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.