The White House Responds
This growing and broadly based criticism of the lunar landing program concerned President Kennedy. At an April 19 meeting with newspaper editors, he noted with some irritation that “the space program. . . is now under some attack. It seems to me that this indicates a certain restlessness. This program passed unanimously last year. Now suddenly we shouldn’t carry out the space program, and then maybe 6 months from now, when there is some extraordinary action in space which threatens our position, everybody will say, ‘Why didn’t we do more?’ ”6
The White House behind the scenes was developing its response to the criticisms of Apollo. On April 5, the day of Reston’s column in the Times., Kennedy’s national security adviser McGeorge Bundy, who had assumed a lead policy role on the space program within Kennedy’s inner circle of advisers, told NASA administrator Webb that “the President would like to have an appraisal of the basic changes and modifications that we have made in the space program since this Administration came in, so that he will be fully equipped to defend our current position against what looks like an emerging attack.” Bundy added that “what the President would like particularly to have is an account of the deficiencies of the space program as it was, and was projected, under the outgoing Administration. What would we have failed to do, and what are we now going to be able to do that could not have been done on the Eisenhower basis.” Bundy asked for a “careful and complete answer” to the president’s questions, but also gave Webb only two weeks to develop that answer.7
Kennedy soon also decided to use the Space Council to coordinate the process of developing the defense of his space program. In an April 9 memorandum to Vice President Johnson, Kennedy noted that “in view of recent discussions, I feel the need to obtain a clearer understanding of a number of factual and policy issues relating to the National Space Program.” The president asked Johnson to lead a Space Council effort to develop responses to five questions:
1. What are the salient differences. . . between the NASA program projected on January 1, 1961 for the years 1962 through 1970, and the NASA program as redefined by the present Administration?
2. What specifically are the principal benefits to the national economy we can expect to accrue from the present, greatly augmented program in the following areas: scientific knowledge; industrial productivity; education, at various levels beginning with high school; and military technology?
3. What are some of the major problems likely to result from continuation of the national space program as now projected in the fields of industry, government, and education?
4. To what extent could the program be reduced, beginning with FY1964, in areas not directly affecting the Apollo program (and therefore not compromising the timetable for the first manned lunar landing)?
5. Are we taking sufficient measures to insure the maximum degree of coordination and cooperation between NASA and the Defense Department?8
The Space Council’s Edward Welsh led the process of getting inputs from the council’s member agencies. He received brief papers from staff officials at the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) and the Department of State, a one – page letter with supporting material from Jerome Wiesner, and a seven-page response from Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. NASA’s James Webb first sent a four-page cover letter with a sixty-three page attachment; this was later reduced to a seventeen-page memo signed by Webb; it still had ten pages of attachments. Webb was as verbose in his written communications as when he spoke.
The AEC response discussed only the organization’s efforts to develop nuclear power sources for space uses. The State Department’s somewhat skeptical response noted that “from the viewpoint of U. S. foreign policy objectives generally, it seems quite likely that several adverse effects may develop because of the increasingly large percentage of our space effort to be devoted to the GEMINI and APOLLO programs.” This was because “our program will increasingly accentuate, rather than mitigate, the gap between ourselves and other countries in space and space related activities.” Another concern was “the inevitable merging of national security requirements and scientific requirements in the conduct of our program,” which would make the United States “increasingly the object of skepticism on the part of the neutralist or non-allied countries with respect to the ‘peaceful’ or ‘beneficial’ objectives and character of our program.” The State Department cautioned against reductions in the nonhuman space flight parts of NASA’s activities, saying that such a reduction “would be particularly harmful, if it were to result in a retrenchment in our extant commitments or stated objectives with respect to cooperation in space activities with other countries.”9
Wiesner commented that “it is my feeling that the NASA-DOD relationship should be substantially improved.” In his submission, Secretary of Defense McNamara identified “$600-675 million of the NASA effort which appears to have direct or indirect value for military technology.” Of that amount, “about $275-$350 million stems from the augmentation of NASA programs since January 1961.” Agreeing with Jerome Weisner, McNamara told the vice president that “I am not satisfied, and I am sure that Mr. Webb is not satisfied, that we have gone far enough to eliminate all problems of duplication and waste in administration.” McNamara suggested that the coordination problem was of “sufficient importance” that it required attention at the White House level. In a suggestion sure not to be welcomed by the vice president and his Space Council staff, he suggested that responsibility for monitoring coordination between NASA and DOD “be assigned to the Bureau of the Budget and to the Director of the Office of Science and Technology.”10
