Race to the Moon
Th, s book has had an extremely long gestation period. Understanding its evolution is important to an appreciation of its character and intent.
My involvement with President John F. Kennedy’s role in the race to the Moon began as I prepared my doctoral dissertation in political science at New York University in the late 1960s, even as I began my academic career in Washington, DC, at The Catholic University of America in September 1966. I actually signed a contract to publish the dissertation before I defended it. As I moved from Catholic to The George Washington University in 1970, the MIT Press brought out a hardcover edition of the dissertation as The Decision to Go to the Moon: Project Apollo and the National Interest. The University of Chicago Press published a paperback edition in 1976. (As a side note, working on the study of the Apollo decision provided an opportunity to be present at the July 16, 1969, launch of the Apollo 11 mission, and also the Apollo 14 and Apollo 17 launches. Those experiences alone were worth the effort that went into research and writing the dissertation and subsequent book.)
My detailed study of the decision-making process by which President Kennedy became convinced that it was in the national interest for the United States to enter, with the intent of winning, the space race with the Soviet Union has been described as “classic” and “powerful and seminal” by leading space historian Roger Launius.1 Such an assessment is, of course, very gratifying. But as the years passed, I became increasingly dissatisfied with the completeness of the study’s narrative elements. The basic story stood the test of time, but because my research for the book was carried out even before Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin reached the Moon, only a very limited base of primary documents on which to base the study was available. The John F. Kennedy Presidential Library had not yet opened, and Lyndon B. Johnson was still president. That meant the narrative lacked the fullness made possible only by using the documentary record; also, many oral histories discussing the Kennedy presidency were not yet available. The flip side of this situation was that the events and considerations that led to the decision to go to the Moon were still fresh in the minds of the key participants in that decision, and I was fortunate enough to be able to interview most of them. Of those involved with the decision to go to the Moon, only Robert McNamara and President Johnson declined interview requests; of course, by that time both John and Robert Kennedy had been assassinated. Early on,
NASA chief historian Gene Emme and through him NASA administrator James Webb became convinced that I was trying to prepare an unbiased account of the decision process, and their support greatly facilitated my research. Thus the 1970 book was based primarily on my interviews with participants in the decision process and the secondary literature, although I was able to gain access to a few key documents. That meant that the story of JFK’s lunar landing decision was not complete.
I also came to realize that I had totally missed an important theme in President Kennedy’s thinking in the January—May 1961 period. His first instinct on coming to the White House had been to seek cooperation in space with the Soviet Union, not competition. Even after he announced his decision to send Americans to the Moon on May 25, 1961, Kennedy had suggested to Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, as they met face-to-face for the only time ten days later in Vienna, that the United States and the Soviet Union should go to the Moon together. Khrushchev responded negatively, and at least for the time being, the cooperative alternative was foreclosed. There was no mention of this alternative path in the 1970 book.
I also came to realize that I had told only one part of the story of John F. Kennedy and the lunar landing program. Achieving large-scale objectives through government action has two requirements. One is a well-crafted decision on what objective to pursue. I believe that JFK’s lunar landing decision was indeed an example of choosing a course of action only after careful thought and examination of possible alternatives. But turning a decision into action, and carrying that action through to completion, is also needed for success. While there have been a number of studies of Project Apollo that examined its technical and management elements, surprisingly I found that there had been no focused attention paid to the actions and decisions of President Kennedy and his White House associates from May 1961 through November 1963 that generated the political will needed to mobilize the financial and human resources which made the lunar landing program possible.
This recognition led me in 1998 to propose to the NASA Headquarters History Office a comprehensive study of John F. Kennedy and the U. S. space program. Then NASA administrator Dan Goldin and his associate administrator for policy and plans Lori Garver (now NASA deputy administrator) gave top-level support to my request, and NASA’s chief historian Roger Launius approved a modest contract to help me get started. Over the next several years, I carried out a first round of gathering primary documents and other material from the Kennedy Library and the NASA Historical Reference Collection at NASA’s headquarters, and drafted a few parts of the book. But my duties as professor and director of the Space Policy Institute of George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs, plus a seemingly unquenchable appetite for international travel, took me away from sustained writing.
I never lost my interest in finishing the study, however. As I prepared to leave GW’s active teaching faculty in June 2008, once again it was Roger
Launius, by now senior curator in the Space History Department at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, who suggested that I apply for the museum’s most senior fellowship, the Charles A. Lindbergh Chair in Aerospace History. I was awarded that position, and from September 2008 through August 2009, I was in residence at the museum, finishing another round of research in the Kennedy Library and the NASA archives and getting most of the writing of a first draft completed. As I finished a chapter draft, both Mike Neufeld, chair of the museum’s space history department and Wernher von Braun biographer, and Roger Launius provided very useful comments. I returned to GW’s Space Policy Institute as professor emeritus in September 2009, and finished my research and drafting of the manuscript there.
The current study is thus much more than a warmed-over version of my 1970 book. It adds a great deal of new material to the account of the initial decision-making process in that study, providing a fuller understanding of the factors at play as Kennedy made his choice. In addition, the MIT Press graciously provided its permission to incorporate as much of the contents of the earlier book into the new manuscript as I wished, and I have drawn upon many text passages and used almost all of the earlier interview material in crafting this narrative. In doing so, I have tried not lose any of the qualities that have made The Decision to Go to the Moon the standard account of that decision. The earlier book ended with President Kennedy’s speech to a joint session of Congress on May 25, 1961, in which he announced: “We should go to the Moon.” This new study carries the story until the tragic day in Dallas when Kennedy’s presidency was so abruptly terminated. Even on November 22, 1963, John Kennedy was intending to speak in positive terms about the future of the U. S. space program.
