Category THE RACE

Space and the 1960 Presidential Campaign

Space issues did not play a major role in John Kennedy’s campaign for the Democratic nomination for president. Once the nomination was secured, Kennedy in his July 15 acceptance speech first used the term “New Frontier,” saying “we stand today on the edge of a New Frontier—the frontier of the 1960’s—a frontier of unknown opportunities and perils—a frontier of unfulfilled hopes and threats” and noting that “beyond that frontier are the uncharted areas of science and space.” Foreshadowing the most famous line in his inaugural address, Kennedy said that the New Frontier of which he was speaking “is a set of challenges. It sums up not what I intend to offer the American people, but what I intend to ask of them.”8

The Democratic platform on which Kennedy would run stated:

The Republican Administration has remained incredibly blind to the pros­pects of space exploration. It has failed to pursue space programs with a sense of urgency at all close to their importance to the future of the world.

The new Democratic Administration will press forward with our national space program in full realization of the importance of space accomplishments to our national security and our international prestige. We shall reorganize the program to achieve both efficiency and speedy execution. We shall bring top scientists into positions of responsibility. We shall undertake long-term basic research in space science and propulsion.9

Finding a NASA Administrator

The most pressing of these issues was finding someone to run NASA. As the new administration took office, no one had been selected as the nominee for the job of NASA administrator, which thus became the most senior unfilled position as the Kennedy presidency began. That no nominee had been named was not for lack of trying. There are several versions of how many people were considered for the position. The number in various accounts ranges from nineteen to twenty-eight.7

In their December discussions on space issues, John Kennedy had given Lyndon Johnson the responsibility of identifying the person to be the next NASA administrator. In turn, Johnson asked the staff director of the Senate space committee, Kenneth Belieu, to coordinate the search for the nomi­nee. Belieu had told Johnson on December 22 that “the Administrator of NASA doesn’t have to be a technician. He does need to have firm adminis­trative ability, and be able to work with scientists and technicians.” Belieu’s initial thoughts about people qualified for the NASA position included Karl Bendetsen, an industrialist who had served in the Truman adminis­tration; General Maxwell Taylor, retired Army Chief of Staff; and George Feldman, who had been the staff director of the House committee estab­lished in 1958 as proposals to create NASA were being considered. Belieu noted that Feldman had been “actively seeking” the NASA job. He also noted that the current Air Force chief of staff, Thomas White, who was soon to retire, “might be interested,” and that he had gotten suggestions that Jet Propulsion Laboratory director William Pickering and Marshall Space Flight Center director Wernher von Braun might be good candidates.8

Most of these possibilities did not survive a first round of scrutiny. On January 23, Belieu gave a list of possible picks to now-Vice President Johnson. They were Laurence (Pat) Hyland of Hughes Aircraft; Charles (Tex) Thornton of Litton Industries; James Fisk of Bell Laboratories; James Doolittle, World War II hero and former chairman of the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics; and William Foster of Olin Mathieson

Chemicals. On January 25, Belieu reported to top Johnson assistant Bill Moyers, who was interviewing candidates and then deciding whether or not to send them forward to the vice president, that “we have run through about 25 names to date,” and that the 25 did not include “Generals Maxwell Taylor, Jim Gavin, Bruce Medaires [sic – the correct spelling is Medaris], Earl Partridge, [and] Thomas White.” An unsigned January 26 memorandum, most likely composed also by Belieu, reflected a view that NASA should not be headed by an active military man because “the Communists would scream that this proved our militaristic intentions in space and that NASA was and is a facade”; because “it would have the effect of scaring off allies and neutrals from a program of international cooperation in space”; and because “many of the scientists in NASA might prefer to work elsewhere if NASA took on a military look.”9 According to Lyndon Johnson, at some point Kennedy had suggested appointing retired General James Gavin, who had been a campaign adviser, to head NASA, and Johnson had told Kennedy that “that’s the worst thing we could do for the program, would be put a man with stars on his shoulder and a general’s uniform, in charge of the space effort of this country, because it would frighten other countries and do a great disservice to our own program.”10

Belieu reported to Moyers that “at the Vice President’s direction” he had called several of the people on his list and would meet with William Baker, head of Bell Laboratories, and Tex Thornton. Belieu also reported that he had interviewed William Pickering, who was “definitely interested,” but “we might do better.” The head of General Dynamics, Frank Pace, was also involved in the search process. Belieu on January 26 said that Pace “would call me back this afternoon with a check on some of these people and fur­ther suggestions.” He told Moyers, “it looks as though it will be impossible to find anyone who is completely satisfactory to all factions involved in the space program.”11

Kennedy, tired of the delay in identifying a candidate for the NASA job, reportedly told Johnson and new science adviser Wiesner soon after his inau­guration that he would find someone himself if they did not act soon. On January 25, he told his first press conference that he was “hopeful” that a NASA administrator would be named in the next few days.12

