndon Johnson. But four months later, that is precisely what happened.

Planning for a Lunar Landing Mission

Beginning in October 1960, NASA had begun to investigate in a preliminary fashion the technological and budgetary requirements for a lunar landing program. After an interim report on this planning effort at a January 5, 1961, meeting of NASA’s Space Exploration Program Council, a small group led by NASA’s program chief for manned space flight George Low was char­tered to continue further investigation into those requirements. The basic objective of Low’s group at that time was to answer the question: “What is NASA’s Manned Lunar Landing Program?”41

Low submitted his group’s fifty-one page report on February 7. Two methods for accomplishing the lunar landing mission were examined: “direct ascent,” i. e., launching on one very large rocket the spacecraft, fuel, and other equipment needed to land on the Moon and return safely to Earth, and “rendezvous,” i. e., launching separately on smaller boosters the various elements required and assembling them in Earth orbit before departing for the Moon. Significantly, the group concluded that “no invention or break­through is believed to be required to insure the over-all feasibility of safe lunar flight.” An initial mission to the Moon would be possible in the 1968­1970 period with an average cost of $700 million per year for ten years, or a total of $7 billion. The report noted that the plan it presented “does not represent a ‘crash’ program, but rather it represents a vigorous development of technology. The program objectives might be met earlier with higher ini­tial funding, and with some calculated risks.”42

Low’s report and the supporting work done by NASA and its contractors on preliminary design of the three-person Apollo spacecraft and the Saturn C-2 launcher (at this point in time, the Nova launcher was only in the early conceptual design phase) would be important to the confidence of the NASA leadership in the following weeks as they responded to President Kennedy’s request for a mission that would give the United States an opportunity to claim space leadership. Between NASA’s 1959 choice of a lunar mission as the long-term objective of its human space flight program and Low’s February 1961 report, NASA had indeed laid the technological foundation for what John Kennedy would soon call “a great new American enterprise.”

Options Assessed

Lyndon Johnson and his space assistant, Space Council executive secretary Edward Welsh, quickly set to work after receiving JFK’s April 20 memo. Welsh was the only staff member of the Space Council at this point. The orga­nization of the review reflected the “Johnson system” of obtaining informa­

tion through personal contacts rather than formal organizational channels. Johnson consulted many of individuals whom he thought would signifi­cantly contribute to examining the space program. He met with officials from NASA, the Defense Department, the Atomic Energy Commission, and Wiesner’s office. At the suggestion of Welsh, a Bureau of the Budget (BOB) representative attended most of the meetings, so that the bureau could remain informed of the alternatives under discussion and assess their financial implications.2

As the review was getting underway, President Kennedy on April 22 reported to the National Security Council, meeting in the aftermath of the Bay of Pigs failure, that “he had asked the Vice President. . . to direct an inquiry into our space effort and make a report to me which I hope will constitute the basis of a Presidential Message on this subject to Congress.”3 It is worth noting that even before he received the vice president’s report, Kennedy anticipated a positive recommendation justifying a “Presidential Message” to the Congress; it is not clear whether at this point he had also decided to deliver that message in person. One indication that he was being pushed, if not already leaning, in that direction was an April 19 memoran­dum from Walt Rostow, who as a MIT professor had been a Kennedy cam­paign adviser and was in April 1961 on McGeorge Bundy’s national security staff. Rostow suggested that “as the first hundred days draw to a close, I believe you should consider a major address taking stock of where we are and where we should go, both at home and abroad.” Rostow identified an accelerated space effort as one of the potential topics in the speech.4

First Steps on the Way to the Moon

In anticipation of President Kennedy’s decision to approve a lunar landing project as a top priority national undertaking, NASA on May 2, 1961, had begun in earnest to examine just what would be required to carry out the president’s mandate. That examination revealed the immense dimensions of the task. New facilities would be needed, new approaches to space flight would be required, and new hardware would have to be developed. In his book Digital Apollo, David Mindell observes: “For the first couple of years the Apollo project was largely undefined, the money flowed freely, and the nerve-racking deadlines seemed far in the future.”1 This was certainly not the perception of those directly involved with the mobilization of human and financial resources required to carry out the lunar landing project. The second half of 1961 and most of 1962 were marked by a rapid series of decisions. To many of those in the White House and NASA concerned with attempting to meet the late 1967 target date that NASA had set for the first attempt at a lunar landing, there was a sense of urgency in getting a fast start on the needed buildup of people, facilities, and hardware; to them, “nerve-racking deadlines” were a daily reality.

