Category THE RACE

The Future of Human Space Flight

The initial U. S. human space flight effort, Project Mercury, was a very basic undertaking, intended primarily to investigate the human ability to sur­vive being launched into space and returning to Earth and to perform vari­ous simple tasks in the weightless environment while in orbit. Planning for a human space flight program to follow Mercury began within NASA in 1959. The first task was to select the objective for that program. To do this, NASA formed a Research Steering Committee on Manned Space Flight in April 1959. At the committee’s first meeting the next month, George Low, who was responsible for human space flight at NASA headquarters, sug­gested that the committee “adopt the lunar landing mission as its present long range objective with proper emphasis on intermediate steps, because this approach will be easier to sell.” The committee concluded its meeting without agreeing whether such a mission, or a less ambitious mission to fly around the Moon without landing, was the better choice of a long – range objective.37 By the time the group met the following month, Low had convinced his colleagues that the lunar landing mission was indeed the appropriate long-term goal for NASA’s human space flight program. Operating without top-level political guidance and basing their choice on what constituted from a space program point of view a rational program of human space flight development, NASA planners thus chose the lunar land­ing objective almost two years before John F. Kennedy made his decision to send Americans to the Moon.

In late July 1960, Administrator Glennan approved the suggestion of the NASA director of space flight programs, Abe Silverstein, that the post-Mer­cury program be named Project Apollo. Silverstein had picked the name out of a Greek mythology book because he thought that the image of the god Apollo riding his chariot across the Sun gave the best representation of the grand scale of the proposed project. Project Apollo faced a high degree of political uncertainty, however. President Eisenhower and many of his advis­ers were skeptical of the long-term value of human space flight, and were not inclined to approve an undertaking as ambitious as sending U. S. astronauts to the Moon. As NASA and the BOB developed a space budget for fiscal year 1962, no funds were included for the Apollo spacecraft.

The leadership of the U. S. scientific community reinforced skepticism from White House regarding the human space flight. In December 1960, eighteen months after leaving his position as Eisenhower’s science adviser, James Killian suggested that “many thoughtful citizens are convinced that the really exciting discoveries in space can be realized better by instruments than by man.” Killian was aware of NASA’s ambitious plans, and cautioned that “unless decisions result in containing our development of man-in-space systems and big rocket boosters, we will soon have committed ourselves to a multi-billion dollar space program.” He asked, rather rhetorically, “Will sev­eral billion dollars a year additional for enhancing the quality of education do more for the future of the United States and its position in the world than several billion dollars a year additional for man-in-space?”38

Killian’s successor as science adviser, Harvard professor George Kistiakowsky, also was skeptical of the concept of a fast-paced human space flight program intended to win a “space race” with the Soviet Union. In a 1959 discussion paper on “To Race or Not to Race?” Kistiakowsky noted that “there is a well-established military maxim that advises against engag­ing in battle on the field of the enemy’s choosing, but that is precisely what we have committed ourselves to, publicly interpreting Soviet achievements as a challenge for a contest based on that unique and narrow technological specialty—rocketry—in which they excel.” He asked “to what extent and how?” should the United States disengage from such a space race and noted that “our strength is that our satellites and space probes have provided us with more scientific information than the Soviets’ did.” He suggested that “we should hammer this home” and “dismiss the current weight superiority of Soviet payloads as unessential.”39 Kistiakowsky formed an ad hoc panel of the President’s Science Advisory Committee (PSAC) in September 1960 “to present the costs of our [human] space activities to the President and to the attention of the next administration.” In an early meeting of the panel, Kistiakowsky asked its members to spell out in its report “what cannot be done in space without man.” His view that there were relatively few things that met this criterion, and thus building the rockets necessary for ambitious human missions “has to be thought of as mainly a political rather than a scientific enterprise.”40

The six-person Ad Hoc Panel on Man-in-Space completed its report in December. The panel was chaired by PSAC member and Princeton University chemist Donald Hornig. The panel worked closely with NASA during its investigation. The panel’s report noted that “the most impelling reason for our [space] effort has been the international political situation which demands that we demonstrate our technological capabilities if we are to maintain our position of leadership.” The report called Project Mercury “a somewhat mar­ginal effort, limited by the thrust of the Atlas booster.” As a result of this limitation, there was not “a high probability of a successful flight while also providing adequate safety for the Astronaut.” The report noted that “a dif­ficult decision will soon be necessary as to when or whether a manned flight should be launched” and that “ the chief justification for pushing Project

Mercury on the present schedule lies in the political desire either to be the first nation to send a man into orbit, or at least to be a close second.”41

With respect to future missions, the panel noted that they depended on the availability of the Saturn launch vehicle, and that a circumlunar mission could only be attempted only when the Saturn C-2 with a hydrogen-fueled upper stage became available. The panel estimated that this would be in 1968 or 1969, with an initial attempt at a circumlunar mission around 1970. This was several years later than what NASA had indicated was possible. The Saturn C-2 would also be needed to launch the three-person Apollo spacecraft into Earth orbit to function as a space laboratory, but the panel thought that “the valid scientific missions to be performed by a manned laboratory of this size could be accomplished using a much smaller instru­mented spacecraft.” The panel observed that “none of the boosters now planned for development are capable of landing on the moon with sufficient auxiliary equipment to return the crew safely to Earth. To achieve this goal, a new program much larger than Saturn will be needed.”