One underlying reason for the difficulty in finding a person to take over NASA was the pervasive uncertainty about the future of the agency and of the U. S. civilian space program. John Kennedy had given little indication during the campaign of how he would approach space policy as president. In addition, the Air Force campaign to take over the U. S. lead in space was at a peak, and no individual was interested in presiding over the dissolution of NASA. There were three general perspectives on what kind of person should head NASA. One view favored a person with administrative experi­ence in a science and technology setting; this had been the background of Keith Glennan. Another argued for a top-flight scientist with an academic background. A third argued that political savvy in addition to administrative skill was a more necessary background than either a scientific or engineering background. The first of these positions was supported by Wiesner.13 The second position was held by many nongovernmental scientists, who wanted NASA priorities determined solely by scientific criteria. The third was the position of Lyndon Johnson and Robert Kerr.14

Another significant barrier to getting someone to accept the NASA position was the probability that the NASA administrator would find himself having to work closely with, or even for, Johnson, given LBJ’s anticipated new role as Space Council chairman. The new vice president was known for “his tantrums and his wheedling and bullying.” Few senior people who had experienced the “Johnson treatment” were eager to undergo it on a continuing basis. According to Wiesner, “no good scientists wanted to take the job on because they didn’t want to come under LBJ.” Wiesner remembered that “8 or 9 of the best scien­tists in America were asked to head NASA, and they all said no.”15

NASA Budget Increased

The next day, President Kennedy met with Vice President Johnson, Welsh, Bell, and Wiesner. No NASA representatives were present. The BOB had prepared a paper for Bell’s use at the meeting, which noted that “the case for budget increases. . . was well presented by Mr. Webb and his associates.” Bell told the president that he wanted to indicate “some of the points which sug­gest that the lower alternatives deserve serious consideration when a general decision is made on the course of the space program, either at this time or in the 1963 budget decisions in line with my suggestion that this matter be deferred to that time insofar as possible.” Bell noted that even if increases in the budget for boosters were approved, “we will still be in a ‘tail chase’ and that there is still a strong probability that the Russians will beat us to future spectacular space achievements if they choose, regardless of what we do.” He suggested that “the wisdom of staking so much emphasis and money on prestige that might or might not be gained from space achievements in the late 1960s and 1970s appears questionable” and that “it seems virtually certain that alternative, surer, and less costly ways of increasing our national prestige in the world scene could be developed.” Bell said that he “cannot help feeling that the total magnitude of present and projected expenditures in the space area may be way out of line with the real value of the benefits to be expected.”25 In support of Bell’s memorandum, BOB staff prepared five different proposals for the future NASA program and their budget implica­tions for the coming years. The alternatives ranged from the program NASA was suggesting to much smaller programs with an emphasis on scientific and application objectives, no manned flight beyond Mercury, and cancellation of the Saturn launcher.26

The memorandum prepared by Robert Seamans specified the impacts of the budget increases that NASA had requested, which included $98 mil­lion for the Saturn C-2 project, $27.5 million for a prototype engine for a nuclear rocket, $10.3 million for the large F-1 engine for use in a Nova launcher, and $47.7 million for the initial version of the Apollo spacecraft for use as an orbital laboratory. Other items in the NASA budget request were not discussed in Seamans’s memo. If the requested increases were approved, said Seamans, the orbital laboratory could begin flights in 1965 rather than 1967; circumlunar flights would be possible in 1967 rather than 1969; an initial manned lunar landing might be possible in 1970 rather than 1973.27

The president started the meeting by asking Vice President Johnson for his views on the NASA budget. Johnson responded: “Dr. Welsh here knows more about it than I do—let him speak.” Welsh told the President that “the main thing to be done was to stimulate the work on boosters; that we were farther behind on our propulsion side of the space program than anything else.” This was a refrain that President Kennedy had been hearing repeatedly, and he asked Wiesner if he concurred; Wiesner responded that he did. Bell did not protest, even though his arguments had been overruled; his response was “Whatever the President wants, we will try to get that done.”28

On the day of the NASA budget meeting, Secretary of Defense McNamara had been consulted by the vice president’s office for his views on the NASA budget and policy issues. McNamara’s response was that “he was personally unable to assess” the prestige payoffs from human space flight, and would suggest proceeding at “a normal rate of investigation,” which was consider­ably less than a maximum effort. With respect to increases in the NASA bud­get, McNamara suggested that he would give higher priority to all items in the Department of Defense budget than to increased funding for NASA.29

The final increase in the NASA FY1962 budget approved at the meeting was just under $126 million, almost all of it to accelerate the NASA booster effort. No funds for the Apollo spacecraft and thus for human space flight beyond Project Mercury were approved. This was an increase of a bit over 10 percent compared to President Eisenhower’s budget submission, but 20 percent less than NASA had hoped for.

In this initial engagement with space policy and program issues, President Kennedy had heard the full range of arguments with respect to the goals and pace of the U. S. civilian space program. He decided that it was a matter of some urgency to begin the process of closing the weight-lifting gap that its powerful rocket had given the Soviet Union, but was not yet ready to commit himself to the use of those new boosters for a post-Mercury human spaceflight program. The expectation as of the end of March 1961 was that this issue would be the focus of a comprehensive review of NASA’s future to be conducted by Lyndon Johnson as the new chairman of the Space Council, with a decision coming as the Fiscal Year 1963 budget was being prepared in the coming fall.

