Category THE RACE

The Future of Human Space Flight

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Project Mercury—$350 million

Apollo circumlunar—$8 billion

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

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

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

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

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

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

First Decisions

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

Others Consulted

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Diminishing Role of LBJ and the Space Council

On April 20, 1961, President Kennedy asked Johnson, as chairman of the Space Council, to carry out a survey of the status of the space program. Johnson did indeed take charge of the review, but on a highly personal basis. There were no formal meetings of the National Aeronautics and Space Council before Johnson forwarded the May 8 Webb-McNamara recommen­dations to Kennedy with his endorsement, and in the April-May 1961 time period, there was only one Space Council staff person, executive secretary Edward Welsh.

Kennedy made the final decision to approve the recommendations of the Webb-McNamara report and to announce them before a joint session of Congress while the vice president, at Kennedy’s request, was traveling in Asia. The absence of Johnson during this critical period was symbolic of his declining role after May 1961 as the first among equals with respect to advis­ing the president on NASA’s programs. It is very likely that Johnson’s urg­ing Kennedy to approve a major acceleration of the civilian space program was an important influence on JFK’s decision to go to the Moon. However, once Kennedy had made the basic decision, he relied primarily on his White House policy, technical, national security, and budgetary staff and on the NASA leadership to provide him information on the implementation of that decision and to relay his concerns and decisions to the NASA workforce. Kennedy soon realized that what he was likely to get from Johnson and the Space Council staff was unquestioning advocacy for a strong space effort, not the kind of dispassionate analysis that he most welcomed. Science adviser Jerome Wiesner and his staff and David Bell and his BOB staff thought it was their role, whatever their personal views, to raise questions about the choices NASA was making with respect to various aspects of the space effort. The predictability of the positions that Lyndon Johnson and the Space Council staff would take on most space issues limited their influence on Kennedy’s policy choices.

Thus—with one important exception, developing during 1961 the administration’s approach to bring communications satellites into early prac­tical use—the Space Council as a body was not central to any of the civilian space decisions of the Kennedy administration. James Webb characterized the council’s role as different from “the popular image that the president had turned everything over to the vice president” with respect to space; that was “simply . . . not true.” Rather, Kennedy “wanted to control the agenda of the council” and did not want “to abandon the normal budgetary process by having the Space Council make the space budget.” On the other hand, Kennedy was “very happy” to have Johnson “to take the lead in talking about things and making speeches and participating actively in carrying out things that the president decided he wanted.” Johnson may have wanted “different instructions” from Kennedy about his responsibilities for the space program, but in practice Webb “never saw him go beyond what Kennedy had indicated he wanted done.”5

In his role as chairman of the Space Council, Vice President Lyndon Johnson “appeared to take his duties seriously, even if his responsibilities were only advisory and minimal.” Johnson had originally hoped that the budget for the Space Council staff would be $1 million; “the bigger the budget, the bigger empire Johnson could build.” But Congress, sensing “that Johnson’s role in the space effort was not a significant one,” cut the budget request in half; this left Johnson “bitter and hurt.” Even so, by the end of 1962, the council staff had grown to twelve professional staff mem­bers, several consultants, and a large support staff; the total staff complement was twenty-eight. This made the council a sizeable element of the execu­tive office of the president, comparable in size to the Office of Science and Technology, which had been created in 1962 to give an organizational foun­dation for Kennedy’s science adviser Jerome Wiesner and which dealt with all other areas of science and technology. The Space Council budget during the Kennedy administration grew to just over $500,000 per year.6

The main role of the council during the Kennedy administration “was to keep a dialogue going between the people responsible for the military, peace­ful and diplomatic uses of space. . . If there was a dispute between any of the Council members and between their agencies, Johnson was to umpire that dispute.” Johnson and the council staff in practice seldom intervened in dis­putes between operating agencies, especially NASA and the Department of Defense (DOD). In addition to this mediating role, Johnson saw the Space Council as a vehicle for explaining to the American public the importance of the U. S. effort in space; he suggested to Welsh that the council should enlist “the cooperation of the various agencies to produce a series of comprehen­sive reports to inform the public upon the actualities of the space program.” When Welsh responded, suggesting a series of “Vice President’s Reports on Space,” Johnson’s reaction was “I sure like that. Get on it.” There were fourteen formal meetings of the Space Council during the Kennedy admin­istration, but most were devoted to discussion of already-decided activities, rather than to formulating recommendations for presidential decision or for settling disagreements. During 1962 and early 1963, the council staff devoted a great deal of time and effort to drafting a statement of national space policy, but this initiative was abandoned when both NASA and the Department of Defense opposed issuing such a statement.