The PSAC report suggested that “certainly among the major reasons for attempting the manned exploration of space are emotional compulsions and national aspirations. These are not subjects that can be discussed on techni­cal grounds… It seems, therefore, to us at the present time that man-in­space cannot be justified on purely scientific grounds.” That being said, the panel observed that “it may be argued that much of the motivation and drive for the scientific exploration of space is derived from the dream of man’s get­ting into space himself.”

The panel estimated the costs of the Mercury, Apollo circumlunar, and lunar landing programs. It included in the costs of each program the expenses connected with robotic activities undertaken in its support, and used 1975 as the target date for the first lunar landing. The estimates were as follows:

Project Mercury—$350 million

Apollo circumlunar—$8 billion

Manned lunar landing—an additional $26 to $38 billion.

The cost estimates for Project Mercury and the Apollo circumlunar mission came from NASA. The PSAC panel developed the cost estimate for the lunar landing mission on its own; its estimate was dramatically higher than any that NASA was developing at the time.42

The panel’s report was presented to President Eisenhower at a National Security Council meeting on December 20, 1960. There are various accounts of his reaction, none of them suggesting a positive response. Kistiakowsky reported that Eisenhower “was shocked and even talked about complete ter­mination of man-in-space programs.” (Kistiakowsky also says that he had “learned secondhand that the president-elect was also shown our report before the inauguration and had a negative reaction to the moon-landing proposition.”) Glennan observed that “The president was prompt in his response: ‘He couldn’t care less whether a man ever reaches the moon.’ ” NASA’s associate administrator (the agency’s number three position), Robert

Seamans, who had joined the space agency in September 1960, said that Eisenhower asked for an explanation of the reasons for undertaking such an ambitious and expensive program, and that one response compared the lunar journey to the voyages of Columbus to America, which were financed by Spain’s Queen Isabella. Eisenhower reacted by asserting that he was “not about to hock his jewels” to send men to the Moon.43

Reflecting the president’s views as voiced at the December 20 meeting, the draft of Eisenhower’s last budget message said that there was no scientific or defense need for a man-in-space program beyond Mercury. Glennan went to see science adviser Kistiakowsky on January 3, 1961, to argue that such a statement was “unwise,” and succeeded in getting the statement modified. In his final budget message, Eisenhower instead said that “further test and experimentation will be necessary to establish if there are any valid scientific reasons for extending manned space flight beyond the Mercury program.”44 If there was going to be a follow on the Project Mercury, it would be new President John Kennedy who would have to approve it, and it was prob­able that such approval would have to be based on other than a scientific rationale.

Despite the negative signals from the outgoing administration, NASA’s internal planning for Project Apollo and a lunar landing project to follow it had continued. On October 17, 1960, George Low had told his boss, Abe Silverstein, “it has become increasingly apparent that a preliminary program for manned lunar landings should be formulated. This is necessary in order to provide a proper justification for Apollo, and to place Apollo schedules and technical plans on a firmer foundation.”45 Low formed a small working group to develop such a program. The Space Task Group at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Virginia, which was in charge of Project Mercury, and the von Braun team in Huntsville also were working on planning a lunar landing mission. The groups presented a status report on their efforts at a January 5 meeting of NASA’s Space Exploration Council. There was a “clear consensus” that such planning should continue under Low’s direction, but Administrator Glennan reminded his staff that there was no White House support for such an ambitious undertaking.46 While this was correct for the few days remaining in the Eisenhower administration, NASA’s preliminary planning for a lunar landing mission within months became a critical enabler of John Kennedy’s decision to go to the Moon.

Others Consulted

As part of his review, Vice President Johnson reached out to a number of individuals whom he thought could provide informed advice. For example, on April 24 he received a thirty-four-page report prepared over the weekend by George Feldman, a former staff member of the House space committee who had sought the job of NASA administrator, and Charles Sheldon of the Congressional Research Service. He also asked Welsh to get the views of Cyrus Vance, in April 1961 the top lawyer at the Department of Defense but formerly a member of Johnson’s Senate preparedness subcommittee staff.8

On Monday morning, April 24, Johnson held a “hearing” to solicit the views on what course of action he should recommend to President Kennedy. Presenting their views were individuals representing the three military ser­vices. To get a “keen sense of public reaction” to the kind of accelerated program that was emerging from his review, the vice president invited three prominent businessmen who were also close personal friends to listen to the presentations. They were George Brown of the Houston, Texas con­struction firm of Brown and Root (who had been a major Johnson cam­paign contributor); Frank Stanton, president of the Columbia Broadcasting System; and Donald Cook, vice-president of the American Electric Power Corporation. The three service representatives were Vice Admiral John T. Hayward, deputy chief of naval operations for research and development; Lieutenant General Bernard Schriever, commander of the Air Force systems command and the recognized pioneer of the Air Force space program; and Wernher von Braun, who had been transferred in June 1960 from the Army Ballistic Missile Agency to work for NASA but from Johnson’s perspective still could represent the Army’s views. Johnson had sent each of the three a copy of President Kennedy’s April 20 memorandum directly, not through their chain of command. (In fact, when he learned of the meeting after it had taken place, Secretary of Defense McNamara reportedly told the vice president that if he wanted military representation at a future meeting, it would be McNamara who would decide whom to send from the Department of Defense.) Also attending the session were Webb and Dryden from NASA, Rubel from DOD, science adviser Wiesner, and BOB staff.9

