Category THE RACE

Khrushchev Seems to Accept Kennedy’s Offer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kennedy Elected

On November 8, 1960, John F. Kennedy was elected by a very narrow margin as the thirty-fifth President of the United States; his victory was confirmed only shortly after noon on the next day. In the following ten weeks before he took the oath of office, president-elect Kennedy moved forward briskly on many of the issues that he had highlighted in the campaign. However, he paid very limited attention to space topics during his transition activities. While the perceived lack of urgency in the Eisenhower administration’s space efforts may have been a useful issue to stress in the campaign, the reality was that the president-elect and his advisers did not give high priority to addressing either immediate or longer-term space questions during the post­election transition period. There was no contact made with the new National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), which had begun opera­tions two years earlier, on October 1, 1958. Kennedy prior to his inaugura­tion nominated no one to replace Eisenhower appointee T. Keith Glennan as NASA administrator. As John F. Kennedy took the oath of office on January 20, 1961, there was thus significant uncertainty about the future of the U. S. space effort.

Seamans on the Hot Seat

The next morning, April 14, Robert Seamans and George Low appeared before the committee, and were subject to even more intense pressure. Seamans in particular put himself in a vulnerable position with respect to administration policy, saying that although there were no plans at that time to ask Congress for funding for Project Apollo, the post-Mercury human space flight effort, it might indeed be possible with an accelerated effort to land on the Moon by 1967. Seamans noted that doing so would require “a very major undertaking. To compress the program by 3 years [the date of the first lunar landing in the recently revised NASA planning was 1970] means that greatly increased funding would be required. . . I certainly cannot state that this is an impossible objective. It comes down to a matter of national policy.” Seamans added that he would be “the first to review it wholeheart­edly to see what it would take to do the job. My estimate at the moment is that the goal may very well be achievable.” Seamans was, of course, well aware of the February report of George Low’s committee that had said that a lunar landing within the decade was technologically feasible; he was also aware of Kennedy’s decision in March not to approve additional funding for human space flight beyond Project Mercury, even as he provided addi­tional funding for larger space boosters. Seamans’s comments, coming just as the committee and the media were calling for an accelerated space effort, appeared to be adding NASA pressure on the president to the pressure com­ing from the House committee and the media; this was an uncomfortable position for Seamans to be in. He recalls that “it was unwise for an underling to get out ahead of the President.”15

Indeed, President Kennedy was not at all happy to read in the next day’s newspapers that a NASA official had made public statements that seemed to preempt what would necessarily be a presidential decision. The Washington Post headline read “Reaching the Moon First Would Cost Billions” and its story began, “A multi-billion dollar crash space program might put an American on the Moon by 1967—a top Government official said yesterday.” The New York Times headlined its report on Seamans’ testimony “costly drive might bring landing by ‘67.” Administrator Webb got both a message from budget director David Bell and a “strongly worded” letter from Kenneth O’Donnell asking about the testimony; O’Donnell was one of the presi­dent’s top assistants and his policy “enforcer.” For a few days, Seamans’ job was in real jeopardy, but Webb was able to calm the White House concern. In a letter to O’Donnell, Webb noted that the committee was in a “runaway mood” and that “the members of the Committee, almost without exception, were in a mood to try to find someone responsible for losing the race to the Russians” and were seeking information “that would focus public attention on the Committee, and the role it had chosen for itself as the goad to force a large increase in the program.” He defended Robert Seamans, saying that he had done “an exceptionally fine job” of resisting the committee’s inquiries with respect to NASA’s relations with the Bureau of the Budget (BOB)and the president.16

"I Am Not That Interested in Space&quot

One critical decision with respect to the lunar landing project still remained unsettled as President Kennedy prepared in September 1962 to make an inspection tour of the facilities being developed for the accelerated space effort. That decision was the best approach to getting astronauts to the lunar surface. NASA in July 1962 had selected as its preferred approach rendez­vous in lunar orbit, a way to the Moon that had emerged in its consideration only at the very end of 1961. Kennedy’s science adviser Wiesner and his staff did not agree with this choice, and were actively pressuring NASA to reverse it in favor of an Earth orbit rendezvous approach. The president’s September 11-12 visit to NASA and industry installations was intended to give him an overview of the human space flight effort in preparation for the hard budget decisions that all knew were upcoming later in the year; it also exposed him to the ongoing argument about the choice of how best to fly to the Moon. It was also on this trip that John F. Kennedy at Rice University in Houston gave his most memorable address on the reasons why he had chosen to accel­erate the U. S. space effort.

