Category THE RACE

Space during the Transition

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

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

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

Revitalizing the Space Council

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

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

Some with Reservations

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

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

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.

Initial Proposals for U. S.-Soviet Space Cooperation

Bilateral U. S.-U. S.S. R. cooperation was thus the preferred alternative to cooperating through the United Nations, and active discussion of this pos­sibility had begun soon after the president’s January 30 speech. Philip Farley, special assistant to the secretary of state for atomic energy and outer space, told Secretary Rusk on February 9 that he had been meeting with Wiesner and acting NASA administrator Dryden and had found “a good deal of uncertainty and diversity of expert opinion as to what makes technical and practical sense in the three areas mentioned in the President’s State of the Union message. . . as well as other possible areas of space cooperation.” To address this situation, the White House set up a “Task Force on International Cooperation in Space” in early February. The group was composed of both non-governmental people, particularly members of and consultants to the President’s Science Advisory Committee (PSAC), and officials from NASA, the Department of State, and the White House science office. The task force was charged both with identifying “the full range of possibilities for coop­erative efforts” and describing “the optimum shape of possible international cooperation in outer space. . . on the basis of pooling or even merging of efforts in a world-wide venture. . . Such a description of optimum interna­tional cooperation in space activities would be an important contribution to re-examination of U. S. objectives and programs in outer space.”11 The group was chaired by Bruno Rossi, a professor of physics at MIT, who had been a member of the Wiesner transition panel on outer space.

The task force carried out its examination between February 17 and mid-March.12 It came up with twenty-two specific proposals for U. S.-Soviet space cooperation, ranging from projects involving only data exchanges or coordination of separate projects, to intimate cooperation in ambitious proj­ects for the human exploration of the Moon and the robotic exploration of the planets, particularly Mars. At the first meeting on February 17, one of the members of the task force, Richard Porter of General Electric, submit­ted a memorandum suggesting a U. S.-Soviet “Rendezvous on the Moon” project to establish an international base on the surface of the Moon, along the lines of scientific bases in the Antarctic. Porter suggested that “if agree­ment could be reached on this major project between the United States and the USSR, all other bilateral and multilateral cooperative projects involving the USSR would become feasible and operative”; the group found this pro­posal intriguing. The thought was that if the United States and the Soviet Union agreed to cooperate in lunar exploration, they would then invite other nations to join in.13

As the Rossi task force was completing its examination, senior govern­ment officials were also discussing U. S.-Soviet space cooperation. On March 8, Rusk met with new NASA administrator Webb and deputy administra­tor Dryden. Rusk told the NASA officials that there was “keen interest in the possibility of a productive approach to the Soviet Union for outer space cooperation.” Webb’s reaction was that, given the current uncertainty regarding the Kennedy administration’s approach to space, a “decision on approaches to the Soviets was secondary to deciding what the United States wanted to do in space.” Webb spoke of the opportunities for foreign rela­tions inherent in the space program, and told Rusk that in his three weeks since becoming NASA administrator he had concluded that there was a need for acceleration of the NASA program and increased funding “by a substantial amount.” Rusk in reply wondered “what the purpose was of activities in space on this major scale. Should not the objectives be clearly identified and undertaken not competitively but on behalf of the human race as a whole.”14 State Department leadership remained throughout the Apollo program a source of skepticism of the value of a unilateral large-scale space effort.

The Rossi task force submitted its final report to Wiesner on March 20. The report noted that “a cooperative enterprise in this new and bold ven­ture would stimulate constructive thinking on the part of people all over the world and help reduce world tensions,” and that “it is vitally important for the avoidance of future conflicts to establish early cooperation in such fields where unchecked competition is likely to produce a dangerous situa­tion” such as “meteorological activities that might eventually lead to weather control, and large scale exploration of the moon and planets.” The report suggested that the United States should “give preference to projects that avoid the difficulties connected with a high degree of [Soviet] involvement or else to projects that are sufficiently bold and dramatic to sweep aside these difficulties.” Wiesner told Rossi that the task force had done a “superb” job in providing “the essential scientific judgment that is prerequisite for any political action that may follow.”15

The task force report was next reviewed and revised by several of the government agencies involved in the space program. An April 4 draft report of this second review set out the political rationale for expanded U. S.-Soviet space cooperation: “ The objectives are to confirm concretely the U. S. pref­erence for a cooperative rather than competitive approach to space explora­tion, to contribute to reduction of Cold War tensions by demonstrating the possibility of cooperative enterprise between the U. S. and the USSR in a field of major public concern, and to achieve the substantive advantages of cooperation that in major projects would impose more of a strain on eco­nomic and manpower resources if carried out unilaterally.”16

Interestingly, this paragraph was missing in an April 13 draft of the report, perhaps reflecting a shift in White House thinking toward a more competitive stance in space in the wake of Yuri Gagarin’s April 12 orbital flight. Three categories of cooperative proposals were suggested in that draft: (1) use of existing or easily attainable ground facilities for the exchange of information and services; (2) coordination of independently launched satel­lite experiments; and (3) “coordination or cooperation in ambitious projects for the manned exploration of the moon and the unmanned exploration of the planets.” With regard to the third category, the document suggested “as a first step in non-limited cooperative effort, the U. S. and the USSR would each undertake to place a small party (about 3) of men on the moon.” Such an undertaking would have the “greatest potential for matching the President’s theme that ‘Both nations would help themselves as well as other nations by removing these endeavors from the bitter and wasteful competi­tion of the Cold War.’ ”17