In opening the meeting, Vice President Johnson told the group that he could not “overstate the fact that ‘our Freedom is at stake.’ Communist domination of Space could lead to control over men’s minds as well as their very existence.” Johnson spoke of the “propaganda aspects, as well as the technological and the defense aspects.” He said “The President wants the best hard-headed advice he can get—and he wants it now” and “this meet­ing, complemented by anything you want to send in later, is called to get your specific views on what we can do to get this country into the Space lead.”10

Hayward told the meeting that he supported a large-scale U. S. space program with a lunar landing mission as a central goal. He believed that, from a national point of view, only the lunar landing mission made sense as a way of accelerating the space program. The Navy was concerned, reported Hayward, that the practical applications of space technology that provided assistance to naval operations, such as the use of satellites for navigation, reconnaissance, communications, and weather forecasting, not be neglected in any accelerated program. He stressed the need for an integrated, orderly space program rather than emphasis on one project at the cost of neglecting others.11

Schriever also urged that a program aimed at a lunar landing be adopted, primarily because “it would put a focus on our space program. If we had this sort of an objective, there were so many other things that would be required that you couldn’t avoid having a major space program. I felt that we needed a major national space program for prestige purposes, for those things we could see as having national security implications and because of the need for advancing technology.” Although the Air Force in 1958 had proposed a very similar idea—a lunar landing effort as a central focus of a national space program—Schriever in 1961 did not suggest Air Force management of such an effort, noting, “that never came up. At that point, there was no argument about who was going to run the program.”12

In an April 30 follow-up letter to the vice president, Schriever said that he held “a strong conviction that achievements in space in the critical decade ahead will become a principal measure of this nation’s position in world leadership—a world in which it is becoming increasingly obvious that there will be no second.” This letter addressed directly the questions in President Kennedy’s April 20 memorandum. It indicated several areas in which “we have a high probability of scoring a dramatic ‘first,’ ” including a lunar land­ing by 1967, capturing an object in space and returning it to Earth by 1963,13 the first flight of a nuclear propulsion upper stage by 1965, and establishing a communication satellite network over the Atlantic Ocean by 1963 and worldwide by 1964. Schriever suggested that

our currently projected space effort is dangerously deficient. It has been characterized by an attitude of defeatism and a seeming resignation to second place for the United States in the space competition with the Soviet Union. Placing a man in orbit has been called a “stunt.” . . . This negative philosophy places at serious and unacceptable risk both our national prestige and our military security. It fails to recognize the military potential of space and the fact that achievements in space have been the single most important influence in the world prestige equation.

A greatly expanded and accelerated space program can—and should—be undertaken. There is clear evidence that we have the resources to more than double the magnitude of our present space effort. All that is lacking is the decision to do so—a decision comparable to that made by the late President Franklin D. Roosevelt shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor when he called upon the nation to increase its annual airplane production from a few thousand to the seemingly impossible figure of 50,000 aircraft per year. The timid souls were routed. The response to the call of our President in that critical hour is a highlight of our nation’s history.14

Wernher von Braun summarized the views he had expressed in the meeting, which he characterized as “strictly my own,” in an April 29 memorandum to Vice President Johnson. He told Johnson that the United States had a “sport­ing chance of sending a 3-man crew around the moon ahead of the Soviets (1965/1966)” and “an excellent chance of beating the Soviets to the first landing of a crew on the moon (including return capability, of course).” This was because “a performance jump by a factor 10 over their present rockets is necessary to accomplish this feat. While today we do not have such a rocket, it is unlikely that the Soviets have it.” Given this likelihood, said von Braun, “we would not have to enter such a race towards this obvious next goal in space exploration against hopeless odds favoring the Soviets. With an all-out crash program I think we could accomplish this objective in 1967/1968.” This estimate reflected von Braun’s confidence that with adequate resources his rocket team could develop the large launch vehicle needed more rapidly than could its Soviet competitors. Echoing the call for a more centralized approach to the management of large-scale technological efforts that had been articulated by Robert McNamara on April 22, von Braun noted that “in the space race we are competing with a determined opponent whose peacetime economy is on a wartime footing. Most of our procedures are designed for orderly, peacetime conditions. I do not believe that we can win this race unless we take at least some measures which thus far have been con­sidered acceptable only in times of a national emergency.”15

Edward Welsh later on April 24 summarized the main points that had come out of the day’s meeting. Among them were the following:

• “We have a lot of built-in handicaps which the Russians don’t have, i. e., contracting procedures, variety of government agencies and private com­panies in the act, freedom of the press, etc.”

• “A lunar landing and return is not just a ‘stunt.’ Rather, it should be pushed as a basically important achievement of great technical and scien­tific importance.”

• “The distinction between ‘peaceful uses’ and defense uses for space is a handicap.”

• “We have to have a basic philosophy—make our objectives clear. This means not a ‘catch up’ philosophy but a leadership philosophy.”

• “Idealism is fine, but we have to be realistic in dealing with the rest of the world, as they will align themselves with the leader.”

• “The Russians are not going to wait for us, so we should shoot for targets ahead of where they are now.”