One reason for the hesitance at this point to approve any funds for a Mercury follow-on was likely the uncertainty about Mercury’s success. The Hornig panel had not finished its work, and its medical experts were very worried about whether an astronaut could survive the stresses of space flight. Jerome Wiesner shared their concern, and had communicated it to the President. In addition, according to Seamans, although Kennedy was tend­ing toward the approval of future human space flight efforts, he “wanted to know more about it. This was all pretty new as far as he was concerned, except in very general terms.”30 Webb recognized that Kennedy “was con­cerned about a tremendous range of problems as an incoming president,” and that he was being asked to make a choice between his budget director, whose judgment he had come to trust, and that of the NASA leadership, whom he did not know well.31 Added to these factors were the immediate concerns over Laos, which were occupying most of Kennedy’s time. The March 23 outcome was thus “deliberately intended as a partial decision which would leave him [Kennedy] free, within a considerable range, to decide later how much of a commitment to make.”32

As he attempted to resist NASA demands to meet with the president to appeal the original BOB decisions, David Bell had told Hugh Dryden that Kennedy was too busy for direct involvement in decisions on NASA’s future. Dryden replied: “You may not feel he has the time, but whether he likes it or not he is going to have to consider it. Events will force this.”33 Dryden’s words proved prescient; within three weeks, Kennedy would be faced with a Soviet space challenge that led him to set dramatic new space goals for the United States.

Alan Shepard Visits Washington

On the morning of May 8, Alan Shepard and the six other Mercury astro­nauts were flown from Grand Bahama Island, where Shepard had been brought after his recovery from his suborbital mission, to Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington and then by helicopter to the White House lawn. They were met in the Rose Garden by a gathering that included President Kennedy and his wife Jacqueline, members of Congress, NASA leaders, and others. Awarding the NASA Distinguished Service Medal to Shepard, the president said: “how proud we are of him, what satisfaction we take in his accomplishment, what a service he has rendered to his country.” He noted that “this flight was made out in the open with all the possibilities of failure, which would have been damaging to our country’s prestige. Because great risks were taken in that regard, it seems to me that we have some right to claim that this open society of ours which risked much, gained much.”8 After the award ceremony, the seven astronauts and others in the gather­ing joined President Kennedy in the Oval Office; the group totaled 20 to 25 people, including Vice President Johnson, the chairs of the Senate and House space committees, and several managers from NASA. The astronauts sat on couches on either side of the president, who “gushed with questions.” He and Shepard discussed how Shepard’s flight had demonstrated the abil­ity of a human not only to survive, but also to carry out various functions in space; Kennedy seemed well aware of the reservations of his science advisers on this point. Alan Shepard recalls that “everybody certainly was running over with confidence at that time because the flight had gone so well and we had proved our point. . . that a man can operate effectively in space.” Robert Gilruth, the director of NASA’s Space Task Group that was manag­ing Project Mercury, was present. He remembers Kennedy saying, “Look, I want to be first.” Gilruth replied: “Well, you’ve got to pick a job that’s so difficult, that it’s new, that they’ll [the Soviets] have to start from scratch. They can’t just take their old rocket and put another gimmick on it and do something we can’t do.” Gilruth added, “it’s got to be something that requires a great big rocket, like going to the moon. Going to the moon will take a new rocket. . . and if you want to do that, I think our country could probably win because we’d both have to start from scratch.” Kennedy’s reply was “I want to go to the Moon.” Gilruth, himself only five years older than Kennedy, added that while Kennedy seemed to accept Gilruth’s view, “he was a young man; he didn’t have all the wisdom he would have had. If he’d been older, he probably would never have done it.”

After leaving the White House, Shepard was taken by President Kennedy to a meeting of the National Association of Broadcasters; this was not on the planned schedule for the day, but Shepard’s surprise visit provoked a tumultu­ous welcome. After his stopover at the broadcasters’ meeting, Shepard and the other astronauts, accompanied by the vice president, paraded up Pennsylvania Avenue to the Capitol as thousands, assembling with little advance notice, cheered. Shepard suggests that “these two things—the successful dem­onstration of man’s capability and the public support of a program which immediately became to them a very thrilling, exciting program—affected him [President Kennedy] in his decision-making process.” After a “throng – packed, pulsing” meeting with members of Congress, the group went to the State Department for a luncheon hosted by Vice President Johnson; then Shepard held a press conference.9

As he left the luncheon to go first to the White House and then to the airport to catch the plane that would take him to Southeast Asia for two weeks, Lyndon Johnson carried a large manila envelope. In it was the Webb – McNamara report recommending sending Americans to the Moon.

Space Programs Reviewed

The rapidly increasing costs of the U. S. space program, and particularly its civilian component, continued to trouble President Kennedy after he sent his $3.787 billion Fiscal Year 1963 request for NASA to the Congress in early 1962. There was no parallel single national security space budget request; Department of Defense and intelligence space programs were incorporated into the general DOD budget, rather than receiving separate budget treat­ment. However, increasing DOD expenditures for space were also of con­cern to the president. To obtain a total overview of the U. S. space program, Kennedy asked the BOB in June 1962 to carry out a comprehensive review of all U. S. space efforts.