In the fall of 1961 Johnson toured a number of space installations, “trying to seek out problems and to boost morale.” Johnson had been advised by his press secretary George Reedy that such a tour “would attract tremen­dous attention” and “provide a natural basis for a series of reports which would be extremely helpful in informing the public and clarifying the pro­gram.” Johnson frequently gave speeches prepared by the Space Council staff on space issues and allowed staff-prepared articles to appear under his name in various publications. At White House breakfasts before presidential

The Diminishing Role of LBJ and the Space Council

Chairman of the National Aeronautics and Space Council Lyndon Johnson (seated) listens to a space program briefing. Standing are (left) Space Council member and chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission Glenn Seaborg and (right) Space Council executive secretary Edward C. Welsh (NASA photo).

press conferences, Johnson came prepared with responses to potential press questions. The vice president was eager to associate himself with the public attention given to the Mercury astronauts; these occasions “were important to him because they were almost the only times he received national attention and he wanted to keep his name before the public.”7 As Johnson biographer Merle Miller suggests, “the Space Council chairmanship was. . . only briefly satisfying for Lyndon. Once the present program had been evaluated, new directives issued and the revised program set in motion, there was little for him to do.”8

Kennedy’s approach to governance placed heavy responsibility on the line officials in charge of the executive agencies of government; in the case of space, that meant that Kennedy delegated most decision-making author­ity for the civilian space program to NASA administrator James Webb, and backed Webb up when Webb’s choices were challenged by JFK’s White House advisers. As a veteran of Washington bureaucratic politics and as the head of an agency newly charged with an effort that was a top presidential priority, administrator Webb was insistent on having direct access to the president. Webb was scrupulous in keeping Johnson informed, but he made it clear that he worked for the president, not the vice president. This also left little room for the vice president and the Space Council staff to play a central role in most of the decisions on how best to move forward in sending Americans to the Moon.

The United Nations as the Venue for Space Cooperation?

The United States had in a variety of formal and informal settings tried to engage the Soviet Union in space cooperation in the 1959-1960 period, without success.7 One possible arena for early space cooperation was the United Nations. A 1959 Soviet-sponsored General Assembly resolution had called for setting up a United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space and for convening a United Nations Conference on space mat – ters.8 But the Soviet Union had refused to accept the proposed structure of the new committee, and thus there had been no progress on space matters made within the United Nations by January 1961. Following up on President

Kennedy’s call for space cooperation in the State of the Union Address, Secretary of State Dean Rusk in a February 2 memorandum suggested that talks be opened between the U. S. ambassador to the United Nations, twice – defeated presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson, and his Soviet counterpart, with the aim of moving forward on establishing the committee and conven­ing the conference. These steps, said Rusk, would make the United Nations “the logical place to discuss the types of cooperative outer space proposals included in your State of the Union Message.”9

After several weeks of discussion within the White House on how best to follow up the president’s speech initiatives, McGeorge Bundy replied to Secretary Rusk on February 28. Bundy suggested that in the four weeks since Rusk had sent his memorandum to the president, “events in the United Nations, and in particular the Soviet Union’s attitude toward that organiza­tion, have raised a question over here as to whether we really want to take active steps in that particular forum on this particular issue, with the Soviet Union, at this time.” Bundy’s feeling was “that the President would be reluc­tant to see us move in this direction now.” Bundy noted that the White House and the State Department had in the time since Rusk’s memorandum “agreed that Jerry Wiesner should be asked to take the lead in planning on the general problem of relations with the Soviet Union in this and other scientific fields.”10


U. S. ambassador to the United Nations Adlai Stevenson was scheduled to make a speech to the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space on November 27, and the speech was already in preparation in early November. Recognizing NASA’s reluctance to move out aggressively in sup­port of Kennedy’s proposal, Schlesinger suggested to Bundy that “it might help the current State Department-NASA debate” over the seriousness of the president’s offer if Bundy were to send a message to the State Department saying “I trust that Governor Stevenson’s speech. . . will include an adequate follow-up of the President’s moon proposal.”60