• “More money, more definite policies, and more effort are needed.”16

Neither Secretary of State Dean Rusk nor chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission Glenn Seaborg were at the initial meetings organized by the vice president, even though both were members of the Space Council. Johnson apparently did consult with Rusk by telephone to learn if the secretary of state foresaw any negative foreign policy impacts from an accelerated space program and if Rusk agreed that a program aimed at capturing leadership in space for the United States was politically desirable. Rusk did agree to this proposition. The top State Department staff persons on space issues, Philip Farley and Robert Packard, interacted with Welsh during the consultations and attended at least one meeting; also, Richard Gardner, deputy assistant secretary of state for international organization affairs, wrote the vice presi­dent on April 24, saying that “I believe the United States could redeem much of its lost prestige in the space race by scoring ‘a first’ in the field of communication satellites,” since such a success “would have very dramatic and obvious practical benefits to millions of people around the world.”17

There were no dissenters among those consulted to the notion that the country should undertake a vigorous space program funded at a significantly higher level than had been the case under the Eisenhower administration. There was little question, Johnson was told repeatedly, that such a program would have considerable political, strategic, technological, and economic pay­offs for the United States. For example, Donald Cook in a letter to Johnson a few weeks later argued that “actions in this field must, I believe, be based on the fundamental premise that achievements in space are equated by other nations of the world with technical proficiency and industrial strength. This proficiency and strength is, in turn, equated with World power. And the conclusion reached by other countries on the question of our position in the world in terms of power is and will be of fundamental importance in their determination as to which group, the West or the East, they will cast their lot.”

This view of the world situation—as a bipolar struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union for global leadership at a time that Communist parties were strong in many Western European countries and as newly inde­pendent nations were deciding which form of social and political organiza­tion to adopt—was at the root of U. S. foreign policy in the early months of the Kennedy administration. Cook’s views were commonly shared among the U. S. political and intellectual leadership, including President Kennedy himself. Cook’s letter continued: “On this premise, the goal that we must seek is the achievement of leadership in space—leadership which is both clear-cut and acknowledged. Our objective must be, therefore, not merely to overtake, but substantially to outdistance Russia. Any program with a lesser basic objective would be a second-rate program, worthy only of a sec­ond class power. And, most important, a lesser program would raise serious questions among other countries as to whether, as a nation, we had the will and the discipline necessary for leadership in the struggle to preserve a free society.”18

As the Space Council review proceeded, Vice President Johnson kept President Kennedy informed of its progress. At the April 25 ceremony at which President Kennedy signed the bill making the vice president the chair of a reorganized Space Council, Kennedy noted that “enactment of this measure is symbolic of our Government’s intention to translate leadership and determination into action. . . Working with the Vice President, I intend that America’s space effort shall provide the leadership, resources and deter­mination to step up our efforts and prevail on the newest of man’s physical frontiers.”19

On April 28, the vice president sent the president a six-page memorandum summarizing his space review to date. Johnson told Kennedy:

• “The U. S. has greater resources than the USSR for attaining space leader­ship but has failed to make the necessary hard decisions and to marshal those resources to achieve such leadership.”

• “This country should be realistic and recognize that other nations, regard­less of their appreciation of our idealistic values, will tend to align them­selves with the country they believe will be the world leader—the winner in the long run. Dramatic achievements in space are being increasingly identified as a major indicator of world leadership.”

• “If we do not make the strong effort now, the time will soon be reached when the margin of control over space and over men’s minds through space accomplishments will have swung so far on the Russian side that we will not be able to catch up, let alone assume leadership.”

• “Manned exploration of the moon, for example, is not only an achievement of great propaganda value, but it is essential as an objective whether or not we are first in its accomplishments—and we may be able to be first.”

• “There are a number of programs which the United States could pursue immediately and which promise significant world-wide advantage over the Soviets. Among these are communication satellites, meteorological and weather satellites, and navigation and mapping satellites.”

• “More resources and more effort need to be put into our space program as soon as possible.”

Edward Welsh, who drafted the memorandum, has suggested that “the decision to go to the moon was made immediately upon the receipt of the April 28th memorandum.” This seems not to have been the case. While President Kennedy at that point in time had given strong indications that he was inclined toward such a choice, two more weeks of review would take place before the decision became final.20

The United Nations as the Venue for Space Cooperation?

The United States had in a variety of formal and informal settings tried to engage the Soviet Union in space cooperation in the 1959-1960 period, without success.7 One possible arena for early space cooperation was the United Nations. A 1959 Soviet-sponsored General Assembly resolution had called for setting up a United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space and for convening a United Nations Conference on space mat – ters.8 But the Soviet Union had refused to accept the proposed structure of the new committee, and thus there had been no progress on space matters made within the United Nations by January 1961. Following up on President

Kennedy’s call for space cooperation in the State of the Union Address, Secretary of State Dean Rusk in a February 2 memorandum suggested that talks be opened between the U. S. ambassador to the United Nations, twice – defeated presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson, and his Soviet counterpart, with the aim of moving forward on establishing the committee and conven­ing the conference. These steps, said Rusk, would make the United Nations “the logical place to discuss the types of cooperative outer space proposals included in your State of the Union Message.”9

After several weeks of discussion within the White House on how best to follow up the president’s speech initiatives, McGeorge Bundy replied to Secretary Rusk on February 28. Bundy suggested that in the four weeks since Rusk had sent his memorandum to the president, “events in the United Nations, and in particular the Soviet Union’s attitude toward that organiza­tion, have raised a question over here as to whether we really want to take active steps in that particular forum on this particular issue, with the Soviet Union, at this time.” Bundy’s feeling was “that the President would be reluc­tant to see us move in this direction now.” Bundy noted that the White House and the State Department had in the time since Rusk’s memorandum “agreed that Jerry Wiesner should be asked to take the lead in planning on the general problem of relations with the Soviet Union in this and other scientific fields.”10

A Rational Choice?

