Category THE RACE

Civil-Military Relations

The most fundamental policy question to be addressed in the months fol­lowing the 1957 launches of Sputniks 1 and 2 was whether a new organiza­tion for space was needed, or whether all U. S. government space activities, including those with primarily civilian objectives, should be managed by the Department of Defense. In the weeks following the Sputnik launches, both the Army and the Air Force put forward ambitious space plans, and campaigned vigorously for primacy in the U. S. space effort. The Army claim was based in large part on the fact that German emigre Wernher von Braun and his rocket team worked at the Army Ballistic Missile Agency (ABMA) and that they constituted the country’s top reservoir of launch vehicle – related technical talent; in addition, the Army’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory had managed the development of the first U. S. satellite, Explorer 1, and could serve as the organization developing future satellites. AMBA in its struggle to gain an important space role developed ambitious plans in 1957 and 1958, beginning with a suborbital launch of a human and extending to establishing outposts on the Moon. The Army campaign was not suc­cessful, and by mid-1960, both the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and von Braun’s rocket team had been transferred to the new civilian space agency NASA.13

The Air Force claim took a different approach. Its chief of staff, General Thomas White, argued that “there is no division, per se, between air and space. Air and space are an indivisible field of operations.”14 To make this point, the Air Force in early 1958 coined the word “aerospace.” The implica­tion was that the service was the natural choice for the space role. The Air Force also rapidly developed ambitious plans for its space efforts, including putting a man into orbit as soon as possible and eventually sending humans to the Moon.15

President Eisenhower, upset by the competition between the two mili­tary services, established a Defense Advanced Research Agency (DARPA) in the Office of the Secretary of Defense as an interim step. DARPA, rather than one of the armed services, was to manage all U. S. space efforts, civil­ian and military, but it was not successful in establishing itself as the lead U. S. space agency. After several months of discussion within the Eisenhower administration, a March 1958 memorandum to the president argued that “because of the importance of the civil interest in space exploration, the long term organization of Federal programs in this area should be under civil­ian control.” The memorandum recommended that “leadership of the civil space effort be lodged in a strengthened and redesignated National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics.”16 That organization, known by most as NACA, had been the government’s primary aeronautical research and development organization since its creation in 1915. President Eisenhower accepted this recommendation, and on April 2, 1958, proposed the establishment of a National Aeronautics and Space Agency; his message to Congress included a draft bill “to provide for research into the problems of flight within and outside the earth’s atmosphere and for other purposes.”17 After four months of debate by the Congress, the National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958, establishing the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, was signed by President Eisenhower on July 29, 1958. The shift in organizational des­ignation from “agency” to “administration” upgraded the status of the new space agency within the executive branch hierarchy.18

Eisenhower selected T. Keth Glennan as the first NASA administrator. Glennan was “a Republican with a fiscally conservative bent, an aggressive businessman with a keen sense of public duty and an opposition to govern­ment intrusion into the lives of Americans, and an administrator and an educator with a rich appreciation of the role of science and technology in an international setting.”19 He was an engineer by training and had had a wide-ranging career, including a stint as a member of the Atomic Energy Commission. But he knew little about space science or technology, and had not followed the post-Sputnik debates leading to the creation of NASA; in his own words, “I didn’t have any idea what astronomy or geodesy or any of those things would mean in this strange world. I literally knew nothing.” Glennan agreed to take the position, but only on the condition that Hugh Dryden, the executive director of NACA, would be nominated as deputy administrator.

Many in Washington had expected Dryden to get the top NASA job; trained in aerodynamics, he had been the top official handling day-to-day affairs at NACA since 1949, and was a widely known and respected indi­vidual in the U. S. and international aeronautical research communities. However, some in Congress deemed his approach to space to be too cautious for the leader of the organization they had in mind, and thus had indicated to the White House that Dryden would not be acceptable as the first head of the space agency.20 This outcome was deeply disappointing for Dryden, but he overcame that disappointment to serve as NASA’s deputy administrator until his death in 1965. According to Keith Glennan, Dryden was “held in esteem by people all over the world” and was “gentle, quiet, wise, very wise, and an astute politician without being a politician.”21 Dryden stayed on in his position during the Kennedy administration and played a key role in the deliberations leading to the decision to go to the Moon.

