Category THE RACE

What is the Goal-Getting to the Moon First or Space. Preeminence?

The meeting took place on November 21; it was also an occasion to review NASA’s budget proposal for Fiscal Year 1964. The BOB had not yet for­warded to the president Webb’s October 29 letter about the budgetary impli­cations of accelerating the target date for the first lunar landing. Like many communications to the president from government agencies, this letter had been referred to one of the staff agencies of the executive office, in this case BOB, for review and a decision of whether it needed direct presidential attention. Kennedy may well have wondered why he had not heard from Webb after asking him about this possibility on his September tour, and that could have added to his concern about the accuracy of the Time article. Of course, Kennedy had also been immersed with the Cuban missile crisis and the midterm congressional elections in the interim. Budget director Bell prepared a November 13 memorandum on the NASA budget situation that incorporated the schedule and budget estimates in Webb’s October letter; this memorandum was distributed to all participants in the meeting. In his memorandum, Bell identified two policy issues on which presidential guid­ance was needed: [2]

subjected to the restrictive budgetary ground rules applicable in 1964 to

other programs of the Government.”

NASA’s budget request for FY1964 was $6.2 billion, including $4.6 bil­lion for the lunar landing program and $1.6 billion for all other NASA activ­ities. To keep the program on an “optimum” schedule aiming at a mid-1967 landing, Bell told the president, would require a supplementary appropriation of over $400 million in 1963 and about $550 million above the estimates for FY1964 made three months earlier. NASA’s recommended program aiming at a late 1967 landing would not require a FY1963 supplement, but would require the full $4.6 billion funding in FY1964. As Webb’s October 29 letter had indicated, advancing the target date to late 1966 would require a $900 million supplement and “create enormous additional management problems.” Bell noted that “in NASA’s view and ours” such a course of action “would not appear to offer enough assurance of actually advancing the date of a successful attempt to be worth the cost and other problems involved.” Bell also offered a lower cost option that would slip the landing target date to late 1968; that option would require $3.7 billion for the lunar landing program in FY1964 rather than $4.6 billion and was “significant as indicating probably about the lowest 1964 estimate under which the first actual manned lunar landing might still be expected to occur during this decade, after a realistic allowance for slippage.” Bell also reported that “our understanding of the latest intelligence estimates is that there is no evidence yet that the Russians are actually developing either a larger booster. . . or ren­dezvous techniques.” Thus “extreme measures to advance somewhat our own target dates may not be necessary to preserve a good possibility that we will be first.” This may have been one of the first warnings to President Kennedy that the race to the Moon he thought the United States was running may not have been a race at all. But as the November 21 meeting unfolded, it became clear that Kennedy was still in a race mentality.

With respect to the other portions of the NASA budget, Bell reported that it was NASA’s view that if there were any reduction in NASA’s $6.2 billion request, it should be applied “at least in part to the manned lunar landing program, in order to maintain a ‘balanced’ total program.” He added that “the Administrator and his principal assistants are fearful that the appeal and priority of the manned lunar landing program may turn NASA into a ‘one program agency’ with loss of leadership and standing in the scien­tific community at home and abroad, and inadequate provision for moving ahead with developments required for future capabilities in space.” The BOB did not agree with this line of argument, suggesting that the “unique sort of national decision” that led to the lunar landing program did not “auto­matically endow other space objectives and programs with a special degree of urgency.” The BOB suggested a $300 million cut in the “other activi­ties” part of the NASA budget, noting that while this amount might “seem small,” in the context of the overall space budget, it was “large compared to most other possibilities for adjustment in the 1964 budget.”21

Present at the November 21 meeting in addition to President Kennedy were James Webb, Hugh Dryden, Robert Seamans, and Brainerd Holmes from NASA; David Bell, his deputy Elmer Staats, and Willis Shapley from BOB; Edward Welsh (Vice President Johnson had been invited but was out of town); and Jerome Wiesner. At some point in the meeting, President Kennedy activated the secret tape recording system that had been installed in July 1962 in the Oval Office, in the cabinet room, and on his telephone.22 There is thus available a fascinating verbatim account of the portions of the meeting during which President Kennedy and James Webb got into a spir­ited discussion of the priority to be assigned to the lunar landing mission compared to other NASA activities.23 Excerpts of that conversation include:

Kennedy: Do you think this [lunar landing] program is the top priority of the agency?

Webb: No sir, I do not. I think it is one of the top priority programs.

Kennedy: Jim, I think it is the top priority. I think we ought to have that very clear. Some of these other programs can slip six months, or nine months, and nothing strategic is going to happen. . . But this is important for political reasons, international political reasons. This is, whether we like it or not, in a sense a race. If we get second to the Moon, it’s nice, but it’s like being second any time. So if we’re second by six months because we didn’t give it the kind of priority [needed], then of course that would be very serious. So I think we have to take the view that this is top prior­ity with us.

* * *

Kennedy: I would certainly not favor spending six or seven billion dollars to find out about space no matter how on the schedule we’re doing. . . Why are we spending seven million dollars on getting fresh water from salt water, when we’re spending seven billion dollars to find out about space? Obviously you wouldn’t put it on that priority except for the defense implications. And the second point is the fact that the Soviet Union has made this a test of the system. So that’s why we’re doing it. So I think we’ve got to take the view that this is the key program. . . Everything we do ought really to be tied to getting on the Moon ahead of the Russians.

Webb: Why can’t it be tied to preeminence in space?

Kennedy: Because, by God, we keep, we’ve been telling everybody we’re pre­eminent in space for five years and nobody believes it because they [the Soviets] have the booster and the satellite. . . We’re not going to settle the four hundred million this morning. . . But I do think we ought to get it, you know, really clear that the policy ought to be that this is the top prior­ity program of the agency, and one of the two things, except for defense, the top priority of the United States government.

I think that is the position we ought to take.

