What is the Goal-Getting to the Moon First or Space. Preeminence?
The meeting took place on November 21; it was also an occasion to review NASA’s budget proposal for Fiscal Year 1964. The BOB had not yet forwarded to the president Webb’s October 29 letter about the budgetary implications of accelerating the target date for the first lunar landing. Like many communications to the president from government agencies, this letter had been referred to one of the staff agencies of the executive office, in this case BOB, for review and a decision of whether it needed direct presidential attention. Kennedy may well have wondered why he had not heard from Webb after asking him about this possibility on his September tour, and that could have added to his concern about the accuracy of the Time article. Of course, Kennedy had also been immersed with the Cuban missile crisis and the midterm congressional elections in the interim. Budget director Bell prepared a November 13 memorandum on the NASA budget situation that incorporated the schedule and budget estimates in Webb’s October letter; this memorandum was distributed to all participants in the meeting. In his memorandum, Bell identified two policy issues on which presidential guidance was needed: 
subjected to the restrictive budgetary ground rules applicable in 1964 to
other programs of the Government.”
NASA’s budget request for FY1964 was $6.2 billion, including $4.6 billion for the lunar landing program and $1.6 billion for all other NASA activities. To keep the program on an “optimum” schedule aiming at a mid-1967 landing, Bell told the president, would require a supplementary appropriation of over $400 million in 1963 and about $550 million above the estimates for FY1964 made three months earlier. NASA’s recommended program aiming at a late 1967 landing would not require a FY1963 supplement, but would require the full $4.6 billion funding in FY1964. As Webb’s October 29 letter had indicated, advancing the target date to late 1966 would require a $900 million supplement and “create enormous additional management problems.” Bell noted that “in NASA’s view and ours” such a course of action “would not appear to offer enough assurance of actually advancing the date of a successful attempt to be worth the cost and other problems involved.” Bell also offered a lower cost option that would slip the landing target date to late 1968; that option would require $3.7 billion for the lunar landing program in FY1964 rather than $4.6 billion and was “significant as indicating probably about the lowest 1964 estimate under which the first actual manned lunar landing might still be expected to occur during this decade, after a realistic allowance for slippage.” Bell also reported that “our understanding of the latest intelligence estimates is that there is no evidence yet that the Russians are actually developing either a larger booster. . . or rendezvous techniques.” Thus “extreme measures to advance somewhat our own target dates may not be necessary to preserve a good possibility that we will be first.” This may have been one of the first warnings to President Kennedy that the race to the Moon he thought the United States was running may not have been a race at all. But as the November 21 meeting unfolded, it became clear that Kennedy was still in a race mentality.
With respect to the other portions of the NASA budget, Bell reported that it was NASA’s view that if there were any reduction in NASA’s $6.2 billion request, it should be applied “at least in part to the manned lunar landing program, in order to maintain a ‘balanced’ total program.” He added that “the Administrator and his principal assistants are fearful that the appeal and priority of the manned lunar landing program may turn NASA into a ‘one program agency’ with loss of leadership and standing in the scientific community at home and abroad, and inadequate provision for moving ahead with developments required for future capabilities in space.” The BOB did not agree with this line of argument, suggesting that the “unique sort of national decision” that led to the lunar landing program did not “automatically endow other space objectives and programs with a special degree of urgency.” The BOB suggested a $300 million cut in the “other activities” part of the NASA budget, noting that while this amount might “seem small,” in the context of the overall space budget, it was “large compared to most other possibilities for adjustment in the 1964 budget.”21
Present at the November 21 meeting in addition to President Kennedy were James Webb, Hugh Dryden, Robert Seamans, and Brainerd Holmes from NASA; David Bell, his deputy Elmer Staats, and Willis Shapley from BOB; Edward Welsh (Vice President Johnson had been invited but was out of town); and Jerome Wiesner. At some point in the meeting, President Kennedy activated the secret tape recording system that had been installed in July 1962 in the Oval Office, in the cabinet room, and on his telephone.22 There is thus available a fascinating verbatim account of the portions of the meeting during which President Kennedy and James Webb got into a spirited discussion of the priority to be assigned to the lunar landing mission compared to other NASA activities.23 Excerpts of that conversation include:
Kennedy: Do you think this [lunar landing] program is the top priority of the agency?