NASA inherited three programs from the Department of Defense (DOD) that would later play important roles in the space efforts of the Kennedy administration. In August 1958, DARPA transferred its human space flight project (which in fact was originally an Air Force initiative) to NASA; the effort was soon named Project Mercury. According to the NASA history of the project, NASA “received authorization to carry out this primitive manned venture into lower space mainly because Eisenhower was wedded to a ‘space for peace’ policy. . . In 1958 there simply was no clear military justification for putting a man in orbit.”22 Even so, Eisenhower decided that the first U. S. people to fly in space, to be known as “astronauts,” should be drawn from the ranks of military test pilots.

Another DOD program inherited by NASA was a much more powerful launch vehicle than any rocket available to NASA in its early years. Known as Saturn C-1 and conceived and managed by the von Braun team, the lift-off thrust of the Saturn C-1 vehicle was to be 1.5 million pounds, four times more powerful than the 360,000 pounds thrust of the Atlas ICBM that NASA was planning to use for orbital flights in Project Mercury. The von Braun team also proposed developing a second version of the Saturn launch vehicle, known as the Saturn C-2. This version would have an upgraded ver­sion of the first stage of the Saturn C-1 and upper stages that would use very energetic but difficult to handle liquid hydrogen as its fuel; because of its very low temperature in a liquid state, this fuel was called “cryogenic.”

The third inherited DOD project was the very powerful F-1 rocket motor, designed to provide 1.5 million pounds of thrust, equivalent to the eight engines that were to power the first stage of the Saturn C-1. The F-1 was originally an Air Force project. During 1959-1960, the von Braun team developed the concept of an extremely powerful heavy lift launch vehicle called Nova, which was based on the use of up to eight F-1 engines in its first stage.23

By the end of 1959, just over a year after it began operation, NASA had developed a ten-year plan that identified various mission milestones and esti­mated the costs of achieving them. Among the highlights of the plan were the following:

1961-1962 Attainment of manned space flight, Project Mercury

1965-1967 First launchings in a program leading to manned circumlunar flight and to a permanent near-earth space station

Beyond 1970 Manned flight to the moon

The cost of this ten-year program was estimated to be between $12 billion and $13 billion.24

While the Army reconciled itself to a minor role in space with the loss of the von Braun team, the Air Force never accepted its loss of space leader­ship to NASA. Air Force leaders and supporters were encouraged by the tone of candidate Kennedy’s public statements on space, especially his stri­dent October 1960 response to Missiles and Rockets. The service by 1960 had gained the lead role for space within the Department of Defense from DARPA; then it turned its ambitions to recapturing from NASA the primary role overall in U. S. space activities. After the 1960 election, the Air Force launched “an intense public and internal information campaign to express Air Force views on space to congressmen, journalists, businessmen, and other influential people.”25 For example, The New York Times reported that “The Air Force has drafted a publicity offensive to stake out a major role for itself in the nation’s space program” and that “this offensive is clearly keyed to the change in administrations. It is the openly expressed belief of the Air Force that the Kennedy administration will look more favorably on military operations in space than does the Eisenhower administration.”26

To help in its campaign, the Air Force asked Trevor Gardner, former Air Force assistant secretary for research and development and a prime mover in the Atlas missile program, to chair a committee to recommend a more dynamic Air Force space program. As noted in the previous chapter, Gardner had been one of Kennedy’s advisers on missile and space issues during the presidential campaign. In December 1960 Gardner also became a member of the group President-elect Kennedy chartered to advise him on space matters during the postelection transition; this was interpreted as another sugges­tion that Kennedy favored a larger role for the military in space.

Project Mercury Reviewed

The Wiesner task force on space had recommended that “a thorough and impartial appraisal of the MERCURY program should be urgently made.” Those managing the Mercury effort welcomed this suggestion, but for rea­sons different than those which had led the Weisner group to call Mercury “marginal.” The NASA team was confident that Mercury was a sound program, and feared that without the positive assessment they believed would result from such an independent review, President Kennedy might decide that even the suborbital mission planned in the next few months was too risky, and would not allow NASA to carry it out.