Now, this may not change anything about the schedule but at least we ought to be clear, otherwise we shouldn’t be spending this kind of money,

because I’m not that interested in space. I think it’s good, I think we ought to know about it, we’re ready to spend reasonable amounts of money. But we’re talking about these fantastic expenditures which wreck our budget and all these other domestic programs and the only justification for it in my opinion to do it in this time or fashion is because we hope to beat them and demonstrate that starting behind, as we did by a couple of years, by God, we passed them.

In the course of the November 21 meeting, Brainerd Holmes apolo­gized for letting his differences with James Webb get into the press. He said: “I ought to add that I’m very sorry about this. I have no disagreement with Mr. Webb. . . I think my job is to say how fast I think we can go for what dollars.”

Just before he left the meeting, President Kennedy requested a letter from NASA stating clearly the agency’s position. First, Dryden drafted a relatively brief reply; then Seamans prepared a more extensive response. He took his draft to James Webb, who had stayed home from work with a severe migraine headache. (Seamans comments that “it’s not surprising that one occurred at this time.”) Seamans and Webb revised the letter to their and Dryden’s satisfaction; it was sent to President Kennedy on November 30. At that point, final decisions on the NASA FY1964 budget had still not been made, and so the nine-page letter included a plea for approval of NASA’s $6.2 billion request. The bulk of the letter supported the position that “the objective of our national space program is to become pre-eminent in all important aspects of this [space] endeavor and to conduct the program in such a manner that our emerging scientific, technological, and operational competence in space is clearly evident.” The letter noted that “the manned lunar landing program provides currently a natural focus for the develop­ment of national capabilities in space and, in addition, will provide a clear demonstration to the world of our accomplishments in space.” However, the letter argued, “the manned lunar landing program, although of the highest national priority, will not by itself create the pre-eminent position we seek.”24

Because Vice President Johnson was not present at the November 21 meeting, he was separately asked for his views on the issues discussed there. Budget director Bell wrote Johnson on November 28, saying that “the President would appreciate your views” on whether the manned lunar land­ing “should be regarded as the top priority program—or as one of the top priority programs” and on the “desirability and feasibility of augmenting the funding for the manned lunar landing program in the present fiscal year.” Johnson replied to Kennedy on December 4. He told the president that “as to the matter of relative priorities, I consider your Messages and Budget requests have made it clear that the Manned Lunar Landing Effort has the highest priority even though other projects are to be pursued vig­orously.” Between November 21 and his reply to Kennedy, Johnson had met with Brainerd Holmes for an hour to discuss the impact of a FY1963 budget supplement on the Apollo schedule, and had concluded that, “while I would urge any action that would have a reasonable chance of accelerat­ing the Manned Lunar Landing project target date,” he concurred with the conclusion of the NASA leadership that a “supplemental appropriation could not be made available in time to advance that date much, if any.”25

Even with all that he had heard, President Kennedy did not easily give up on the idea that the lunar landing program could be accelerated. As Kennedy toured various nuclear facilities in New Mexico and Nevada in early December 1962, he asked Wiesner to look once more into “the pos­sibility of speeding up the lunar landing program.” Wiesner on January 10, 1963, reported to Kennedy that “approximately 100 million dollars of the previously discussed 326 million dollar supplementary could have a very important effect on the schedule.” Wiesner thought that funds in this amount might be transferred from the Department of Defense budget to pay for DOD involvement in NASA’s Project Gemini, the new NASA program to test out rendezvous activities in Earth orbit and to serve as a bridge between Mercury and Apollo. Wiesner told the president that funds in that amount could be used to advance the date of the first Saturn V launch by some five months, and there was some chance that this accelera­tion could allow an earlier attempt at the landing. Wiesner noted that “the date of the first lunar landing attempt can be accelerated only” if Saturn V availability were advanced. Kennedy the same day sent the Wiesner memo­randum with these suggestions to Vice President Johnson, asking for his views. Johnson replied on January 18, telling Kennedy that “the people we need on the Hill tell me that the supplemental request would be inadvis­able and could not be approved in time to accelerate the program.” With that response, the thought of requesting supplemental funds for NASA was put to rest.26

Even before this January exchange of correspondence, as the final bud­get decisions for Fiscal Year 1964 were made by the president and BOB in December 1963, any thought of a supplemental request for FY1963 were abandoned, reluctantly on the president’s part. Kennedy had once again accepted the position of NASA administrator Webb on how best to go for­ward. Indeed, BOB made reductions in both the lunar landing budget and the “other activities” portion of the NASA request. The president in mid – January 1963 sent a FY1964 budget proposal to the Congress requesting $5.712 billion for NASA, an almost half-billion dollar cut from what NASA had requested in September. Although the increase was not what NASA had hoped for, it still reflected a 55 percent jump over NASA’s FY1963 appro­priation.


By the end of 1962, the White House appeared to have accepted the arguments set forth in the November 30 NASA letter arguing that the lunar landing program, though clearly a very high NASA priority, was in itself insuffi­cient to achieve the goal of American space preeminence—a clearly leading position in all areas of space activity. Seamans noted that “whether from agreement, exhaustion, or diversion, President Kennedy gave tacit approval to NASA’s programs and policies by not engaging us in further discussion on the questions of NASA’s top priority.” Seamans adds: “Preeminence in space on all fronts was our goal; landing men on the Moon was the top (DX) priority.”27

During 1963, John Kennedy was no longer totally focused on how soon the United States could get to the Moon; he seemed in fact to have accepted NASA’s argument that preeminence in all areas of space activity was the more appropriate goal. In addition, at least some of the president’s associ­ates, and perhaps Kennedy himself, questioned whether getting to the Moon before the Soviet Union remained a compelling national objective. Indeed, Kennedy asked, might it be both desirable and feasible to cooperate, rather than compete, with the Soviet Union in humanity’s first journeys beyond Earth orbit? John Kennedy had brought with him the idea that space might be a particularly promising arena for tension-reducing U. S.-Soviet coopera­tion as he entered the White House in January 1961, and it had never totally disappeared from his thinking.

