Reorganizing the Space Council
In the early days of the eighty-seventh Congress, two bills related to the Space Council were introduced in the House of Representatives. One was the Eisenhower administration bill abolishing the council, on which there had been no action in the previous year; Sorensen and Bell had agreed during the transition to have this bill reintroduced, and apparently that decision had not been countermanded even though president-elect Kennedy had at least tentatively decided to retain the council. The other bill was introduced by congressman Emilio Daddario (D-CT). It would have not only have authorized the president to make the vice president a member and the chairman of the Space Council, but also would have delegated to the vice president executive functions that were assigned by law to the president.5 No legislative action was taken on either of these proposed bills, but the White House wanted to make sure that the Daddario bill did not move forward, since it would have given the vice president more power than Kennedy desired; in addition, such a delegation of executive power to the vice president was most likely unconstitutional.
On February 14, Lyndon Johnson wrote to Kennedy, telling him that “in accordance with your request, I have made a study of the National Aeronautics and Space Council.” That study had suggested that “the Council as it now stands has the power to make certain decisions between agencies and programs which is a power that under the Constitution only the President can have.” Thus, “if it is your desire to remove the President as Chairman of the Council, it will be necessary to change the basic structure of the Council so that it coordinates the information—not the activities—of the various space projects and advises you accordingly.”6 Following up on this letter, Moyers asked Richard Neustadt, who was continuing to serve the new administration as a consultant on organizing the presidency, for his thoughts on the organization and operation of the council. Moyers also worked with staff members of the Senate Committee on Aeronautics and Space Sciences to prepare the various documents needed to make the changes in the 1958 Space Act that were thought to be required.
Neustadt responded on February 28. He said that he was “much concerned” regarding “the Vice President’s position as a constitutional officer who cannot share, so should not be pressed to take on, operating responsibility” that was assigned to the president. In a memorandum on “Organizing the Space Council,” Neustadt noted that “where space programs are concerned, the President should have available the same sort of top-level, politically – responsible advice on policy (and follow through) that he can claim in other fields from a Cabinet secretary,” but that “the Vice President should not be asked to serve as ‘Secretary for Space’ except in the role of senior adviser. It would be unfair to cast him in the role of department head responsible for operations.” Neustadt’s late February critique of an operational role for the vice president implies that at least some on LBJ’s staff, if not Johnson himself, were continuing to push for such responsibility.
Neustadt recommended that there was no need for the council to have the nine members, including three public members, who were mandated in the 1958 Space Act; in his view, “the Chairman, State, Defense and NASA would suffice.” (At least one prominent space scientist was interested in becoming a public member of the Space Council. On February 4, 1961, University of Iowa professor James Van Allen, 1958 discoverer of the Earth – circling radiation belts that bore his name, wrote Vice President Johnson, saying that “I would be honored to serve with you on this body [the Space Council] as a vitally interested member of the general scientific community.”) Neustadt proposed a small council staff “with broad experience in government, possessed of balanced judgment, keen analytical ability, and a taste for quiet staff work.” He suggested that the council’s name be changed to either the “President’s Advisory Council on Space,” which was the term that president-elect Kennedy had used in December as he announced the new role for his vice president, or “President’s Space Council.” He felt that any modifications, whether through a reorganization plan or through new legislation, “change the law as little as possible.” Neustadt’s memorandum, which he characterized as “one man’s opinion,” was followed on March 1 by another BOB staff memorandum. This document stressed that “the Space Council should exist solely to advise the President. . . The President should retain executive responsibility, and executive functions should not be delegated to the Vice President.”7
Vice President Johnson again got personally involved in early March, in particular asking budget director David Bell how best to finance the council’s staff. Bell told him that since the Space Council was a statutory agency on its own, it was not legal to transfer funds from the NASA or DOD budget to fund its operations, a possibility that had been explored by Johnson’s staff. However, Bell said, President Kennedy had agreed to provide funds from his “Special Projects” budget to fund the council’s executive secretary and two more staff positions, and that NASA had agreed to delegate three or four of its employees to act as council staff. Bell said that it was his understanding “once you have your initial staff on board, you expect to have them prepare necessary modifications to the National Aeronautics and Space Act.”8
With the question settled of how staff salaries would initially be paid, Vice President Johnson could recruit an individual to serve as council executive secretary. On March 20, President Kennedy sent the nomination of Dr. Edward C. Welsh to the Senate; Welsh had been actually chosen for the position several weeks earlier and had already been actively working on reorganizing the council. Welsh was a longtime government employee and was at the time a legislative assistant to Senator Stuart Symington (D-MO). He held a doctorate in economics and had been in charge of Symington’s hearings on air power in 1956, had helped staff LBJ’s Preparedness Subcommittee hearings after Sputnik, and had been the lead staff person for Symington’s hearings on government organization for space in 1959. He had also been the executive director of the task force on reorganizing the Department of Defense set up by Kennedy during the presidential campaign. Welsh had been the primary author of the strident October 1960 Kennedy campaign statement on space, which had argued that “control of space will be decided in the next decade. If the Soviets control space they can control earth.” In Welsh, Lyndon Johnson got a strong, if somewhat self-important, advocate for a vigorous U. S. space effort.