Between the final Eisenhower budget request that went to the Congress in January 1961 and the Fiscal Year 1964 request that President Kennedy sent to Congress in January 1963, the NASA budget grew from $1.1 billion to $5.7 billion, an increase of over 400 percent in just two years. NASA in 1961 and 1962 chose the locations for the facilities that would be required for the lunar landing mission, selected and contracted for the launch vehicles and spacecraft to carry out the mission, and decided on the technical approach to landing on the Moon, this last decision resulting in an intense conflict with the White House science advisers. NASA reorganized itself for the task of managing Project Apollo while carrying out Project Mercury and get­ting started on an intermediate human space flight effort, Project Gemini. The NASA workforce increased from the 10,200 civil servants as John F. Kennedy came into the White House to 23,700 at the end of 1962; the total

would ultimately increase to 34,500 by the end of 1965. The associated contractor workforce grew at an even more rapid rate. At the end of 1960, it totaled 36,500; two years later, it was 115,000, and by the end of 1965, it was 376,700.2 This was truly an unprecedented warlike, albeit peaceful, mobilization of national resources.

President Kennedy and his White House associates viewed this rapid buildup with mixed emotions. On one hand, Kennedy made it very clear that getting to the Moon before the Soviet Union was one of his top policy priorities, and by the end of 1962 appeared willing to provide even more resources to NASA if doing so would increase the chances of achieving that objective. While Kennedy focused his interest on the lunar landing program, NASA argued that across-the-board preeminence—a clearly leading position in all areas of space activity—was the fundamental goal, and the lunar land­ing only the most visible element of achieving it.

On the other hand, the budget projections that had accompanied Kennedy’s May 1961 decision to go to the Moon and to accelerate the other elements of the NASA program were admittedly highly uncertain, and the Bureau of the Budget (BOB) had warned Kennedy that the decisions he was making would lead to a very expensive space effort in the coming years. In his desire to get the country on the path to space leadership, Kennedy seem­ingly did not pay very much attention to that warning. Theodore Sorensen comments that although JFK was a “fiscal tightwad,” at the time of the lunar landing decision “ I’m sure he had no idea what the whole effort was going to cost.”3 Kennedy soon became concerned about the space program’s rapidly growing costs, and this concern intensified during 1962 as the full scope of the lunar landing effort became clearer. Kennedy pressed his staff to make sure that the related costs were fully justified. Even so, at the end of 1962 Kennedy’s determination to win the race to the Moon remained firm; his desire to be first in space justified in his mind the high costs of achieving that position.

What is the Goal-Getting to the Moon First or Space. Preeminence?

The meeting took place on November 21; it was also an occasion to review NASA’s budget proposal for Fiscal Year 1964. The BOB had not yet for­warded to the president Webb’s October 29 letter about the budgetary impli­cations of accelerating the target date for the first lunar landing. Like many communications to the president from government agencies, this letter had been referred to one of the staff agencies of the executive office, in this case BOB, for review and a decision of whether it needed direct presidential attention. Kennedy may well have wondered why he had not heard from Webb after asking him about this possibility on his September tour, and that could have added to his concern about the accuracy of the Time article. Of course, Kennedy had also been immersed with the Cuban missile crisis and the midterm congressional elections in the interim. Budget director Bell prepared a November 13 memorandum on the NASA budget situation that incorporated the schedule and budget estimates in Webb’s October letter; this memorandum was distributed to all participants in the meeting. In his memorandum, Bell identified two policy issues on which presidential guid­ance was needed: [2]

subjected to the restrictive budgetary ground rules applicable in 1964 to

other programs of the Government.”

