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.