Initial Budget Concerns

After NASA administrator Webb met with Kennedy on May 3, 1962 to deliver a copy of NASA’s revised long-range plan, he reported that Kennedy “was quite concerned about the high level of expenditures involved in our program, plus the military program, and urged that everything be done that could possibly be done to see that we accomplished the results that would justify these expenditures and that we not expend funds beyond those that could be thoroughly justified.” Webb also reported that the president “had expressed some concern” about the geographical distribution of NASA funding; Kennedy noted that he had received complaints from states such as “Michigan, Pennsylvania, and the eastern states” that NASA was focusing its expenditures on California, Florida, Mississippi, and Louisiana. Kennedy was “quite anxious” that NASA “maintain the best geographical distribu­tion of contracts and still get the most efficient job done.” To provide the White House with its own channel of information on NASA procurement actions, Kenneth O’Donnell sent Richard Callaghan, a Kennedy loyalist and congressional staffer, to NASA as a special assistant to Webb. According to one account, “Callaghan’s job was to arrange for a more equitable distri­bution of contracts, which would relieve congressional pressure on Kenny O’Donnell, and find out whether [Senator Robert] Kerr and [Vice President] Johnson were pulling strings for their friends at NASA.” With respect to this latter mission, Callaghan found no evidence of undue Kerr or Johnson influence on NASA’s contract awards.30

Webb responded to Kennedy’s concern regarding geographical distribu­tion in a June 1 letter. He told Kennedy that during 1961, states west of the Mississippi River received 56 percent of NASA prime contracts; states east of the Mississippi, 44 percent. One reason for this distribution was that “major aerospace and electronic companies have concentrated their growth within a few areas of the country.” However, Webb continued, when both prime con­tracts and first-tier subcontracts by the prime contractors were considered, 53 percent of the work was in the East and 47 percent in the West. Webb also noted that in the second half of 1961 Massachusetts had received 64 percent more in NASA funding than it had received in the first half of the year. In summary, Webb told the president, “the NASA effort is being spread broadly throughout the United States.”31

Background to the President’s Proposal

The reasons why President Kennedy chose to propose such a major step in U. S.-Soviet space cooperation were well summarized by Theodore Sorensen: I

A New "Strategy of Peace"

In the aftermath of the Cuban missile crisis, President Kennedy sought ways of lessening the U. S.-Russian tensions and mistrust that had led to that situ­ation. He first tried to once again engage Nikita Khrushchev in discussions on a test ban treaty, but progress toward that objective was slow. By June 1963, he was ready for a broader approach—a new “strategy of peace.”8 In a June 10 commencement address at American University in Washington, DC, Kennedy outlined his approach to a “more practical, more attainable peace,” one based on “a series of concrete actions and effective agreements which are in the interest of all concerned. . . Both the United States and its allies, and the Soviet Union and its allies, have a mutually deep interest in a just and genuine peace. . . Genuine peace must be the product of many nations, the sum of many acts.”9

President Kennedy did not mention space cooperation in this speech, an omission seen as “striking” by Harvey and Ciccoritti “in view of the great stress he had placed earlier on space as a means of bridging differences between the two countries.” They suggest that “Kennedy for some time had been having second thoughts about pushing space cooperation under existing circumstances.” They offer as evidence for this view Kennedy’s disappoint­ment with the results of the 1962 space cooperation agreement and the fact that “Kennedy had become more and more enthusiastic over the competitive aspects of the space endeavor.” Kennedy, they suggest, “was really interested [in space cooperation] only if the Russians should prove ready to cooperate in a manner and on a scale that would involve meaningful movement toward a genuine rapprochement between the two countries. Otherwise, the US would continue with its program in strict competition with the USSR, since he considered it essential to the national interest that the US continue to develop the capabilities for the full mastery of space.”10

A somewhat different interpretation of Kennedy’s views at the time is more convincing. As suggested in Sorensen’s view cited earlier, in the post-Cuban missile crisis detente atmosphere of 1963, and with the increasing costs and mounting criticisms of the lunar landing program, it is likely that President Kennedy was even more interested in U. S.-Soviet space cooperation than had previously been the case. The President in mid-1963 was actively consider­ing resurrecting the idea. He certainly did not seem to think that he was “in pursuit of an illusion,” but rather pursuing a course of action that was in the U. S. interest. Other than a call for negotiations on a nuclear test ban treaty, Kennedy did not mention any other area for potential U. S.-Soviet coopera­tion in his American University speech, so the fact that he did not mention space cooperation specifically is less than “striking.” It was logical for him to return to a proposal for cooperation in the lunar landing program as one of the “concrete actions” needed to implement his “strategy for peace.”

An August 9 Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) memorandum on “The New Phase of Soviet Policy” provided evidence that Kennedy’s strategy was well conceived. On July 25 the Soviet Union agreed to sign a Limited Test

Ban Treaty, including a prohibition on tests in outer space. The CIA analysis thought that Nikita Khrushchev in the post-missile crisis period had “a vested interest in perpetuating. . . the impression that a new era in East-West relations has begun” and that “the USSR intends to sustain an atmosphere of reduced tensions for some time.” These observations were certainly sup­portive of a proposal for enhanced space cooperation as part of President Kennedy’s new approach.11

By mid-1963 there was increasing criticism of the lunar landing program from both sides of the political spectrum. Theodore Sorensen was asked whether by 1963 “the size of this [space] program and its rate of growth were beginning to worry the President, and that he was more eager to stress the cooperative issue because he was dubious about either the wisdom or the possibility of maintaining the rate of increase that NASA was suggesting.” Sorensen replied that Kennedy “was understandably reluctant to continue that rate of increase. He wished to find ways to spend less money on the program. . . How much that motivated his offer to the Russians, though, I don’t know.”12