A first step was to inform the White House that there was a rehearsal flight for the suborbital mission, with a chimpanzee named Ham as its passenger, scheduled for January 31. After not hearing from anyone at the White House for several days after the inauguration, acting administrator Dryden was able on January 26 to meet with new science adviser Wiesner to let him know about the upcoming mission; Dryden wanted to make sure that President Kennedy “would not be surprised by reading about it in the morning paper.”32

Robert Gilruth, the head of the Space Task Group that was in charge of Project Mercury, suggested to George Low at NASA headquarters that NASA push for an early start on the review. Low agreed, and relayed the suggestion to Dryden.33 Then Dryden in early February met again with Wiesner, who agreed to charter an ad hoc panel of the President’s Science Advisory Committee (PSAC), again chaired by Donald Hornig of Princeton University, to conduct the review. Dryden met with Wiesner and Hornig on February 11 to discuss the composition of the panel. They agreed that the basic question the panel would address was: “Was Mercury ready to fly?”34

That question was also being debated within NASA. Originally the first suborbital flight with an astronaut in the spacecraft, Mercury-Redstone 3 (MR-3), had been scheduled for late March. But the January 31 flight with Ham aboard had landed 132 miles downrange from its target point and had subjected the chimp to a 14.7 g force on reentry, 3 g more than planned.35 These deviations from the flight plan were primarily the result of the overac­celeration of the Redstone launcher and early firing of the spacecraft escape rocket. Even after these problems, NASA managers at the Space Task Group and some at NASA headquarters were ready to commit an astronaut to the next flight. However, “key members of von Braun’s team quickly decided that they wanted another booster test before a man could fly,” and von Braun did not overrule them. This decision “likely cost the United States the distinction of putting the first human in space. . . NASA was more afraid of the consequences of an accident than those of coming in second.”36 On March 3 the first crew-carrying Mercury mission was postponed until late April. The extra Redstone flight was launched on March 24 and went well; from NASA’s point of view, there now was no obstacle to launching the first U. S. astronaut on a brief ride through the lower reaches of space.37

If the MR-3 mission had gone forward on its original schedule, the astro­naut aboard would have been not only the first American, but also the first human, to go into space, albeit not into Earth orbit. If this had happened, it is unlikely that the Soviet launch of Yuri Gagarin into orbit three weeks later would have had such a dramatic impact on U. S. space policy. But of course this was not known in March, and with the review of the PSAC panel not completed and given von Braun’s judgment that Mercury was not yet ready to fly with an astronaut aboard, it would have been difficult if not impossible for NASA to get White House permission to go ahead with the mission on its original schedule.

The ten-person Hornig panel spent four days in early March visiting the facilities at the McDonnell Corporation factory in St. Louis where the Mercury capsule was built; the launch facilities at Cape Canaveral, Florida; and the Space Task Group at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia. Science adviser Wiesner on March 7 thanked Hugh Dryden for the “thorough and candid presentation of all elements of the program,” and suggested that “this complete cooperation is evidence of a continuation of the excellent relationship” between NASA and the White House. This was a somewhat ironic suggestion, given the critical tone of the Wiesner task force two months earlier and the lack of preinaugural contact between the incom­ing administration and NASA. Dryden noted that as the result of the panel’s review, “certain members. . . who, previously, had no contact whatever with the program, changed their minds completely after they visited factories and the laboratories and saw what was going on and talked with the people car­rying on the work.”38

Although the panel had finished most of its work by mid-March, its report was not formally submitted to the White House until April 12. The reason for the delay was continuing reservations by a biomedical subgroup of the panel. The panel report concluded that the planned suborbital flight, which by then had slipped to early May, would be “a high risk undertaking but not higher than we are accustomed to taking in other ventures.” The report reviewed the accomplishments and failures of the Mercury program and assessed the risks involved and the probability of success. It noted that “the Mercury program has apparently been carried through with great care” and that “almost everything possible to assure the pilot’s survival seems to have been done.” The panel rated all aspects of the Mercury system as being more than 85 percent reliable except the booster and telemetry, which were rated 70 to 85 percent reliable. Even these items were “not per se a cause for alarm” for astronaut safety, just for mission success. The probability of the astronaut surviving the suborbital mission “appears to be around 90 to 95 percent although NASA estimates are somewhat higher.” The panel noted that “it was too early” to estimate similar probabilities for an orbital flight.39