As he toured the NASA facilities, Kennedy, as was his style, asked many questions, and learned that some within NASA believed that the first landing on the Moon could come as much as a year sooner than the late 1967 date that was at that point NASA’s target. To advance the landing date by that many months would require requesting from Congress an extra short-term supplement to the NASA budget, and there was considerable debate during October and November 1962 about the wisdom of that action. Adding more money to the human space flight budget was strongly advocated by associate administrator for manned space flight Brainerd Holmes, but equally strongly resisted by NASA administrator James Webb. Their disagreement escalated into tensions that culminated in Holmes leaving NASA in mid-1963.

The debate over extra money for NASA led to a November 21 White House meeting in which President Kennedy and Webb disagreed about the prior­ity of the lunar landing program compared to other NASA activities. In the

aftermath of this meeting, President Kennedy reluctantly decided not to try to accelerate the Apollo schedule, and to continue on the path of requesting funds for NASA adequate to maintain the late 1967 target date for the first lunar landing attempt. Even pursuing that path required a NASA Fiscal Year 1964 budget request of $5.712 billion, an increase of 55 percent over the NASA FY1963 budget of $3.674 billion but almost a half billion dollars less than what NASA had requested in September 1962. The continuing exponen­tial increase in NASA funding came at a time when Kennedy and his White House advisers were striving to limit overall budget growth, even as the finan­cial demands of Apollo approached 4 percent of the total federal budget.


In this context, on October 5, 1963, senior officials from NASA and Department of Defense (DOD), including James Webb and Robert McNamara, met at the Pentagon with McGeorge Bundy. Bundy told them that the White House wanted a comprehensive review of the space program and that as part of that review, the two agencies would be asked several ques­tions:

1. “What are the minimum elements of the space program essential to the lunar landing program?”

2. “What are the minimum elements of the space program essential to clearly specified military requirements?”

3. “What are the minimum elements of the space program essential to user requirements in areas common to military and commercial users (e. g. communications satellites, weather satellites, etc.)?”

4. “What are the elements essential to or desirable for scientific objectives in space?”

Bundy informed the officials that the NASA and DOD efforts in response to this set of questions would not only be used to rationalize the overall national space program to balance civilian and national security space efforts, to minimize duplication of effort, and thus to contain costs. They would also be inputs into a second review in which a task force headed by the director of the Bureau of the Budget (BOB) would “determine, in light of the FY1964 and FY1965 budget pressures, what should be set forth as the goals of the U. S. space program and what the nature and pace of the program should be.”4 The continuing commitment to a lunar landing before the end of the decade was very much a part of this second review.

In response to this directive, NASA and DOD in October and November first conducted a series of separate studies on the various elements of their individual programs. Then, during November and December, they carried out five joint studies in the areas of launch vehicles, manned Earth orbital activities, communications satellites, geodetic, mapping, and weather satellite programs, and various ground facilities. These studies were not completed until January 1964, and with one important exception discussed below, did not lead to major changes in the already planned NASA and DOD space efforts.5

As the White House-mandated review was underway, Nikita Khrushchev on October 25 made a statement reported by The New York Times with the headline “Soviet Bars Race with U. S. to Land Men on the Moon.” A few days later, well-informed Times reporter John Finney suggested “for months the Administration had been trying to back away from the idea of a lunar race.” Even so, suggested Finney, for the United States “the question is not whether to go to the moon or not,” but rather “the pace at which the lunar expedition should be pursued,” particularly, as Khrushchev had seemed to suggest, if the Soviet Union was not engaged in a competitive lunar effort. Finney’s conclusion was that “the United States will not abandon the lunar expedition, but it will be pursued with less competitive zeal and at a more leisurely pace.”6

It seems clear that indeed there was White House consideration being given at this point in time to carrying out Apollo at “a more leisurely pace.” In preparation for an October 31 presidential press conference, Charles Johnson of the National Security Council staff had suggested to McGeorge Bundy that there was “some merit in trying to unhitch ourselves from the idea of going to the moon in this decade as a hard proposition and focusing public attention on the critical period 1966-1967 when we will know if we have achieved adequate booster power” with the first launch of the Saturn V rocket. Bundy appears to have been sympathetic to such a suggestion; in September, he had told Kennedy that “the obvious choice [with respect to the future of the lunar landing program] is whether to press for cooperation or to continue to use the Soviet space effort as a spur to our own,” and that his preference was for cooperation, since “If we cooperate, the pressure comes off, and we can easily argue that it was our crash effort on ‘61 and ‘62 which made the Soviets ready to cooperate.”7

