Category THE RACE

Revitalizing the Space Council

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

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

The Role of White House Staff

The burden of White House oversight of NASA and its plans for implement­ing the lunar landing program and the other activities that were part of the accelerated space effort thus fell on various members of the White House staff and those career bureaucrats supporting them.9 Although most of those individuals have been mentioned previously, it may be useful to depict the structure of White House decision-making for space before discussing the specific actions taken during the June 1961 to December 1962 period.

The recommendation that President Kennedy approved in accelerating the U. S. space program suggested that the prestige associated with space achievements was “part of the battle along the fluid front of the Cold War.” Kennedy defined the lunar landing program primarily as a national security effort, and that meant that his special assistant for national security affairs, McGeorge Bundy, played an increasingly important role in space policy discussions between 1961 and 1963. Bundy’s deputy, Harvard economist Carl Kaysen, and National Security Council career staff member Charles E. Johnson played key roles in supporting Bundy on space issues; Kaysen also had a direct personal relationship with the president, particularly on arms control issues, and on occasion reported directly to Kennedy rather than through Bundy. On technical issues, Kennedy relied on his special assis­tant for science and technology, Jerome Wiesner, and various panels of the President’s Science Advisory Committee (PSAC). From the start of 1962, Wiesner’s principal staff assistant on space matters was Nicholas Golovin, a physicist who had left NASA at the end of 1961 on less than harmonious terms. Another of Wiesner’s staffers, Eugene Skolnikoff, dealt with the inter­national aspects of the space effort. In August 1961 Wiesner was designated the White House official (instead of Welsh, the Space Council executive secretary) “to review and consult with relevant agencies of the Federal gov­ernment on organizational planning for the expanded space activities of the Federal government.”10 As planning for the accelerated space program moved forward, the president became increasingly concerned with its expo­nentially increasing costs. He leaned heavily on his director of BOB, David Bell, for careful assessments of the budgetary implications of the fast-paced space program. Bell’s deputy, Elmer Staats, and especially career BOB senior staffer Willis Shapley were deeply involved in space matters. Shapley was cen­tral to framing policy and budget issues as he drafted various policy papers for presidential review and decision.

Kennedy’s top adviser on most domestic policy matters, in addition to his duties as Kennedy’s speechwriter, was special counsel Theodore C. Sorensen. Kennedy in April 1961 had asked Sorensen to organize the review of the space program that was carried out by Vice President Johnson. Sorensen remained involved in space policy decisions as the president’s alter ego on most policy matters, but he seldom got directly involved with NASA over­sight as the Moon program evolved. On politically sensitive matters, such as the allocation of NASA contracts and the location of NASA’s facilities, Kennedy’s special assistant Kenneth O’Donnell became involved. Although he was the president’s closest confidant on most policy and political matters, Kennedy’s brother Robert seemingly had only limited involvement on space issues, although it is impossible to know how frequently space matters were discussed between the two brothers. It thus fell to Bundy, Wiesner, and Bell and their staff to be the primary points of contact between the White House and NASA as the U. S. space effort took its first steps toward a landing on the Moon.

Apollo under Pressure

A combination of factors—the increasing costs of Apollo, emerging Congressional opposition to those rapid increases, growing critiques of Apollo from leaders of the scientific and liberal communities, the uncer­tainty of whether the Soviet Union was in fact racing the United States to the Moon, and suggestions, coming primarily from the Republican opposi­tion, that there needed to be additional emphasis on the national security uses of space—led to President Kennedy’s asking several times during 1963 whether the original justifications for keeping Project Apollo on its planned schedule—and indeed, for the project itself—were still valid. In addition, the successful outcome of the Cuban missile crisis, the easing of tensions over Berlin, the signing of the Limited Test Ban Treaty, and Kennedy’s over­all desire to reach out to the Soviet Union with a new “strategy of peace” may have suggested to Kennedy that demonstrating U. S. technological and managerial superiority vis-a-vis the Soviet Union through a spectacular space achievement had lost some of its urgency.