NASA’s budget request for FY1964 was $6.2 billion, including $4.6 bil­lion for the lunar landing program and $1.6 billion for all other NASA activ­ities. To keep the program on an “optimum” schedule aiming at a mid-1967 landing, Bell told the president, would require a supplementary appropriation of over $400 million in 1963 and about $550 million above the estimates for FY1964 made three months earlier. NASA’s recommended program aiming at a late 1967 landing would not require a FY1963 supplement, but would require the full $4.6 billion funding in FY1964. As Webb’s October 29 letter had indicated, advancing the target date to late 1966 would require a $900 million supplement and “create enormous additional management problems.” Bell noted that “in NASA’s view and ours” such a course of action “would not appear to offer enough assurance of actually advancing the date of a successful attempt to be worth the cost and other problems involved.” Bell also offered a lower cost option that would slip the landing target date to late 1968; that option would require $3.7 billion for the lunar landing program in FY1964 rather than $4.6 billion and was “significant as indicating probably about the lowest 1964 estimate under which the first actual manned lunar landing might still be expected to occur during this decade, after a realistic allowance for slippage.” Bell also reported that “our understanding of the latest intelligence estimates is that there is no evidence yet that the Russians are actually developing either a larger booster. . . or ren­dezvous techniques.” Thus “extreme measures to advance somewhat our own target dates may not be necessary to preserve a good possibility that we will be first.” This may have been one of the first warnings to President Kennedy that the race to the Moon he thought the United States was running may not have been a race at all. But as the November 21 meeting unfolded, it became clear that Kennedy was still in a race mentality.

With respect to the other portions of the NASA budget, Bell reported that it was NASA’s view that if there were any reduction in NASA’s $6.2 billion request, it should be applied “at least in part to the manned lunar landing program, in order to maintain a ‘balanced’ total program.” He added that “the Administrator and his principal assistants are fearful that the appeal and priority of the manned lunar landing program may turn NASA into a ‘one program agency’ with loss of leadership and standing in the scien­tific community at home and abroad, and inadequate provision for moving ahead with developments required for future capabilities in space.” The BOB did not agree with this line of argument, suggesting that the “unique sort of national decision” that led to the lunar landing program did not “auto­matically endow other space objectives and programs with a special degree of urgency.” The BOB suggested a $300 million cut in the “other activi­ties” part of the NASA budget, noting that while this amount might “seem small,” in the context of the overall space budget, it was “large compared to most other possibilities for adjustment in the 1964 budget.”21

Present at the November 21 meeting in addition to President Kennedy were James Webb, Hugh Dryden, Robert Seamans, and Brainerd Holmes from NASA; David Bell, his deputy Elmer Staats, and Willis Shapley from BOB; Edward Welsh (Vice President Johnson had been invited but was out of town); and Jerome Wiesner. At some point in the meeting, President Kennedy activated the secret tape recording system that had been installed in July 1962 in the Oval Office, in the cabinet room, and on his telephone.22 There is thus available a fascinating verbatim account of the portions of the meeting during which President Kennedy and James Webb got into a spir­ited discussion of the priority to be assigned to the lunar landing mission compared to other NASA activities.23 Excerpts of that conversation include:

Kennedy: Do you think this [lunar landing] program is the top priority of the agency?

Webb: No sir, I do not. I think it is one of the top priority programs.

Kennedy: Jim, I think it is the top priority. I think we ought to have that very clear. Some of these other programs can slip six months, or nine months, and nothing strategic is going to happen. . . But this is important for political reasons, international political reasons. This is, whether we like it or not, in a sense a race. If we get second to the Moon, it’s nice, but it’s like being second any time. So if we’re second by six months because we didn’t give it the kind of priority [needed], then of course that would be very serious. So I think we have to take the view that this is top prior­ity with us.

* * *

Kennedy: I would certainly not favor spending six or seven billion dollars to find out about space no matter how on the schedule we’re doing. . . Why are we spending seven million dollars on getting fresh water from salt water, when we’re spending seven billion dollars to find out about space? Obviously you wouldn’t put it on that priority except for the defense implications. And the second point is the fact that the Soviet Union has made this a test of the system. So that’s why we’re doing it. So I think we’ve got to take the view that this is the key program. . . Everything we do ought really to be tied to getting on the Moon ahead of the Russians.