As he was under consideration for the Space Council position, Welsh met with James Webb, who told Welsh that he believed in “a vigorous role on the part of the operating agency [NASA] and did not want to have a Council or any other interagency group be controlling the operating day-to-day functions.” Welsh told Webb he agreed with this point of view.9 Welsh’s confirmation hearings before the Senate Committee on Aeronautical and Space Sciences were held on March 23. After Welsh’s opening statements, there were no questions. The Senate voted to confirm Welsh on the same day and he was sworn into office on March 24.
Welsh’s first assignment was to draft the changes in the Space Act that were needed to make the vice president its chair and to make other desired adjustments in the council’s membership and organizational location within the executive office of the president. By March 30, Welsh had prepared a memorandum noting that there were three options available to change the provisions of the 1958 Space Act—a reorganization plan, an amendment to the then-pending NASA Authorization Bill, or a separate amendment to the Space Act. Welsh had contacted key members of the Senate and House, and had learned that there was a congressional preference for a simple amendment to the Space Act.10 Within the executive office, the BOB still favored a reorganization plan, but such a plan would have had to wait sixty days to allow any congressional comments before it could be put into place. The congressional perspective prevailed, and a decision was made to move forward with proposing an amendment to the Space Act.
Before the amendment could be approved by President Kennedy and his top advisers, there were two issues to be dealt with. One was whether to propose a name change for the Space Council, a topic that had been discussed ever since December. Neustadt and Welsh discussed this topic at an April 4 breakfast. Apparently Welsh was concerned that the titles that Neustadt had suggested in his February 28 memorandum, which began with the word “President’s” rather than “National,” would not indicate the intended broad scope of the council’s activities. In a follow-up memorandum to Welsh later that day, Neustadt suggested that the issue of the council’s name was not “all-important or worth getting into a tizzy about.” He added: “I very much appreciate your sensitivity about the change from ‘National’ to ‘President’s’ . . . But isn’t it possible you are being oversensitive?” Neustadt noted that Lyndon Johnson also chaired the President’s Committee on Equal Employment Opportunity, and “no one conceives its title as an attack on him.”11
The other issue was the wording of the proposed amendment to the Space Act. Edward Welsh and James Webb had not been able to agree on how best to indicate in the amendment the separation of the functions of the Space Council and the functions of the president. While Welsh wanted to put forward a simple amendment that retained the Space Act language that specified the functions of the council, Webb wanted to add a new section to the Act that specified the duties that would remain the president’s responsibility. These differences had been discussed in a March 7 meeting between budget director Bell and special counsel to the president Ted Sorensen, and the decision was made to go forward with the Welsh version of the amendment.12 No change in the name of the National Aeronautics and Space Council was suggested. The secretaries of defense and state, the administrator of NASA, and the chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission remained council members; the one additional government member and the three public members of the council were eliminated, and the council was made part of the executive office of the president.
Welsh told Vice President Johnson on April 6 that his version of the proposed amendment “had been cleared in the Executive Office of the President with Messrs. Bell, Staats, and Neustadt, and that Budget Director Bell had agreed to discuss the paper with Ted Sorensen and President Kennedy.” He also noted that Representative Overton Brooks had agreed to schedule a hearing on the amendment and that there had been preliminary agreement to the amendment obtained from the staffs of Senators Kerr, Bridges, and Dirksen and with Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn, Majority Leader John McCormack, and Congressman Thornberry of the Rules Committee.
President Kennedy transmitted the amendment to the Congress on April 10; Welsh testified as the only witness before the House Committee on Science and Astronautics on April 12. This was the day on which the Soviet Union orbited the first human in space, Yuri Gagarin, and that feat, rather than the changes in the Space Act, was the focus of the committee’s questions. In his testimony, Welsh noted that “the Vice President is already by statute a member of the National Security Council,” and that “to make him a member of the Space Council seems to be a comparable action with suitable precedence.” One issue raised by Chairman Brooks during the House hearing was “doesn’t the Vice President have some executive authority [under the amendment]? Isn’t he for some purposes a part of the executive branch?” Welsh replied that “in this specific instance this responsibility would be advisory and not in a real sense executive.”13
The House approved the amendment by voice vote on April 17. Welsh then testified before the Senate Committee on Aeronautical and Space Sciences on April 19, again as the sole witness. Committee approval quickly followed and the Senate approved the amendment on April 20. As he signed the bill amending the Space Act on April 25, President John F. Kennedy stated that “Working with the Vice President, I intend that America’s space effort shall provide the leadership, resources, and determination necessary to step up our efforts and prevail on the newest of man’s physical frontiers.”14 By this time, the Space Council under Vice President Johnson’s leadership was already well embarked on a review that would recommend sending Americans to the Moon.