The only serious reservations about the readiness of Mercury to launch an astronaut were expressed by the medical experts on the Hornig panel. They were worried about the fact that the astronaut’s blood pressure would not be monitored during flight and that high pulse rates such as those observed on Ham in the January flight, combined with the possibility of low blood pressure during the most stressful parts of the flight, could mean that the astronaut would be near collapse. NASA met with members of the medical panel on March 17 and then again on April 11 together with science adviser Wiesner, who shared the panel’s concerns, but were unable to allay their reservations. The experts suggested various additional tests prior to clearing MR-3 for launch, and particularly a high number of ground and flight tests with chimpanzees. Hugh Dryden thought that such a step was “totally unre­alistic” and Robert Gilruth facetiously suggested that if so many tests with chimpanzees were needed, the program ought to move to Africa. The panel’s final report worried that “it is not known whether the astronauts are likely to border on respiratory and circulatory collapse and shock, suffer a loss of con­sciousness or cerebral seizures, or be disabled from inadequate respiratory or heat control,” and that the degree of risk associated with the mission “is at present a matter for clinical impression and not for scientific projection.” Although no additional chimpanzee tests were added to the program, the three astronauts from whom the MR-3 pilot would be chosen did undergo additional runs at a Navy centrifuge in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, that simu­lated the stresses of reentry.40

On April 12, the same day on which the panel’s report was delivered to the White House, the Soviet Union launched Yuri Gagarin into Earth orbit, and Gagarin returned to Earth with no obvious ill effects. This feat made moot many of the concerns of the panel’s medical experts.

Space Plans Reviewed

.According to Jerome Wiesner, as of April 1961, “Kennedy was, and was not, for space. He said to me, ‘Why don’t you find something else we can do?’ We couldn’t. Space was the only thing we could do that would show off our military power. . . These rockets were a surrogate for military power. He had no real options. We couldn’t quit the space race, and we couldn’t condemn ourselves to be second. We had to do something, but the decision was painful for him.” Wiesner added that he and Kennedy

talked a lot about do we have to do this. He said to me, “Well, it’s your fault. If you had a scientific spectacular on this earth that would be more useful—say desalting the ocean—or something that is just as dramatic and convincing as space, then we would do it.” We talked about a lot of things where we could make a dramatic demonstration—like nation building—and the answer was that there were so many military overtones as well as other things to the space program that you couldn’t make another choice.

If Kennedy could have opted out of a big space program without hurting the country in his judgment, he would have. Maybe a different kind of man could have said to the country, “Look, we are going at our own pace. We are going to let the Russians be first. We don’t care.” But Kennedy said, “If we could afford to do something else, we would do it. If we can’t, we had better get back where we belong.” 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.1

The Race Begins

In the six months between December 1960 and May 1961, the status of the U. S. civilian space program was elevated from a scientifically oriented effort with an uncertain future for human space flight to a key instrument of national strategy. This shift was the end result of a process in which many factors were involved. The change in administrations was clearly vital. In addition to putting a new president and his advisers into the White House with a clearly different set of values and objectives than their predecessors, the new administration meant new leadership for NASA. NASA planners convinced James Webb, who probably needed little convincing, that human space flight was key to the agency’s future, and Webb became an effective advocate of NASA’s interests. The support of the Space Science Board helped allay some of the scientific criticism that the human space flight program had little scientific value. The success of Alan Shepard’s flight demonstrated both human capability to survive and function in space and the great public enthusiasm for human space flight. The ability of NASA to withstand an Air Force and industry challenge to its role as the nation’s primary space agency strengthened NASA’s claim that it could undertake new, ambitious mis­sions. Lyndon Johnson’s personal conviction about the strategic importance of space, coupled with his assignment as head of the Space Council, placed a forceful advocate of a larger space effort at the side of the president. The consistent call from the Congress, particularly from the House Committee on Science and Astronautics, loosened one constraint on the president’s free­dom to choose a bold course of action. The flight of Yuri Gagarin and the world’s reaction to it provided a strong impetus to make space decisions quickly; the Bay of Pigs added to that pressure.

Walter McDougall suggests that “how this change occurred in so short a time is not a mystery,” but rather an “overdetermined event.”

New men arrived and brought with them those ideas of the “seed time” of the 1950s. Among those ideas were the notions that the Third World was the main theater of the Cold War and that in that contest prestige was as important as power. Their ideas validated a far greater role for government in planning and executing social change. The new men also cared more for imagery and felt increasing pressure to display their control over affairs in the wake of early setbacks in foreign policy. Finally, each of the major figures in space policy—Kennedy, Johnson, Webb, Dryden, McNamara, Welsh, Kerr, and others—saw ways in which an accelerated space program could help them solve problems in their own shop or serve their own interests. . . They were technocratic, applying command technology to political problems.