Charles Johnson’s suggestion of focusing on demonstrating the supe­rior booster power of the Saturn V launcher rather than achieving a lunar landing by the end of the decade was in line with the thinking of some top people in NASA. The NASA assistant administrator for public affairs, Julian Scheer, sent to the White House both an initial statement issued by the space agency the day after Khrushchev’s October 25 remarks and a fuller statement reflecting “thoughts developed by the Administrator, Associate Administrator and the Assistant Administrator for Public Affairs.” The October 26 statement said: “We will continue to conduct our own program according to our own needs” and the U. S. program “has a brake and a throttle.” The fuller statement noted that “as a practical matter, the time for a decision on whether to speed up or slow down a space program such as the program we have developed and is now underway cannot be made at this time.” This was because “technology comes from passing certain criti­cal points. One of these is booster power and we will not pass this critical point until 1965-66 when we should equal or surpass the Russian booster launch vehicle power.”8

NASA was concerned, however, that the White House not make a pre­mature statement suggesting significant changes in the end-of-the-decade goal, even if that possibility was under active consideration. On October 30, Seamans, who was acting NASA administrator because both James Webb and Hugh Dryden were absent,9 tried to reach Bundy to voice NASA’s con­cerns with respect to what the president might say at his October 31 press conference. He was unsuccessful in contacting Bundy and so relayed NASA’s concerns to budget official Willis Shapley. He told Shapley that “it seems to NASA extremely important that the President not indicate at this time that there is any vacillation in the executive branch with respect to the manned lunar program.” He added that both NASA and the White House would find themselves in an “extremely awkward position. . . if it were to be indi­cated by the President or any other official administration spokesman that the current objectives of the manned lunar landing program are likely to be relaxed or abandoned” before the ongoing White House reviews were com­pleted. Seamans told Shapley that “NASA’s present strong recommendation is that we should keep going” with the planned program “at this time,” so the country would “not lose the benefit of the near-term objectives (e. g., launch vehicle development, further manned space flight experience with Gemini) . . . even if it is subsequently decided not to press on to a manned lunar landing attempt as now planned.”10

These various activities and press reports in preparation for the president’s news conference strongly suggest that there was at the end of October 1963 serious consideration being given within the White House to significant changes in Project Apollo, and that these developments were seen by NASA as threatening the integrity of its efforts. NASA on October 30 also told the White House that it “did not want to suggest any new lines for consid­eration because NASA is committed to a policy of maximum effort directed towards a lunar landing in this decade.” The space agency reported to the White House that during the preceding 48 hours it “had received important expressions of support for the present program and timetable—some of this support is from unexpected sources. There is reason to believe that there is a reaction in the country of ‘don’t quit when you are ahead.’ ”n (Who these sources may have been is not clear from the historical record.)

President Kennedy was very likely aware of the arguments among his associates for and against slowing down the pace of the space buildup. At his October 31 press conference, Kennedy said, when questioned about Khrushchev’s statement that the Soviet Union did not have a lunar landing program, “I think that we ought to stay with our program. I think that is the best answer to Mr. Khrushchev.”12

Getting Started

On a frigid and snow-covered January 20, 1961, John F. Kennedy was sworn in as the thirty-fifth President of the United States. In his stirring inaugu­ral address, Kennedy had a particular message “to those nations who would make themselves our adversary.” He asked that “both sides begin anew the quest for peace,” but that toward potential adversaries, “we dare not tempt them with weakness.” So, “let us begin anew, remembering on both sides that civility is not a sign of weakness. . . Let us never negotiate out of fear, but let us never fear to negotiate. Let both sides explore what problems unite us. . . Let both sides seek to invoke the wonders of science instead of its ter­rors. Together let us explore the stars.” Kennedy stressed the sacrifices he was asking of Americans in order to lead the global fight for freedom, saying “now the trumpet summons us again—not as a call to bear arms, though arms we need—not as a call to battle, though embattled we are—but a call to bear the burden of a long twilight struggle, year in and year out”; he called his countrymen to action with his much-quoted admonition, “Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.”1

Theodore Sorensen, who collaborated with Kennedy in drafting the address, notes that one line in the speech was “a more important statement of his administration’s intent” than any other in the speech: “Only when our arms are sufficient beyond doubt can we be certain beyond doubt that they will never be employed.” This, says Sorensen, “was the Kennedy approach to war and peace,” combining unmistakable strength with a willingness to seek areas of cooperation rather than to focus on areas of conflict.2 It was an approach that Kennedy was to use with respect to space in all his days in office—preferring to cooperate but being willing to compete if that was the better path to advancing U. S. interests.