Webb: Why can’t it be tied to preeminence in space?

Kennedy: Because, by God, we keep, we’ve been telling everybody we’re pre­eminent in space for five years and nobody believes it because they [the Soviets] have the booster and the satellite. . . We’re not going to settle the four hundred million this morning. . . But I do think we ought to get it, you know, really clear that the policy ought to be that this is the top prior­ity program of the agency, and one of the two things, except for defense, the top priority of the United States government.

I think that is the position we ought to take.

Now, this may not change anything about the schedule but at least we ought to be clear, otherwise we shouldn’t be spending this kind of money,

because I’m not that interested in space. I think it’s good, I think we ought to know about it, we’re ready to spend reasonable amounts of money. But we’re talking about these fantastic expenditures which wreck our budget and all these other domestic programs and the only justification for it in my opinion to do it in this time or fashion is because we hope to beat them and demonstrate that starting behind, as we did by a couple of years, by God, we passed them.

In the course of the November 21 meeting, Brainerd Holmes apolo­gized for letting his differences with James Webb get into the press. He said: “I ought to add that I’m very sorry about this. I have no disagreement with Mr. Webb. . . I think my job is to say how fast I think we can go for what dollars.”

Just before he left the meeting, President Kennedy requested a letter from NASA stating clearly the agency’s position. First, Dryden drafted a relatively brief reply; then Seamans prepared a more extensive response. He took his draft to James Webb, who had stayed home from work with a severe migraine headache. (Seamans comments that “it’s not surprising that one occurred at this time.”) Seamans and Webb revised the letter to their and Dryden’s satisfaction; it was sent to President Kennedy on November 30. At that point, final decisions on the NASA FY1964 budget had still not been made, and so the nine-page letter included a plea for approval of NASA’s $6.2 billion request. The bulk of the letter supported the position that “the objective of our national space program is to become pre-eminent in all important aspects of this [space] endeavor and to conduct the program in such a manner that our emerging scientific, technological, and operational competence in space is clearly evident.” The letter noted that “the manned lunar landing program provides currently a natural focus for the develop­ment of national capabilities in space and, in addition, will provide a clear demonstration to the world of our accomplishments in space.” However, the letter argued, “the manned lunar landing program, although of the highest national priority, will not by itself create the pre-eminent position we seek.”24

Because Vice President Johnson was not present at the November 21 meeting, he was separately asked for his views on the issues discussed there. Budget director Bell wrote Johnson on November 28, saying that “the President would appreciate your views” on whether the manned lunar land­ing “should be regarded as the top priority program—or as one of the top priority programs” and on the “desirability and feasibility of augmenting the funding for the manned lunar landing program in the present fiscal year.” Johnson replied to Kennedy on December 4. He told the president that “as to the matter of relative priorities, I consider your Messages and Budget requests have made it clear that the Manned Lunar Landing Effort has the highest priority even though other projects are to be pursued vig­orously.” Between November 21 and his reply to Kennedy, Johnson had met with Brainerd Holmes for an hour to discuss the impact of a FY1963 budget supplement on the Apollo schedule, and had concluded that, “while I would urge any action that would have a reasonable chance of accelerat­ing the Manned Lunar Landing project target date,” he concurred with the conclusion of the NASA leadership that a “supplemental appropriation could not be made available in time to advance that date much, if any.”25