Webb: No sir, I do not. I think it is one of the top priority programs.
Kennedy: Jim, I think it is the top priority. I think we ought to have that very clear. Some of these other programs can slip six months, or nine months, and nothing strategic is going to happen. . . But this is important for political reasons, international political reasons. This is, whether we like it or not, in a sense a race. If we get second to the Moon, it’s nice, but it’s like being second any time. So if we’re second by six months because we didn’t give it the kind of priority [needed], then of course that would be very serious. So I think we have to take the view that this is top priority with us.
* * *
Kennedy: I would certainly not favor spending six or seven billion dollars to find out about space no matter how on the schedule we’re doing. . . Why are we spending seven million dollars on getting fresh water from salt water, when we’re spending seven billion dollars to find out about space? Obviously you wouldn’t put it on that priority except for the defense implications. And the second point is the fact that the Soviet Union has made this a test of the system. So that’s why we’re doing it. So I think we’ve got to take the view that this is the key program. . . Everything we do ought really to be tied to getting on the Moon ahead of the Russians.
Webb: Why can’t it be tied to preeminence in space?
Kennedy: Because, by God, we keep, we’ve been telling everybody we’re preeminent in space for five years and nobody believes it because they [the Soviets] have the booster and the satellite. . . We’re not going to settle the four hundred million this morning. . . But I do think we ought to get it, you know, really clear that the policy ought to be that this is the top priority program of the agency, and one of the two things, except for defense, the top priority of the United States government.
I think that is the position we ought to take.
Now, this may not change anything about the schedule but at least we ought to be clear, otherwise we shouldn’t be spending this kind of money,
because I’m not that interested in space. I think it’s good, I think we ought to know about it, we’re ready to spend reasonable amounts of money. But we’re talking about these fantastic expenditures which wreck our budget and all these other domestic programs and the only justification for it in my opinion to do it in this time or fashion is because we hope to beat them and demonstrate that starting behind, as we did by a couple of years, by God, we passed them.
In the course of the November 21 meeting, Brainerd Holmes apologized for letting his differences with James Webb get into the press. He said: “I ought to add that I’m very sorry about this. I have no disagreement with Mr. Webb. . . I think my job is to say how fast I think we can go for what dollars.”
Just before he left the meeting, President Kennedy requested a letter from NASA stating clearly the agency’s position. First, Dryden drafted a relatively brief reply; then Seamans prepared a more extensive response. He took his draft to James Webb, who had stayed home from work with a severe migraine headache. (Seamans comments that “it’s not surprising that one occurred at this time.”) Seamans and Webb revised the letter to their and Dryden’s satisfaction; it was sent to President Kennedy on November 30. At that point, final decisions on the NASA FY1964 budget had still not been made, and so the nine-page letter included a plea for approval of NASA’s $6.2 billion request. The bulk of the letter supported the position that “the objective of our national space program is to become pre-eminent in all important aspects of this [space] endeavor and to conduct the program in such a manner that our emerging scientific, technological, and operational competence in space is clearly evident.” The letter noted that “the manned lunar landing program provides currently a natural focus for the development of national capabilities in space and, in addition, will provide a clear demonstration to the world of our accomplishments in space.” However, the letter argued, “the manned lunar landing program, although of the highest national priority, will not by itself create the pre-eminent position we seek.”24