John F. Kennedy and the Race. to the Moon

The assassination of President John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963, had, of course, many consequences. One of them was turning the U. S. space program, and particularly the lunar landing effort, into a memorial to the fallen president. There was essentially no chance that the new president, Lyndon B. Johnson, would modify the goal set by President Kennedy in 1961, a goal that Johnson had himself so strongly recommended. To rein­force his commitment to President Kennedy’s space legacy, less than a week after the assassination Johnson announced that Cape Canaveral would be renamed Cape Kennedy and that the space launch facilities located there would be called the John F. Kennedy Space Center.1

In the more than five-and-a-half years between Kennedy’s death and the July 20, 1969 landing of Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the Moon, dedication to Kennedy’s commitment to achieving that feat “before this decade is out” sustained the program through delays and difficult times, including the death of three Apollo 1 astronauts in a launch pad accident on January 27, 1967. When the Apollo 11 command module Columbia returned to Earth, landing in the Pacific Ocean at dawn on July 24, 1969, a large video screen in Apollo Mission Control in Houston dis­played these words:

I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth.

John F. Kennedy to Congress, May 25, 1961

Above the image of the Apollo 11 mission patch on another screen appeared: Task accomplished July 1969

A half century has passed since President Kennedy decided to send Americans to the Moon, and almost forty years since the last two Apollo astronauts walked on the lunar surface. As noted in the prologue, historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. some years ago suggested that “the 20th Century will be remembered, when all else is forgotten, as the century when man burst his terrestrial bounds.”2 While the broadest historical significance of the initial journeys to Moon may indeed take centuries to fully appreciate, it is certainly possible to evaluate the impacts of the lunar landing program to date and of John F. Kennedy’s role in initiating the effort and continuing to support it until the day of his death.3 This chapter contains my assessment of what Kennedy’s commitment to the race to the Moon tells us about how John F. Kennedy carried out his duties as President of the United States; asks whether such a presidentially directed large-scale undertaking can serve as a model for other such efforts; and evaluates the several impacts of Project Apollo. I carry out this last evaluation in terms of how well Apollo served the objectives sought by President Kennedy in sending Americans to the lunar

John F. Kennedy and the Race. to the Moon

Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin and the U. S. flag on the lunar surface, July 20, 1969 (NASA photograph).

surface, in terms of its impact on the evolution of the U. S. space program since the end of Project Apollo, and in terms of how humanity’s first jour­neys beyond the immediate vicinity of their home planet will be viewed in the long sweep of history.

NASA-Air Force Tensions Reduced

The Air Force push for a larger role in space had continued after the Kennedy administration came into office; the major aerospace trade magazine Missiles and Rockets reported late in March 1961 that “the showdown on who will take charge of the U. S. man-in-space program—and with it the main role in space exploration” would come soon, and that in the choice between NASA and the Air Force, “the best bet on who will win when the cards are dealt: the Air Force.”23 By the time this report appeared, however, Air Force ambi­tions had been significantly tempered by both the president and the new managers of the Department of Defense.

Webb’s conduct with respect to the Mercury-Atlas test flight had dem­onstrated to the Air Force that he was not easily intimidated. Bolstered by this success, Webb and other top NASA officials embarked on a conscious campaign to establish close working relationships with the new civilian lead­ership of the Department of Defense. This was an attempt, reported Robert Seamans, to “so handle ourselves that, rather than have things pull fur­ther apart, the wounds got healed and things got pulled together.”24 Webb did not know well Kennedy’s hard charging and intellectually brilliant sec­retary of defense, Robert McNamara (and the two apparently did not get along from the start of their relationship), but he knew McNamara’s num­ber two person, deputy secretary of defense Roswell Gilpatric, from their time together in the Truman administration. Gilpatric says that one of the reasons he was named McNamara’s deputy was “to work with NASA and Webb” and “to help avoid conflicts between DOD and NASA.” He also noted that McNamara “was impatient with Webb” and “felt that he talked too much.”25

Bureau of the Budget Review

After helping prepare the Webb-McNamara report over the May 6-7 week­end, Willis Shapley found himself in charge of carrying out a review of that report from the BOB perspective. The draft of the internal BOB review was completed on May 18, and BOB director Bell sent it to Secretary of Defense McNamara, NASA administrator Webb, and Atomic Energy Commission chairman Glenn Seaborg with a request for immediate comments. Welsh of the Space Council also received a copy in the absence of Vice President Johnson, who was still touring in Asia. The final version of the review was dated May 20.

The review was the kind of thorough “due diligence” assessment that was the BOB’s responsibility, pointing out the implications of the decisions being proposed and examining potential obstacles to their successful implementa­tion. With respect to the magnitude of resources that would be needed, the review pointed out that what was being proposed was an increase of over $2 billion per year—perhaps even $3 billion per year—over previously planned budgets. It recognized that the budget estimates being used were subject to upward revision, suggesting that “the funds required by the manned lunar landing objective may have been underestimated by as much as $200 million in 1962 and perhaps $1 billion per year in future years.” What would be needed was “a commitment to a long term-effort and to pro­vide the resources it requires. Starts and stops, changes in goals, or failure to provide the required level of budgetary support would impair the success of the program.” It noted that “the commitment actually extends beyond the achievement of the manned lunar landing . . . By 1967 we will have geared

Bureau of the Budget Review

James Webb with Willis H. Shapley (on left), the Bureau of the Budget staff person who played a key role in space decisions during the Kennedy administration (NASA photo).

the nation up to an annual space effort of almost $7 billion per year; it is unrealistic to assume that an effort of approximately this level would not continue for many years.”

