President Kennedy’s Initial Space Budget Decisions

In the weeks after his inauguration, President Kennedy spent very little time in formal consideration of space issues. On February 13, he sent Soviet pre­mier Nikita Khrushchev a congratulatory note on the launch of a Russian mission to Venus on the preceding day. (After returning data during its interplanetary cruise, the Venera 1 mission ultimately was a failure in achiev­ing its primary objective of returning data from Venus.) Later that same day, Kennedy met with Overton Brooks, chairman of the House Committee on Science and Astronautics, who told Kennedy that “NASA and the civilian space program badly need a shot in the arm.” Brooks said that Congress, or at least his committee, “cannot impress upon the Executive too strongly the need for urgency” in the space program, for “if we do not recognize it, we may falter badly in both our domestic and international relationships.”15 Science adviser Wiesner at some point after the Russian Venus launch discussed with the president the implications of the launch and “our relative positions in the general fields of space exploration and science.” The launch had raised security concerns because specialists at the Central Intelligence Agency had suggested that it could be “a step towards creating a capability for achieving a parking orbit with an ICBM warhead”; the spacecraft had in fact gone into orbit around the Earth before ejecting a large probe on a Venus-bound trajectory. The sample questions and answers used in preparing Kennedy for a February 15 press conference suggested that, if asked about the military significance of the launch, he reply that “there is no indication that the Soviet Union plans to use their ability to orbit large payloads to develop any kind of bombardment systems.” Such a system would be “inef­ficient” and would likely “be objected to by all the nations of the world.”16 In a follow-up memorandum to his discussion with the president, Wiesner noted that “the most significant factor, as we have said many times, is that the Soviets have developed a rocket as part of their ballistic missile program with considerably more thrust or lifting power than anything we have avail­able.” He noted that “one of the things we must realize is that in dramatizing the space race we are playing into the Soviet’s strongest suit. They are using this accomplishment at home and around the world to prove the superiority of Soviet science and technology.” Wiesner told the president that the United States “was superior in most fields to Soviet science” and that “in almost any other area in which we would elect to compete, food, housing, recreation, medical research, basic technological competence, general consumer good production, etc., they would look very bad.” He suggested that “we should attempt to point this out rather than assist them by an official. . . reaction that supports their propaganda.”17 Subsequent actions by President Kennedy demonstrated that he did not accept this advice.