* * *

We will probably never know precisely what was in Kennedy’s mind when he decided that Americans should go to the moon. What may have tipped the balance for him and for many was the spinal chill attending the thought of

leaving the moon to the Soviets. Perhaps Apollo could not be justified, but, by

God, we could not not do it.34

All of these factors converged on the White House and particularly on John F. Kennedy. In the weeks between the Gagarin flight and his May 25 speech, Kennedy had “fired off” to his advisers “a constant stream of written questions. . . on costs, risks, manpower, alternatives, and administrative responsibility. He had heard from hundreds of individuals in the process of making his decision—scientists, engineers, experts of all kind—and became convinced that the United States must not remain second in this race.” From “a tentative premise” in the aftermath of the Gagarin flight there emerged in Kennedy’s thinking a “firm conclusion” about the importance of space achievement, but “only after it had been carefully studied, the estimated costs calculated, the risks weighed, and the responsibilities allocated.”35 Robert Kennedy commented that his brother thought that winning the space race was “very important. As he used to say, it compared to the explor­ers in our country, Lewis and Clark. . . He thought we needed to do it for our position throughout the world, that our efforts should be for excellence and that we should do whatever was necessary.”36 Willis Shapley, the longtime staff person from the BOB who was directly involved in the decision process, suggests that “after having been through quite a few major decisions, there was never a major decision like this made with the same degree of eyes-open, knowing-what-you’re getting-in-for” character.37 President Kennedy, at first uncertain but finally convinced that the United States should accept the Soviet challenge in space, decided that “whatever mankind must undertake, free men must fully share.”

To the Moon in 1966?

At some point during his tour of NASA’s installations, President Kennedy asked NASA administrator James Webb whether it was possible to get to the Moon earlier than the late 1967 target date that NASA was using in its planning. This question was most likely prompted by Kennedy’s conversa­tion with manned space flight head Brainerd Holmes, whom Kennedy met for the first time during the Huntsville stop on the tour. Holmes had come to NASA in October 1961, and a year later was becoming impatient with the pace of the Apollo program and James Webb’s resistance to Holmes’s sugges­tion that it might be accelerated.

Seamans, Holmes’s immediate supervisor, describes Holmes as having “blinders on. . . All he was going to do was just move to the best of his abil­ity on manned flight, but the devil take the hindmost on anything else.” Holmes also did not operate on the same wavelength as the verbose Webb; Holmes told Seamans, “I don’t understand what the hell the boss is talk­ing about a lot of the time on these general [management approach] things, and I could care less.” Holmes also “was a very exciting person for the news people. . . He had a way of expressing himself that made news because it was a little bit controversial.” Time magazine featured Holmes on the cover of its August 10, 1962, issue; in the issue’s six-page story “Reaching for the Moon,” Holmes was frequently mentioned, Webb not at all. Seamans also suggests that “among others who were sort of captivated. . . by Brainerd was the President.” After Holmes was introduced to Kennedy as they watched the firing of the Saturn 1 first stage at Huntsville, the press asked Holmes whether this was indeed the first time the two had met, suggesting “this is shocking that a man of your great responsibility should only be meeting the President for the first time right now.” According to Seamans, “this hit Brainerd sort of in a sensitive area. He was a somewhat egotistical guy.”16

The controversy between Holmes and NASA’s top management sim­mered in the two months following President Kennedy’s September trip as NASA’s budget request for Fiscal Year 1964 was under review at the White House. On October 29, Webb wrote to Kennedy, responding to the presi­dent’s question of what it would take to move the target date for the first lunar landing to 1966. Webb told the president that NASA’s current target date of late 1967 “is based on a vigorous and driving program but does not represent a crash program,” while “a late 1966 target date would require a crash, high-risk effort.” By this time, NASA had sent BOB a request for a $6.2 billion budget for FY1964; this represented a 68 percent increase over the agency’s FY1963 budget. NASA also estimated that the first lunar land­ing might be targeted six months earlier if there was an immediate $427 million supplement to the FY1963 NASA budget. To target the first landing in late 1966, a year earlier than then planned, NASA planning would have to be drastically revised and a supplementary $900 million would have to be provided in FY1963; in addition, the NASA budget for FY1964 would have to increase to $7.0 billion. Webb told President Kennedy that the budget and program projections were “preliminary” and not based on “detailed pro­grammatic plans,” but “we are prepared to place the manned lunar landing program on an all-out crash basis aimed at the late 1966 target date if you should decide this is in the national interest.”17