The draft BOB report pointed out the need to consider “the implica­tions of likely and possible outcomes other than complete success” of the lunar landing program; interestingly, this discussion was missing from the final version. The draft noted that “the magnitude of the effort required for the manned lunar landing program is so great and the proposed schedule so tight that it will place a major strain on our capabilities in the space and related fields.” It also noted that “increases in the space programs of the magnitude proposed cannot help having the effect of diverting scientific and technical manpower from other areas of national need” and might cause “a major and continuing distortion in the utilization of our scientific and technical resources which will have detrimental effects in other areas of seri­ous national concern.” The commitment to space would “also reduce our flexibility as a nation to undertake large scale, all-out efforts in other areas not now foreseen which may suddenly appear to be of comparable national importance.”

The review recognized that using 1967 as the internal planning date for the first lunar landing would “necessitate a rapid build-up,” but recommended that this planning date be maintained. With respect to making the target date publicly known, the BOB recommendation was to “make a major effort to avoid any public commitment to [a] specific target date.”16

Whether President Kennedy or his closest advisers read the BOB analysis cannot be known with certainty. If they did read it, they would have had the benefit of a comprehensive and thoughtful analysis of the implications of the decisions that Kennedy was about to announce.

Kennedy Proposes a Joint Lunar Mission

Mid-1963 developments—improved U. S.-Soviet relations, growing criti­cisms of the U. S. Moon program, White House concerns about its costs, and possible signals of Soviet openness to collaboration—formed the back­ground against which President Kennedy decided in September 1963 to include a suggestion of U. S.-Soviet cooperation in going to the Moon in his September 20 address before the United Nations General Assembly.

JFK Still Interested

Whether or not Kennedy had ever given up on the idea of such cooperation during the difficult days of 1961 and 1962, the changed situation in 1963 made him again interested in actively pursuing the idea. As noted above, in his July 17 press conference, Kennedy for the first time had publicly stated his preference for a cooperative approach to lunar exploration.

The United States and the Soviet Union agreed to a Limited Test Ban Treaty on July 25, six weeks after JFK’s American University speech, and the relationship between the two nuclear powers was less tense then at any time since Kennedy had come to the White House. As part of

Secretary of State Dean Rusk’s agenda when he was in Moscow in early August to sign the treaty, Kennedy asked Rusk to raise the space coopera­tion possibility with Nikita Khrushchev. When Rusk did so, Khrushchev responded only with a quip: “Sure, I’ll send a man to the moon. You bring him back.”24 Kennedy himself discussed the possibility in an August 26 meeting with Soviet ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin. At the end of a wide ranging conversation, the president “raised the question of activities in outer space.” He talked about possible cooperative projects, “including going to the moon.” Dobrynin found this “an interesting thought” and told Kennedy he would raise it with Khrushchev, saying that he was aware that Khrushchev was interested in “more cooperation in outer space.” Kennedy told the Soviet ambassador that “if each knew the other’s ambi­tions and plans, it might be easier to avoid all-out competition” and that “if Mr. Khrushchev thought that a cooperative effort was possible, he would be interested.”25

On September 10, U. S. ambassador Foy Kohler visited Soviet foreign min­ister Gromyko in Moscow. Kohler referred to President Kennedy’s August 26 conversation with Dobrynin, and asked whether the Soviet government “had given consideration to the President’s broad, imaginative proposal for joint cooperation in outer space projects and if he would be prepared to discuss this subject” during his forthcoming visit to the United States to attend the United Nations General Assembly’s opening sessions. Gromyko indicated that the Soviet Union “agreed in principle with the idea and he would of course be prepared to examine any specific proposals [that the] US might have in mind.”26

Kohler reported this conversation to the president at a September 17 White House meeting. Kennedy first asked Kohler for his views on the concept of a joint lunar mission. Kohler told Kennedy that Gromyko had found the sug­gestion “interesting”; however, Kohler thought that the “Soviets were both intrigued and puzzled by what the president might have in mind.” Thus Gromyko, while giving a “cautious welcome” to the president’s idea, had asked that “we come up with some concrete suggestions.” Kennedy replied that “while this was not an idea that he had considered in detail, he contin­ued to be interested in developing it and thought it would in fact be useful, for example, and save a great deal of expense if we could come to some kind of agreement with the USSR on the problem of sending a man to the moon.” Kohler repeated that he thought that “there might be some real interest in developing cooperation in this field since Khrushchev had a problem of allo­cation of extremely limited resources” and that made carrying out Kennedy’s proposal “relatively simple.”27

Speechwriter Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., may not have been aware of these presidential initiatives and conversations when he inserted language pro­posing a joint U. S.-Soviet moon mission in his draft of the UN address, although it is hard to conclude that he independently came up with the same idea. But there is no doubt that the concept had been widely discussed by President Kennedy and others between July and September 1963.

Before the White House

X ublic life was not the first choice among possible futures for John F. Kennedy as he returned from World War II. Kennedy in principle could have chosen among many career paths. Kennedy’s own inclination seems to have leaned in the direction of becoming a journalist, a writer of nonfic­tion books, or even an academic. Kennedy’s father, Joseph, however, was determined that his sons not enter the business world; he had amassed suf­ficient wealth to allow his sons to choose a future that did not have to lead to significant additional income. The reality was that if Kennedy had chosen a career other than politics, it would have meant going against the wishes of his strong-willed father. John Kennedy, from the time his older brother, Joseph Jr., was killed in action during World War II, became his father’s designated aspirant to high political office; JFK’s father, after the end of the war, planned to build “the greatest political dynasty of the age. . . one remaining son at a time.” Kennedy was easily elected to the U. S. House of Representatives in 1948 and to the Senate in 1952 and again in 1958. But his time in Congress was not fulfilling for either his or his father’s ambi­tions. During his fourteen years in Congress, Kennedy “failed to penetrate the inner circle.” The conservative Southern senators who controlled the Senate, in particular, “viewed him as too detached, independent, overrated, and overly ambitious.” Beginning in 1956, when he was almost selected as Adlai Stevenson’s vice presidential running mate, Kennedy set his eyes on being elected president of the United States in November 1960. As he pur­sued that objective, the candidate was described by one acute observer as a “charming, handsome, rich, young aristocrat.”1

In his years as a senator, Kennedy said little about space issues except in the context of the linkage between space launch vehicles and strategic mis­sile capabilities. That changed once he became the Democratic nominee for president in July 1960. The growing disparity in global prestige between the United States and the Soviet Union under the Eisenhower administration became a central theme of JFK’s campaign, and the fact that the United

States was trailing the Soviet Union in space achievement was frequently cited by Kennedy as very visible evidence of this disparity. Kennedy offered no specific views on future space activities during the campaign, however, and once he was declared the president-elect, he spent little time on space issues prior to his inauguration. This meant that Kennedy’s personal views and interests with respect to space, as differentiated from his campaign rhet­oric, remained largely unknown as he entered the White House.

