Category THE RACE

NASA and DOD Present Their Views

Johnson lost little time in getting started with his review. At 10:30 p. m. on April 20, he called Welsh and asked him to arrange a meeting with NASA administrator Webb and “such other NASA people as NASA requires” for 9:30 a. m. on April 22, a Saturday, to outline “what now needs to be done in the space program, what it would cost, and whether more funds are required at this time (FY1962).” A similar meeting with Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara was set up for later the same day; the two organizations were told not to coordinate their views in advance of meeting separately with the vice president.5

Hugh Dryden accompanied Webb to the meeting with the vice president and presented the NASA response to the questions in the president’s April 20 memorandum. Dryden said that there was “no chance of beating the Soviets in putting a multi-manned laboratory in space since flights already accomplished by the Russians have demonstrated that they have this capabil­ity.” He told Johnson “with a determined effort of the United States, there is a chance to beat the Russians in accomplishing a manned circumnaviga­tion of the moon,” perhaps by 1966. He added, “there is a chance for the U. S. to be the first to land a man on the moon and return him to earth if a determined national effort is made.” Dryden thought it “doubtful” that the

Russians had a meaningful head start on a manned lunar landing program and “because of the distinct superiority of U. S. industrial capacity, engineer­ing, and scientific know-how. . . the U. S. may be able to overcome the lead the Soviets might have up to now.” A first landing might be possible in 1967 “with an accelerated U. S. effort.” Other areas in which the United States might be first included “returning a sample of the material from the moon surface to the earth in 1964” and “developing communications satellites,” which, “although not as dramatic as manned flight,” would have benefits to people throughout the world. NASA at this point in the review estimated the cost of an accelerated effort in all areas over the period through 1970 as $33.7 billion, an increase of $11.4 billion over its then-current ten-year plan.6 Although the potentials of a lunar landing program had been discussed with President Kennedy in the April 14 cabinet room meeting, Dryden’s report was likely the first time that Lyndon Johnson had heard a top-level analy­sis of what it would take to surpass the Soviet lead in human space flight. Although others, especially Wernher von Braun, are often credited with being first to propose a lunar landing to the White House as the “space pro­gram which promises dramatic results in which we could win,” it seems that honor should go to Hugh Dryden, who had also raised the lunar landing possibility at the April 14 cabinet room meeting with President Kennedy.

Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara’s response to Vice President Johnson drew heavily on material provided by John Rubel, deputy direc­tor of Defense Research and Engineering, who was the top space official within the Office of the Secretary of Defense. Rubel was an engineer who had worked for Hughes Aircraft before coming to Washington during the Eisenhower administration and who had strong views on how best to orga­nize the national space effort. Rather than provide responses to the ques­tions in President Kennedy’s April 20 memorandum, McNamara articulated a particular philosophy with respect to space. He remarked that “all large scale space programs require the mobilization of resources on a national scale. They require the development and successful application of the most advanced technologies. Dramatic achievements in space, therefore, symbol­ize the technological power and organizing capacity of a nation.” For these reasons, “major achievements in space contribute to national prestige” and “constitute a major element in the international competition between the Soviet system and our own.” (These words, most likely written by John Rubel, would reappear in a May 8 memorandum to the vice president rec­ommending the lunar landing goal.) “Because of their national importance and their national scope,” McNamara added, “it is essential that our space efforts be well planned. It is essential that they be well managed.” Effective management was needed so that “engineering resources be focused and not spread too thin,” for “our national posture may be worsened rather than improved if added expenditures result in the still greater dispersal of scien­tific, engineering and managerial talent.” McNamara called for an orderly but accelerated program to close the booster gap. With respect to various Department of Defense space programs, he recommended no budget increases above those that had already been approved by the White House the previous month.7

Early Attempts at Space Cooperation

Theodore Sorensen recalls that “it is no secret that Kennedy would have preferred to cooperate with the Soviets” in space rather than compete with them.1 In light of his soon-to-be-made decision to enter a space race in com­petition with the Soviet Union, it is worth noting that JFK’s initial priority on becoming president was to make space an area for U. S.-Soviet cooperation. Kennedy came into the White House believing that science and technology could be used as tools to advance foreign policy interests and to reduce inter­national tensions, and hoping that the habits of cooperation developed in sectors such as science and technology could spill over into areas more cen­tral to security interests. As a presidential candidate, Kennedy had said that “wherever we can find an area where Soviet and American interests permit effective cooperation, that area should be isolated and developed.”

