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