Drafts of Stevenson’s speech prepared prior to November 22 had indeed included such a reiteration. The senior State Department official on U. N. mat­ters, Harlan Cleveland, in a lengthy November 21 memorandum had devel­oped a reasoned justification for continuing to push the cooperative effort. He noted Nikita Khrushchev’s “somewhat erratic” statements on accepting Kennedy’s proposal, which, thought Cleveland, “no doubt reflect internal differences in the Soviet leadership over the desirability of cooperation with the U. S. They may also reflect financial difficulties.” Further, “by postulat­ing that it takes two to make a race. . . Khrushchev has put himself in the best position available in the circumstances—unless it can be demonstrated that it is he who is declining international cooperation.” Thus, “if the U. S. were to go silent on a dialogue initiated by the President, the conclusion no doubt will be drawn that the President has given in to advocates of non-cooperation.” Cleveland noted that “it is assumed that the Soviet Union has much more dif­ficulty with the mere thought of cooperation than we do and that they will have more serious ‘security problems’ at any realistic level of cooperation than we will have.” Thus, the United States would be “safe in shooting for the maximum amount of cooperation that the Soviets can be talked into yield­ing”; the United States should “egg on the Russians to cooperate in an open forum where the maximum influence of the on-looking world community can be brought to bear.” Cleveland opposed integrating the two programs, so that the United States would not have to “weld a U. S. capsule on a Russian rocket, or to mate a clean-cut American astronaut with a chubby cosmonette, or to compromise the security of either state, or to make progress of one national program dependent upon the progress in the other.” Rather, “the point is to put a largely symbolic umbrella over both national programs, plus the contributions of other countries, and to create the image of a mutually cooperative world program to put men on the moon as ‘representatives of all our countries’ regardless of the nationality of the first arrivals.”61

In the aftermath of President Kennedy’s assassination, Cleveland noted in a November 23 memorandum that “the entire world will be watching every Administration statement in the days ahead for hints of a change in policies enunciated by President Kennedy.” Cleveland reported that after a November 23 Cabinet meeting, Ambassador Stevenson had raised with new President Lyndon B. Johnson the question of what he should say about President Kennedy’s proposal. Stevenson understood Johnson’s response to be that “he did not want to retreat an inch from the idea of international cooperation in the lunar program.” To make sure that this was indeed the case, Cleveland suggested that President Johnson be asked to review and con­cur with the specific language on this issue in the final draft of Stevenson’s speech. Secretary of State Rusk sent the draft speech to the White House on the next day for presidential review.62

The White House did change the speech draft. Originally the draft said with respect to Kennedy’s proposal: “that offer stands.” The revised version said: “President Johnson has instructed me to reaffirm that offer today.” It also said: “If giant strides cannot be taken at once, we hope that shorter steps can. We believe that there are areas of work—short of integrating the two national programs—from which all could benefit. We should explore the opportunities for practical cooperation, beginning with small steps and hopefully leading to larger matters.” Stevenson included those words in his speech, which was actually delivered on December 2. Although Webb apparently would have preferred that Stevenson not mention space in his speech, he was reported “resigned thereto and will not raise the same with the President.” Frutkin was reported as “very pleased” with the revised text, which reflected the NASA approach to cooperation.63

According to Harvey and Ciccoritti, President Johnson “wanted to keep his options open with respect to cooperation with the Russians, but he wanted to do so in a way that would end controversy at home. . . He was pre­pared to keep faith with the Kennedy lunar offer provided that the Russians came through with something worthwhile on their side.” But as the United States waited for a Soviet offer, “he wanted to get the lunar issue off the front burner. Emphasis for the moment needed to be shifted back to small first steps that were compatible with existing political realities.”64

James Webb on January 31, 1964, transmitted to President Johnson the report that had been prepared in response to JFK’s November 12 request. In his transmittal letter, Webb proposed guidelines to govern negotiations with the Soviet Union on space cooperation: “substantive rather than propaganda objectives alone; well-defined and comparable obligations for both sides; freedom to take independent action; protection of military and national security interests; opportunity for participation by friendly nations; and open dissemination of scientific results.” These guidelines severely limited the scope of potential cooperation. Webb suggested that “on balance, the most realistic and constructive group of proposals which might be advanced to the Soviet Union. . . relates to a joint program of unmanned flight projects to support a manned lunar landing. These projects should be linked so far as possible to a step-by-step approach, ranging from exchange of data already obtained to joint planning of lunar flight missions.” Webb also suggested that “no new high-level US initiative is recommended until the Soviet Union has had a further opportunity (possibly three months) to discharge its cur­rent obligations under the existing NASA-USSR Academy agreement or, in the alternative, until the Soviets respond affirmatively to the proposal you have already made in the UN.”65

The January 31 Webb report was a return to exactly the step-by-step approach the space agency preferred; it reflected “a considerable lowering of sights for cooperation in the lunar area.”66 It certainly did not represent the kind of dramatic approach to space cooperation that had led John F. Kennedy to make such cooperation a continuing element in his strategy for reducing tensions in the U. S.-Soviet relationships.