Another Round of Presidential Questions

As he began during the summer to think again about suggesting to the Soviet Union that sending men to the Moon become a cooperative under­taking, President Kennedy was faced not only with the lingering doubts regarding whether Russia in fact was intending to go to the Moon, but also questions regarding the possible hostile purposes of the Soviet space pro­gram. The August 1963 issue of the widely read Reader’s Digest featured an article headlined “We’re Running the Wrong Race with Russia!” that asked “are we suffering from moon madness?” and suggested that “the over­publicized ‘race’ to get a man on our faraway neighbor has obscured an imminent threat to our security—Soviet strides toward military conquest of the space just over our heads.”20

Not surprisingly, this article caught President Kennedy’s attention. On July 22 he sent a memorandum to Robert McNamara and James Webb, not­ing “the lead article in the Reader’s Digest this month states that the Soviet Union is making a major effort to dominate space while we are indifferent to this threat. I wonder if you could have some people analyze this and give me a response to it.” A week later, he wrote a similar memorandum to Vice President Johnson: “The attack on the moon program continues and seems to be intensifying. Note Reader’s Digest lead article this month.” Kennedy asked the vice president to develop answers to two sets of questions: (1) “Did the previous administration have a moon program? What was its time schedule? How much were they going to spend on it?” and (2) “How much of our present peaceful space program can be militarily useful? How much of our capability for our moon program is also necessary for military control in space?” Kennedy added: “I would be interested in any other thoughts that you may have on the large amounts of money we are spending on this program and how it can be justified.”21

In his response to this second Space Council review, Webb suggested that “all” of the civilian space program “can be directly or indirectly militarily useful.” An important justification for the sums being spent on the NASA program, said Webb, was to develop “the power to operate in space” and “as insurance against surprise and as the building of the necessary underlying capacity” for an accelerated military space program, should the United States decide that such a speed-up was needed. The Department of Defense reply to Kennedy’s questions was signed by deputy secretary Roswell Gilpatric. He told the president that “the article is based for the most part on Soviet propaganda statements, faulty and greatly exaggerated interpretation of technical data, quotes by U. S. authorities taken out of context or distorted, excerpts from Air Force magazine articles, and the author’s personal opin­ions and unsupported statements.” Gilpatric added: “At the same time, he [the author] deliberately ignores or is strangely uninformed about our on­going military space program.”22

A rapidly convened meeting of the Space Council on July 31 discussed the appropriate reply to the president’s questions. Vice President Johnson noted that “we had entered a very tricky period,” and that there seemed to be a “political basis” for much of the criticism of the lunar landing program, with “more trouble to be expected as we get closer to [election year] 1964.” Johnson suggested that “we are facing a Congress where a majority is for the program, but there is a very vocal minority.” The group discussed the language to be included in the response to the president, and agreed to have Edward Welsh draft that response, which took the form of a one-page letter signed by Johnson that told the president that “there was no Administration moon program until your message to Congress in 1961.” Johnson, agreeing with Webb’s argument, added that “all of the scientific and engineering abil­ity in space has direct or indirect [military] value” and that “the space pro­gram is expensive, but it can be justified as a solid investment which will give ample returns in security, prestige, knowledge, and material benefits.”23

Webb on August 9 sent to the White House a separate response to Kennedy’s original July 22 memorandum, noting that NASA had also “received from the Vice President a number of questions which we under­stand he is answering.” This somewhat disingenuous comment, since Webb had participated in the July 31 Space Council meeting, was indicative of the preference on Webb’s part to report directly to the president rather than working through the Space Council. Webb associated himself with the views in Gilpatric’s July 31 memo to the president and added that Apollo would require extensive operations in near-earth orbit and that “75-80% of the cost of the Apollo program will be devoted to the development of a capabil­ity for conducting near-earth orbital operations which could form a basis for any military systems we may require.” Webb noted that “the Reader’s Digest article ignores the fact that these basic resources—large launch vehicles, advanced spacecraft, extensive and complex ground facilities—are vitally important resources for future military missions as well as in fulfillment of the NASA program.” Webb’s belief in the military value of NASA’s activities was not shared by Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. Webb observed that McNamara “was unwilling to stand up and be counted for the [NASA] program.” He told President Kennedy later in 1963 that “the Secretary of Defense will not want to support the program as having substantial military value.”24

John F. Kennedy’s late July 1963 questioning of the justifications for con­tinuing to spend large amounts of money to get to the Moon before the Soviets came at the same time as very public discussion of the suggestion that the Soviet Union in fact did not have a lunar landing program. At the end of August, Kennedy in a conversation with Soviet ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin “raised the question of activities in outer space, pointing out that these are very expensive.” “If outer space was not to be used for military purposes,” thought Kennedy, “then it became largely a question of scientific prestige, and even this was not very important, as accomplishments in this field were usually only three-day wonders.”25 This was certainly a rather dif­ferent attitude toward Project Apollo than what Kennedy had been saying publicly, and may well have reflected his emerging doubts about proceeding with the lunar landing program at its planned pace and increasing costs.