Even with all that he had heard, President Kennedy did not easily give up on the idea that the lunar landing program could be accelerated. As Kennedy toured various nuclear facilities in New Mexico and Nevada in early December 1962, he asked Wiesner to look once more into “the pos­sibility of speeding up the lunar landing program.” Wiesner on January 10, 1963, reported to Kennedy that “approximately 100 million dollars of the previously discussed 326 million dollar supplementary could have a very important effect on the schedule.” Wiesner thought that funds in this amount might be transferred from the Department of Defense budget to pay for DOD involvement in NASA’s Project Gemini, the new NASA program to test out rendezvous activities in Earth orbit and to serve as a bridge between Mercury and Apollo. Wiesner told the president that funds in that amount could be used to advance the date of the first Saturn V launch by some five months, and there was some chance that this accelera­tion could allow an earlier attempt at the landing. Wiesner noted that “the date of the first lunar landing attempt can be accelerated only” if Saturn V availability were advanced. Kennedy the same day sent the Wiesner memo­randum with these suggestions to Vice President Johnson, asking for his views. Johnson replied on January 18, telling Kennedy that “the people we need on the Hill tell me that the supplemental request would be inadvis­able and could not be approved in time to accelerate the program.” With that response, the thought of requesting supplemental funds for NASA was put to rest.26

Even before this January exchange of correspondence, as the final bud­get decisions for Fiscal Year 1964 were made by the president and BOB in December 1963, any thought of a supplemental request for FY1963 were abandoned, reluctantly on the president’s part. Kennedy had once again accepted the position of NASA administrator Webb on how best to go for­ward. Indeed, BOB made reductions in both the lunar landing budget and the “other activities” portion of the NASA request. The president in mid – January 1963 sent a FY1964 budget proposal to the Congress requesting $5.712 billion for NASA, an almost half-billion dollar cut from what NASA had requested in September. Although the increase was not what NASA had hoped for, it still reflected a 55 percent jump over NASA’s FY1963 appro­priation.


By the end of 1962, the White House appeared to have accepted the arguments set forth in the November 30 NASA letter arguing that the lunar landing program, though clearly a very high NASA priority, was in itself insuffi­cient to achieve the goal of American space preeminence—a clearly leading position in all areas of space activity. Seamans noted that “whether from agreement, exhaustion, or diversion, President Kennedy gave tacit approval to NASA’s programs and policies by not engaging us in further discussion on the questions of NASA’s top priority.” Seamans adds: “Preeminence in space on all fronts was our goal; landing men on the Moon was the top (DX) priority.”27

During 1963, John Kennedy was no longer totally focused on how soon the United States could get to the Moon; he seemed in fact to have accepted NASA’s argument that preeminence in all areas of space activity was the more appropriate goal. In addition, at least some of the president’s associ­ates, and perhaps Kennedy himself, questioned whether getting to the Moon before the Soviet Union remained a compelling national objective. Indeed, Kennedy asked, might it be both desirable and feasible to cooperate, rather than compete, with the Soviet Union in humanity’s first journeys beyond Earth orbit? John Kennedy had brought with him the idea that space might be a particularly promising arena for tension-reducing U. S.-Soviet coopera­tion as he entered the White House in January 1961, and it had never totally disappeared from his thinking.

Was Cooperation Really Possible?

In the first weeks of November 1963 there was seemingly a real opportunity to act on President Kennedy’s initiative to turn the lunar landing program into a cooperative enterprise. But was the United States ready to seize that opportunity? And was meaningful cooperation technically feasible?

In the weeks following the president’s United Nations speech, the lack of a Soviet response had left U. S. officials somewhat uncertain on how to proceed. This did not put a halt, however, to thinking about the issue. On the Monday following the president’s Friday address, NASA administrator Webb drafted “policy guidance for NASA staff.” Webb sent a copy to the White House, where it was approved by McGeorge Bundy the same day. The only deletion Bundy made from Webb’s draft was to strike a sentence saying “No one should be misled by any feeling that the President has put this for­ward as a political move or as a sign of weakening support for the program.” Webb pointed out that the president had said only that “we should explore” whether a joint moon mission was feasible, and that “the key word here is ‘explore,’ and the projection of the purpose as ‘joint’ is a statement of how far we would be willing to go in our ‘exploration’ talks and examination.” Webb added that “while we are putting forward to the Russians the possibil­ity of working with them, and opening up to the world the image of a nation prepared to address itself to all the problems of cooperation in this extremely important area to which weapons systems have not yet been extended, we must continue the forward drive of the US effort.” The NASA official in charge of the agency’s international relations, Arnold Frutkin, noted that “to jump from the suggestion that the matter be explored to the conclusion that the President was explicitly asking to put a US spacecraft upon a Soviet booster for a lunar voyage, or vice versa, or suggesting that American and Soviet astronauts be paired off for joint trips to the moon. . . were unwar­ranted” conclusions, yet “they served as the straw men for the shafts and arrows directed at the ‘feasibility’ of the proposal.”43 In thinking about how the president’s proposal might be implemented, should a positive response from the Soviet Union be received, NASA once again preferred a cautious, step-by-step approach. Webb pointed out that as a “first step” the United States and the Soviet Union could cooperate on choosing a landing site, and that “a joint effort could start with lots of things short of putting each other’s men on the same space craft.”44