The inaugural address, in addition to its soaring rhetoric, reflected Kennedy’s world view as he entered office. Thomas Reeves notes that Kennedy brought with him to the White House “the values and many of the ideas his father had instilled in all the Kennedy children.” These included

“the president’s selection of pragmatic advisers, his overall lack of interest in domestic reform, his conservative economic views, his hard-nosed posture in foreign affairs. . . and his intense interest in public relations and his image.”3

In his September 1960 memorandum on “Organizing the Transition,” Richard Neustadt had observed that “one hears talk all over town about ‘another Hundred Days’ [referring to the beginning ofFranklin D. Roosevelt’s first term in office], once Kennedy is in the White House.” Neustadt felt that “if this means an impression to be made on congressmen, bureaucrats, press, public, foreign governments, the analogy is apt.” He suggested that “noth­ing would help the new administration more than such a first impression of energy, direction, action, and accomplishment. Creating that impression and sustaining it becomes a prime objective for the months after Inauguration Day.” Arthur Schlesinger adds that it was Kennedy’s intention in his initial days in office “to create a picture of drive, purpose and hope.”4

This intention was not realized. Instead, the first one hundred days of the Kennedy administration were marked by slow movement of Kennedy’s domestic program through the Congress and immediate challenges from abroad. After an initial victory in the House of Representatives, adding two more liberal members to the southern conservative-dominated House Rules Committee and thus making it more likely that the committee would not block Kennedy’s legislative proposals from reaching the House floor, the president found that moving his domestic policy proposals through the Congress was much slower going than he had hoped for.

In the foreign policy and national security fields, even more intractable issues confronted the new president. Kennedy and his close associates were troubled by a January 6 speech by Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev, in which the Soviet leader projected “bellicose confidence” that international events were trending in the favor of the Communists; Khrushchev had said that “there is no longer any force in the world capable of barring the road to socialism.” Kennedy’s tough language in his inaugural address was an initial reaction to the Soviet challenge. On February 23, Kennedy sent off a letter to Khrushchev, suggesting an early meeting between the two; it was Kennedy’s hope that he could convince the Soviet leader that the United States could not be bullied.5

The first crisis of the new administration in foreign policy emerged in mid-March; Kennedy was faced with the decision of whether or not to inter­vene with U. S. troops in Laos, a small landlocked country in Southeast Asia, where the pro-American government seemed to be on the verge of mili­tary defeat by the Communist Pathet Lao forces. The White House inter­preted this conflict as one of the “wars of national liberation” that Nikita Khrushchev had said in his January speech would be an important means for spreading Communist values around the world. On March 20 and again on March 21, Kennedy met with his National Security Council to discuss whether immediate intervention was necessary or whether a diplomatic solution was still possible. The joint chiefs of staff, fearing another Korea – like engagement half a world away, urged decisive actions involving 60,000 troops, air support, and possibly the use of tactical nuclear weapons in order to ensure quick success. After these meetings, Kennedy decided not to inter­vene as yet, but to demonstrate his willingness to do so if the United States and the Soviet Union could not find grounds for compromise on the future of Laos. Kennedy scheduled a press conference for March 23 in order to issue a public warning to the Soviets that the United States would intervene unless an immediate ceasefire could be arranged.6

It was in this troubled domestic and international context that the Kennedy administration took its first steps in determining the future of the U. S. civilian space program. Compared to the other issues on his agenda, space remained a relatively low priority item, and Kennedy himself was only occasionally directly involved. However, early attention to a number of issues could not be avoided.

Recommendations Prepared

On Saturday morning, May 6, the group charged with preparing the rec­ommendations met at the Pentagon office of Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. Those present at some point in the day included McNamara, deputy secretary of defense Roswell Gilpatric, Harold Brown, the new direc­tor of defense research and engineering, and his deputy John Rubel, from the Department of Defense; James Webb, Hugh Dryden, Robert Seamans, and Abraham Hyatt, director of program planning and evaluation, from NASA; Chairman Glenn Seaborg from the Atomic Energy Commission; and Willis Shapley from the Military Division of Bureau of the Budget (BOB). Neither Jerome Wiesner nor Edward Welsh participated in the weekend sessions, and neither was briefed on their results before LBJ’s recommendations were sub­mitted to President Kennedy on May 8.1

Seamans reports that “there was unanimous agreement that at this that time we needed to do more in space; that we had a reasonable scientific

program; that the military program in space was satisfactory; that we should probably do more in the commercial area, or the civilian area, and specifi­cally, Secretary [McNamara] was very insistent that NASA add to its budget $50 million for communications satellites.” John Rubel added that large space projects “reflect the capacity and the will of the nation to harness its technological, economic, and managerial resources for a common goal”; for these reasons, “a successful space program validates your claim to other capacities.”