An early start on U. S.-Soviet space cooperation was not in the cards, how­ever. Even as the task force began its work, President Kennedy was receiv­ing initial indications that the Soviet Union was unlikely to be receptive to the kind of initiatives he had in mind. On February 13, he congratulated Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev on the launching of a Soviet scientific probe to Venus. In his reply, Khrushchev took note of Kennedy’s coopera­tive overtures in his inaugural address and State of the Union speech, but indicated that the creation of “favorable conditions” for space cooperation would require “settlement of the problem of disarmament.”18 This repeated the Soviet policy line of several years standing, linking cooperation in vari­ous areas, including space, to a U. S.-Soviet disarmament agreement, and did not auger well for the Kennedy approach of isolating areas of common U. S.- Soviet interest for cooperation even if tensions remained in the two coun­tries’ security relationship. Even so, as he met with new NASA administrator James Webb on March 22, the president stressed to Webb “his desire that we try to work out as many ideas as possible for utilization in the proposed conference with the Russians [a hoped-for Kennedy-Khrushchev summit meeting] for international cooperation. He said he hoped we would give this very high level attention.”19

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

Commitment Reviewed and Reiterated

It is important to realize that Kennedy’s decision to go to the Moon was not made once and for all time in April and May 1961. By mid-1961, Kennedy began questioning the costs associated with Apollo, and several times in 1962 and again, more intensely, in 1963 there were in-depth reviews of Apollo’s cost and schedule, asking each time whether the benefits of going ahead as planned justified the very high costs involved. In 1963, Kennedy saw an opportunity to cooperate with the Soviet Union in going to the Moon as a means of reducing U. S. costs while achieving other important strategic objectives; if the Soviet Union had responded positively, it certainly would have changed the character of Project Apollo.

There was thus not a single decision to aim at a lunar landing, but rather a series of decisions, each time with alternative paths being considered and each time with the resulting choice being to proceed with the program to land Americans on the Moon “before this decade is out,” either as a uni­lateral undertaking or cooperatively. Only at the very end of the Kennedy administration was serious consideration given to slipping the end of the decade schedule, and even then the decision made was to reject such slippage and to stay with the planned schedule.

Kennedy’s consistently reiterated commitment to Apollo can be best understood in terms of how he carried out his presidency overall. Theodore Sorensen, as he prepared Columbia University lectures which were later pub­lished as his book Decision-Making in the White House, asked national secu­rity adviser McGeorge Bundy for suggestions on what to say. Bundy replied that “the modes of Presidential decision are enormously varied,” that “deci­sions are made through the ceaseless process by which, if an administration is lively, recommendations and proposals are ground forward,” and that in a sense “the entire presidential existence is. . . a process of decision.” Viewing JFK’s commitment to Apollo in these terms is particularly useful. Bundy suggested that “the president’s larger policies: an open door to Moscow, an open door to all underdog Americans, an open door to intelligence and hope, honor to bravery, equal sense of past and future, gallantry to beauty, and pride in politics” were “colors of a permanent palette” and were reflected “in the small as well as the large decisions, drawn from in a hundred ways.”9 Policies in the space arena were indeed a reflection of Kennedy’s broader objectives as president. As Sorensen suggests, reflecting the multiple facets of Kennedy’s space strategy: [4]

addition, our relations with the Soviets, following the Cuban missile crisis and the test ban treaty, were much improved—so the President felt that, without harming any of those three goals, we now were in a position to ask the Soviets to join us and make it efficient and economical for both countries.

President Kennedy himself explained the subtlety of his space strategy as he wrote Congressman Albert Thomas in the aftermath of his September 20, 1963, proposal at the United Nations that the journey to the Moon become a cooperative undertaking: “This great national effort and this steadily stated readiness to cooperate with others are not in conflict. They are mutually supporting elements of a single policy.” Kennedy added: “If cooperation is possible, we mean to cooperate, and we shall do so from a position made strong and solid by our national effort in space. If coop­eration is not possible—and as realists we must plan for this contingency too—then the same strong national effort will serve all free men’s inter­est in space, and protect us also against possible hazards to our national security.”

One analyst of the Kennedy presidency correctly comments that “there would have been no race to the moon without the Cold War; the space pro­gram became as much a part of that conflict as Cuba, Berlin, and Laos.”10 Whatever President Kennedy, Vice President Johnson, and NASA admin­istrator Webb said about the purposes of Project Apollo in their public rhetoric, from the time that Kennedy asked Johnson to identify “a space program that promises dramatic results in which we could win,” it was well understood within the government that the primary objective of Apollo was winning a Cold War-inspired competition to be first to the Moon. To those more focused on the totality of the U. S. space program than was John Kennedy, it was also clear from 1961 on that a program aimed at sending Americans to the Moon could serve as a focal point for the develop­ment of space capabilities of strategic value for the United States. By 1963, President Kennedy had seemingly also embraced that view. The November 1963 “Special Space Report” recommending proceeding with Apollo on its then-planned schedule clearly stated that “principal purposes” of the lunar landing program were (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.” These were the reasons John F. Kennedy decided in 1961 to go to the Moon, and they remained the objectives of Apollo at the time of his death.

This stability in the actual reasons for the lunar race served as the politi­cal foundation for White House decisions to allocate the massive resources required for Apollo’s success, even after Kennedy’s assassination. It is perhaps his willingness to stay the course in the face of increasing criticisms of the path in space that he had chosen that most indicates the quality and strength of John F. Kennedy’s original decision to go to the Moon.