President Kennedy’s rationale regarding the reasons why he had decided to accelerate the U. S. space program matured in the course of 1963. In November 1962 he had disagreed with James Webb, who had argued that the goal of the acceleration was preeminence in all areas of space activity; in response, Kennedy had insisted that “everything we do ought really to be tied to getting on the Moon ahead of the Russians,” and that he was “not that interested” in being the leader in other areas of space activity. Webb won his point; from mid-1963 on, Kennedy justified the fast-paced space pro­gram primarily in terms of its overall contribution to national power rather than as a race to the Moon. For example, in his July 17 press conference following reports that the Soviet Union did not in fact have a lunar land­ing program, Kennedy said: “The point of the matter always has been not only of our excitement or interest in being on the moon, but the capacity to dominate space, which would be demonstrated by a moon flight, I believe is essential to the United States as a leading free world power. That is why I

am interested in it and that is why I think we should continue.” Again in his October 31 press conference, Kennedy had said: “In my opinion the space program we have is essential to the security of the United States, because as I have said many times before it is not a question of going to the moon. It is a question of having the competence to master this environment.”1

Space Issues Requiring Early Attention by the Kennedy. Administration

There were several significant space issues that were unresolved in the final months of the Eisenhower administration.12 Dealing with these issues was to occupy president-elect Kennedy’s attention only briefly during the postelec­tion transition period. They included the relationship between civilian and military space efforts; a proposal to abolish the National Aeronautics and Space Council, the White House body for developing national space policy and strategy; the pace at which larger rocket boosters ought to be developed in order to close the weight-lifting gap with the Soviet Union; and NASA’s plans for a human space flight program to follow the initial U. S. effort to send an astronaut into orbit, Project Mercury.

Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson Leads. Space Program Review

It had been assumed since the March meetings on the NASA budget that Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson as the new chairman of the National Aeronautics and Space Council would, once he formally assumed that position, lead a comprehensive review of the U. S. space program that would provide the basis for decisions in fall 1961 on the future of that program, and especially the future of the human space flight effort. But the events of April 1961 drastically shortened the time allotted to that review. Johnson did not attend the April 14 White House meetings on the space program. He was returning from his first overseas trip as vice presi­dent, to the West African nation of Senegal, which was celebrating the first anniversary of its independence from France, with stops in Geneva and Paris on the way home. But on April 19, after President Kennedy had in the early hours of the day walked disconsolately with Ted Sorensen and then alone on the south lawn of the White House in the aftermath of the Bay of Pigs failure, he met later in the day with Lyndon Johnson and James Webb to discuss the organization of the accelerated review he had decided was needed. Johnson suggested that he would “have hear­ings, lay a background and create a platform for a recommendation to Congress.” He asked Kennedy to give him a memorandum “that would provide a charter for those hearings” and would be an “outline of what concerned him.”29

Ted Sorensen drafted a one-page memorandum, and President Kennedy signed it and sent it to Johnson the next day, April 20. The memorandum stands as a historic document; it spelled out the requirements that led directly to the decision to go to the Moon as the centerpiece of an accelerated U. S. space effort. It said:

In accordance with our conversation I would like for you as Chairman of the Space Council to be in charge of making an overall survey of where we stand in space.

1. Do we have a chance of beating the Soviets by putting a laboratory in space, or by a trip around the moon, or by a rocket to land on the moon, or by a rocket to go to the moon and back with a man. Is there any other space program which promises dramatic results in which we could win?

2. How much additional would it cost?

3. Are we working 24 hours a day on existing programs? If not, why not? If not, will you make recommendations to me as to how work can be speeded up.

4. In building large boosters should we put our emphasis on nuclear, chemical, or liquid fuel, or a combination of these?

5. Are we making maximum effort? Are we achieving necessary results? [1]



April 20, 1961



In accordance with our conversation I would like for you as Chairman of the Space Council to be in charge of making an overall survey of where we stand in space.

1. Do we have a chance of beating the Soviets by putting a laboratory in space, or by a trip around the moon, or by a rocket to land on the moon, or by a rocket to go to the moon and back with a man. Is there any other space program which promises dramatic results in which we could win?

2. How much additional would it cost?

3. Are we working 24 hours a day on existing programs. If not, why not? If not, will you make recommendations to me as to how work can be speeded up.

4. In building large boosters should we put out emphasis on nuclear, chemical or liquid fuel, or a combination of these three?

5. Are we making maximum effort? Are we achieving necessary results?

Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson Leads. Space Program Review

The April 20, 1961, memorandum that led to the decision to go to the Moon (LBJ Library image).