Holmes at some point in this period had formally asked Seamans to approve a $440 million FY1963 budget supplement, saying that such an increase would allow the first lunar landing attempt to come in late 1966. Seamans “couldn’t believe” Holmes’s claim that the program could be accel­erated by twelve months with such a relatively modest budget increase. He denied Holmes’s request; Holmes then asked for a meeting with Webb and Dryden; both also gave him a negative response. Holmes then turned to his friends at Time magazine, telling them that there was “an upheaval at NASA,” with Holmes and Webb “locked in deadly combat” and that “one of them might have to go, and it wasn’t necessarily Brainerd.”18

The possibility of a story about this internal dispute appearing in Time caught President Kennedy’s attention, and he asked science adviser Wiesner to meet with Hugh Sidey and Lansing Lamont, the Time/Life reporters pre­paring a story on “the lagging manned lunar program.” Wiesner did so on November 16; only Lamont was able to make the meeting because Sidey’s plane was grounded. Lamont reported that Time was being told “by NASA staff [undoubtedly Brainerd Holmes] and contractors that the lunar pro­gram is slipping for lack of funds,” that “$400 million is needed now to prevent a loss of six months,” and that “Mr. Webb discounts the lunar effort and is not backing your [Kennedy’s] commitment.” Wiesner contradicted Lamont’s conclusions, telling the reporter that “we have a hard driving pro­gram,” that “we had long since passed the point where money would make a major impact on the schedule,” and what was needed now was “good plan­ning and management.” Wiesner told the president that he did not think he “changed his [Lamont’s] views much, though I really tried.” After meeting with Lamont, Wiesner called Seamans, who told Wiesner that he also had met with the reporter and delivered the same message as had Wiesner.19

The White House attempt at managing the Time story failed. In its issue dated November 23 (which was on newsstands on November 19), the maga­zine reported that “the U. S. man-to-the-moon program was in earthly trou­ble” due to the “clashing personalities and ideas of the project’s two top officials.” Holmes was described in the article as a “brilliant, aggressive elec­trical engineer with a hard-bitten talent for ramming through tough proj­ects,” while Webb was characterized as having “a cautious eye where money is concerned.” Time reported that Holmes believed that the lunar landing pro­gram “is already four to six months behind schedule—and the reason is that Webb is dragging his feet.” Webb was reported as saying, “the moon program is important, but it’s not the only important part of the space program,” while Holmes argued that Apollo was “the top priority program within NASA.” The article concluded that “such are the differences between Webb and Holmes that the whole program is in danger of bogging down.”20

John Kennedy was not the type of person, or president, to ignore this public reporting of a dispute with respect to one of his high priority initia­tives. He quickly called a cabinet room meeting to find out for himself what was going on.

No Soviet Response

There was no immediate response to the president’s proposal from Nikita Khrushchev or any other official Soviet source. The newspaper Za Rubezhom on September 28 suggested that Kennedy’s proposal was “propaganda” and “distracts attention from joint earthly exploits directed at attaining peace and reduction of world tension.” Pravda, the Communist Party newspaper, on October 2 reprinted without comment a column by Walter Lippman, who was widely respected in both the United States and the Soviet Union; the column had appeared in the American press on September 24. In the column, Lippman had suggested that “the main merit of the proposal” was “the opportunity it offered for the US to escape its commitment to the moon goal.”39

As the White House waited for a Soviet reply, a report from a new source appeared that seemed to counter the idea that the Soviet Union had aban­doned or postponed its lunar landing program. The Washington Post on October 8 reported that Leonid Sedov, characterized as the “father of the Sputnik,” had said that it would be two or three years “at least” before an initial Soviet lunar landing attempt. The headline for the story read “Red Expects Moon Shot in 3 Years.” Wiesner reported to the president that there was nothing in the story that “really supports the headline that was attached to it.”40 When cosmonauts Yuri Gagarin and Valentina Tereshkova (the first woman in space) visited the UN General Assembly in October, they made no direct mention of Kennedy’s proposal.