In my 1970 book The Decision to Go to the Moon, I portrayed Kennedy’s 1961 decision to enter a space race with the Soviet Union as closely resem­bling the rational choice model of decision-making, in which a decision­maker identifies a desirable goal to be achieved or a problem to be addressed, assesses various options for achieving that objective, and selects the option with the best ratio of benefits to costs. It is important to note that what makes this decision process “rational” is the purposeful evaluation of alter­natives to achieve a stated goal and the choice of the alternative that embod­ies the best relationship between benefits and costs; the goal itself is a matter of judgment, and must be evaluated on the quality of that judgment. My reconstruction of the decision process in April and May 1961 suggested that

John Kennedy made the following judgments, each of which could be open to debate:

• Kennedy defined the U. S. national interest as requiring this country to be superior to any rival in every aspect of national power.

• This conviction reflected a Cold War interpretation of the international situation in which there was a zero-sum contest for global power and influ­ence conducted between two sharply opposed social and political systems, one led by the United States and the other by the Soviet Union, with an uncommitted “Third World,” and perhaps even more developed countries, deciding with which system it was better to associate.

• National prestige, Kennedy thought, was an important element of national power. As image-conscious as he was, Kennedy judged that what other nations thought about American power and resolve to use it was as impor­tant, if not more important, than the reality of that power. Kennedy once wondered aloud “What is prestige? Is it the shadow of power or the sub­stance of power?” He concluded that prestige was a real factor in acquiring and exercising national power.7

• Kennedy’s own analysis, the answers he got from the many people he que­ried in the weeks following the April 12 launch of Yuri Gagarin, his assess­ment of the national and international reaction to that feat, and the advice he received from people like Lyndon Johnson and James Webb convinced the president that dramatic space achievements were closely tied to national prestige and thus “part of the battle along the fluid front of the cold war.” In addition, Kennedy judged that the potential contributions of space capabilities to military power justified a significant investment in develop­ing those capabilities, albeit through a peaceful, civilian-led effort.

Once these judgments were made, the choice of sending Americans to the Moon emerged from a rapid but searching assessment of what space activity would best achieve a dramatic space “first” before the Soviet Union, thereby both enhancing U. S. prestige and serving as the focal point for the devel­opment of various space capabilities. It was this decision process that can best be characterized as rational. For example, veteran budget official Willis Shapley, who had been observing national security policy choices since he joined the BOB in 1942, commented that “after having been through quite a few major decisions, there was never a major decision like this made with the same degree of eyes-open, knowing-what-you’re getting-in-for” character. Science adviser Jerome Wiesner agreed, saying that he and Kennedy “talked a lot about do we have to do this. He said to me, ‘Well, it’s your fault. If you had a scientific spectacular on this earth that would be more useful—say desalting the ocean—or something that is just as dramatic and convincing as space, then we would do it.’ We talked about a lot of things where we could make a dramatic demonstration—like nation building—and the answer was that there were so many military overtones as well as other things to the space program that you couldn’t make another choice.” Wiesner added that “if Kennedy could have opted out of a big space program without hurting the country in his judgment, he would have.” Also, “these rockets were a surrogate for military power. He had no real options. We couldn’t quit the space race, and we couldn’t condemn ourselves to be second.” Time/Life reporter Hugh Sidey suggests that the Moon project “was a classic Kennedy challenge. If it hadn’t been started, he might have invented it all, since it combined all those elements of intelligence, courage, and teamwork that so intrigued John Kennedy.” Some years later, the admiring Sidey added that in deciding to go to the Moon, Kennedy “heard the poets. He was beyond politics and dollars.”8

The final words on why he decided to go to the Moon belong to President Kennedy himself. We have in the tape recording of his November 21, 1962, meeting with his space and budgetary advisers an uncensored record of his thinking on the reasons behind his commitment. Then he said:

• “This is important for political reasons, international political reasons. This is, whether we like it or not, in a sense a race.”

• “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.”

• “ 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.”

• “ I’m not that interested in space.”

The public rhetoric of President Kennedy, particularly the memorable September 1962 speech at Rice University, created the impression that Kennedy was motivated in his support of Apollo by other reasons, and par­ticularly by a long range vision of space exploration. One clear conclusion of this study is that Kennedy was not a space visionary. Rather, he was a prag­matic decision-maker who came to the conclusion that “whatever mankind must undertake, free men must fully share.”

Gardner Report Submitted

The report of the committee headed by Trevor Gardner that had been intended to map an ambitious future for the Air Force in space was finally submitted on March 20; with its bullish recommendations, the report unin­tentionally reinforced Robert McNamara’s concern about the need to limit Air Force ambitions. The report’s conclusions were alarmist; the United States, the report claimed, could not overtake the Soviet Union in space for at least another three to five years; there were “no accelerated and imaginative programs” to close that gap. Thus there was “an impending military space threat,” which “endangers our national security and international prestige.” The report was critical of the separation between the civilian and military space programs, arguing that there should be one integrated national space program. The report called for a “dramatically invigorated space program” and called upon the DOD to create, and then make available to NASA, a series of “building blocks” of a firm technological foundation for whatever the nation wanted to do in space. It urged the Air Force to “develop the fundamental capability to place and sustain man in orbit,” since “the time when man in orbit can be completely, effectively, and efficiently replaced by mechanisms [robotic systems] is beyond today’s vision.” The report declared that “it is essential that the Air Force play a major support role in manned exploration of the moon and planets,” even though “direct contributions to national security cannot be identified.” The report devoted significant atten­tion to future human spaceflight efforts, and recommended both that the United States send people to the Moon and develop large space stations in the 1967-1970 period. It suggested that since there was a “military need for a variety of launch vehicles based on the F-1 engine,” development respon­sibility for that engine should be transferred back to the Air Force from NASA, and then the Air Force should “initiate urgent development of a first stage launch vehicle using the F-1 engine.”29 Given the agreements already described and the events of the next two months, the Gardner report had limited impact on both Air Force space activities and national space policy.