During Vice President Johnson’s review over the preceding two weeks, NASA and DOD had never seen each other’s responses to President Kennedy’s April 20 memorandum, so most of the day was spent with NASA and DOD presenting those responses to the other agency. NASA went first and outlined its proposed initiatives, including setting a manned lunar landing goal with a planning date of 1967 for the first landing attempt. There had been enough analysis, dating back to the work of George Low’s task force, to satisfy the NASA leaders that a lunar landing was a technically achievable objective, given a strong commitment of resources and people. That such a program would be recommended to the president was certain enough that NASA had established an internal task force four days earlier to provide a more detailed sense of what would be involved in such an undertaking, but that group’s findings were not due until early June. Thus the specifics of the lunar landing plans discussed on May 6 were in a very preliminary state.

In choosing the lunar landing program as the central feature of its recom­mended program, the group had no firm intelligence regarding whether or not the Soviet Union was already embarked on a similar program. An April 25, 1961, National Intelligence Estimate on “Soviet Technical Capabilities in Guided Missiles and Space Vehicles” had estimated that the Soviet Union could orbit payloads weighing 50 to 100 tons in the “latter part of the decade”; this capability would allow Russia to launch a human mission to circumnavigate the Moon by 1966, to go into orbit around the Moon by 1967, and, “contingent upon success with manned earth satellites and the development of large booster vehicles,” to carry out “lunar landings and return to earth by about 1970.” The estimate noted: “The Soviet leaders clearly believe that achievements in space enable them to persuade the world that in the realms of science, technology, and military strength, the USSR stands in the very front rank of world powers. In seizing an early lead and following it with a series of dramatic successes, they have sought to bolster their claims of superiority of the Soviet system. . . Since 1955, the announced goal of the Soviet space program has been manned interplanetary travel.” There was, however, no hard evidence that the Soviet Union had initiated a lunar landing program.2

Although there is no direct evidence that those preparing the space recommendations had read this intelligence estimate prior to the May 6-7 weekend, they were likely aware of its conclusions. The final recommenda­tions that went to Vice President Johnson the following Monday, May 8, were accompanied by a separate, highly classified, annex on Soviet space capabilities.3

The only question about the wisdom of selecting the lunar landing goal as the key step toward space leadership came from Robert McNamara, who wondered, given the lack of specific knowledge about the Soviet space pro­gram and its record of achievements to date, whether such an effort was ambitious enough. Might the Soviets already be so far along on a lunar land­ing program that they could do it in a year or two, he wondered. Might it be better to focus on sending people to Mars, instead, he asked the group. Seamans told McNamara that going directly to a human mission to Mars was technically not feasible, but, he says, “McNamara kept pressing the issue of whether we shouldn’t embark on a planetary program.”

NASA also listed other areas of space activities that were candidates for acceleration; Shapley suggests that between the items that NASA suggested and those coming from Seaborg regarding nuclear propulsion for space and from DOD with respect to solid-fueled boosters, the result was “a whole smorgasbord.” Part of that “smorgasbord” was setting as a goal of creating as soon as possible an operational meteorological satellite system. Such an initiative had been under study within the government and by a President’s Science Advisory Committee (PSAC) panel in the previous weeks. The panel was headed by Princeton professor John Tukey; it had concluded that “the usefulness of a meteorological system operating on a continuing basis is unquestionable.” Such a system, Wiesner a few days later noted, would “assure to the U. S. the advantages of U. S. leadership in this important peace­ful use of outer space and provide opportunities for a significant interna­tional cooperative program.”4 Another initiative approved by the group was the creation of an operational communications satellite system, which was listed in a May 5 background paper, apparently prepared by Willis Shapley, as a “first” with “continuing prestige impact.” Such a system could be avail­able in about twenty months, suggested the paper, “provided the program is directly pushed by the Government, takes full benefit of private commercial developments, and gives priority to time rather than economic factors.”5

An important reason for Robert McNamara’s desire to have a large civil­ian space program was that it would help him resist Air Force demands for an increase in its space activities. McNamara, aware of the bullish recom­mendations contained in the Gardner Committee report, believed that the Air Force was “out of control,” and that, if NASA was carrying out a large program with heavy involvement of the aerospace industry, it would be more difficult for the Air Force to get political support from the same firms and from the Congress for its space ambitions.6

The group then reviewed the Department of Defense space effort. The only new area suggested for the DOD was the development of large solid – fueled rocket motors. The military wanted this capability, Seamans sug­gested, “for quick reaction, for strategic purposes.” The DOD thought that “the solid motor was going to be the wave of the future, easier to store, easier to operate, no need to top off the oxygen as with an Atlas missile.” The

Department of Defense wanted to develop a 260-inch diameter solid motor, and NASA had limited interest in such an undertaking. There was agreement that both liquid-fueled boosters, NASA’s preference, and solid propulsion boosters would be pursued in parallel, with the choice of which would be used for the lunar landing mission deferred to a future time. The group also agreed that work on a nuclear upper stage for a large rocket should be pur­sued, but that such a stage was unlikely to be available in time for the initial lunar landing attempts. The major role for nuclear propulsion would be later missions to the Moon and then future human missions to the planets.