President Kennedy’s Initial Space Budget Decisions

In the weeks after his inauguration, President Kennedy spent very little time in formal consideration of space issues. On February 13, he sent Soviet pre­mier Nikita Khrushchev a congratulatory note on the launch of a Russian mission to Venus on the preceding day. (After returning data during its interplanetary cruise, the Venera 1 mission ultimately was a failure in achiev­ing its primary objective of returning data from Venus.) Later that same day, Kennedy met with Overton Brooks, chairman of the House Committee on Science and Astronautics, who told Kennedy that “NASA and the civilian space program badly need a shot in the arm.” Brooks said that Congress, or at least his committee, “cannot impress upon the Executive too strongly the need for urgency” in the space program, for “if we do not recognize it, we may falter badly in both our domestic and international relationships.”15 Science adviser Wiesner at some point after the Russian Venus launch discussed with the president the implications of the launch and “our relative positions in the general fields of space exploration and science.” The launch had raised security concerns because specialists at the Central Intelligence Agency had suggested that it could be “a step towards creating a capability for achieving a parking orbit with an ICBM warhead”; the spacecraft had in fact gone into orbit around the Earth before ejecting a large probe on a Venus-bound trajectory. The sample questions and answers used in preparing Kennedy for a February 15 press conference suggested that, if asked about the military significance of the launch, he reply that “there is no indication that the Soviet Union plans to use their ability to orbit large payloads to develop any kind of bombardment systems.” Such a system would be “inef­ficient” and would likely “be objected to by all the nations of the world.”16 In a follow-up memorandum to his discussion with the president, Wiesner noted that “the most significant factor, as we have said many times, is that the Soviets have developed a rocket as part of their ballistic missile program with considerably more thrust or lifting power than anything we have avail­able.” He noted that “one of the things we must realize is that in dramatizing the space race we are playing into the Soviet’s strongest suit. They are using this accomplishment at home and around the world to prove the superiority of Soviet science and technology.” Wiesner told the president that the United States “was superior in most fields to Soviet science” and that “in almost any other area in which we would elect to compete, food, housing, recreation, medical research, basic technological competence, general consumer good production, etc., they would look very bad.” He suggested that “we should attempt to point this out rather than assist them by an official. . . reaction that supports their propaganda.”17 Subsequent actions by President Kennedy demonstrated that he did not accept this advice.

Delays in Picking a Launch Vehicle

Wiesner in his memorandum to Sorensen noted that “the major decisions have not been announced as to what extent rendezvous will be employed, what Advanced Saturn vehicle will be built (probably C-4), and what will be the characteristics of the so-called Nova that could put man on the Moon by direct ascent. The relative emphasis of rendezvous versus direct ascent is a key to the entire program.”

There were two reasons for the delay in selecting the launch vehicle for the lunar mission. One was that the “national space plan” called for in the May 8 Webb-McNamara memorandum had anticipated a collaborative NASA-DOD effort to define a family of launch vehicles that could meet both agencies’ requirements and advance the development of both liquid fuel and solid fuel propulsion systems. The focus of this planning effort was a “NASA-DOD Large Launch Vehicle Planning Group.” The group was directed by Nicholas Golovin, then with NASA; its deputy director was Lawrence Kavanaugh of DOD. The group started work in July 1961, and by the fall had become bogged down in very detailed studies and deadlocked over the relative roles of liquid-fueled and solid-fueled boosters in the lunar landing program. Rather than come up with an integrated plan, the group had suggested a new Air Force-developed launch vehicle, called Titan III, with lift capabilities closely resembling the Saturn 1 vehicle that NASA was developing. The group’s final recommendations attempted to satisfy both NASA and DOD, and ended up pleasing neither agency.23

The second reason for the delay in selecting a launch vehicle for the lunar mission was NASA’s difficulties during the May-November period in decid­ing its preferred approach to sending men to the Moon.24 Indeed, this uncer­tainty would continue well into 1962 and become a focus of NASA-White House controversy.

Beginning on May 2, even before a final decision on whether to approve a lunar landing effort had been made, there were a series of NASA stud­ies examining alternatives for accomplishing the lunar mission. The first of these studies took as its starting point a “direct ascent” approach, in which the spacecraft for the lunar mission would be launched by a giant booster with eight F-1 engines in its first stage. The spacecraft would fly directly to the Moon and land intact on the lunar surface. A portion of the spacecraft would then take off from the Moon after the astronauts had completed their exploration, and return directly to Earth. This approach meant designing a seventy-five-ton spacecraft, almost forty times the weight of the Mercury cap­sule, that would “back down” to a lunar landing, using rocket firings to slow the craft to landing speed; during the landing, the astronauts would be on their backs at the other end of the craft, more than eighty feet above the sur­face and with no or very limited direct visibility of the landing site. The direct ascent approach also required that the fuel for the return journey and the heat shield needed for reentry into the Earth’s atmosphere, both of which were heavy, would have to be carried to and then launched from the lunar surface. All of this would require a large and heavy spacecraft, and thus a very power­ful booster NASA called Nova to send it to the Moon in a single launch. The more NASA, and especially von Braun and his team at Huntsville, thought about the technological leap required to develop the gigantic Nova vehicle, the more it looked for alternatives to making such a jump.