James Webb Has His Own Agenda

As Lambright notes in his biography of James Webb, “while the decision to go to the moon was unfolding, a separate decision process—mainly in Webb’s own mind—was unfolding. This was the personal agenda Webb had brought to NASA—“a mission to use science and technology. . . to strengthen the United States educationally and economically.” Webb’s objective was to maximize the benefits of an accelerated space program for Earth in terms of research, education, and regional economic development. Walter McDougall in his award-winning book. . . the Heavens and the Earth described the total­ity of Webb’s vision as “Space Age America,” a term that indeed Webb some­times used.19

While the final review of the accelerated program was underway in the White House, Webb was consulting with his colleagues outside the gov­ernment and those whose support he thought might be important to the public acceptance of the new effort. For example, on May 15, he wrote to Vannevar Bush at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; Webb had known Bush since his time in Harry Truman’s BOB. Bush had been President Roosevelt’s top technical advisor during World War II and his report Science, the Endless Frontier had laid the foundation for postwar government support of science.20 Webb told Bush that he regretted that the two “find ourselves on somewhat different sides of the complex ques­tion of manned space flight”; they earlier in May had had a confrontation at a Washington social function over the value of humans in space. Webb noted that “no one could have ridden down Pennsylvania Avenue with Commander Shepard without feeling the deep desire of those lining the Avenue for something to be proud of and a hero. At the moment I believe this feeling is somewhat expanded to include a desire for a real effort in the space field.” Webb assured Bush that “in the programs that are now under­way and which will shortly be put forward, I expect to do all that I can to build up the university research, teaching, and graduate and post-graduate quality and quantity of education. . . If we do not find ways to make the major program carry a burden in each of these fields, we simply are not going to meet the challenge of our times.”21

The most sweeping version of Webb’s vision can be found in a May 23 memorandum he prepared for the vice president as Johnson returned from his Asian trip. Webb told him that Houston Congressman Albert Thomas

has made it very clear that he and [Houston construction magnate and Johnson campaign contributor] George Brown were extremely interested in having Rice University make a real contribution to the effort, particularly in view of the fact that some research funds were now being spent at Rice, that the resources of Rice had increased substantially, and that some 3,000 acres of land had been set aside by Rice for an important research installation. On investigation, I find that we are going to have to establish some place where we can do the technology related to the Apollo program, and this should be on the water where the vehicle can ultimately be barged to the launching site. Therefore we have looked carefully at the situation at Rice, and at the possible locations near the Houston Ship Canal or other accessible waterways in that general area. George Brown has been extremely helpful in doing this.

In essence, Webb was preempting the decision on where to relocate the Space Task Group as it took on the lunar landing assignment, even though the process through which that decision would be formalized extended for four more months. But Webb did not stop with Houston; he now broadened his horizon to the whole region. His vision of using centers of excellence in areas like Oklahoma, Missouri, and Texas to spur regional development had been developed during his years working for Robert Kerr in Oklahoma. In January 1956, Webb in a letter to his former boss, President Harry Truman, had laid out his concept of using an Oklahoma-based “Frontiers of Science Foundation” to stimulate science, technology, and industry in that state and beyond.22 Now he told Johnson:

No commitments have been made, but I believe it is going to be of great importance to develop the intellectual and other resources of the Southwest in connection with the new programs the Government is undertaking. Texas offers an unusual opportunity at this time due to the fact that [long-time Webb friend and chairman of the National Academy Space Science Board] Dr. Lloyd Berkner. . . is establishing a Graduate Research Center in Dallas with the backing of Eric Johnston, Cecil Green, and others in that area (estimated at about one hundred million dollars) and in view of the fact that Senator Kerr and those interested with him in the Arkansas, White, and Red River System have now pushed it to the point that it is opening up the whole area related to Arkansas, Oklahoma, and in many ways helping to provide a development potential for Mississippi. If it were possible to get a combination where out – in-front theoretical research done by Berkner and his group around Dallas in such a way to strengthen all the universities in the area, and if at the same time a strong engineering and technical center could be established near the water near Houston and perhaps in conjunction with Rice University, these two strong centers would provide a great impetus to the intellectual and industrial base of this whole region.

Webb was still not done. He related his vision for Southwest regional development to the nation as a whole. Developing a strong technical compe­tence in the Southwest

would permit us to think of the country as having a complex in California running from San Francisco down through the new University of California installation in San Diego, another center around Chicago with the University of Chicago as a pivot, a strong Northeastern arrangement with Harvard, M. I.T., and like institutions participating. Some work in the southeast perhaps revolving around the research triangle in North Carolina (in which Charlie Jonas as the ranking minority on Thomas’s Appropriations Subcommittee would have an interest), and with the Southwestern complex rounding out the situation.23

This “grand mix of noble vision and pork-barrel politics”24 went well beyond anything that President Kennedy had in mind as he approved an accelerated space program, primarily as a foreign policy response to Soviet space successes and their political impacts. But the space program buildup over the next few years that resulted from Kennedy’s decision allowed Webb the room needed to put his agenda into practice, and Webb, a New Deal Democrat, had little hesitation in using his position at NASA to implement his vision of an improved America.