Because Vice President Johnson was not present at the November 21 meeting, he was separately asked for his views on the issues discussed there. Budget director Bell wrote Johnson on November 28, saying that “the President would appreciate your views” on whether the manned lunar landing “should be regarded as the top priority program—or as one of the top priority programs” and on the “desirability and feasibility of augmenting the funding for the manned lunar landing program in the present fiscal year.” Johnson replied to Kennedy on December 4. He told the president that “as to the matter of relative priorities, I consider your Messages and Budget requests have made it clear that the Manned Lunar Landing Effort has the highest priority even though other projects are to be pursued vigorously.” Between November 21 and his reply to Kennedy, Johnson had met with Brainerd Holmes for an hour to discuss the impact of a FY1963 budget supplement on the Apollo schedule, and had concluded that, “while I would urge any action that would have a reasonable chance of accelerating the Manned Lunar Landing project target date,” he concurred with the conclusion of the NASA leadership that a “supplemental appropriation could not be made available in time to advance that date much, if any.”25
Even with all that he had heard, President Kennedy did not easily give up on the idea that the lunar landing program could be accelerated. As Kennedy toured various nuclear facilities in New Mexico and Nevada in early December 1962, he asked Wiesner to look once more into “the possibility of speeding up the lunar landing program.” Wiesner on January 10, 1963, reported to Kennedy that “approximately 100 million dollars of the previously discussed 326 million dollar supplementary could have a very important effect on the schedule.” Wiesner thought that funds in this amount might be transferred from the Department of Defense budget to pay for DOD involvement in NASA’s Project Gemini, the new NASA program to test out rendezvous activities in Earth orbit and to serve as a bridge between Mercury and Apollo. Wiesner told the president that funds in that amount could be used to advance the date of the first Saturn V launch by some five months, and there was some chance that this acceleration could allow an earlier attempt at the landing. Wiesner noted that “the date of the first lunar landing attempt can be accelerated only” if Saturn V availability were advanced. Kennedy the same day sent the Wiesner memorandum with these suggestions to Vice President Johnson, asking for his views. Johnson replied on January 18, telling Kennedy that “the people we need on the Hill tell me that the supplemental request would be inadvisable and could not be approved in time to accelerate the program.” With that response, the thought of requesting supplemental funds for NASA was put to rest.26
Even before this January exchange of correspondence, as the final budget decisions for Fiscal Year 1964 were made by the president and BOB in December 1963, any thought of a supplemental request for FY1963 were abandoned, reluctantly on the president’s part. Kennedy had once again accepted the position of NASA administrator Webb on how best to go forward. Indeed, BOB made reductions in both the lunar landing budget and the “other activities” portion of the NASA request. The president in mid – January 1963 sent a FY1964 budget proposal to the Congress requesting $5.712 billion for NASA, an almost half-billion dollar cut from what NASA had requested in September. Although the increase was not what NASA had hoped for, it still reflected a 55 percent jump over NASA’s FY1963 appropriation.
By the end of 1962, the White House appeared to have accepted the arguments set forth in the November 30 NASA letter arguing that the lunar landing program, though clearly a very high NASA priority, was in itself insufficient to achieve the goal of American space preeminence—a clearly leading position in all areas of space activity. Seamans noted that “whether from agreement, exhaustion, or diversion, President Kennedy gave tacit approval to NASA’s programs and policies by not engaging us in further discussion on the questions of NASA’s top priority.” Seamans adds: “Preeminence in space on all fronts was our goal; landing men on the Moon was the top (DX) priority.”27
During 1963, John Kennedy was no longer totally focused on how soon the United States could get to the Moon; he seemed in fact to have accepted NASA’s argument that preeminence in all areas of space activity was the more appropriate goal. In addition, at least some of the president’s associates, and perhaps Kennedy himself, questioned whether getting to the Moon before the Soviet Union remained a compelling national objective. Indeed, Kennedy asked, might it be both desirable and feasible to cooperate, rather than compete, with the Soviet Union in humanity’s first journeys beyond Earth orbit? John Kennedy had brought with him the idea that space might be a particularly promising arena for tension-reducing U. S.-Soviet cooperation as he entered the White House in January 1961, and it had never totally disappeared from his thinking.