Space was one of those areas; Kennedy noted that “when the United States has at last developed rockets with larger thrust, certain aspects of the exploration of space might be handled by joint efforts; for the cost of space efforts will mount radically as we move ambitiously outward.”2 Kennedy’s transition task force on space reinforced the view that space offered a prom­ising area for cooperation. The report of the Wiesner panel said that “our space activities, particularly. . . in the exploration of our solar system, offer exciting possibilities for international cooperation with all the nations of the world. The very ambitious and long-range space projects would prosper if they could be carried out in an atmosphere of cooperation as projects of all mankind instead of in the present atmosphere of national competition.”3 President Kennedy soon followed up the call in his inaugural address “to explore the stars together” with a more detailed and specific proposal. In his State of the Union address on January 30, 1961, Kennedy announced:

This Administration intends to explore promptly all possible areas of cooperation with the Soviet Union and other nations “to invoke the wonders of science instead of its terrors.” Specifically, I now invite all nations—including

the Soviet Union—to join with us in developing a weather prediction program, in a new communications satellite program and in preparation for probing the distant planets of Mars and Venus, probes which may someday unlock the deepest secrets of the universe.

Today this country is ahead in the science and technology of space, while the Soviet Union is ahead in the capacity to lift large vehicles into orbit. Both nations would help themselves as well as other nations by removing these endeavors from the bitter and wasteful competition of the Cold War.4

The launch of Yuri Gagarin on April 12 shifted Kennedy’s attention from how to cooperate in space to how to enter, and win, the space race. Even so, the notion that cooperation was a more desirable path than competition stayed with him, and the White House in late May 1961 made one more attempt to engage the Soviet Union in a cooperative mission to the Moon, even as Kennedy announced his decision to send Americans to the lunar surface. Again in 1962, after the successful flight of John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth, Kennedy offered to Premier Nikita Khrushchev a range of cooperative possibilities, this time in areas other than lunar explo­ration. Khrushchev agreed to discuss these possibilities, and in 1962 and 1963 there were NASA-Soviet Academy of Sciences discussions that reached agreement in principle to cooperate. However, there was only modest sub­stantive cooperative activity in subsequent months and years.

This chapter focuses on attempts during 1961 and 1962 to foster U. S.-Soviet cooperation in space, since they were of direct personal inter­est to President Kennedy. In a reversal from the position taken during the Eisenhower administration, where the emphasis with respect to space cooperation was on developing international arrangements and controls, Kennedy believed that direct cooperation between the two Cold War rivals was likely to make a greater contribution to an overall reduction in bilateral and thus global tensions.5 The development of cooperative relations in space with other countries rarely rose to the presidential level for decision. NASA from its inception did develop such relations, particularly with Canada and the countries of Western Europe, but those emerging relationships are not discussed here.6

Understanding Kennedy’s Commitment to Apollo

In the American public memory, John F. Kennedy stands as one of the most successful and important of U. S. presidents. This public image, however, is not universally shared by scholars of the presidency and of American gov­ernment. A half century after John Kennedy entered the White House, they disagree on how best to evaluate the Kennedy presidency. Some por­tray Kennedy as “a worldly, perceptive, strong, and judicious leader exud­ing confidence and charisma, deeply affected by the early crises of his administration, recognizing the rapid changes taking place in the world, and responding with a New Frontier of foreign policy initiatives.” Others have portrayed Kennedy as “a shallow, cynical, passionless and vainglorious politician, a traditional Cold Warrior, a weak and vulnerable president not always in control of his own foreign policy.” A more nuanced assessment is that President Kennedy was a “complex figure whose personality embraced elements of both images.”4

I believe that the narrative in the preceding chapters supports this last view, but also suggests that in the case of Kennedy’s commitment to the race to the Moon, it is the more positive of the two general portrayals that best describes his choices and behavior. In deciding to go to the Moon, and then reiterating that choice several times after extensive White House reviews, Kennedy demonstrated with respect to space a steadiness of pur­pose and a clear understanding of the arguments for and against imple­menting his choice. He had the flexibility to pursue a cooperative path if it were open to him, but his judgment that space leadership was in the U. S. national interest made him determined to compete if competition was necessary. Kennedy as he announced his decision to go to the Moon warned the American public and their congressional representatives that the undertaking would be “a heavy burden, and there is no sense in agree­ing or desiring that the United States take an affirmative position in outer space, unless we are prepared to do the work and bear the burdens to make it successful.” As his science adviser Jerome Wiesner commented, “I think he became convinced that space was the symbol of the twentieth century. It was a decision he made cold bloodedly. He thought it was good for the country.”5