The Kennedy memorandum both contained a very clear statement of a requirement—“a space program which promises dramatic results in which we could win”—and a sense of urgency. Kennedy wanted Johnson’s report “at the earliest possible moment.” Budget director Bell suggests that “the President would not have made such a request unless he expected a positive answer and a strong program, and therefore he was pretty sure before he made that request that that was what he intended to do.” At an April 21 press conference, Kennedy was asked: “Mr. President, you don’t seem to be push­ing the space program nearly as energetically now as you suggested during the campaign that you thought it should be pushed. In view of the feeling of many people in this country that we must do everything we can to catch up with the Russians as soon as possible, do you anticipate applying any sort of crash program?” Kennedy replied:

We are attempting to make a determination as to which program offers the best hope before we embark on it, because you may commit a relatively small sum of money now for a result in 1967, ‘68, or ‘69, which will cost you billions of dollars, and therefore the Congress passed yesterday the bill providing for a Space Council which will be chaired by the Vice President. We are attempting to make a determination as to which of these various proposals offers the best hope. When that determination is made we will then make a recommendation to the Congress.

In addition, we have to consider whether there is any program now, regard­less of its cost, which offers us hope of being pioneers in a project. It is possible to spend billions of dollars in this project in space to the detriment of other programs and still not be successful. We are behind, as I said before, in large boosters.

We have to make a determination whether there is any effort we could make in time or money which could put us first in any new area. Now, I don’t want to start spending the kind of money that I am talking about without making a determination based on careful scientific judgment as to whether a real success can be achieved, or whether because we are so far behind now in this particu­lar race we are going to be second in this decade.

So I would say to you that it’s a matter of great concern, but I think before we break through and begin a program which would not reach a completion, as you know, until the end of this decade—for example, trips to the moon, maybe 10 years off, maybe a little less, but are quite far away and involve, as I say, enormous sums—I don’t think we ought to rush into it and begin them until we really know where we are going to end up. And that study is now being undertaken under the direction of the Vice President.

Then, for the first time in public, Kennedy said: “If we can get to the moon before the Russians, then we should.”30

"Not Because They are Easy, but Because They are Hard&quot

Kennedy’s September 1962 trip to space installations was intended to give him a sense of the character and scope of the accelerated space effort he had approved in May 1961. At Huntsville, he saw one of the very large F-1 engines that would be used to power the Moon rocket, and witnessed a test firing of the engines of the first stage of the Saturn 1 booster that generated 1.5 million pounds of thrust. At the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station and the NASA Launch Operations Center on Merritt Island in Florida, he saw the launch pad from which two Saturn 1 boosters had already been success­fully launched, and was briefed on the Gemini and Apollo programs. He told the NASA staff at the Launch Operations Center that “as long as the decision has been made that our great system and others will be judged at least in one degree by how we do in the field of space, we might as well be first.”14 On the flight from Florida to his next stop in Houston, Kennedy spent more than an hour in informal conversation regarding both the civilian and the military space programs with BOB director Bell, director of defense research and engineering Harold Brown, and Seamans of NASA. Kennedy was surprised to discover that he and Seamans had both been members of the Class of 1940 at Harvard. (James Webb was on a separate plane with Vice President Johnson.)

The trip also provided an opportunity to make a major speech on the reasons behind his decision to go to the Moon; that speech is often con­fused with the May 25, 1961, address to a joint session of Congress during which Kennedy had announced his decision. At 10:00 a. m. on September 12, 1962, on a day that was oppressively hot and humid, President Kennedy addressed a Houston crowd of more than 40,000 people, mostly students, in the Rice University football stadium. Like many other of the president’s speeches, various government agencies had suggested to the White House what Kennedy might say; in this case, material had been submitted to JFK’s top speechwriter Theodore Sorensen from at least NASA, BOB, the State Department, and by Sorensen’s brother Tom at the U. S. Information Agency. Sorensen drew on ideas, phrases, and words from most of these inputs in drafting Kennedy’s Rice University speech, but he was a consum­mate master of spoken rhetoric, and his drafts transcended the sometimes pedestrian content of the agency submissions. Even so, most of Kennedy’s speeches as president, including this memorable space address, were group products.

The Rice University speech is perhaps most remembered for the line “we choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” The original version of this sentence was actually suggested by NASA; the agency’s lengthy input into the speech preparation included the sentences: “We chose to go to the moon in this decade not because it will be easy, but because it will be hard. It will bring out the best in us.” These words formed the basis of a much more eloquent declaration. As Kennedy spoke, he substituted the word “choose” for the word “chose,” and said, “we choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.” Among the other memorable sentences in Kennedy’s Rice University address are the following:

“The exploration of space will go ahead, whether we join it or not, and it is one of the great adventures of all time, and no nation which expects to be the leader of other nations can expect to stay behind in the race for space.”