Reactions to the Proposal

Reactions to Kennedy’s proposal were quick to appear and mixed in charac­ter. The New York Times editorialized that the proposal showed that Kennedy was “courageous” and that he was “able and willing to seize the opportunity of the moment to exercise an imaginative political initiative.” In the same edition of the newspaper, reporter John Finney noted that Kennedy’s pro­posal had “caught many Government officials by surprise,” caused “bewil­derment,” and was seen by many in Washington as “the first step toward pulling out of the costly ‘moon race.’ ” The Times reported the next day that “Europe’s Press Praises Kennedy,” citing the Manchester Guardian’s charac­terization of the president’s proposal as a “minor master-stroke.” Two weeks later, the Times reported that Brainerd Holmes, who had left his position in NASA as head of manned space flight in June, thought that a coopera­tive lunar mission would be “a very costly, very inefficient, probably a very dangerous way, to execute the program.” The trade publication Missiles and Rockets was most negative, rejecting “such a naive internationalist approach to the lunar project. It can only harm the U. S. effort to the benefit of the Soviet Union.” The magazine characterized Kennedy’s proposal as “ill con­ceived,” potentially leading to the U. S. manned space flight program facing the prospect of “dwindling from one of the most exciting challenges ever accepted by a nation to an unimportant pawn in the Cold War to be sacri­ficed in the first gambit of appeasement.”33

Space and the 1960 Presidential Campaign

Space issues did not play a major role in John Kennedy’s campaign for the Democratic nomination for president. Once the nomination was secured, Kennedy in his July 15 acceptance speech first used the term “New Frontier,” saying “we stand today on the edge of a New Frontier—the frontier of the 1960’s—a frontier of unknown opportunities and perils—a frontier of unfulfilled hopes and threats” and noting that “beyond that frontier are the uncharted areas of science and space.” Foreshadowing the most famous line in his inaugural address, Kennedy said that the New Frontier of which he was speaking “is a set of challenges. It sums up not what I intend to offer the American people, but what I intend to ask of them.”8

The Democratic platform on which Kennedy would run stated:

The Republican Administration has remained incredibly blind to the pros­pects of space exploration. It has failed to pursue space programs with a sense of urgency at all close to their importance to the future of the world.

The new Democratic Administration will press forward with our national space program in full realization of the importance of space accomplishments to our national security and our international prestige. We shall reorganize the program to achieve both efficiency and speedy execution. We shall bring top scientists into positions of responsibility. We shall undertake long-term basic research in space science and propulsion.9

NASA Budget Increased

The next day, President Kennedy met with Vice President Johnson, Welsh, Bell, and Wiesner. No NASA representatives were present. The BOB had prepared a paper for Bell’s use at the meeting, which noted that “the case for budget increases. . . was well presented by Mr. Webb and his associates.” Bell told the president that he wanted to indicate “some of the points which sug­gest that the lower alternatives deserve serious consideration when a general decision is made on the course of the space program, either at this time or in the 1963 budget decisions in line with my suggestion that this matter be deferred to that time insofar as possible.” Bell noted that even if increases in the budget for boosters were approved, “we will still be in a ‘tail chase’ and that there is still a strong probability that the Russians will beat us to future spectacular space achievements if they choose, regardless of what we do.” He suggested that “the wisdom of staking so much emphasis and money on prestige that might or might not be gained from space achievements in the late 1960s and 1970s appears questionable” and that “it seems virtually certain that alternative, surer, and less costly ways of increasing our national prestige in the world scene could be developed.” Bell said that he “cannot help feeling that the total magnitude of present and projected expenditures in the space area may be way out of line with the real value of the benefits to be expected.”25 In support of Bell’s memorandum, BOB staff prepared five different proposals for the future NASA program and their budget implica­tions for the coming years. The alternatives ranged from the program NASA was suggesting to much smaller programs with an emphasis on scientific and application objectives, no manned flight beyond Mercury, and cancellation of the Saturn launcher.26

The memorandum prepared by Robert Seamans specified the impacts of the budget increases that NASA had requested, which included $98 mil­lion for the Saturn C-2 project, $27.5 million for a prototype engine for a nuclear rocket, $10.3 million for the large F-1 engine for use in a Nova launcher, and $47.7 million for the initial version of the Apollo spacecraft for use as an orbital laboratory. Other items in the NASA budget request were not discussed in Seamans’s memo. If the requested increases were approved, said Seamans, the orbital laboratory could begin flights in 1965 rather than 1967; circumlunar flights would be possible in 1967 rather than 1969; an initial manned lunar landing might be possible in 1970 rather than 1973.27

The president started the meeting by asking Vice President Johnson for his views on the NASA budget. Johnson responded: “Dr. Welsh here knows more about it than I do—let him speak.” Welsh told the President that “the main thing to be done was to stimulate the work on boosters; that we were farther behind on our propulsion side of the space program than anything else.” This was a refrain that President Kennedy had been hearing repeatedly, and he asked Wiesner if he concurred; Wiesner responded that he did. Bell did not protest, even though his arguments had been overruled; his response was “Whatever the President wants, we will try to get that done.”28