The decision to go to the Moon was a choice that reflected particularly American characteristics, such as the assumption that the U. S. democratic system of government was superior to all alternatives, that the United States was rightfully the exemplar for other nations, and that meeting challenges to the U. S. position as the leading world power justified the use of extensive national resources to achieve success.6 Not only the security of the United States was seen at stake; the decision reflected an almost messianic, expansive drive, one resulting in a sense of destiny and mission, which has for a long time been part of the American world view. The validity of this assumption of American exceptionalism is, of course, open to challenge, but that is not my point. Rather, I conclude that it was this perspective that justified in the minds of President Kennedy and many of his key advisers the decision to begin, as Kennedy said in his speech announcing the decision, what they knew would be an expensive and difficult “great new American enterprise” aimed at winning the battle between “freedom and tyranny” for the “minds of men everywhere who are attempting to make a determination of which road they should take.”

President Dwight Eisenhower had come to a different judgment of the importance of space achievement (or rather its lack of importance) in terms of preserving U. S. global leadership, which he saw as being based more on a sound defense, fiscal soundness, and social stability. John Kennedy, with his much more activist approach to government, had an opposing view. Kennedy was not at all a visionary in the sense of having a belief in the value of future space exploration; rather, his vision was that space capability would be an essential element of future national power, and thus that the United States should not by default allow the Soviet Union to have a monopoly of large-scale capabilities to operate in “this new ocean.” I believe that this was a wise judgment, one from which the United States has benefitted over the past half century. Perhaps the technical capabilities developed for Apollo were in fact too large and too expensive for subsequent regular use, but the principle that the United States should be the leading spacefaring nation has served the country well.

As Walter McDougall observed, “perhaps Apollo could not be justified, but, by God, we could not not do it.” Even the fiscally conservative Bureau of the Budget (BOB) agreed, commenting in a 1963 analysis that “we are inclined to agree with the conclusion that the fundamental justification at this time for a large-scale space program lies. . . in the unacceptability of a situation in which the Russians continue space activities on a large scale and we do not.”

An Initial NASA-DOD Agreement

The first result of this “peace-making” effort was a February 23 agreement signed by Webb and Gilpatric, confirming the desirability of a single national launch vehicle program and indicating that neither NASA nor DOD would begin the development of a new space launcher without the written acknowl­edgment of such a step from the other agency. On February 24, Webb and Dryden met with McNamara, Gilpatric, and director of defense research and engineering Herbert York, an Eisenhower holdover. The group agreed that Webb and Gilpatric would meet “from time to time for lunch and would bring others as needed” as a way to coordinate NASA and DOD space activi­ties at the top level. They agreed on the need for a review in “about four weeks” from the date of the meeting to determine the need for accelerat­ing the existing space program; there was “a general feeling that we should accelerate the booster program.” There was discussion of a possible omnibus bill to cover all space activities in both NASA and DOD (an idea which was never implemented). Writing to budget director David Bell a few days later, Webb described the February 24 meeting as “splendid.”26

Webb’s biographer W. Henry Lambright suggests that NASA-DOD agreement was possible because Robert McNamara was already “trying to constrain the expansionist tendencies of the services” and wanted to use NASA “as a check on the air force.” In addition, both McNamara and Webb recognized that “if they failed to settle differences at the NASA-DOD level, Lyndon Johnson would have the opportunity to stake out a stronger claim for coordinating them through the National Aeronautics and Space Council.” Webb saw this period as part of a process in which NASA and the DOD were “like two strange animals. . . sparring around, smelling each other, seeing what could be done, testing each other out.”27

Shortly after taking office, McNamara had requested a review examining whether the Wiesner Task Force criticism of a “fractionated military space program” was valid. Based on this review and conversations within DOD, McNamara decided to centralize management of Department of Defense space efforts in the Air Force, and on March 6 issued a directive to that effect.28 This was not, however, exactly the outcome that the Air Force had hoped for, given the preceding NASA-DOD agreements; from McNamara’s perspective, centralizing space activity in one organization made it easier for him to exercise tighter control over that activity.

How Much Would Landing on the Moon Cost?