“This generation does not intend to founder in the backwash of the com­ing age of space. We mean to be part of it—we mean to lead it.” (This last sentence was extemporized rather than in the prepared text of the speech.)

“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.”

“But why, some say, the moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask why climb the highest mountain. Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? Why does Rice play Texas?” (This last sentence was written into the speech’s reading text in Kennedy’s hand.) “Many years ago the great British explorer George Mallory, who was to die on Mount Everest, was asked why did he want to climb it. He said, ‘Because it is there.’ Well, space is there, and we’re going to climb it, and the moon and planets are there, and new hopes for knowledge and peace are there. And, therefore, as we set sail we ask God’s blessing on the most hazardous and dangerous and greatest adventure on which man has ever embarked.”15

President Kennedy completed his tour of space installations later in the day, first visiting the temporary quarters of the new Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston, then flying to St. Louis to visit the plant of the McDonnell Aircraft Corporation, where the Mercury and Gemini spacecraft were devel­oped. By the time he returned to the White House, Kennedy had had an apparent change of mind; rather than giving high priority to controlling the costs of sending Americans to the Moon, Kennedy wanted to know “how soon can we get there?”

Apollo to Go Forward as Planned

What might have happened to Project Apollo if John F. Kennedy had not been assassinated in Dallas on November 22, 1963, is an unanswerable ques­tion. Historian Roger Launius has suggested that “had Kennedy served two full terms, it is quite easy to envision a point. . . in which he might have decided that the international situation that sparked the announcement of a lunar landing ‘by the end of the decade’ had passed and he could have safely turned off the landing clock.” Such a thought could well have been the president’s mind as he worried during the summer and fall of 1963 about the increasing criticisms and costs of Apollo and sought Soviet cooperation in a lunar mission; it was certainly one of the options being considered at the White House senior staff level. However, backing off of being first to the Moon did not seem to be on Kennedy’s mind in November 1963. In remarks he planned to deliver in Dallas on November 22, Kennedy would have said “the United States of America has no intention of finishing second in space. This effort is expensive—but it pays its own way for freedom and for America.”15

As already noted, during October and November, NASA and DOD car­ried out independent reviews in response to the October 5 White House questions; they then began to prepare joint reviews on several key questions, such as what should be the Earth orbital human space flight effort and what should be the country’s launch vehicle program. The pace of the lunar land­ing program was not an issue in the joint NASA-DOD effort. Rather, the focus with respect to human space flight was the balance between NASA and DOD in Earth-orbital spaceflight activities. The Department of Defense at this point was becoming increasingly interested in the military and intelli­gence potentials of humans in orbit, and there were suggestions that DOD at some point might take over from NASA the leading role in the Gemini proj­ect. NASA during this period examined what was “the minimum manned earth-orbit program required to support a manned lunar landing”; the space agency wanted to make sure that there were enough Gemini flights to satisfy its requirements in support of Apollo before any consideration was given to the potential transfer of the project to Air Force control. The NASA study operated under the assumption that the White House objective in the joint program review was “to find ways and means of reducing the projected cost of the total (NASA and DOD) national space program without abandoning the objective of the manned lunar landing, while at the same time increasing the responsiveness of the program to military needs.”16

The pace of the lunar landing program was an issue in the BOB review of the national space program, which was taking place in parallel with the NASA-DOD effort. In late November, a report summarizing BOB’s conclu­sions was drafted by the BOB staff, primarily Willis Shapley, in consultation with senior representatives of NASA and the Department of Defense. This report had two sections, one dealing with the “Manned Lunar Landing Program” and the other with “Military Space Objectives,” with a particular focus on the future of a separate Air Force effort in human space flight.

A November 13 draft of report of this “Special Space Review” contained a clear statement of the goal of the lunar landing program: “to attempt to achieve a manned lunar landing and return by the end of the decade” with “principal purposes” of (1) “demonstrating an important space achievement ahead of the USSR”; (2) “serving as a focus for technological developments necessary for other space objectives and having potential significance for national defense”; and (3) “acquiring useful scientific and other data to the extent feasible.” (This statement reinforces the reality that science was never the primary goal of going to the Moon.) The conclusion of the draft review was that “after examining the pros and cons and the fiscal implications of possible alternatives. . . the goal as stated above should be adhered to at this time, with due recognition of the problems involved and of the possibility that it may be necessary to change the objective at some future date.”17 The next draft of the report was dated November 20. It expanded on the analysis of why it was prudent to stay with the lunar landing program as planned, saying that “the feasible alternatives available for major changes. . . are quite limited.” First, “there were generally good and sufficient reasons” for setting the lunar landing goal which were “still valid today.” In addition, “previous administration policy statements, testimony, and ‘commitments’ tend to limit the flexibility for major changes.” Also, “significant losses in time, money, and other disruptions are likely to result from major changes at this time.”18