On late Saturday afternoon, the meeting then turned to how to proceed in preparing a report containing the recommendations that had been agreed to. The Department of Defense had prepared a draft report, written primar­ily by John Rubel. NASA had no similar draft, just a listing of the projects it was proposing for acceleration. Robert McNamara suggested using the DOD draft as the starting point and then folding in the NASA recommen­dations; James Webb agreed to this approach. The meeting then adjourned, with Seamans, Rubel, and Shapley designated as a drafting group to prepare by Monday morning a report for McNamara’s and Webb’s signatures.

Webb, in fact, had agreed to use the DOD draft without first reading it. When Seamans later on Saturday did read the report, which made the same general points as had the April 22 McNamara presentation to the vice presi­dent, but in more detail, he was “very troubled.” What bothered Seamans was the approach the draft report took to competing with the Soviet Union in space. The draft claimed that “the government had allowed industry to proliferate to too great an extent,” with the result being a diffuse and inef­fective effort. It suggested “winnowing” the existing aerospace firms so that only “two or three or four stalwarts” would be allowed to compete for DOD and NASA contracts. The argument was that “free enterprise had gone too far and the government had to take a stronger role.” In addition, “there was a lot of philosophical stuff. . . about the excellent being the enemy of the good.” Seamans, a Republican, was “appalled” by the suggestion that the government should “control the industrial complex in a manner that certainly would have represented a very major change in policy.” He called Webb on Sunday morning, saying, “we’ve got a terrible problem with this [DOD] report. I think it would be much better to start all over again.” Webb told Seamans that this was not possible, since Webb had already agreed with McNamara to use the DOD report as the starting point; he said “it’s up to you to work with John Rubel and revise it until you consider it to be satis­factory.” Webb was on Sunday immersed in making arrangements for what would turn out to be a triumphant visit to Washington the next day by astro­naut Alan Shepard and his Mercury astronaut colleagues.

Seamans, Shapley, and Rubel and some of their staff worked into Saturday evening and all day Sunday on the report, adding the NASA material to the DOD draft, with Shapley providing budget figures. Seamans told Webb on Sunday afternoon that he still was not satisfied with the report’s lan­guage, and Webb agreed that he would come to the Pentagon after having dinner with Alan Shepard’s family. Webb appeared sometime after 9:30 in the evening; between then and 1:00 or 2:00 on Monday morning, in what Seamans describes as “one of the great experiences of my life,” Webb went through the report with Rubel page by page, negotiating changes in language or deletions “clearly to the benefit of the report.” Finally, Webb, Seamans, and Rubel agreed that the report was ready for signature and for­warding to the vice president. Then Webb waited until the secretaries who had been typing the revisions finished their work; he insisted on driving the one secretary who did not have a car to her home during a pouring rainstorm, even waiting at the woman’s house for a few minutes until the rain let up. Seamans describes Webb’s actions as “a remarkable display of a Southerner. . . being gallant.”

Seamans was back at the Pentagon by 7:30 a. m. to make sure the report was in shape for Webb and McNamara’s approval. The two men signed a cover letter, and the report was delivered to Vice President Johnson that morning. The cover letter said: “Attached to this letter is a report entitled ‘Recommendations for Our National Space Program: Changes, Policies, Goals,’ dated May 8, 1961. This document represents our joint thinking. We recommend that, if you concur with its contents and recommendations, it be transmitted to the President for his information and as a basis for early adop­tion [and] implementation of the revised and expanded objectives which it contains.”7

To the Moon Together: Pursuit. of an Illusion?