Whatever the U. S. approach, it was made irrelevant by the lack of a for­mal Soviet response to President Kennedy’s September 20 proposal or to its reiteration by the Johnson administration. Indeed, the Soviet Union did not fully honor even the agreements on limited cooperation that had been reached in 1962, even though some modest U. S.-Soviet cooperation did eventually take place, especially in the biomedical area. As the months passed, President Johnson turned his attention to his ambitious agenda for the Great Society. The United States was of course first to the Moon, and the Soviet Union experienced a series of failures in its lunar program. The opportunity to test whether dramatic space cooperation between the United States and the Soviet Union could serve as a counterweight to their Cold War rivalry had passed.

A Rational Choice?

In my 1970 book The Decision to Go to the Moon, I portrayed Kennedy’s 1961 decision to enter a space race with the Soviet Union as closely resem­bling the rational choice model of decision-making, in which a decision­maker identifies a desirable goal to be achieved or a problem to be addressed, assesses various options for achieving that objective, and selects the option with the best ratio of benefits to costs. It is important to note that what makes this decision process “rational” is the purposeful evaluation of alter­natives to achieve a stated goal and the choice of the alternative that embod­ies the best relationship between benefits and costs; the goal itself is a matter of judgment, and must be evaluated on the quality of that judgment. My reconstruction of the decision process in April and May 1961 suggested that

John Kennedy made the following judgments, each of which could be open to debate:

• Kennedy defined the U. S. national interest as requiring this country to be superior to any rival in every aspect of national power.

• This conviction reflected a Cold War interpretation of the international situation in which there was a zero-sum contest for global power and influ­ence conducted between two sharply opposed social and political systems, one led by the United States and the other by the Soviet Union, with an uncommitted “Third World,” and perhaps even more developed countries, deciding with which system it was better to associate.

• National prestige, Kennedy thought, was an important element of national power. As image-conscious as he was, Kennedy judged that what other nations thought about American power and resolve to use it was as impor­tant, if not more important, than the reality of that power. Kennedy once wondered aloud “What is prestige? Is it the shadow of power or the sub­stance of power?” He concluded that prestige was a real factor in acquiring and exercising national power.7

• Kennedy’s own analysis, the answers he got from the many people he que­ried in the weeks following the April 12 launch of Yuri Gagarin, his assess­ment of the national and international reaction to that feat, and the advice he received from people like Lyndon Johnson and James Webb convinced the president that dramatic space achievements were closely tied to national prestige and thus “part of the battle along the fluid front of the cold war.” In addition, Kennedy judged that the potential contributions of space capabilities to military power justified a significant investment in develop­ing those capabilities, albeit through a peaceful, civilian-led effort.

Once these judgments were made, the choice of sending Americans to the Moon emerged from a rapid but searching assessment of what space activity would best achieve a dramatic space “first” before the Soviet Union, thereby both enhancing U. S. prestige and serving as the focal point for the devel­opment of various space capabilities. It was this decision process that can best be characterized as rational. For example, veteran budget official Willis Shapley, who had been observing national security policy choices since he joined the BOB in 1942, commented 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. Science adviser Jerome Wiesner agreed, saying 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.” Wiesner added that “if Kennedy could have opted out of a big space program without hurting the country in his judgment, he would have.” Also, “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.” Time/Life reporter Hugh Sidey suggests that the Moon project “was a classic Kennedy challenge. If it hadn’t been started, he might have invented it all, since it combined all those elements of intelligence, courage, and teamwork that so intrigued John Kennedy.” Some years later, the admiring Sidey added that in deciding to go to the Moon, Kennedy “heard the poets. He was beyond politics and dollars.”8

The final words on why he decided to go to the Moon belong to President Kennedy himself. We have in the tape recording of his November 21, 1962, meeting with his space and budgetary advisers an uncensored record of his thinking on the reasons behind his commitment. Then he said:

• “This is important for political reasons, international political reasons. This is, whether we like it or not, in a sense a race.”

• “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.”

• “ 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.”

• “ I’m not that interested in space.”

The public rhetoric of President Kennedy, particularly the memorable September 1962 speech at Rice University, created the impression that Kennedy was motivated in his support of Apollo by other reasons, and par­ticularly by a long range vision of space exploration. One clear conclusion of this study is that Kennedy was not a space visionary. Rather, he was a prag­matic decision-maker who came to the conclusion that “whatever mankind must undertake, free men must fully share.”

