Growing Criticism of Project Apollo

President Kennedy on January 17, 1963, sent to Congress a Fiscal Year 1964 budget request for NASA of $5.712 billion. The New York Times editori­alized that “whether the $20 billion (or $40 billion) race to the moon is justified on scientific, political, or military grounds, we do not think the matter has been sufficiently explained or sufficiently debated. We hope it will be in the present Congress.” In his March 21 press conference, President Kennedy was questioned about the pace of the U. S. space program as com­pared to that of the Soviet Union. He responded: “The United States is mak­ing, as you know, a major effort in space and will continue to do so. We are expending an enormous sum of money to make sure that the Soviet Union does not dominate space. We will continue to do it.”2

On March 29, Congressman Charles Halleck (R-IN) released a letter from former President Dwight Eisenhower in which Eisenhower suggested that “the space program, in my opinion, is downright spongy. This is an area where we particularly need to demonstrate some common sense. Specifically, I have never believed that a spectacular dash to the moon, vastly deepen­ing our debt, is worth the added tax burden it will eventually impose on our citizens.” President Kennedy was asked about Eisenhower’s comments at an April 3 press conference; he responded: “We are second in space today because we started late. It requires a large sum of money. I don’t think we should look with equanimity upon the prospect that we will be second all through the sixties and possibly the seventies. We have the potential not to be. I think having made the decision last year, that we should make a major effort to be first in space. I think we should continue to do so.” He added: “Now President Eisenhower—this is not a new position for him. He has disagreed with this, I know, at least a year or year and a half ago when the Congress took a different position. It is the position I think he took from the time of Sputnik on. But it is a matter on which we disagree.” Kennedy added: “It may be that there is waste in the space budget. If there is waste, then I think it ought to be cut out by the Congress, and I am sure it will be. But if we are getting to the question of whether we should reconcile ourselves to a slow pace in space, I don’t think so.”3

Respected New York Times columnist James Reston soon suggested that “the debate on the nation’s space program is getting out of hand. Some Republicans are attacking the program as if it were a vast boondoggle, and President Kennedy is defending it as if it were the Bill of Rights.” Reston added that “the space program deserves a more serious response. For a large and influential sector of the scientific community of the nation. . . believes that the scientific objectives of the program can be achieved at a fraction of the cost by putting instruments, rather than man, on the moon.” Thus scientists see the issue as “whether the immense additional cost of the man­landing should take a higher priority than using a part of the savings for other essential tasks that would invigorate the economy and create jobs.” Three weeks later, Reston reported that “the debate over the Government’s space budget is getting rough and threatening to create a crisis of confidence in the Administration’s whole space program.” Reston cited the contradic­tions between Vice President Johnson’s claims that the space program was having a positive economic impact with statements by others in the Kennedy administration that in fact the program was taking scientists and engineers away from economically more valuable pursuits. The result, he suggested, was “a confusion of testimony that is bewildering the Congress and drag­ging the space program into the arena of politics.”4

The scientific community’s critique of Apollo was very visibly articulated in an April 19 editorial in the leading journal Science signed by its editor, Philip Abelson. Abelson suggested that “the lasting propaganda value of placing a man on the moon has been vastly overestimated. The first lunar landing will be a great occasion; subsequent boredom is inevitable.” He added that “most of the interesting questions regarding the moon can be studied by electronic devices” and suggested “a re-examination of priorities is in order.” Abelson’s editorial received attention well beyond the scientific community; his criticism was noted in front-page articles in prominent news­papers and in an April 20 appearance on the Today television program.5