Apollo and History

The set of judgments that led President John F. Kennedy to decide to send Americans to the Moon combined lasting characteristics of the American peo­ple, a conviction of American exceptionalism and a mission derived from that conviction, the geopolitical situation of early 1961, and the individual values and style that Kennedy brought to the White House. Apollo was a product of a particular moment in time. Apollo is also a piece of lasting human history. Its most important significance may well be simply that it happened. Humans did travel to and explore another celestial body. Apollo will forever be a milestone in human experience, and particularly in the history of human exploration and perhaps eventual expansion. Because the first steps on the Moon were seen simultaneously in every part of the globe (with a few exceptions such as the Soviet Union), Apollo 11 was the first great exploratory voyage that was a shared human experience—what historian Daniel Boorstin called “pub­lic discovery.”30 John Kennedy’s name will forever be linked with those first steps. Like other ventures into unknown territory, Apollo may not have fol­lowed the best route nor have been motivated by the same concerns that will stimulate future space exploration. But without someone going first, there can be no followers. In this sense, the Apollo astronauts were true pioneers.

Apollo and History

The iconic “Earthrise” picture taken on Christmas Eve 1968 by Apollo 8 astronaut Bill Anders as he and his crewmates became the first humans to orbit the Moon and to look back at their home planet from 240,000 miles away. (NASA photograph).

Leaving the Earth gave the Apollo astronauts the unique opportunity to look back at Earth and to share what they saw. The Apollo 8 “Earthrise” picture is surely one of the iconic images of the twentieth century. It allowed us, as poet Archibald McLeish noted at the time, “to see earth as it truly is, small and blue and beautiful in that eternal silence where it floats” and “to see ourselves as riders on the earth together, brothers on that bright loveli­ness in the eternal cold—brothers who truly know that they are brothers.”31 That perception alone cannot justify the costs of going to the Moon, but it stands as a major benefit from going there, one that has influenced human behavior in many ways.

I hope that sometime in the future—if not in the coming decades then in the coming centuries—humans will once again choose to venture beyond the immediate vicinity of Earth. I believe that the urge to explore—to see what is over the next hill—is a fundamental attribute of at least some human cultures. Michael Collins, the Apollo 11 astronaut who remained in orbit as Armstrong and Aldrin experienced being on the Moon, has commented that the lasting justification for human space flight is “leaving”—going away from Earth to some distant destination. As future voyages of exploration are planned, I also hope that the United States chooses to be in the vanguard of a cooperative exploration effort involving countries from around the globe. There are two things I judge as certain, whenever those voyages take place. One is that they will not be like Apollo, a grand but costly unilateral effort racing against a firm deadline to reach a distant and challenging goal. The other is that President Kennedy’s name will be evoked as humans once again begin to travel away from Earth. As he said in September 1962, “We set sail on this new sea because there is new knowledge to be gained, and new rights to be won, and they must be won and used for the progress of all people.” John F. Kennedy, like the astronauts who traveled to the Moon during Apollo, was a true space pioneer.

[1] have asked Jim Webb, Dr. Wiesner, Secretary McNamara and other respon­sible officials to cooperate with you fully. I would appreciate a report on this at the earliest possible moment.

[2] “The pace at which the manned lunar landing should proceed, in view of the budgetary implications and other considerations,” and

2. “The approach that should be taken to other space programs in the 1964 budget, i. e., should they as a matter of policy be exempted from or

[3] think the President had three objectives in space. One was to ensure its demilitarization. The second was to prevent the field to be occupied to the Russians to the exclusion of the United States. And the third was to make certain that American scientific prestige and American scientific effort were at the top. Those three goals all would have been assured in a space effort which culminated in our beating the Russians to the moon. All three of them would have been endangered had the Russians continued to outpace us in their space effort and beat us to the moon. But I believe all three of those goals would also have been assured by a joint Soviet-American venture to the moon.

The difficulty was that in 1961, although the President favored the joint effort, we had comparatively few chips to offer. Obviously the Russians were well ahead of us at that time. . . But by 1963, our effort had accelerated con­siderably. There was a very real chance we were even with the Soviets in this effort. In addition, our relations with the Soviets, following the Cuban missile crisis and the test ban treaty, were much improved—so the President felt that, without harming any of those three goals, we now were in a position to ask the Soviets to join us and make it efficient and economical for both countries.7

[4] think the President had three objectives in space. One was to ensure its demilitarization. The second was to prevent the field to be occupied to the Russians to the exclusion of the United States. And the third was to make certain that American scientific prestige and American scientific effort were at the top. Those three goals all would have been assured in a space effort which culminated in our beating the Russians to the moon. All three of them would have been endangered had the Russians continued to outpace us in their space effort and beat us to the moon. But I believe all three of those goals would also have been assured by a joint Soviet-American venture to the moon.