X resident Kennedy’s suggestion to Nikita Khrushchev at the June 1961 Vienna summit that the United States and the Soviet Union cooperate in flights to the Moon was made privately, and was not subsequently widely reported. The 1962 discussions on space cooperation were carried out on a low-key basis, with their results being made public only after agreement had been reached. In contrast, President Kennedy’s next cooperative initia­tive came in a most public fashion. Addressing the General Assembly of the United Nations on September 20, 1963, Kennedy said “in a field where the United States and the Soviet Union have a special capacity—in the field of space—there is room for new cooperation. . . I include among these possibili­ties a joint expedition to the moon.” “Why,” Kennedy asked, “should man’s first flight to the moon be a matter of national competition? . . . Surely we should explore whether the scientists and astronauts of our two countries— indeed of all the world—cannot work together in the conquest of space, sending some day in this decade to the moon not the representatives of a single nation, but representatives of all our countries.”[3]

Kennedy’s proposal came as a major surprise to all but a few people who had been involved in preparing his United Nations speech or had been advised by the president of his intent. The decision to include the proposal in the president’s speech was made just a day or two before September 20, although Kennedy had been mulling the idea for some time. The offer was the personal initiative of the president and a few of his closest advisers.

Responsible for drafting the UN address were presidential assistant Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. and State Department official Richard Gardner. Schlesinger suggests that as the two “canvassed the scientific and technical agencies of the government, we discovered that specific proposals of American-Soviet cooperation seemed trivial compared to the enormities of the space age.” As they searched for more dramatic initiatives, “there swam into our minds the thought of merging the Russian and American expeditions to the moon.”2

Without clearing the idea with anyone else, Schlesinger included language proposing such a cooperative lunar mission in the speech draft “to see how it sounded.”3 Schlesinger says that he “had forgotten that the President had himself suggested this to Khrushchev in Vienna in 1961,” and thus was not “prepared for his quick approval.”4

Between the September 20 speech and his assassination two months later, President Kennedy continued to hope for a positive response to his proposal and, when it seemed to come in early November, to push NASA to come up with ways of turning the proposal into reality. Given all the practical diffi­culties of doing so, in addition to continuing skepticism within NASA and among many in Congress about the wisdom of the proposal in the first place, he may well indeed have been in “pursuit of an illusion”—the thought that the space arena might “be used as a means to swing the US and the USSR from competition to cooperation.”5 But certainly Kennedy was not prac­ticing what Walter McDougall has characterized as “benign hypocrisy”—a willingness to cooperate only in areas “where the United States was safely dominant.” McDougall suggests that Kennedy’s words about U. S.-USSR space cooperation “were just exercises at image-building.”6 The record sug­gests a different interpretation—that in 1963 Kennedy was quite serious in his hope that there were practical ways of making U. S. space projects, including the challenging undertaking of sending people to the Moon, an area for reducing U. S.-Soviet tensions and for developing habits of working together.

Apollo’s Impact on the U. S. Space Program

By contrast, the impact of Apollo on the evolution of the U. S. space program has on balance been negative. Apollo turned out to be a dead end undertak­ing in terms of human travel beyond the immediate vicinity of this planet; no human has left Earth orbit since the last Apollo mission in December 1972. Writing in 1970, I suggested that the capabilities developed for Apollo would have “broad and significant impacts on human existence in the decades to come.” Like many others close to the space program, I was caught up in the excitement of the initial lunar landings, and could not conceive of the pos­sibility that having served its political purposes, Apollo and whatever human exploration efforts might follow it would so rapidly be brought to a close.

What happened, however, was that most of the Apollo hardware and asso­ciated capabilities, particularly the magnificent but very expensive Saturn V launcher, quickly became museum exhibits to remind us, soon after the fact, of what once was had been done. Commenting on this reality in 1989, Walter McDougall lamented the fate of Apollo: “a brilliant creation, carrying tremendous emotional baggage for the nation, achieved so quickly through such skilled and dedicated teamwork, only to be discarded, dismembered, or disinherited.” Columnist Charles Krauthammer at the time of the fortieth anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission in 2009 deplored the fact that humans have not returned to the Moon since the last Apollo mission: “On it are exactly 12 sets of human footprints—untouched, unchanged, abandoned. For the first time in history, the Moon is not just a mystery and a muse, but a nightly rebuke. A vigorous young president once summoned us to this new frontier, calling the voyage ‘the most hazardous and dangerous and greatest adventure on which man has ever embarked.’ And so we did it. We came. We saw. Then we retreated.”25