The BOB review did not attempt to assign a cost to the overall Apollo proj­ect through the planned first landing. In preparing NASA administrator Webb for possible questions at the press briefing planned to follow President Kennedy’s May 25 speech, NASA’s public affairs chief Bill Lloyd suggested that the answer to the questions “What is your best estimate? How many billions of dollars would the lunar landing program cost?” should be “our best guess is in the neighborhood of $20 billion.”17 The origins of this $20 billion figure apparently lie with James Webb. Robert Seamans reports that the NASA staff estimate for the additional cost of the lunar landing program above what had been previously planned was in the range of $10 to $12 billion; Hugh Dryden had used an $11.4 billion increment in his April 22 presentation to Vice President Johnson. According to Seamans, “Jim Webb put an ‘administrator’s discount’ on our ability to predict costs precisely.” Lambright suggests that Webb’s administrative discount applied both to announcing a date for the first landing attempt and for a precise cost of the project. With respect to the landing date, Webb wanted “a margin of flex­ibility weighted against what the technical experts thought was possible, just in case something went wrong. He did not want the prestige of the nation (much less his own reputation) resting on an overly optimistic deadline.” With respect to the projected costs, the $10 to $12 billion estimate “looked much too low to Webb. Because no one could anticipate all the contingen­cies, he enlarged the figure NASA sent Kennedy to $20 billion for the first lunar journey.” There are stories, apparently apocryphal, that Webb doubled the Apollo cost estimate during a ten-minute car ride from NASA headquar­ters to Capitol Hill; Seamans’s account suggest that there was substantially more thought given to the cost estimate than such stories would suggest.18

Kennedy Decides to Make the Offer

The meeting with Ambassador Kohler on September 17 was apparently the final confirmation of Soviet interest Kennedy needed to decide to insert the cooperative offer into his United Nations speech. Kennedy kept a pre­viously scheduled September 18 appointment with NASA administrator James Webb to discuss a variety of space policy and budget issues. In a memorandum to the president in advance of the meeting, national secu­rity adviser McGeorge Bundy reported that Webb had called him to say that there had been “more forthcoming noises about cooperation from Blagonravov in the UN” and that “Webb himself is quite open to an explo­ration of possible cooperation with the Soviets” in the lunar landing effort. Bundy added that “the obvious choice is whether to press for cooperation or to continue to use the Soviet space effort as a spur to our own,” and that his “own hasty judgment is that the central question here is whether to compete or to cooperate with the Soviets in a manned lunar landing.” Bundy noted that:

1 If we compete, we should do everything we can to unify all agencies of the United States Government in a combined space program which comes as near to our existing pledges as possible;

2 If we cooperate, the pressure comes off, and we can easily argue that it was our crash effort on ’61 and ’62 which made the Soviets ready to cooper­ate.

Bundy added: “I am for cooperation if it is possible, and I think we need to make a really major effort inside and outside the government to find out in fact whether in fact it can be done.”28 Bundy’s preference for a coopera­tive approach was an important complement to Kennedy’s own inclinations, given the increasing reliance that the president was placing on Bundy’s views on national security and foreign policy issues.

By the time he met with Webb on September 18, Kennedy had all but finally decided to proceed with the cooperative proposal. According to Webb, “the President said that he was thinking of making another effort with respect to cooperation with the Russians, and that he might do it before the United Nations, and he said ‘Are you in sufficient control to prevent my being undercut in NASA if I do that?’ So in a sense he didn’t ask me if he should do it; he told me he thought he should do it and wanted to do it and that he wanted some assurance from me as to whether he would be undercut at NASA.”29

Robert Gilruth, the director of the Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston, the NASA facility with the lead role in the Moon mission, on September 17 (at which point he had no idea that the President would pro­pose just that in three days) had “ruled out as impractical” the suggestion of a joint mission, even though the proposal “would be very interesting.” The article reporting Gilruth’s remarks appeared in The New York Times on the morning of September 18, and was probably the reason Kennedy asked

Webb at their meeting that day if he could control the NASA response to his cooperative proposal. Harvey and Ciccoritti suggest that “actually Webb had serious reservations about the enterprise, but felt that since the President was telling him and not asking him, it would be best to simply go along with the President’s wishes.” Webb’s fear was that damage might be done the U. S. program without any real prospect of achieving anything insofar as the Russians were concerned. Webb also felt that there had not been suf­ficient consultation within the administration and with congressional lead­ers. Indeed, given the last minute insertion of the cooperative proposal into the speech, no one in the Congress had been consulted. Neither, appar­ently, had Vice President Johnson or at least his Space Council staff; Edward Welsh called the proposal “startling” and wondered whether “it will have any impact other than to show our willingness to cooperate and possibly to suggest further slow-downs by the Congress.” The staff of NASA was also not happy to hear of the president’s intent; its effect was “to cause consterna­tion in the Space Agency because it had not been consulted on a matter so vital to its objectives and timetable.”30