The difficulty was that in 1961, although the President favored the joint effort, we had comparatively few chips to offer. Obviously the Russians were well ahead of us at that time. . . But by 1963, our effort had accelerated considerably. There was a very real chance we were even with the Soviets in this effort. In

Campaign Advice on Space

To develop background material on the various issues he would have to address during his presidential campaign, Senator Kennedy in December 1958 established a “brain trust” drawn primarily from the faculties of Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Even before the presidential campaign began, Harvard law professor Archibald Cox began collecting research memoranda and reports from experts at both universities and from across the country. According to the authoritative account of the Kennedy campaign, “The professors were to think, winnow, analyze and prepare data on the substance of national policy, to channel from university to speech writers to Cox to Sorensen—and thus to the candidate.” This process failed in its execution. While an impressive amount of material was generated, little of it was read by Kennedy or used during the campaign. Regarding the products of Cox’s efforts, Theodore Sorensen comments that “not all of their material was usable and even less was actually used. But it provided a fresh and reassuring reservoir of expert intellect.”10 The differ­ent perspectives of those caught up in the frenzy of Kennedy’s presidential campaign, such as Sorensen, and those with the time to reflect on issues that Kennedy would have to address if he was elected were a continuing source of campaign tensions.

Kennedy himself on September 2, 1960, asked Cox to contact Trevor Gardner, former assistant secretary of the U. S. Air Force for research and development, and a man to whom Kennedy looked for advice on space and missile issues. Kennedy wanted from Gardner “an account of the Administration’s failures in missiles, 1953 to today” and his “judgment on the significance of our being in a secondary position in space in the sixties.” Kennedy also asked, “Will the Soviet Union have a reconnaissance satellite before we do, and what will it mean?”11

Another source of largely unused but remarkably prescient input into Kennedy’s campaign was the Advisory Committee on Science and Technology of the Democratic Advisory Council, which in turn reported to the Democratic National Committee. Among its inputs was a September 7 “Position Paper on Space Research.” Leading the preparation of this paper was physicist Ralph Lapp, who, after working in the Manhattan Project to develop the atomic bomb, spent most of the rest of his career warning about the dangers of nuclear war. The position paper pointed out that “the United States has failed to define its real objective in space. If purely scientific, this should be so stated so that the American people and others understand our objective. If aimed at ‘winning the space race’ then this must also be stated and the U. S. program must be directed toward this goal.” The paper went on to discuss landing a man on the Moon as a possible objective of a compet­itive space effort, asking, “Can the United States afford to allow the Russians to land on the moon first?” and noting that the answer to this question was “more political” than technical, since “there is no great scientific urgency” in a manned lunar landing. It noted that “in the psycho-political space race the rewards for being first are exceedingly great; there is little pay-off for second place.”

The paper outlined two alternative space programs. One of the programs was “an imaginative and vigorous program of research in space science and technology and to exploit useful applications of this new technology. . . in collaboration with other nations.” The other suggested program aimed at “American supremacy in the exploration of space,” including “early attain­ment of a thrust capability consistent with manned flights to the Moon.” The paper noted that “Senator Kennedy must make the decision, essentially political in character,” between the two programs. The costs of the politi­cally driven second program were estimated to be $26 billion from 1960 to 1970, compared to the then planned expenditures during that period of $12 to 13 billion. The scientifically oriented but faster-paced program was estimated to cost $19 billion. While this paper was unlikely to have been read by Kennedy or his top advisers, it was a quite insightful statement of the central space issue that would occupy Kennedy once he entered the White House, and its cost estimates were surprisingly close to the actual costs of the program that President Kennedy in 1961 chose to pursue.12

Yet another input into Kennedy’s position on space during the campaign was a briefing paper prepared for the candidate’s “Position and Briefing Book”; this was a resource that traveled with the campaign team as a ready source of speech material and responses to media questions. The briefing paper suggested “eliminating the unrealistic distinctions between civilian and defense space projects” and said that there should be “one coordinated space program with joint civilian and military space uses.” The paper pro­posed that Kennedy should “place one man in charge of all space activities, reporting directly to the President.”13

James Webb Selected

In the wake of President Kennedy’s pressure, a new name was suggested, apparently to Lyndon Johnson by Senator Kerr and independently to President Kennedy by Wiesner. Wiesner later argued that his suggestion was the one that was decisive, although other accounts suggest that it was Lyndon Johnson who first brought Webb’s name to White House attention. The new candidate was James E. Webb, a businessman and lawyer with prior experience in high-level government posts. During the Truman administra­tion, Webb had been head of the Bureau of the Budget (BOB) and then the number two person under Dean Acheson at the Department of State. Webb also had experience in managing large organizations; he had worked in Oklahoma heading one of Robert Kerr’s companies from 1953 to 1958. After leaving Kerr’s employ, Webb had been active on issues of science and engineering education, in the process becoming well known to many of the leaders of the scientific community, including Wiesner.

According to Wiesner, Kennedy asked him to check whether Johnson agreed that Webb would be a good choice. Johnson did agree, and because he had had such little success with the people he had contacted, asked Wiesner to call Webb. On Friday, January 27, after clearing the contact with the presi­dent, Wiesner telephoned Webb, who was at a luncheon in Oklahoma City, and asked him to be in Washington the following Monday to meet with the vice president to discuss the NASA position.

Webb left Oklahoma City on Friday and spent the weekend in Washington discussing the prospects for space under Kennedy with several former associ­ates in the BOB and the Kennedy White House staff and with others whose views he valued. One of them was Webb’s longtime friend Lloyd Berkner, who was the current chair of the Space Science Board of the National Academy of Sciences, NASA’s primary source of scientific advice; Berkner had himself been approached for the NASA job and had said that he was not interested. By Monday morning, January 30, as he arrived at Johnson’s Capitol office, Webb felt that he had a fairly good idea of what was going on with respect to space and had concluded that “I would not take the job if I could honorably and properly not take it.”