On the day of the NASA budget meeting, Secretary of Defense McNamara had been consulted by the vice president’s office for his views on the NASA budget and policy issues. McNamara’s response was that “he was personally unable to assess” the prestige payoffs from human space flight, and would suggest proceeding at “a normal rate of investigation,” which was consider­ably less than a maximum effort. With respect to increases in the NASA bud­get, McNamara suggested that he would give higher priority to all items in the Department of Defense budget than to increased funding for NASA.29

The final increase in the NASA FY1962 budget approved at the meeting was just under $126 million, almost all of it to accelerate the NASA booster effort. No funds for the Apollo spacecraft and thus for human space flight beyond Project Mercury were approved. This was an increase of a bit over 10 percent compared to President Eisenhower’s budget submission, but 20 percent less than NASA had hoped for.

In this initial engagement with space policy and program issues, President Kennedy had heard the full range of arguments with respect to the goals and pace of the U. S. civilian space program. He decided that it was a matter of some urgency to begin the process of closing the weight-lifting gap that its powerful rocket had given the Soviet Union, but was not yet ready to commit himself to the use of those new boosters for a post-Mercury human spaceflight program. The expectation as of the end of March 1961 was that this issue would be the focus of a comprehensive review of NASA’s future to be conducted by Lyndon Johnson as the new chairman of the Space Council, with a decision coming as the Fiscal Year 1963 budget was being prepared in the coming fall.

One reason for the hesitance at this point to approve any funds for a Mercury follow-on was likely the uncertainty about Mercury’s success. The Hornig panel had not finished its work, and its medical experts were very worried about whether an astronaut could survive the stresses of space flight. Jerome Wiesner shared their concern, and had communicated it to the President. In addition, according to Seamans, although Kennedy was tend­ing toward the approval of future human space flight efforts, he “wanted to know more about it. This was all pretty new as far as he was concerned, except in very general terms.”30 Webb recognized that Kennedy “was con­cerned about a tremendous range of problems as an incoming president,” and that he was being asked to make a choice between his budget director, whose judgment he had come to trust, and that of the NASA leadership, whom he did not know well.31 Added to these factors were the immediate concerns over Laos, which were occupying most of Kennedy’s time. The March 23 outcome was thus “deliberately intended as a partial decision which would leave him [Kennedy] free, within a considerable range, to decide later how much of a commitment to make.”32

As he attempted to resist NASA demands to meet with the president to appeal the original BOB decisions, David Bell had told Hugh Dryden that Kennedy was too busy for direct involvement in decisions on NASA’s future. Dryden replied: “You may not feel he has the time, but whether he likes it or not he is going to have to consider it. Events will force this.”33 Dryden’s words proved prescient; within three weeks, Kennedy would be faced with a Soviet space challenge that led him to set dramatic new space goals for the United States.

Space Programs Reviewed

The rapidly increasing costs of the U. S. space program, and particularly its civilian component, continued to trouble President Kennedy after he sent his $3.787 billion Fiscal Year 1963 request for NASA to the Congress in early 1962. There was no parallel single national security space budget request; Department of Defense and intelligence space programs were incorporated into the general DOD budget, rather than receiving separate budget treat­ment. However, increasing DOD expenditures for space were also of con­cern to the president. To obtain a total overview of the U. S. space program, Kennedy asked the BOB in June 1962 to carry out a comprehensive review of all U. S. space efforts.

Initial Budget Concerns

After NASA administrator Webb met with Kennedy on May 3, 1962 to deliver a copy of NASA’s revised long-range plan, he reported that Kennedy “was quite concerned about the high level of expenditures involved in our program, plus the military program, and urged that everything be done that could possibly be done to see that we accomplished the results that would justify these expenditures and that we not expend funds beyond those that could be thoroughly justified.” Webb also reported that the president “had expressed some concern” about the geographical distribution of NASA funding; Kennedy noted that he had received complaints from states such as “Michigan, Pennsylvania, and the eastern states” that NASA was focusing its expenditures on California, Florida, Mississippi, and Louisiana. Kennedy was “quite anxious” that NASA “maintain the best geographical distribu­tion of contracts and still get the most efficient job done.” To provide the White House with its own channel of information on NASA procurement actions, Kenneth O’Donnell sent Richard Callaghan, a Kennedy loyalist and congressional staffer, to NASA as a special assistant to Webb. According to one account, “Callaghan’s job was to arrange for a more equitable distri­bution of contracts, which would relieve congressional pressure on Kenny O’Donnell, and find out whether [Senator Robert] Kerr and [Vice President] Johnson were pulling strings for their friends at NASA.” With respect to this latter mission, Callaghan found no evidence of undue Kerr or Johnson influence on NASA’s contract awards.30

Webb responded to Kennedy’s concern regarding geographical distribu­tion in a June 1 letter. He told Kennedy that during 1961, states west of the Mississippi River received 56 percent of NASA prime contracts; states east of the Mississippi, 44 percent. One reason for this distribution was that “major aerospace and electronic companies have concentrated their growth within a few areas of the country.” However, Webb continued, when both prime con­tracts and first-tier subcontracts by the prime contractors were considered, 53 percent of the work was in the East and 47 percent in the West. Webb also noted that in the second half of 1961 Massachusetts had received 64 percent more in NASA funding than it had received in the first half of the year. In summary, Webb told the president, “the NASA effort is being spread broadly throughout the United States.”31