Deputy under secretary of state U. Alexis Johnson wrote to Webb on October 14, noting that while the United States had not received a Soviet response to the president’s proposal, “we should have as clear as possible an understanding of the broad technical aspects involved,” should such a response be forthcoming. Johnson noted that “it seems doubtful that the Soviets will soon bring themselves to face up to the severe security, program­matic and political problems involved in discussing such a joint undertak­ing.” He asked Webb to suggest “What modes of cooperation would be most useful? Which would be practicable? Which would be most advantageous from the viewpoint of our national program? Which would be most likely to evoke a constructive response from the Soviets?”45

The NASA response to the State Department letter noted that “the objec­tive, as we understand it, is a substantive rather than a propaganda gain in relations with the Soviet Union, to be achieved through meaningful rather than token projects, with comparable contributions by both sides and with­out, at this stage, compromising our ability to pursue our own programs.” After listing several of the “virtually unlimited number of specific proposals” for cooperation, NASA indicated that it would “strongly prefer” that such proposals be used only “as a second resort.” Rather, “first priority should be placed instead on an escalating series of exchanges which are, in their initial stages, subject to verification and are, therefore, calculated to build a level of confidence upon which progressively significant cooperative activities may be based.” NASA pointed out that even the modest cooperative activities agreed to in June 1962 had not yet been implemented by the Soviet Union, which was “seriously delinquent” in this respect.46

Senior White House interest in cooperation intensified at the end of October. On October 25, McGeorge Bundy requested that interested par­ties prepare concrete proposals for how to proceed with planning for space cooperation negotiations with the Soviet Union. A few days later, Bundy received a specially prepared estimate of Soviet intentions from the CIA. That estimate was likely similar to the October 1 CIA analysis of the Soviet space program cited earlier. Since the later analysis had been completed after President Kennedy had made his September 20 cooperative proposal, it noted that “if the Soviets are not engaged in an all-out manned land­ing program, it is expected that they will substitute major goals or some­how reduce the effects of the U. S. accomplishment.” The CIA added that “a cooperative venture with the U. S. for a manned lunar landing would reduce the Soviet problems in this regard tremendously,” since then the Soviet Union could divert its space spending toward establishing several types of orbiting stations “of enough significance to dim somewhat the luster of the Apollo program.”47

On October 29, Wiesner gave President Kennedy a memorandum pro­posing a technical strategy for cooperation. He said that his proposal would “decisively dispel the doubts that have existed in the Congress and the press about the sincerity and feasibility of the proposal itself.” Wiesner’s idea was “a joint program in which the USSR provides unmanned exploratory and logistic support for the U. S. Apollo manned landing.” Wiesner noted that “such a program would utilize the combined resources of the US and USSR in a technically practical manner and might, in view of Premier Khrushchev’s statement, be politically attractive to him.” He also suggested that while Apollo “would remain a purely U. S. technical program. . . A Russian could easily be included as a member of the landing team.” Wiesner suggested to Kennedy that “It might be extremely advantageous to you to publicly offer this plan to the USSR. . . while the Khrushchev statement is still fresh in the mind of the public. If the proposal is accepted we will have established a practical basis for a cooperative program. If it is rejected we will have demon­strated our desire for peaceful cooperation and the sincerity of our original proposal.”48

In the weeks following his United Nations speech, President Kennedy himself apparently did not push for taking next steps on an urgent basis, but he did maintain his interest in his proposal. On October 23, he sent a copy of The New York Times article of September 18 reporting on the Dryden-Blagonravov talks to James Webb, saying “I think it would be help­ful to collect clippings similar to the attached showing that the Russians are interested in getting a man on the moon. This would make an additional defense for our efforts.”49 It is not clear whether the “efforts” he was refer­ring to were the cooperative overture to the Soviet Union or to the lunar landing program itself.

