The Future of the Space Council

A contentious issue in developing the U. S. organizational approach to space during 1958 had been how best to coordinate the activities of the new space civilian space agency NASA, the Department of Defense and the military services, the Atomic Energy Commission, and other government agencies that might become involved in space activities. The Senate as it considered space legislation hoped to create a single integrated national space program, with civilian and military elements, rather than separate programs carried out by different agencies, and thought that some kind of formal policy­making and coordinating body was needed to achieve this objective. The White House did not want to interpose such a body between the operating space agencies and the president, and thus was resistant to the Senate pro­posal. After a July 7, 1958, one-on-one meeting at the White House between Dwight Eisenhower and Senate majority leader Lyndon Johnson, a primary advocate of the integrated approach to space, an agreement was reached on creating a policy-level body, to be chaired by the president. According to some accounts, at their meeting Johnson convinced President Eisenhower to chair the board. Other accounts suggest that it was Eisenhower who sug­gested this approach.27 Immediately after Johnson left the White House, Eisenhower phoned his deputy chief of staff, Wilton Persons, and told him that he and Johnson had “specifically agreed upon the President’s proposal of modeling the advisory group along the lines of the National Security Council: that the authority would be placed with the President.”28

Following the White House meeting, the policy board was named the National Aeronautics and Space Council. It would have eight members in addition to the president as chair. Other members would include the sec­retaries of state and defense, the NASA administrator, the chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, one additional government member, and three individuals from outside the government. Although Eisenhower had accepted the creation of such a Space Council, he made it clear to his associ­ates at the White House that

he had no intention of convening this body regularly, nor of acting as its pre­siding officer. He refused to use his discretionary power to appoint an execu­tive secretary or create a separate staff for the Space Council, and he asked [his science adviser James] Killian to preside at its infrequent meetings. Lyndon Johnson may have forced Eisenhower to accept the Space Council as his price for creating NASA, but the president would make sure it would remain a minor body that would never threaten his full control over the nation’s space policy.29

The Space Council indeed met infrequently and had little influence on space issues in the months following its creation. In a memorandum dated November 16, 1959, NASA administrator Glennan told President Eisenhower that the National Aeronautics and Space Council had not been “particularly useful or effective” and he doubted whether it could “usefully be employed in the management of the nation’s space program.” He rec­ommended that the president propose amendments to the 1958 Space Act to abolish the Council. However, when Glennan met with Eisenhower on January 8, 1960, he found that the president “seemed to have forgotten our earlier discussion,” even though in the interim the proposed changes in the Act had been drafted and were ready to be sent to the Congress. After this meeting, it was clear to Glennan that “discussions between the president and the legislative leaders (especially Lyndon Johnson) as well as with the mem­bers of the Space Council would be necessary before the amendment could be proposed to Congress.” Eisenhower and Glennan met with Johnson and senior Republican senator Styles Bridges at the White House on January 13 to let them know about the proposed changes in the Space Act; Glennan quotes Johnson as saying “Well, Mr. President, you will remember that you were the one who really wanted this Space Council, and if you want to do away with it now, I’m certain it will be all right with me.”30

The proposed amendment to the Space Act was sent to Congress in January 1960 and approved by the House of Representatives five months later, on June 9. But the Senate refused to act, primarily because Lyndon Johnson, majority leader and, at the time, still candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, opposed the changes, despite what he had told Eisenhower in January. Glennan met again with Johnson on June 23, but was unsuccessful in convincing him to bring the proposed changes before the Senate for approval. Glennan reports Johnson as saying “I don’t see any reason for giving you a new law at the present time. If I am elected president, you will get a changed law without delay.”31 On August 31, Johnson, speak­ing not only as Senate majority leader but also by then as the Democratic candidate for vice president, justified his opposition to changing the Space Act in a memorandum inserted in the Congressional Record: “One fact is of overriding importance. A new President will take office on January 20, 1961—less than five months from now. The next President could well have different views as to the organization and function of the military and civil­ian space programs. Any changes in the Space Act at this session will have little or no effect on the space program during the next few months, but could restrict the freedom of action of the next president.”32

It is unlikely that at this point Johnson envisioned a scenario in which John Kennedy, if elected president, would decide to revitalize the Space Council and turn over its chairmanship to his vice president, i. e., Lyndon Johnson. But four months later, that is precisely what happened.