NASA during the summer of 1961 began to look harder at an approach called Earth-orbit rendezvous (EOR). This approach would allow the lunar spacecraft and the rocket stage needed to send it toward the Moon to be divided into two or more pieces, each piece launched separately. One or more rendezvous in Earth orbit would then be needed to assemble the pieces into a single spacecraft. An alternative EOR approach was to send the complete spacecraft and its Earth departure stage fueled with light liquid hydrogen into Earth orbit with one launch. Then a second launch would carry into orbit the comparatively heavy liquid oxygen used as the oxidizer for burn­ing the hydrogen fuel; the oxygen would then be transferred to the lunar – bound rocket stage. Using an EOR approach meant that a launch vehicle significantly smaller than the Nova could be developed for the lunar mission. However, it did not solve the problem of how to land a single large spacecraft on the lunar surface.

Several versions of a smaller launch vehicle were proposed during the 1961 studies. The Saturn C-2 that had been part of NASA’s plans in the spring was soon abandoned, and an “Advanced Saturn” with several powerful F-1 engines in its first stage became the focus of attention; the issue was how many of the large engines to use. The two-engine version became known as the Saturn C-3 and the four-engine version the C-4. This was the vehicle Wiesner mentioned in his November 20 memorandum to Sorensen.25

When he wrote that memorandum, Wiesner was apparently not aware of the latest NASA study of the launch vehicle issue. On November 6, Milton Rosen of NASA headquarters, reflecting the deadlock in the Golovin – Kavanau group, had organized a separate two-week study to recommend to the NASA leadership “a large launch vehicle program” which would “meet the requirements of manned space flight” and “have broad and continuing national utility.” Rosen reported that “to exploit the possibility of accom­plishing the first lunar landing by rendezvous,” NASA should develop an “intermediate vehicle” that had five F-1 engines in the first stage, four or five J-2 engines in its second stage, and one J-2 in its third stage. (The J-2 was an engine powered by high-energy liquid hydrogen fuel that would have the capability to be stopped and restarted.) The four-engine Saturn C-4 had a “hole” in the center of its four first-stage F-1 engines; adding a fifth F-1 would thus be relatively straightforward. Rosen argued that NASA should build the most powerful rocket possible short of a Nova, and von Braun agreed that “the hole in the center was crying out for another engine.” Adding a fifth engine would increase first stage thrust at liftoff to 7.5 million pounds. Since a direct flight to the Moon was at this point still NASA’s officially stated preference for the lunar landing mission, Rosen also recommended that “a NOVA vehicle consisting of an eight F-1 first stage” should be developed on a “top priority basis.” He added that “large solid rockets should not be considered as a requirement for manned lunar landing.” The recommendation for a five-engine first stage for the launch vehicle, soon called the Advanced Saturn C-5 and ultimately the Saturn V, was quickly accepted by the NASA leadership. Within a few weeks, some form of rendezvous using the Saturn V replaced direct ascent as NASA’s preferred approach to getting to the Moon, although design work on the Nova vehicle continued for some months.26

Wiesner likely also was not aware of a November 6 meeting between the NASA and Department of Defense space leadership at which there was agreement to “cancel the development of very large (240” class) solid rocket as a backup for NOVA,” since “the work of the past six months shows that the reliability and potential of NOVA will be sufficient to make unnecessary the parallel development of the large solids on identical time scales,” as had been called for in the May 8 Webb-McNamara memorandum.27 Overall, the situation with respect to a launch vehicle for Apollo was not in as bad a shape as the Wiesner memorandum suggested; however, Wiesner was correct in his assessment that “the relative emphasis of rendezvous versus direct ascent is a key to the entire program.”

The White House Responds

This growing and broadly based criticism of the lunar landing program con­cerned President Kennedy. At an April 19 meeting with newspaper editors, he noted with some irritation that “the space program. . . is now under some attack. It seems to me that this indicates a certain restlessness. This program passed unanimously last year. Now suddenly we shouldn’t carry out the space program, and then maybe 6 months from now, when there is some extraordinary action in space which threatens our position, everybody will say, ‘Why didn’t we do more?’ ”6

The White House behind the scenes was developing its response to the criticisms of Apollo. On April 5, the day of Reston’s column in the Times., Kennedy’s national security adviser McGeorge Bundy, who had assumed a lead policy role on the space program within Kennedy’s inner circle of advis­ers, told NASA administrator Webb that “the President would like to have an appraisal of the basic changes and modifications that we have made in the space program since this Administration came in, so that he will be fully equipped to defend our current position against what looks like an emerg­ing attack.” Bundy added that “what the President would like particularly to have is an account of the deficiencies of the space program as it was, and was projected, under the outgoing Administration. What would we have failed to do, and what are we now going to be able to do that could not have been done on the Eisenhower basis.” Bundy asked for a “careful and complete answer” to the president’s questions, but also gave Webb only two weeks to develop that answer.7

Kennedy soon also decided to use the Space Council to coordinate the process of developing the defense of his space program. In an April 9 memo­randum to Vice President Johnson, Kennedy noted that “in view of recent discussions, I feel the need to obtain a clearer understanding of a number of factual and policy issues relating to the National Space Program.” The president asked Johnson to lead a Space Council effort to develop responses to five questions:

1. What are the salient differences. . . between the NASA program projected on January 1, 1961 for the years 1962 through 1970, and the NASA program as redefined by the present Administration?

2. What specifically are the principal benefits to the national economy we can expect to accrue from the present, greatly augmented program in the following areas: scientific knowledge; industrial productivity; education, at various levels beginning with high school; and military technology?

3. What are some of the major problems likely to result from continuation of the national space program as now projected in the fields of industry, government, and education?

4. To what extent could the program be reduced, beginning with FY1964, in areas not directly affecting the Apollo program (and therefore not compromising the timetable for the first manned lunar landing)?