On September 19, Soviet foreign minister Gromyko in his address to the UN General Assembly suggested that following the Limited Test Ban Treaty with additional steps in relaxing global tensions was desirable; this was inter­preted at the White House as a further indication that the time was ripe for a dramatic U. S. proposal on space cooperation. The cooperative proposal was incorporated in Theodore Sorensen’s final draft of Kennedy’s United Nations speech, prepared only on September 19. The same day, Bundy tele­phoned James Webb and told him that the president had decided to go ahead with the proposal. Webb “immediately telephoned directions around to the [NASA] centers to make no comment of any kind or description on this matter.”31

Thus the stage was set. Kennedy’s September 20 address was intended to set out the role of the United Nations in his strategy of peace. This was so because, he proclaimed, in the organization’s development, “rests the only true alternative to war, and war appeals no longer as a rational alterna­tive.” Kennedy noted that “the clouds have lifted a little” as result of various U. S.-Soviet interactions over the preceding months, leading to a “pause in the Cold War.” Such a pause, he suggested, could lead to the Soviet Union and the United States, together with their allies, finding additional areas of agreement. It was in this context that Kennedy proposed that the United States and the Soviet Union join together, so that the first people to travel to the moon “would not be representatives of a single nation, but representa­tives of all our countries.”32

Kennedy and Space before His Presidential Campaign

Even though the significance of the Soviet launches of spacecraft begin­ning with Sputnik 1 in October 1957 and the dog-carrying Sputnik 2 the following month and the appropriate U. S. response to Soviet space achievements were major issues before the Congress between 1958 and 1960, Senator Kennedy said little about space issues during those years. Kennedy also showed little personal interest in U. S. and Soviet space efforts. He was a member of the Visiting Committee of the Harvard College Observatory, but any curiosity he may have had regarding astron­omy apparently did not carry over into the space realm. The head of the Instrumentation Laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Charles Stark Draper, recalled a discussion with John Kennedy and his brother Robert at a Boston restaurant during the post-Sputnik period. Draper tried to get the Kennedy brothers excited about the promise of space flight. According to one account of the evening, the brothers treated Draper and his ideas “with good-natured scorn”; Draper noted that they “could not be convinced that all rockets were not a waste of money, and space navigation even worse.”2 Kennedy did vote in February 1958 to create a Senate Special Committee on Space and Aeronautics and voted in favor of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) funding bills in 1959 and 1960; other actions related to NASA during those years were approved by voice votes, without the positions of indi­vidual senators being recorded.3

Kennedy’s primary focus in his years in the Senate was defense and foreign policy, with particular attention after 1957 to what he and many others called an emerging U. S.-Soviet “missile gap.” The growing disparity between U. S. and Soviet missile capability, Kennedy argued, would soon put the United States at a significant strategic disadvantage vis-a-vis the Soviet Union. In a speech on the Senate floor on August 14, 1958, Kennedy expressed worry that the Soviet Union’s superiority in nuclear-tipped missiles would allow it to use “sputnik diplomacy” and other nonmilitary means to shift the bal­ance of global power against the United States.4 Kennedy, when he did speak about space issues in the post-Sputnik period, most often linked them to the missile gap issue, frequently using the term “missile-space problem.”

Kennedy did gain a seat on the prestigious Committee on Foreign Relations in the mid-1950s. He was one of the first senators to recognize the significance for U. S. interests of the decolonization movement of the late 1950s; he thought it essential that the United States be an appealing ally to Asians and Africans as they chose which social system to pursue as independent nations. Kennedy attracted international attention by denounc­ing French suppression of Algeria’s move toward independence.5 He was an ardent anticommunist at this point in his life, and the possibility of newly independent nations “going communist” was troubling to him. His interest in presenting a positive image of the United States to the countries of the third world was a factor in his later judgment that the United States could not by default cede space leadership to the Soviet Union.

