The $5.712 billion Fiscal Year 1964 budget request for NASA sent to the Congress in January 1963 was almost $500 million less than what NASA had requested from the White House the previous September, but still represented a 55 percent increase over NASA’s appropriation for Fiscal Year 1963. As the Congressional examination of the NASA budget request began in February and March 1963, Aviation Week and Space Technology speculated that NASA would be faced with “a sizeable budget cut—up to a half billion dollars—unless a new Soviet space spectacular changes the attitude of an economy-minded Congress.”26 This forecast proved prophetic; by the time that the Congress completed work on the NASA appropriation on December 10, the agency’s approved budget was $5.1 billion, a reduction of $612 million, almost 11 percent less than what had been requested.
While the president’s September 20, 1963, United Nations proposal to turn lunar exploration into a cooperative undertaking was viewed with dismay by NASA and its congressional advocates, the reality was that most of the reductions in the NASA budget, particularly by the House of Representatives, predated the cooperative proposal. In June and July, the House Committee on Science and Astronautics cut a total of $475 million from the NASA budget, and during floor debate an additional $34 million was taken out; the House on August 1 approved a NASA FY1964 authorization of $5.203 billion. NASA fared somewhat better in the Senate Committee on Aeronautical and Space Sciences, but still took a $201 million reduction; the full Senate on August 8 authorized a $5.511 NASA budget. On August 28, after a conference committee had compromised on the differences between the two bills, the Congress approved a $5.351 billion NASA authorization; this amount was almost $400 million less than the president had requested and $850 million less than what NASA the previous fall had thought needed to keep Apollo on schedule. The White House made no public statements in support of reversing the cuts in the NASA budget, although science adviser Wiesner in an August 2 memorandum to President Kennedy did note that the House cuts in robotic missions intended as precursors to human missions to the Moon would make it difficult to ascertain lunar surface characteristics, an understanding critical to a successful lunar landing. Wiesner recommended to the president that the White House inform the chairman of the Senate Space Committee, Clinton Anderson (D-NM) (Robert Kerr had died on January 1, 1963 and was replaced as committee chair by Anderson) about the importance of the robotic missions “with the request that funds deleted by the House Committee be reinstated.” This message apparently reached Senator Anderson, and funds for the robotic Lunar Orbiter and Surveyor missions were included in the Senate version of the authorization bill.27
NASA’s hope that there would be no further cuts in its budget proved illusory. Authorization bills set the upper limit on the funding for a particular federal agency; the actual funds available are contained in the congressional appropriation for the agency. Hearings on the NASA FY1964 appropriation began in the House of Representatives on August 19. Webb in his testimony urged the Appropriation Subcommittee on Independent Agencies, which had jurisdiction over NASA and which was chaired by space program supporter Albert Thomas, to approve the full amount that Congress would soon authorize. The members of the subcommittee were not swayed by Webb’s plea; The New York Times on September 19 (the day before President Kennedy’s address to the United Nations) reported that the subcommittee members were “contemplating a cut in the space budget of
more than $700 million, which would make it virtually impossible to fulfill the Presidential objective of achieving a manned lunar landing by the end of the decade.” The Times also reported that “administration officials are working frantically behind the scenes to ward off such an unexpectedly large cut.” On September 24, in the aftermath of President Kennedy’s United Nations speech, the House Subcommittee approved a $5.1 billion NASA appropriation. The full Appropriations Committee confirmed the $5.1 billion budget on October 7, leading James Webb to say that NASA could not achieve a lunar landing before 1970 at that budget level. Even so, the House of Representatives approved the $5.1 billion NASA appropriation on October 10.
NASA’s expectation at this point was that the Senate Appropriations Committee, which in the past had been a strong NASA supporter, would restore the $250 million that the House appropriation had cut from the NASA authorization level. However, taking the White House and NASA “somewhat by surprise,” the Senate committee on November 13 approved a NASA FY1964 budget of $5.19 billion, only $90 million above the House level. As the appropriations bill was being debated on the Senate floor, Senator J. William Fulbright (D-AK) proposed an additional 10 percent cut in the NASA budget. The Senate rejected this proposal, but did accept an amendment from Senator William Proxmire (D-WI) to reduce the budget to the House level of $5.1 billion. With no difference in the budget level approved by the House and the Senate, there was a real prospect of missing the “end of the decade” target date for the first lunar landing.28 Only a bit more than two years after Apollo was begun, the Congress was beginning to sour on providing the resources needed to meet the program’s end-of-the – decade goal.