I have attempted to maintain throughout this study a focus on the decisions and actions of President John F. Kennedy, his inner circle of advisers who made decisions and took actions on behalf of the president, the career executive office staff who supported the Kennedy presidency, and the agency heads with whom the president interacted. Kennedy before he was inaugurated assigned a lead role in space policy to his vice president-elect, Lyndon B. Johnson, and I have also characterized Johnson’s role with respect to space decisions during the Kennedy administration. What I have not done, except when it was necessary to understand deliberations at the White House level, is give much attention to the technical and management aspects of Project Apollo itself. There is a very large literature on those topics.2
This study is not a complete account of John F. Kennedy and the American space program. Providing such an account was my original aspiration, but the realities of time and page count led to a decision to focus only on Kennedy and the race to the Moon, since that is the singular space achievement with which Kennedy will forever be associated. John Kennedy personally had only limited involvement in the steps taken during his administration to bring communication satellites into early use. But he was deeply involved in making sure that there were no international restrictions placed on the ability
of the United States to operate photoreconnaissance satellites, in limiting the spread of military conflict into the new environment of outer space, and in banning tests of nuclear weapons beyond the atmosphere. In his annual address to the General Assembly of the United Nations in 1961 and 1962, he laid out the principles that became the basis of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty. Kennedy also became personally involved with all seven Mercury astronauts and particularly friendly with the first American to orbit the Earth, John Glenn. The astronauts represented a personality type quite attractive to Kennedy and about which he had written about in his book Profiles in Courage—individuals who had responded successfully to challenging circumstances. So there is more to be written about Kennedy and space than is contained in this study.
While this narrative draws on what is available in the documentary record and has the benefit of interviews and oral histories that took place close to the events being discussed, it can never be really complete. One cannot know which of the many memoranda addressed to President Kennedy he actually read, and of those he read, to what issues and views he gave most attention. Kennedy enjoyed discussing policy issues with his advisers and associates; few of those conversations can be re-created. (A fascinating exception is the tape recording of a November 21, 1962, cabinet room meeting during which Kennedy and James Webb debated Apollo’s priority. What Kennedy said in this private meeting, including the phrase “I’m not that interested in space,” is rather different than his public rhetoric.) John Kennedy’s brother Robert was his closest confidant, but there is a very limited record of their discussions about the U. S. space program. So inevitably this study is a reconstruction of history based on extensive, but still partial, evidence.
Given the more than a decade over which I have been working on this book, there are many people to thank, and I am bound to have forgotten to mention some who deserve recognition. It is obvious that I owe multiple expressions of gratitude to Roger Launius, and it is only fitting that this book is part of the Palgrave Studies in the History of Science and Technology series of which Roger is co-editor. At NASA, in addition to the original support provided by Lori Garver and Dan Goldin, I want to thank archivist Jane Odom and Colin Fries and Liz Suchow of the NASA History Office for their responsiveness in helping me locate key documents and other research material. The research staff of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library has been supportive during my many visits to the library; Maryrose Grossman was particularly helpful in digging through the photo archives to locate several of the images included in this book. (I must add my frustration in not being able to access a still unreleased audio tape of a meeting between President Kennedy and NASA administrator James Webb on September 18, 1963, during which Kennedy told Webb of his plans to invite the Soviet Union to join the United States in sending people to the Moon as he addressed the United Nations General Assembly two days later.) I had a very productive visit to the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library in March 2010; the staff there was also very helpful.
I, of course, have to express thanks to the Smithsonian Institution for the offer of the Lindbergh Chair; without that year to focus on my writing, I might still be procrastinating. Mike Neufeld and his colleagues in the Department of Space History at the National Air and Space Museum were welcoming; I felt quite comfortable working in their midst.
George Washington students Krystal Brun and Megan Ansdell and MIT student Teasel Muir-Harmony provided occasional but valuable research assistance. My colleague Dwayne Day read the draft manuscript and provided useful comments while also catching my many typos. My successor as director of the Space Policy Institute, Professor Scott Pace, welcomed me back to GW after my year at the museum. I am proud of having created the Space Policy Institute in 1987 and of the accomplishments of the many students who have learned about space policy there, my first students during my years at Catholic University four decades ago, and the young people from many countries I encounter during my continuing involvement with International Space University; these students, together with what I have written through the years, are my lasting heritage, and it is to them that this book is dedicated.
At Palgrave Macmillan, Chris Chappell has been enthusiastic about this study, and I have appreciated his guidance in getting the manuscript into print. Sarah Whalen and Heather Faulls have been very helpful in shepherding the manuscript through the production process. I also welcomed the very useful comments by several anonymous reviewers of my book proposal.
It goes without saying that I am responsible for any errors in this account and for the interpretations of all the actions and decisions detailed herein.
In 1970, I dedicated The Decision to Go to the Moon to my wife Roslyn. Forty-one years later, she is still my wife and still a constant source of support and encouragement. She deserves in gratitude much more than a book dedication.