5. Are we taking sufficient measures to insure the maximum degree of coordination and cooperation between NASA and the Defense Department?8

The Space Council’s Edward Welsh led the process of getting inputs from the council’s member agencies. He received brief papers from staff officials at the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) and the Department of State, a one – page letter with supporting material from Jerome Wiesner, and a seven-page response from Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. NASA’s James Webb first sent a four-page cover letter with a sixty-three page attachment; this was later reduced to a seventeen-page memo signed by Webb; it still had ten pages of attachments. Webb was as verbose in his written communications as when he spoke.

The AEC response discussed only the organization’s efforts to develop nuclear power sources for space uses. The State Department’s somewhat skeptical response noted that “from the viewpoint of U. S. foreign policy objectives generally, it seems quite likely that several adverse effects may develop because of the increasingly large percentage of our space effort to be devoted to the GEMINI and APOLLO programs.” This was because “our program will increasingly accentuate, rather than mitigate, the gap between ourselves and other countries in space and space related activities.” Another concern was “the inevitable merging of national security requirements and scientific requirements in the conduct of our program,” which would make the United States “increasingly the object of skepticism on the part of the neutralist or non-allied countries with respect to the ‘peaceful’ or ‘beneficial’ objectives and character of our program.” The State Department cautioned against reductions in the nonhuman space flight parts of NASA’s activities, saying that such a reduction “would be particularly harmful, if it were to result in a retrenchment in our extant commitments or stated objectives with respect to cooperation in space activities with other countries.”9

Wiesner commented that “it is my feeling that the NASA-DOD rela­tionship should be substantially improved.” In his submission, Secretary of Defense McNamara identified “$600-675 million of the NASA effort which appears to have direct or indirect value for military technology.” Of that amount, “about $275-$350 million stems from the augmentation of NASA programs since January 1961.” Agreeing with Jerome Weisner, McNamara told the vice president that “I am not satisfied, and I am sure that Mr. Webb is not satisfied, that we have gone far enough to eliminate all problems of duplication and waste in administration.” McNamara suggested that the coordination problem was of “sufficient importance” that it required atten­tion at the White House level. In a suggestion sure not to be welcomed by the vice president and his Space Council staff, he suggested that responsibil­ity for monitoring coordination between NASA and DOD “be assigned to the Bureau of the Budget and to the Director of the Office of Science and Technology.”10

NASA on May 3 not only provided to the vice president copious material responding to the president’s five questions; it also submitted a draft reply to those questions. In a May 10 memorandum that “refines and reduces, in volume,” the information provided on May 3, Webb suggested that “there is little evidence to indicate that significant national problems are likely to be made critical or require radical solutions as a result of the continuation of the space program.” In particular, Webb argued, NASA demand for sci­entific and engineering personnel to carry out its program would rise only from 3 to 6 percent of total national requirements, and this increase would not unduly divert needed technical personnel from other national programs. Webb suggested that “cooperation between NASA and the DOD is good,” but noted “areas for further improvement,” including “greater participation by the DOD in NASA projects.”11

A “principals only” meeting of the Space Council was held on the after­noon of May 7 to review and approve the vice president’s report to the presi­dent. Welsh read the president’s questions and Lyndon Johnson, reading from a seven-page draft prepared by the Space Council staff, indicated the intended replies. The draft was kept purposely relatively short compared to the inputs from the Space Council member agencies; Welsh had been reminded by the vice president that “the president does not like a lot of ‘verbiage’ ” and that the responses to Kennedy’s questions should be kept “as short and simple as possible.” A few revisions and additions to the draft reply were made “after careful consideration and discussion,” and the report was approved; Council members initialed the vice president’s original typed copy of the reply “based on the premise that agreed upon changes would be made.”12

Johnson delivered the Space Council’s report to President Kennedy on May 13; it painted the overall situation in very positive terms. The report esti­mated that the augmented space program would require approximately $30 billion more in the FY1961 to FY1970 period than had been planned as the Eisenhower administration left office ($48.086 billion rather than $17.917 billion). It noted that the “basic difference between the two programs is that the plan of the previous Administration represented an effort for a second place runner and the program of the present Administration is designed to make this country the assured leader before the end of the decade.” With respect to the impacts of the additional space spending, the report suggested that “the ‘multiplier’ of space research and development will augment our economic strength, our peaceful posture, and our standard of living.” It noted that “the introduction of a vital new element into an economy always creates new problems but, otherwise, the nation’s space program creates no major complications” and that “despite claims to the contrary, there is no solid evidence that research and development in industry is suffering significantly from a diversion of technical manpower to the space program.” Reducing the portion of the NASA program not related to the lunar landing would “lessen the quantity and quality of benefits to the economy” and “give additional ammunition to those who criticize the major funding weight given to the lunar program on the grounds that it diverts money from other programs.” With respect to NASA-DOD coordination, the report suggested that “it is inevitable that controversies will continue to arise in any field as new, as wide – ranging, and as technically complicated as space.”

The Space Council report concluded:

There is one further point to be borne in mind. The space program is not

solely a question of prestige, of advancing scientific knowledge, of economic

benefit or of military development. . . A much more fundamental issue is at stake—whether a dimension that well can dominate history for the next few centuries will be devoted to the social system of freedom or controlled by the social system of communism.

