"We Should Go to the Moon"
On May 25, 1961, President John F. Kennedy, then just over four months in the White House, addressed a joint session of Congress to deliver what was billed as a second State of the Union address on “Urgent National Needs.” Before the assembled senators and representatives and a national television audience, Kennedy declared: “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth.” Later in his speech, he reiterated: “I believe that we should go to the moon.” Sixteen months later, in his most memorable space speech, made before a crowd of 40,000 at Rice University in Houston, Texas, Kennedy gave this reason for undertaking the lunar journey: “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.”1
John Kennedy was a very unlikely candidate to decide to send Americans to the Moon. He had shown little interest in space issues in his time as a senator or during his presidential campaign. According to one journalist who had close ties with Kennedy, “Of all the major problems facing Kennedy when he came into office, he probably knew and understood least about space.”2 Yet just three months after his inauguration, in the aftermath of the Soviet Union on April 12, 1961, sending the first human, cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, into orbit, Kennedy asked his advisers to find him “a space program which promises dramatic results in which we could win.” The answer came back less than three weeks later—sending astronauts to the surface of Earth’s nearest neighbor gave the best chance of besting the Soviet Union in a dramatic space achievement. The resulting prestige from winning a race to the Moon, Kennedy was told, would give the United States a major victory “in the battle along the fluid front of the Cold War.” Kennedy accepted this
President John F. Kennedy as he addressed a joint session of the Congress on May 25, 1961, and declared: “We should go to the Moon.” Others in the image are Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson (left) and Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn (right) (NASA photograph).
advice, and soon after announced his decision to begin what he characterized as “a great new American enterprise.”3
President Kennedy’s involvement with the lunar landing undertaking was much more intimate and continuing than is usually acknowledged. Kennedy not only decided to go to the Moon; over the remaining thirty months of his tragically shortened presidency, he stayed closely engaged in the effort and in making sure the benefits of Project Apollo would outweigh its burgeoning cost. Convinced that this was indeed the case, he pushed hard to make sure that Apollo was carried out in a manner that best served both the country’s interests and his own as president. As the authors of the recent study If We Can Put a Man on the Moon… comment, “Democratic governments can achieve great things only if they meet two requirements: wisely choosing which policies to pursue and then executing those policies.” Many presidents since John Kennedy have announced bold decisions, but few have followed those decisions with the budgetary and political commitments needed to ensure success.4 This study details the full range of JFK’s actions that carried Americans to the Moon.
Kennedy’s commitment to the race to the Moon initiated the largest peacetime government-directed engineering project in U. S. history. Project Apollo by the time it was completed cost U. S. taxpayers $25.4 billion, which would be equal to some $151 billion in 2010 dollars. Apollo is frequently compared to the construction of the Panama Canal as an expensive, long-term, government-funded undertaking. By the time the Canal was completed in 1914, the cost of its construction was $375 million, equivalent to $8.1 billion in 2010 dollars, much less than Apollo. Another comparison might be with the multidecade construction of the Interstate Highway System, which began in the mid-1950s and for which the federal government paid $114 billion out of a total cost of $128 billion. By any measure available, Apollo required a historically massive commitment of public funds over a relatively brief period of time.5
This study is the first comprehensive account of the impact of John F. Kennedy on the race to the Moon; others have written extensively about the managerial and technical aspects of the Apollo achievement, but none have portrayed JFK’s perspective as he continued to push, in the face of growing criticism and concern about increasing costs, for moving ahead with the lunar landing program. The book contains a detailed narrative of the decisions and actions of President Kennedy, his inner circle of advisers who made decisions and took actions on his behalf, the career White House staff who supported the Kennedy presidency, and the agency heads with whom Kennedy interacted. Kennedy before he was inaugurated assigned his vice president, Lyndon B. Johnson, a lead role in space policy; the study also characterizes Johnson’s role with respect to space decisions during the Kennedy administration. Except when necessary to understand deliberations at the White House level, the book does not give much attention to the specific details of Project Apollo itself.
John Kennedy saw his choice to go to the Moon “as among the most important decisions that will be made during my incumbency in the Office of the Presidency.” Yet most general accounts of JFK’s time as president give only passing attention to his involvement with the lunar landing program. One goal of this study is to create as historically complete a record as possible of that involvement. Doing so fills an empty niche in the record of the Kennedy administration. It also provides a detailed case study of how Kennedy went about conducting his presidency, assessing what actions were needed in the national interest, continuously seeking information from multiple sources, but deferring to his agency heads to carry out the programs he set in motion. Readers of this account can decide for themselves what insights Kennedy’s space-related efforts provide about his personality and the way he carried out his presidency. The book’s concluding chapter, however, reflects on the character and quality of JFK’s space decisions, asks whether the way Apollo was conceived and carried out can serve as a model for other large-scale government efforts, and provides a perspective on the impact of Kennedy’s commitment to a lunar landing “before this decade is out” on both the evolution of the U. S. space program and the U. S. position in the world of the 1960s and later.
The image of John Kennedy that emerges from this study is at variance from how he is often regarded with respect to space. Rather than a visionary who steered the U. S. space program toward a focus on exploring beyond Earth orbit, he emerges as a pragmatic political leader who soon after entering office came to see the U. S. civilian space program as an important tool to advance U. S. foreign policy and national security goals. He was flexible in his approach to space activities, willing to compete if necessary but preferring to cooperate if possible.
John F. Kennedy with his actions in the spring of 1961 and in the following months took the first steps toward the Moon. Eight years later, on July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong would take another “small step for a man, but a giant leap for mankind.” Historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. has suggested that “The 20th Century will be remembered, when all else is forgotten, as the century when man burst his terrestrial bounds.”6 In undertaking the lunar landing program, John Kennedy linked the politics of the moment with the dreams of centuries and the aspirations of the nation. Unfortunately, Kennedy did not live to see the first footprints on the lunar surface, but in the long sweep of history, it is one of the ways in which he will be most remembered.