The final draft of the Special Space Review was dated November 29, one week after President Kennedy’s assassination. This draft best represents the analysis and conclusions that would have been presented to the president for final decision if he had lived. The draft noted that its contents had been prepared “by Bureau of the Budget staff in consultation with senior repre­sentatives of NASA and the Department of Defense.” The report first asked: “Should consideration be given at this time to backing off from the manned lunar landing goal?” Three alternative actions were offered:

1. “Adhere to the present goal.”

2. “Decide now to abandon current work directly related to the manned lunar landing objective but to continue development of the large launch vehicle (Saturn V) so that it will be available for future space programs.”

3. “Decide now to abandon both current work toward the manned lunar landing objective and the development of the Saturn V large launch vehicle.”

In support of alternative 1, the report suggested that “in the absence of clear and compelling external circumstances a change in present poli­cies and commitments would involve an unacceptable ‘loss of face’ both domestically and internationally” and that cancelling Apollo would not “in fact reduce criticism of the total magnitude of the budget or increase sup­port for other meritorious programs to which the funds might be applied.” The arguments in support of alternative 2 included “doubts that Congress will provide adequate support for the manned lunar landing program in 1965 and succeeding years” and “the apparent absence of a competitive USSR manned lunar landing program at this time.” Arguments in support of alternative 3 included “that an adequate continuing space program can be built around the use of the Saturn IB (and perhaps Titan III) launch vehicle.”

The report also raised the possibility of deciding “that the [manned lunar landing] program should be geared to a schedule slipping the first manned lunar landing attempts one or two years later than now planned to the very end of the decade (i. e., end of CY 1969 or 1970, depending on the defini­tion of ‘decade’).” The review pointed out that “some slippage in present schedules is recognized as inevitable, so that eliminating the present mar­gin. . . would be tantamount to and generally recognized as an admission that the achievement of the goal has been deferred beyond the end of the decade.”

Another issue addressed was “should our posture on the manned lunar landing program attribute a greater degree of military significance to the program?” The review concluded that “the facts of the situation justify the position that the launch vehicle, spacecraft, facilities, and general technology being developed by NASA. . . do have important future military significance.” However, “overplaying this point could have the effects of undercutting the general peaceful image of the program.” The review concluded with respect to a joint effort with the Soviet Union that “in the present situation we must necessarily take the posture that we are prepared to enter into any construc­tive agreement which will not jeopardize our national security interests and which will not delay or jeopardize the success of our MLL [manned lunar landing] program.”

After it spelled out these various options, the BOB report concluded that “in the absence of clear changes in the present technical or international situations, the only basis for backing off from the MLL objective at this time would be an overriding fiscal decision.” (This conclusion had first appeared in the November 20 draft of the report.) That decision might be either “that budget totals in FY1965 or succeeding years are unacceptable and should be reduced by adjusting the space program” or “that within present budgetary totals an adjustment should be made shifting funds from space to other pro­grams.” The BOB analysis was that the lunar landing program could indeed be accommodated within the projected FY1965 and subsequent budget lev­els, and thus that there was also no basis on fiscal grounds for recommend­ing significant changes in the program’s character or pace.19

The bottom line of the 1963 Special Space Review was that there was no reason for “backing off” the lunar landing goal. It is very unlikely that either President Kennedy’s top advisers or the president himself would have coun­termanded this conclusion, had Kennedy lived to consider that choice.

When James Webb, Robert McNamara, Jerome Wiesner, Edward Welsh, new budget director Kermit Gordon, and their top associates met on November 30 to consider the draft Special Space Review, the possibility of changes in Apollo was not even discussed; the meeting focused on the second part of the report dealing with the Air Force program of human space flight. The group decided to cancel the Air Force DynaSoar program and replace it with the Manned Orbital Laboratory program, a small outpost combining the Gemini spacecraft and an attached module with room to experiment with various military and intelligence payloads. With respect to Apollo, Secretary of Defense McNamara was insistent that there was no military justification for a lunar landing effort, but the group agreed that broader national secu­rity considerations were part of the rationale for sending Americans to the

Moon. Without even reaching the level of a presidential decision, Apollo had survived an intense and wide-ranging review with its basic character intact.20