In light of the negative comments about a Soviet moon program made on October 25 by Nikita Khrushchev, Kennedy was asked at an October 31 press conference: “do you think that Premier Khrushchev has actually taken the Soviet Union out of the so-called moon race, and in any case do you think that the United States should proceed as if there were a moon race?” Kennedy replied:

I didn’t read that into his statement____ I did not get any assurances that Mr.

Khrushchev or the Soviet Union were out of the space race at all.

* * *

The fact of the matter is that the Soviets have made a very intensive effort in space, and there is every evidence that they are continuing and that they have the potential to continue. I would read Mr. Khrushchev’s remarks very care­fully. I think that he said before anyone went to the moon, there should be adequate preparation. We agree with that.

In my opinion the space program we have is essential to the security of the United States, because as I have said many times before it is not a question of going to the moon. It is a question of having the competence to master this environment.

I think that we ought to stay with our program. I think that is the best answer to Mr. Khrushchev.

Asked whether it was true that the Soviet Union had made no response to his proposal for joint moon exploration, Kennedy replied “that is correct.”50

John F. Kennedy and the Race. to the Moon

The assassination of President John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963, had, of course, many consequences. One of them was turning the U. S. space program, and particularly the lunar landing effort, into a memorial to the fallen president. There was essentially no chance that the new president, Lyndon B. Johnson, would modify the goal set by President Kennedy in 1961, a goal that Johnson had himself so strongly recommended. To rein­force his commitment to President Kennedy’s space legacy, less than a week after the assassination Johnson announced that Cape Canaveral would be renamed Cape Kennedy and that the space launch facilities located there would be called the John F. Kennedy Space Center.1

In the more than five-and-a-half years between Kennedy’s death and the July 20, 1969 landing of Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the Moon, dedication to Kennedy’s commitment to achieving that feat “before this decade is out” sustained the program through delays and difficult times, including the death of three Apollo 1 astronauts in a launch pad accident on January 27, 1967. When the Apollo 11 command module Columbia returned to Earth, landing in the Pacific Ocean at dawn on July 24, 1969, a large video screen in Apollo Mission Control in Houston dis­played these words:

I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth.

John F. Kennedy to Congress, May 25, 1961

Above the image of the Apollo 11 mission patch on another screen appeared: Task accomplished July 1969

A half century has passed since President Kennedy decided to send Americans to the Moon, and almost forty years since the last two Apollo astronauts walked on the lunar surface. As noted in the prologue, historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. some years ago suggested that “the 20th Century will be remembered, when all else is forgotten, as the century when man burst his terrestrial bounds.”2 While the broadest historical significance of the initial journeys to Moon may indeed take centuries to fully appreciate, it is certainly possible to evaluate the impacts of the lunar landing program to date and of John F. Kennedy’s role in initiating the effort and continuing to support it until the day of his death.3 This chapter contains my assessment of what Kennedy’s commitment to the race to the Moon tells us about how John F. Kennedy carried out his duties as President of the United States; asks whether such a presidentially directed large-scale undertaking can serve as a model for other such efforts; and evaluates the several impacts of Project Apollo. I carry out this last evaluation in terms of how well Apollo served the objectives sought by President Kennedy in sending Americans to the lunar

John F. Kennedy and the Race. to the Moon

Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin and the U. S. flag on the lunar surface, July 20, 1969 (NASA photograph).

surface, in terms of its impact on the evolution of the U. S. space program since the end of Project Apollo, and in terms of how humanity’s first jour­neys beyond the immediate vicinity of their home planet will be viewed in the long sweep of history.

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