The Role of White House Staff

The burden of White House oversight of NASA and its plans for implement­ing the lunar landing program and the other activities that were part of the accelerated space effort thus fell on various members of the White House staff and those career bureaucrats supporting them.9 Although most of those individuals have been mentioned previously, it may be useful to depict the structure of White House decision-making for space before discussing the specific actions taken during the June 1961 to December 1962 period.

The recommendation that President Kennedy approved in accelerating the U. S. space program suggested that the prestige associated with space achievements was “part of the battle along the fluid front of the Cold War.” Kennedy defined the lunar landing program primarily as a national security effort, and that meant that his special assistant for national security affairs, McGeorge Bundy, played an increasingly important role in space policy discussions between 1961 and 1963. Bundy’s deputy, Harvard economist Carl Kaysen, and National Security Council career staff member Charles E. Johnson played key roles in supporting Bundy on space issues; Kaysen also had a direct personal relationship with the president, particularly on arms control issues, and on occasion reported directly to Kennedy rather than through Bundy. On technical issues, Kennedy relied on his special assis­tant for science and technology, Jerome Wiesner, and various panels of the President’s Science Advisory Committee (PSAC). From the start of 1962, Wiesner’s principal staff assistant on space matters was Nicholas Golovin, a physicist who had left NASA at the end of 1961 on less than harmonious terms. Another of Wiesner’s staffers, Eugene Skolnikoff, dealt with the inter­national aspects of the space effort. In August 1961 Wiesner was designated the White House official (instead of Welsh, the Space Council executive secretary) “to review and consult with relevant agencies of the Federal gov­ernment on organizational planning for the expanded space activities of the Federal government.”10 As planning for the accelerated space program moved forward, the president became increasingly concerned with its expo­nentially increasing costs. He leaned heavily on his director of BOB, David Bell, for careful assessments of the budgetary implications of the fast-paced space program. Bell’s deputy, Elmer Staats, and especially career BOB senior staffer Willis Shapley were deeply involved in space matters. Shapley was cen­tral to framing policy and budget issues as he drafted various policy papers for presidential review and decision.

Kennedy’s top adviser on most domestic policy matters, in addition to his duties as Kennedy’s speechwriter, was special counsel Theodore C. Sorensen. Kennedy in April 1961 had asked Sorensen to organize the review of the space program that was carried out by Vice President Johnson. Sorensen remained involved in space policy decisions as the president’s alter ego on most policy matters, but he seldom got directly involved with NASA over­sight as the Moon program evolved. On politically sensitive matters, such as the allocation of NASA contracts and the location of NASA’s facilities, Kennedy’s special assistant Kenneth O’Donnell became involved. Although he was the president’s closest confidant on most policy and political matters, Kennedy’s brother Robert seemingly had only limited involvement on space issues, although it is impossible to know how frequently space matters were discussed between the two brothers. It thus fell to Bundy, Wiesner, and Bell and their staff to be the primary points of contact between the White House and NASA as the U. S. space effort took its first steps toward a landing on the Moon.