An intriguing insight into what may have been JFK’s views on space in the prepresidential period emerges from his February 16, 1960, response to a handwritten letter from a Princeton University freshman “with a strong Republican background” who told Senator Kennedy that he should “put more money in the space program.” In his response, Kennedy noted that the letter had reached him because of the author’s “undeviating Republicanism, Princetonian self-assurance and uncomplicated handwriting.” Kennedy sug­gested that “whatever the scale and pace of the American space effort, it should be a scientific program. . . In this interval when we lack adequate pro­pulsion units, we should not attempt to cover this weakness with stunts.” He added, “When this weakness is overcome, our ventures should remain seriously scientific in their purpose.” Kennedy felt that “with respect to the competitive and psychological aspects of the space program, it is evident that we have suffered damage to American prestige and will continue to suffer for some time.” However, he pointed out that “our recent loss of international prestige results from an accumulation of real or believed deficiencies in the American performance on the world scene: military, diplomatic, and eco­nomic. It is not simply a consequence of our lag in the exploration of space vis-a-vis the Soviet Union.”

Kennedy listed these deficiencies in the order in which he thought they should be addressed: “the missile gap,” “inadequate or misdirected policies in the underdeveloped areas,” “the disarray of NATO,” “the weakening of the international position of the dollar,” and, finally, “our inferior position in space exploration.” He thought that the United States “should accept the costs now of achieving the powerful propulsion unit a few years earlier than now may be the case” and looked forward to “the internationalization of space exploration, first on a Free World basis, then with the USSR.” This response suggests that Senator Kennedy had indeed given some thought to space issues before February 1960, and that in his judgment they had a lower priority in comparison to other threats to U. S. leadership; this may well be an accurate reflection of his views as opposed to the strident attitude toward space leadership that characterized much of his campaign rhetoric later in the year. Notable is JFK’s interest at this early date in both increasing the lifting power of U. S. rockets and in internationalizing space activity. The letter also suggests, as in the use of the expression “propulsion unit” rather than launch vehicle, that Kennedy or whoever composed the response was not very famil­iar with the specifics of the U. S. space effort.6

According to his closest policy adviser, Theodore C. Sorensen, by mid – 1960 Kennedy thought of space “primarily in symbolic terms. . . Our lagging space effort was symbolic, he thought, of everything of which he complained in the Eisenhower Administration: the lack of effort, the lack of initiative, the lack of imagination, vitality, and vision; and the more the Russians gained in space during the last few years in the fifties, the more he thought it showed up the Eisenhower Administration’s lag in this area and damaged the pres­tige of the United States abroad.”7

NASA’s Budget Reviewed

Budget director David Bell in February issued a government-wide call for a rapid agency review of the proposed Fiscal Year (FY) 1962 budget that had been submitted by the outgoing Eisenhower administration. James Webb’s initial examination of the NASA budget convinced him that the Eisenhower proposal was not adequate to support the kind of space program he believed was appropriate for the Kennedy administration; he judged that there was a need to accelerate the pace of the milestones that had been set out in NASA’s then-current ten-year plan. For example, he wanted to move the date of a potential lunar landing mission forward from 1973 to 1970; George Low’s report had indicated that it would be possible by that year, and perhaps even sooner. On March 17, NASA submitted a request for an additional $308.2 million, a 30 percent increase over the $1,109.6 million budget in the Eisenhower request. In his budget submission, Webb argued that “the civilian space program clearly can achieve a much more substantial contri­bution in aeronautical research and space exploration and technology if the pace of the program for 1962 is substantially accelerated.”18

Budget director Bell did not think that either he or the president was ready to decide on such an acceleration of NASA’s efforts. He later recalled that “most of us, when we came into office didn’t have any notion of what the space program was all about, what the issues were. A lot of people needed to be educated.”19 In response to the NASA request, BOB indicated that it would approve only a $50 million increase in the NASA budget, with any additional increases deferred until fall 1961, after a comprehensive review of the NASA program had been completed. James Webb refused to accept BOB’s decision and, as was his right as the head of a government agency, asked for a meeting with the president to appeal his case for a larger increase. The meeting was set for the late afternoon of March 22.

Before meeting with the president, Webb, Dryden, and Seamans briefed Vice President Johnson on their budget request. Budget director Bell, his deputy Elmer Staats, and the top career BOB staff person for the NASA
budget, Willis Shapley, explained to the vice president why they had not approved most of the request. In preparation for this meeting, Edward Welsh had prepared a briefing memorandum for Johnson that noted that the “major policy issue” involved in the budget was “does this country want to make an effort to catch up to the Soviet Union in space capability,” and particularly in weight-lifting capability. “To a considerable extent, domination of space will belong to those who can put up large manned and unmanned vehicles,” suggested Welsh.20