Space during the Transition

In the period between the November 8 election and his inauguration, presi­dent-elect Kennedy dealt with only one of these pressing space policy issues, asking vice president-elect Lyndon B. Johnson to assume the chairmanship of the National Aeronautics and Space Council. This request was widely viewed at the time as an indication of the secondary priority that Kennedy was assigning to space. Kennedy also was briefed on January 10 on the report of his task force on outer space, which was chaired by MIT engineer Jerome

Wiesner, who had served as a technical and arms control adviser during the presidential campaign and was the top candidate to be Kennedy’s White House science adviser. Wiesner’s report was very critical of NASA’s organi­zation and management and on the emphasis being placed on the Project Mercury human space flight effort; it also had harsh words for the national security space program.

The Weisner task force had prepared its report without any briefings or other input from NASA, and there was no other direct contact between the incoming administration and NASA’s managers during the transition period. The position of NASA administrator was one of the few senior positions for which no one had been nominated as Kennedy became president. Robert Seamans, who was the NASA associate administrator during the transition, later commented that “during the interval between Kennedy’s election and his inauguration, a sword of Damocles hung over NASA.” Seamans added that rumors that the report of the Weisner group would contain ideas such “as a merger of NASA and the military or a transfer of manned space flight to the military, along with hints about the incompetence of NASA leader­ship,” were “quite unnerving.”47

Revitalizing the Space Council

After the December meetings in which a new space role for the vice presi­dent was discussed, it took several months to sort out just what Kennedy had in mind in this regard. The Bureau of the Budget (BOB) staff in early January drafted a white paper on options for implementing the president­elect’s intent. The paper noted that “a way needs to be found to strengthen Presidential leadership of space activities without requiring an inordinate concentration on such matters to the detriment of the performance of other

Presidential responsibilities.” It suggested that “the President does not need to delegate decision-making on space matters”; rather, “he needs an assistant of stature, without agency ties, who can take the lead in seeing that plans and policies are formulated in the broad national interest and that agencies work together efficiently to this end.” To achieve this, the paper suggested, “the Vice President can provide the necessary assistance by serving essentially as a Presidential assistant on space matters and presiding over the [Space] Council.” The staff paper suggested that there was no immediate need for statutory changes; rather, the president could simply assign responsibility for chairing the Space Council to the vice president, even though he was not by law a member of the Council.

Some with Reservations

Although science adviser Wiesner attended some of the meetings Johnson called, at no time during this review was the President’s Science Advisory Committee (PSAC) as a body consulted about the wisdom of what was being recommended. Wiesner, reflecting the conclusions of the PSAC report that had been presented to President Eisenhower in December 1960, viewed the decision to accelerate the space program with a lunar landing mission as a central undertaking as “a political, not a technical issue. It was not an issue of scientific versus non-scientific issues; it was a use of technological means for political ends. It was on these considerations that I did not involve PSAC.” Wiesner did tell the president that PSAC “would never accept this kind of expenditure on scientific grounds.” Kennedy accepted this and in turn promised Wiesner that he would never justify the lunar mission in terms of its scientific payoffs.21

Somewhat surprisingly, there was another key individual who was some­what skeptical of the push for a major acceleration of the space program, with landing on the Moon before the Soviet Union as its central feature—NASA administrator James Webb. Webb described himself as “a relatively cautious person. I think when you decide you’re going to do something and put the prestige of the United States government behind it, you’d better be doggone well be able to do it.”22 Webb was reluctant to commit himself to a lunar landing effort until he was convinced that it was technologically sound, that NASA had the capability to execute it, and that it “did not go beyond what I thought Kennedy was willing to approve.” Webb wrote Wiesner on May 2, noting that the budget figures that had accompanied NASA’s April 22 presentation to the vice president had been put together “in a great hurry” and did not represent the results “of a careful study of the technological bottlenecks or difficulties.” Webb asked Wiesner to join him in insuring that the program to be recommended to the president “has real value and validity and from which solid additions to knowledge can be made, even if every case of the specific so-called ‘spectacular’ flights or events are done after they have been accomplished by the Russians.”23 By acting to emphasize his con­cern with the underlying validity of the accelerated program, Webb hoped both to maintain his good working relationship with Wiesner and, through Wiesner, the scientific community, and to influence the program recom­mendations so that if necessary he could later defend the program against charges that it was aimed only at prestige and was fundamentally distorted and unsound. Webb, in essence, “wanted to contain and shape the decision to reflect favorably on NASA, the nation, and himself.”24