This rapid retreat should not have come as a surprise to careful observers. By being first to the Moon, the United States achieved the goal that had provided the sustainable momentum that powered Apollo; after Apollo 11, that momentum very rapidly dissipated, and there was no other compelling rationale to continue. In 1969 and 1970, even as the initial lunar landing

missions were taking place, the White House canceled the final three planned trips to the Moon. President Richard Nixon had no stomach for what NASA proposed—a major post-Apollo program aimed at building a large space sta­tion in preparation for eventual (in the 1980s!) human missions to Mars. Instead, Nixon decreed, “we must think of them [space activities] as part of a continuing process. . . and not as a series of separate leaps, each requiring a massive concentration of energy. Space expenditures must take their proper place within a rigorous system of national priorities. . . What we do in space from here on in must become a normal and regular part of our national life and must therefore be planned in conjunction with all of the other undertak­ings which are important to us.”26 Nixon’s policy view quickly reduced the post-Apollo space budget to less than $3.5 billion per year, a budget alloca­tion one-quarter of what it had been at the peak of Apollo. There were in the 1960s proposals, called the Apollo Applications Program, to use Apollo hardware for a variety of Earth orbit and deep space missions. Only one of those missions, the Skylab space station, ever came to fruition; its May 1973 launch was the last use of the Saturn V. The booster’s production line had been shut down in 1970. The 1975 Apollo-Soyuz Test Program mission was the last use of an Apollo spacecraft and the Saturn 1B launch vehicle. With the 1972 decision to begin the shuttle program, followed in 1984 with the related decision to develop a space station, the United States basically started over in human space flight, limiting itself to orbital activities in the near vicinity of Earth.

The policy and technical decisions not to build on the hardware devel­oped for Apollo for follow-on space activities were inextricably linked to the character of President John Kennedy’s deadline for getting to the Moon— “before this decade is out.” By setting a firm deadline for the first lunar landing, Kennedy put NASA in the position of finding a technical approach to Apollo that gave the best chance of meeting that deadline. This in turn led to the development of the Saturn V launcher, the choice of the lunar orbit rendezvous approach for getting to the Moon, and the design of the Apollo spacecraft optimized for landing on the Moon. Perceptive observer Richard Lewis in 1968 spoke of the “Kennedy effect,” noting that

the political decision to send men to the moon also led to unexpected results in the development of space technology. . . It has determined the priorities, the engineering designs, and the scientific objectives of the space program in this decade, and it is quite likely to control future space work for the remainder of this century. This unforeseen result might be called the Kennedy effect. While its intent at the beginning was to enlarge American competence in space, its implementation has built a Procrustean bed and the American space program has been severely mutilated to fit it.27

The consequences of selecting the lunar orbit approach to the Moon landing were of concern to Kennedy’s science adviser Jerome Wiesner as he opposed the LOR choice in 1962. President Kennedy in his determination to be first to the Moon overruled Wiesner, a decision, as Lewis noted, with profound consequences for the space program. NASA during the second half of the 1960s became what James Webb had feared, a one-program agency; given the budget constraints of the period, there was no money available for major new starts on alternative programs.

The “Kennedy effect” went well beyond rockets and spacecraft. The Apollo program created in NASA an organization oriented in the public and political eye toward human space flight and toward developing large-scale systems to achieving challenging goals. It created from Texas to Florida the institutional and facility base for such undertakings. With the White House rejection of ambitious post-Apollo space goals, NASA entered a four-decade identity crisis from which it has yet to emerge. Repetitive operation of the space shuttle and the extended process of developing an Earth-orbiting space station have not been satisfying substitutes for another Apollo-like under­taking. NASA has never totally adjusted to a lower priority in the overall scheme of national affairs; rather, as the Columbia Accident Investigation Board observed in its 2003 report, NASA became “an organization strain­ing to do too much with too little.”28 All of this is an unfortunate heritage of John Kennedy’s race to the Moon.

Yale University organizational sociologist Gary Brewer in 1989 observed that NASA during the Apollo program came close to being “a perfect place”—the best organization that human beings could create to accom­plish a particular goal. But, suggests Brewer, “perfect places do not last for long.” NASA “perfected itself in the reality of Apollo, but that success is past and the lessons from it are now obsolete.” The NASA of 1989, according to Brewer, was “no longer a perfect place” and was “deeply troubled.” He added:

The innocent clarity of purpose, the relatively easy and economically painless public consent, and the technical confidence [of Apollo] . . . are gone and will probably never occur again. Trying to recreate those by-gone moments by sloganeering, frightening, or appealing to mankind’s mystical needs for explo­ration and conquest seems somehow futile considering all that has happened since Jack Kennedy set the nation on course to the Moon.

Brewer’s comments of more than two decades ago might usefully be applied to the twenty-first century NASA and its supportive space commu­nity, which still struggle to maintain the approach to human space flight developed during the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs. It is well beyond the scope of this study to discuss the future of the U. S. space explo­ration program; the point to make here is that the conditions that made Apollo possible and the NASA of the 1960s a “perfect place” were unique and will not reoccur. I agree with Brewer’s conclusion that NASA needs “new ways of thinking, new people, and new means to come to terms and cope with social, economic, and political environments as challenging and harsh as deep space itself.”29

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.