NASA's Budget Reviewed NASA's Budget Reviewed

After this initial discussion, President Kennedy, Jerome Wiesner, the president’s national security adviser, McGeorge Bundy, and chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission Glenn Seaborg joined the meeting in the White House cabinet room. Bundy had not been named to his post until January, making him one of the last people to join Kennedy’s White House inner

President Kennedy with two of his top advisors on space issues, special counsel Theodore Sorensen (left image) and special assistant for national security affairs McGeorge Bundy (right image). (JFK Library photos)
circle. He was a Yale-educated member of the Republican Eastern establish­ment who had become a Harvard professor of government with a widely acknowledged intellect, and then in 1953, at age 34, the youngest ever dean of the Harvard faculty. Bundy during the Kennedy administration was to play an important role in the national security dimensions of the U. S. space effort, including the race to the Moon.

The BOB had prepared an agenda for the meeting that indicated that “the future direction and level of the civilian space program primarily depends on decisions to be made by this administration concerning the rate [at which] it wishes to undertake the following: (1) Increasing the rate of closure on the USSR’s lead in weight lifting capability; (2) Advancing manned exploration of space beyond Project Mercury.” Each of these issues, said the BOB paper, “merits assessment in relation to its (1) technological significance, (2) impact on the international prestige of the United States, and (3) effect on present and future budget requirements.” With respect to agenda item 2, the ques­tion was “should we now launch an aggressive program of manned space exploration to follow Mercury, aimed at the progressive goals of (a) multi­manned orbital laboratory and later (b) manned circumlunar flight and (c) manned lunar landing?”21

James Webb had stayed up late the day before the meeting preparing a six-page talking paper. He argued that “U. S. procrastination for a number of years had been based in part on a very real skepticism by President Eisenhower personally as to the necessity for the large expenditures required, and the validity of the goals sought through the space effort.” Webb noted that “in the preparation of the 1962 budget, President Eisenhower reduced the $1.35 billion requested by the Space Agency to the extent of $240 million and specifically eliminated funds to proceed with manned space flight projects beyond Mercury. This decision emasculated the ten year plan before it was even one year old, and unless reversed guarantees that the Russians will, for the next five to ten years, beat us to every spectacular exploratory flight.” Webb told Kennedy that “the first priority of this country’s space effort should be to improve as rapidly as possible our capability for boosting large spacecraft into orbit.” He added that “the Soviets have demonstrated how effective space exploration can be as a symbol of scientific progress and as an adjunct of foreign policy. Without necessarily following the Soviet lead in this kind of exploitation, we should not fail to recognize its potential.” Webb closed his paper by suggesting that leadership in space, “pioneering on a new frontier,” would help to create “more viable political, social and economic systems for nations willing to work with us in the years ahead.”22 These were themes that Webb realized would resonate with John Kennedy.

Robert Seamans followed Webb’s remarks with a concise summary of NASA’s budget request. Kennedy told Seamans: “That was very good; I would like your views in writing tomorrow.”23 With that, the hour-and-a – half meeting concluded. During those 90 minutes, John Kennedy, perhaps for the first time, had had the chance to get a clear picture of the space policy and budget issues requiring his decision.

Webb then briefly went into the Oval Office with President Kennedy and Vice President Johnson. He assured them, as the newcomer to the NASA leadership, that he believed “that we were moving right ahead with the things that needed to be done”; Kennedy in return told Webb that Dryden and Seamans had made a positive impression on him at this, their first meeting. Meanwhile, Seamans went home and prepared the memorandum that Kennedy had requested, which Webb quickly forwarded to the White House.24

How Much Would Apollo Really Cost?

Wiesner noted in his November 20 memorandum that the NASA budget being discussed for Fiscal Year 1963 was 50 percent greater than had been projected just six months earlier. Indeed, the budget projections accompany­ing the accelerated space effort that President Kennedy had approved in May had projected a NASA budget of $3.029 billion for FY1963. However, when NASA submitted its FY1963 request to the BOB several months later, that total had grown to $4.238 billion, which was a 40 percent increase over the May estimate. By the time NASA and the BOB in December 1961 completed their negotiations over what the president would request for NASA in Fiscal Year 1963, the budget level had been reduced from $4.238 billion to $3.787 billion; this was still more than a 125 percent increase over the final FY1962 level. In a memorandum to President Kennedy summarizing the state of the NASA program, budget director David Bell provided a comprehensive overview of the evolution of the program since May and recommended to the president “that it would be desirable for you and the Vice President to have in the near future a short briefing and discussion of the status and plans for the civilian space programs, especially the manned lunar landing program.” Bell noted that NASA administrator Webb had concurred in this recommendation and on the budget figures outlined in his memorandum.28 The proposed briefing did not take place until Kennedy and Johnson visited NASA’s Apollo facilities in September 1962.