In response to an October 25 question posed to Nikita Khrushchev about whether the Soviet Union had a lunar landing program planned for the not too distant future, the Soviet leader said: “It would be very interesting to take a trip to the moon. But I cannot at present say when this will be done. We are not at the present planning flight by cosmonauts to the moon. . . I have a report to the effect that the Americans want to land a man on the moon by 1970. Well, let’s wish them success. . . We do not want to compete with the sending of men to the moon without careful preparation. It is clear that no benefits would be derived from such a competition.”41

There were a number of interpretations of Khrushchev’s remarks within the U. S. intelligence community. A “current intelligence memorandum” prepared by the CIA suggested that “Khrushchev’s statement on a manned lunar landing suggests that at least one program bearing on defense may already have fallen victim to his new economic priorities,” interpreting the Soviet premier’s remarks as acknowledging the cancellation of an ongoing lunar landing program. This memorandum noted that “Khrushchev’s actual remarks hardly warrant the dramatic US news agency treatment that the Soviet premier has ‘withdrawn’ from the moon race.” A different office in the CIA on October 29 advised McGeorge Bundy that “the primary intent of Khrushchev’s statement was to change the focus of the space race.” This analysis noted that Khrushchev’s remarks were similar to statements he had made to visiting journalists in 1961 and 1962 and to views “deliberately given to Western scientists by Soviet scientific officials earlier this year.” (This presumably referred to the Soviet contacts with Bernard Lovell.) Thus, the analysis suggested, Khrushchev’s statements should not be interpreted as indicating “that the Soviet leaders have taken some major decisions in recent weeks affecting the scope or pace of their lunar program.” Rather, a major intent of Khrushchev’s statement was a “deliberate effort to downgrade the urgency of a manned lunar landing” and thus influence “U. S. Congressional and public opinion on the question of the expenditures and pace of the U. S. lunar program,” thereby “making it clear that the Soviet Union is unwilling to allow the United States to set the terms for competition in space.” The head of the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research told Secretary of State Rusk that in his answer at the press conference, Khrushchev “did not withdraw from the space race,” “did not say that the USSR might not make the first successful moon landing,” “did not accept President Kennedy’s pro­posal,” and “committed to nothing.” The State Department analysis sug­gested that Khrushchev regarded Kennedy’s offer of cooperation “as a vague one, to which he can appropriately respond in vaguely approving terms with­out undertaking negotiations or obligations.” One of Wiesner’s staff sug­gested that Khrushchev’s statement “recognizes that the U. S. determination to send a man to the moon and back has called the bluff of their pretentions since 1957 to world technological leadership.” The U. S. lunar landing deci­sion has also “contributed in a non-belligerent way to imposing major strains on the Soviet economy and their ability to carry out expansionist objectives. Our technological challenge, along with steadfastness over Cuba exactly a year ago, has been successful in getting them to trim their sails.”42

Kennedy’s Final Words on Space

The recommendation to continue Apollo on its current path would most likely have been welcomed by the president. As the BOB review was under­way, John F. Kennedy repeatedly made clear his view that the United States should continue its effort to assume the leading position in space. Kennedy’s excitement during his November 16 visit to Cape Canaveral in recognizing that the upcoming Saturn 1 launch would give the United States the weight­lifting lead in space reflected this determination; he referred to that soon-to – be-realized achievement several times in remarks on November 21 and the morning of November 22 as he moved forward with his tragic Texas tour.

Perhaps Kennedy’s attitude on the space program on the last full day of his life are best reflected in remarks he made at the dedication of an aerospace medicine facility in San Antonio on November 21:

I think the United States should be a leader [in space]. A country as rich and powerful as this which bears so many burdens and responsibilities, which has so many opportunities, should be second to none. . . We have a long way to go. Many weeks and months and years of long, tedious work lie ahead. There will be setbacks and frustrations and disappointments. There will be, as there always are, pressures in this country to do less in this area as in so many oth­ers, and temptations to do something else that is perhaps easier. . . This space effort must go on. The conquest of space must and will go ahead. That much we know. That much we can say with confidence and conviction.

Frank O’Connor, the Irish writer, tells in one of his books how, as a boy, he and his friends would make their way across the countryside, and when they came to an orchard wall that seemed too high and too doubtful to try and too difficult to permit their voyage to continue, they took off their hats and tossed them over the wall—and then they had no choice but to follow them.

This Nation has tossed its cap over the wall of space, and we have no choice but to follow it.21

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