Before meeting with Lyndon Johnson (whom he did not know well), Webb chatted with acting NASA administrator Hugh Dryden, who was there for the meeting, and Frank Pace, who had been Webb’s successor as director of the BOB in the Truman administration. Webb had also known Dryden since the late 1940s. Both Pace and Dryden agreed with Webb that he was not the right man for the job, and Webb asked Pace to convey that view to Johnson. Pace tried to do so, but Johnson was unwilling to listen and in essence threw Pace out of his office. Webb then met with Johnson, who, Webb says, was “very anxious” for Webb to accept the NASA job. Webb made it clear that he would only accept the position on the basis of a direct offer from the president. Arrangements were quickly made for Webb to meet with Kennedy, whom Webb previously had met only once or twice on social occasions.

After lunch with Dryden, Webb met with Kennedy one-on-one in the Oval Office. Kennedy told him that he did not want a technical person for the NASA job, saying that “there are great issues of national and interna­tional policy” related to NASA, and that Webb, with his previous govern­ment experience, was well qualified to address such issues. Webb felt he could not refuse the president’s direct invitation, and so accepted the nomination.

James Webb Selected

President Kennedy and James Webb on January 30, 1961, as Webb accepted the president’s offer to become the second NASA administrator (JFK Library photograph).

He asked Kennedy to keep Hugh Dryden as deputy administrator, and he also asked the president whether he was being hired to implement a prede­termined policy. Kennedy assured him that this was not the case and that he was looking to Webb to propose the best direction for NASA. Kennedy then escorted Webb from the Oval Office to the office of press secretary Pierre Salinger, who took Webb to the press room to announce his nomination. Only then could Webb call his wife to tell her what had happened; she had already heard the news on the radio.16

Webb’s confirmation hearing before the Senate Committee on Aeronautical and Space Sciences, with Robert Kerr in the chair, was held three days later, even before Webb’s formal nomination papers reached Capitol Hill; there were no questions after Webb’s opening statement. The committee voted unanimously to support the nomination; the Senate followed suit on February 9. Lyndon Johnson swore in Webb as NASA’s second administrator on February 14, and Webb set to work with the goal “to end uncertainty, to make unmistakably clear . . . support for manned space flight, to define necessary additions to the budget for Fiscal Year 1962 . . . and to establish personal and official relationships conducive to effective leadership.”17 It was thus clear from the start of his tenure that James Webb had a different, more ambitious, vision for the future of NASA than his predecessor. Getting this vision accepted would not be an easy task. In preparation for Webb’s first meeting with the new director of the BOB, David Bell, on February 16, the BOB staff suggested that “we are pretty much still in the dark as to what position the [Kennedy] administration desires to take in the space field, or whether any general direction has been decided upon.”18

In addition to getting President Kennedy’s agreement to continue Hugh Dryden as deputy administrator, Webb also asked Robert Seamans to stay on as associate administrator. He was happy to learn that Seamans was a Republican, since that would give a bipartisan appearance to the top NASA management team. Webb told Dryden and Seamans that he wanted NASA to be managed jointly by the three of them as a “triad,” hammering out the major decisions together. Webb would handle NASA’s external political and public relations, Dryden would be the primary link to the U. S. and interna­tional science communities, and Seamans would act as NASA’s general man­ager. Seamans describes the arrangement: “Jim was the charismatic leader with long-range vision and a great knack for understanding how policy and politics interacted in Washington. Hugh. . . possessed a quiet, invaluable sense of practicality. . . I managed NASA’s programs while Jim lined up out­side support and Hugh provided sound guidance on our goals.”19

As he took on the NASA job, Webb was fifty-four years old. He was “stocky and voluble, vigorous, noisily garrulous, and with a broad North Carolina accent.” He had a strong physical presence; “though not a tall man, his strong, square head and bullish neck, his sturdy chest, an obsti­nate jaw and narrowed grey-blue eyes lent him a dominant demeanor.” Sorensen notes that “Webb was not. . . a Kennedy type individual. He was inclined to talk at great length, and the President preferred those who were

James Webb Selected

The “triad” of men who managed NASA during the Kennedy administration: Deputy Administrator Hugh Dryden (left); Administrator James Webb (center); and Associate Administrator Robert Seamans, Jr. (left) (NASA photograph).

more precise.” He adds, however, that “I don’t know that the President ever regretted his appointment of Webb.” Wiesner remembers that Kennedy “understood that he had somebody with real ability in Webb” and adds that he never heard Kennedy say anything “snide or negative” about him. One account of Project Apollo, however, comments that “only because Kennedy was indifferent to space did Jim Webb end up in the administrator’s position.” While a number of other men had turned down the job because of NASA’s uncertain future, if they had “known that four months later NASA would become a custodian of the nation’s honor, most of them would have snapped up the job. If the men in the White House had known, they would not have chosen anyone like Jim Webb.” The president’s brother Robert Kennedy agreed with this view. He commented in 1964 that if his brother “had realized how much money would be involved and how impor­tant it [the space program] was going to be, he never would have made Jim Webb the head of it.” Robert Kennedy added that Webb “talked all the time and was rather a blabbermouth. . . The President was very dissatisfied with him.”20