To the Moon in 1966?
At some point during his tour of NASA’s installations, President Kennedy asked NASA administrator James Webb whether it was possible to get to the Moon earlier than the late 1967 target date that NASA was using in its planning. This question was most likely prompted by Kennedy’s conversation with manned space flight head Brainerd Holmes, whom Kennedy met for the first time during the Huntsville stop on the tour. Holmes had come to NASA in October 1961, and a year later was becoming impatient with the pace of the Apollo program and James Webb’s resistance to Holmes’s suggestion that it might be accelerated.
Seamans, Holmes’s immediate supervisor, describes Holmes as having “blinders on. . . All he was going to do was just move to the best of his ability on manned flight, but the devil take the hindmost on anything else.” Holmes also did not operate on the same wavelength as the verbose Webb; Holmes told Seamans, “I don’t understand what the hell the boss is talking about a lot of the time on these general [management approach] things, and I could care less.” Holmes also “was a very exciting person for the news people. . . He had a way of expressing himself that made news because it was a little bit controversial.” Time magazine featured Holmes on the cover of its August 10, 1962, issue; in the issue’s six-page story “Reaching for the Moon,” Holmes was frequently mentioned, Webb not at all. Seamans also suggests that “among others who were sort of captivated. . . by Brainerd was the President.” After Holmes was introduced to Kennedy as they watched the firing of the Saturn 1 first stage at Huntsville, the press asked Holmes whether this was indeed the first time the two had met, suggesting “this is shocking that a man of your great responsibility should only be meeting the President for the first time right now.” According to Seamans, “this hit Brainerd sort of in a sensitive area. He was a somewhat egotistical guy.”16
The controversy between Holmes and NASA’s top management simmered in the two months following President Kennedy’s September trip as NASA’s budget request for Fiscal Year 1964 was under review at the White House. On October 29, Webb wrote to Kennedy, responding to the president’s question of what it would take to move the target date for the first lunar landing to 1966. Webb told the president that NASA’s current target date of late 1967 “is based on a vigorous and driving program but does not represent a crash program,” while “a late 1966 target date would require a crash, high-risk effort.” By this time, NASA had sent BOB a request for a $6.2 billion budget for FY1964; this represented a 68 percent increase over the agency’s FY1963 budget. NASA also estimated that the first lunar landing might be targeted six months earlier if there was an immediate $427 million supplement to the FY1963 NASA budget. To target the first landing in late 1966, a year earlier than then planned, NASA planning would have to be drastically revised and a supplementary $900 million would have to be provided in FY1963; in addition, the NASA budget for FY1964 would have to increase to $7.0 billion. Webb told President Kennedy that the budget and program projections were “preliminary” and not based on “detailed programmatic plans,” but “we are prepared to place the manned lunar landing program on an all-out crash basis aimed at the late 1966 target date if you should decide this is in the national interest.”17
Holmes at some point in this period had formally asked Seamans to approve a $440 million FY1963 budget supplement, saying that such an increase would allow the first lunar landing attempt to come in late 1966. Seamans “couldn’t believe” Holmes’s claim that the program could be accelerated by twelve months with such a relatively modest budget increase. He denied Holmes’s request; Holmes then asked for a meeting with Webb and Dryden; both also gave him a negative response. Holmes then turned to his friends at Time magazine, telling them that there was “an upheaval at NASA,” with Holmes and Webb “locked in deadly combat” and that “one of them might have to go, and it wasn’t necessarily Brainerd.”18
The possibility of a story about this internal dispute appearing in Time caught President Kennedy’s attention, and he asked science adviser Wiesner to meet with Hugh Sidey and Lansing Lamont, the Time/Life reporters preparing a story on “the lagging manned lunar program.” Wiesner did so on November 16; only Lamont was able to make the meeting because Sidey’s plane was grounded. Lamont reported that Time was being told “by NASA staff [undoubtedly Brainerd Holmes] and contractors that the lunar program is slipping for lack of funds,” that “$400 million is needed now to prevent a loss of six months,” and that “Mr. Webb discounts the lunar effort and is not backing your [Kennedy’s] commitment.” Wiesner contradicted Lamont’s conclusions, telling the reporter that “we have a hard driving program,” that “we had long since passed the point where money would make a major impact on the schedule,” and what was needed now was “good planning and management.” Wiesner told the president that he did not think he “changed his [Lamont’s] views much, though I really tried.” After meeting with Lamont, Wiesner called Seamans, who told Wiesner that he also had met with the reporter and delivered the same message as had Wiesner.19
The White House attempt at managing the Time story failed. In its issue dated November 23 (which was on newsstands on November 19), the magazine reported that “the U. S. man-to-the-moon program was in earthly trouble” due to the “clashing personalities and ideas of the project’s two top officials.” Holmes was described in the article as a “brilliant, aggressive electrical engineer with a hard-bitten talent for ramming through tough projects,” while Webb was characterized as having “a cautious eye where money is concerned.” Time reported that Holmes believed that the lunar landing program “is already four to six months behind schedule—and the reason is that Webb is dragging his feet.” Webb was reported as saying, “the moon program is important, but it’s not the only important part of the space program,” while Holmes argued that Apollo was “the top priority program within NASA.” The article concluded that “such are the differences between Webb and Holmes that the whole program is in danger of bogging down.”20
John Kennedy was not the type of person, or president, to ignore this public reporting of a dispute with respect to one of his high priority initiatives. He quickly called a cabinet room meeting to find out for himself what was going on.