In his review of the situation for the president, Bell said that even in May the BOB had thought that NASA’s projections for future budgets “appeared to us to be understated,” and that BOB had anticipated a $3.5 billion budget request for FY1963, although it had not used that number in any official documents. Bell told the president that “the cost estimates for the manned lunar landing program appear to have been underestimated to an even greater degree than anticipated.” This was because “earlier estimates were of neces­sity made in advance of detailed technical plans and cost studies,” but such studies were now “showing clearly that the costs of the principal elements of the program will be greater than anticipated.” Bell estimated that the NASA budget would continue to increase, reaching $4.9 billion in FY1964, $5.3 billion in FY 1965, and $5.6 billion in FY1966. This meant that at the end of 1961 the accelerated space effort was projected to cost at least $2.8 bil­lion more than had been estimated just six months earlier. That such cost growth was worrying to the White House was clear; Webb told Dryden and Seamans on November 21 that “there is some evidence that the President is concerned about the cost of our program.”29 Webb was correct; the president was indeed concerned.

The Debate Continues

The criticism of Project Apollo took on a more partisan tone as the Senate Republican Policy Committee on May 10 released a report suggesting that there were other important national problems that “should, perhaps, be examined side by side with the moon shot program.” The report sug­gested that “the question is not, then, whether man will ultimately reach the moon and beyond. The question is, rather, how shall it be done, and whether other aspects of human needs should be bypassed or overlooked in one spasmodic effort to achieve a lunar landing at once.” It suggested that “a cold, careful examination is past due.” The report was distributed to all Republican senators; it concluded that “for momentary transcendence over the Soviet Union we have pledged our wealth, national talent, and our honor” and suggested that “a decision must be made as to whether Project Apollo (the moon program) is vital to our national security or merely an excursion, however interesting, into space research. . . If our vital security is not at stake, a less ambitious program may be logical and desirable.” A month later, at a breakfast meeting with Republican congressmen, former President Eisenhower made a widely reported comment that spending $40 billion to beat the Soviet Union to the Moon was “nuts.”17

The Kennedy administration in May began an intensified effort to respond to the critics of its space program. NASA administrator Webb added to a previously scheduled speech the declaration: “At the earliest appropriate stage in the program scientists will be included on Apollo missions.” Vice President Johnson in a May 11 speech responded to criticism that the costs of Apollo would undermine the strength of the dollar as an international currency, saying that “we are not told what would happen to the dollar—or to America—if space were defaulted to the Communists.” He added: “The question is what kind of philosophy, democratic or Communist, will domi­nate outer space? . . . I, for one, don’t want to go to bed by the light of a Communist moon.”

On May 26, in an effort coordinated by NASA, “eight scientists, three of them Nobel laureates and most of them in academic positions, spoke out . . . in support of the United States program of landing men on the moon.” Life magazine in a May 17 editorial added its support to the Moon program, suggesting that the United States could “abdicate its national greatness by not doing enough. . . The U. S. commitment to space seems a natural undertaking for the American people, who are a venturesome lot.” A June 3 editorial in Aviation Week and Space Technology suggested that “gradually, the point that the manned lunar landing Apollo program is simply the best possible focal point [for] development of a broad capability in space technology” is “emerging from the verbal pyrotechnics of the cur­rent debate.”18

Arguments for and against proceeding with Project Apollo were aired at June 10-11 hearings of the Senate Committee on Aeronautical and Space Sciences; ten scientists testified and other interested parties submitted written statements. There was general agreement in the hearings that the deadline set for the first lunar landing was probably conducive to waste, and that many national problems deserved equal attention; there was no agreement that the American science enterprise was being distorted by so much attention to space. The strongest protest against the program was a written statement submitted to the committee by Warren Weaver, vice president of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation; it listed many other desirable uses for $30 billion of federal spending, which Weaver projected as Apollo’s ultimate cost. Thirty billion dollars, Weaver said, would give every teacher in the U. S. a 10 percent annual raise for 10 years; give $10 million each to 200 small colleges; provide 7-year scholarships at $4,000 per year to produce 50,000 new Ph. D. scien­tists and engineers; give $200 million each to 10 new medical schools; build and endow complete universities for 53 underdeveloped nations; create 3 more Rockefeller Foundations; and leave $100 million over “for a program of informing the public about science.”19