We cannot close our eyes to what would happen if we permitted totalitarian systems to dominate the environment of earth itself. For this reason our space program has an overriding urgency that cannot be calculated solely in terms of industrial, scientific, or military development. The future of society is at stake.13

The Space Council report was received with some degree of skepticism by the White House staff. Wiesner discussed it with President Kennedy on May 16, telling him that “the impact of the NASA program on the nation’s supply of scientists and engineers is much greater” than that indicated in the report. While NASA might require the services of only 7 percent of the total supply of U. S. scientists and engineers, it would utilize up to 30 percent of those involved in research and development, he suggested. Wiesner also noted that the report unduly minimized “current management and other differences between NASA and Defense and does not reflect the concerns and views expressed by the Secretary of Defense in his letter to the Vice President.” He also pointed out that the report ignored Secretary McNamara’s sugges­tion that “the responsibility for monitoring NASA-Defense problems in the space area be assigned to the Bureau of the Budget and to the Director of the Office of Science and Technology.”14

The Bureau of the Budget (BOB) noted that “the statement of the ‘ben­efits’ to the national economy from the space program has the unintended effect of showing, probably accurately, how slight and intangible such benefits have been and are likely to be in the future.” Also, “the question of whether the space program is having detrimental effects on the supply or activities of scientific and technical manpower is still not clearly answered either way.” The BOB suggested that while “the report does gloss over current problems and differences between the Department of Defense and NASA,” because “the issues involved are either petty or very complex. . . we would see no use­ful purpose in presenting any of them to the President at this time.” Finally, BOB suggested that “while the point might be overstated” in the conclud­ing paragraphs of the report, “we are inclined to agree with the conclusion that the fundamental justification at this time for a large-scale space pro­gram lies. . . in the fundamental unacceptability of a situation in which the Russians continue space activities on a large scale and we do not.”15

The individual on McGeorge Bundy’s staff with primary responsibility for tracking space issues was Charles E. Johnson. When Bundy received a copy of the Space Council report, he asked Johnson “do you think well of this?” Johnson replied to Bundy that while the “purple prose” in the report’s conclusion left him “quite unimpressed,” his primary concern was that the report might be released as a public statement of the administra­tion’s position on the space program. He saw “no need or urgency for such a statement,” believing that public debate could go on “without getting the

President more firmly signed on to a hard position with respect to the space program.” He suggested that “the ‘Cold War’ aspects should not be magni­fied,” since “there is already too much religion in the space program.” The NSC staffer suggested that “the Administration’s ability to maneuver should be retained so we can adjust to developments.” He added, in what turned out to be a perceptive comment, that “it is possible that the Soviets may not be engaging in a race (the intelligence is not conclusive) or may wish to join in a cooperative space program as an alternative to an expensive national program that strains their economy.”16

Although President Kennedy requested that an unclassified version of the Space Council report be prepared, it was not publicly released or referred to in the continuing debate over space priorities. While Kennedy himself remained publicly committed to proceeding with the accelerated space pro­gram he had endorsed in May 1961, the questioning of the program’s values and implementation by his senior staff suggested not only that was there a public debate over the proper goals and pace of the space program, but also that a similar debate was beginning to take place inside the top levels of the Kennedy administration.

Increasing U. S. Rocket Lifting Power

Linking Soviet space achievements to the Russian ballistic missile program, as John Kennedy had done during the presidential campaign, was a reason­able thing to do, since even in the 1957-1960 period it was well known in U. S. intelligence and technical circles that the Soviet Union had used its initial R-7 Intercontinental Ballistic Missile as its space launch vehicle. Soviet engineers had been developing this missile since the early 1950s, giving them a several-year head start on the United States. The launch of Sputnik 1 on October 4, 1957, was thus not only a propaganda loss for the United States; it was also a very visible demonstration that the Soviet Union possessed the capability to launch a nuclear warhead across intercontinental distances, and that the United States could be vulnerable to a Soviet nuclear attack.33

Among their other impacts, the launches of Sputnik 1 and Sputnik 2 demonstrated that the Soviet Union possessed the capability to lift much heavier payloads into space than did the United States. Sputnik 1 weighed 184.3 pounds, and Sputnik 2 weighed 1,120 pounds. Moreover, the second stage of the R-7 booster also went into orbit on each launch, so in reality the Soviet Union had placed some 12,000-13,000 pounds into space; it was the rocket’s upper stage, not the satellite itself, which was visible to the naked eye of observers around the world. By contrast, the first U. S. satellite, Explorer 1, which was launched by the Army team led by Wernher von Braun on January 31, 1958, weighed only 30.8 pounds, with half of that weight being the satellite’s last-stage booster rocket.34

This disparity in satellite-lifting capability was the by-product of the dif­ficulty the Soviet Union had several years earlier in designing a warhead for an ICBM launch. The three megaton nuclear warhead which was the payload for the R-7 ICBM weighed approximately 11,000 pounds, thus requiring the development of a powerful booster to send it on its intercontinental trajec­tory. By contrast, the United States a few years later was able to develop a thermonuclear warhead weighing only around 1,600 pounds; this meant that U. S. Atlas and Titan ICBMs did not have to be nearly as powerful as the Soviet R-7 in order to accomplish their military mission. This was accept­able in terms of strategic rocket relationships, but meant that the United States was at a severe disadvantage in sending heavy payloads into space. The United States might be able to launch scientifically sophisticated satellites, but it would not be able to match the Soviet Union in publicly visible space achievements using a converted ICBM as a launch vehicle.

There were two approaches taken during the Eisenhower administration to closing the U. S.-USSR gap in rocket-lifting power. One was to develop the Saturn C-1 launcher, with its first stage having 1.5 million pounds of lift-off thrust. The other was to develop the large F-1 rocket engine, which at some future time could be used to power a much larger launch vehicle. President Eisenhower on January 12, 1960, had indicated his strong support for the Saturn program, and on January 14 told Glennan that “it is essential to push forward vigorously to increase our capability in high thrust space vehicles.” Four days later, the Saturn project received the highest national priority, DX, authorizing the use of overtime work and giving it precedence for scarce materials and other program requirements.35

However, the Bureau of the Budget (BOB) was determined that the bud­get to be submitted by Dwight Eisenhower a few days before he left office in January 1961 would be balanced, and this determination took priority over Eisenhower’s support for accelerating the Saturn program. NASA had hoped to get a FY1962 budget of $1.4 billion approved; such a budget would have enabled NASA to accelerate its booster and rocket engine development efforts. After tough negotiations with BOB, NASA was held to a $1.1 billion total.36 At that budget level, there would necessarily be a delay in closing the weight-lifting gap with the Soviet Union. It would be up to the new presi­dent to decide whether this was an acceptable situation.