NASA on May 3 not only provided to the vice president copious material responding to the president’s five questions; it also submitted a draft reply to those questions. In a May 10 memorandum that “refines and reduces, in volume,” the information provided on May 3, Webb suggested that “there is little evidence to indicate that significant national problems are likely to be made critical or require radical solutions as a result of the continuation of the space program.” In particular, Webb argued, NASA demand for scientific and engineering personnel to carry out its program would rise only from 3 to 6 percent of total national requirements, and this increase would not unduly divert needed technical personnel from other national programs. Webb suggested that “cooperation between NASA and the DOD is good,” but noted “areas for further improvement,” including “greater participation by the DOD in NASA projects.”11
A “principals only” meeting of the Space Council was held on the afternoon of May 7 to review and approve the vice president’s report to the president. Welsh read the president’s questions and Lyndon Johnson, reading from a seven-page draft prepared by the Space Council staff, indicated the intended replies. The draft was kept purposely relatively short compared to the inputs from the Space Council member agencies; Welsh had been reminded by the vice president that “the president does not like a lot of ‘verbiage’ ” and that the responses to Kennedy’s questions should be kept “as short and simple as possible.” A few revisions and additions to the draft reply were made “after careful consideration and discussion,” and the report was approved; Council members initialed the vice president’s original typed copy of the reply “based on the premise that agreed upon changes would be made.”12
Johnson delivered the Space Council’s report to President Kennedy on May 13; it painted the overall situation in very positive terms. The report estimated that the augmented space program would require approximately $30 billion more in the FY1961 to FY1970 period than had been planned as the Eisenhower administration left office ($48.086 billion rather than $17.917 billion). It noted that the “basic difference between the two programs is that the plan of the previous Administration represented an effort for a second place runner and the program of the present Administration is designed to make this country the assured leader before the end of the decade.” With respect to the impacts of the additional space spending, the report suggested that “the ‘multiplier’ of space research and development will augment our economic strength, our peaceful posture, and our standard of living.” It noted that “the introduction of a vital new element into an economy always creates new problems but, otherwise, the nation’s space program creates no major complications” and that “despite claims to the contrary, there is no solid evidence that research and development in industry is suffering significantly from a diversion of technical manpower to the space program.” Reducing the portion of the NASA program not related to the lunar landing would “lessen the quantity and quality of benefits to the economy” and “give additional ammunition to those who criticize the major funding weight given to the lunar program on the grounds that it diverts money from other programs.” With respect to NASA-DOD coordination, the report suggested that “it is inevitable that controversies will continue to arise in any field as new, as wide – ranging, and as technically complicated as space.”
The Space Council report concluded:
There is one further point to be borne in mind. The space program is not
solely a question of prestige, of advancing scientific knowledge, of economic
benefit or of military development. . . A much more fundamental issue is at stake—whether a dimension that well can dominate history for the next few centuries will be devoted to the social system of freedom or controlled by the social system of communism.
We cannot close our eyes to what would happen if we permitted totalitarian systems to dominate the environment of earth itself. For this reason our space program has an overriding urgency that cannot be calculated solely in terms of industrial, scientific, or military development. The future of society is at stake.13
The Space Council report was received with some degree of skepticism by the White House staff. Wiesner discussed it with President Kennedy on May 16, telling him that “the impact of the NASA program on the nation’s supply of scientists and engineers is much greater” than that indicated in the report. While NASA might require the services of only 7 percent of the total supply of U. S. scientists and engineers, it would utilize up to 30 percent of those involved in research and development, he suggested. Wiesner also noted that the report unduly minimized “current management and other differences between NASA and Defense and does not reflect the concerns and views expressed by the Secretary of Defense in his letter to the Vice President.” He also pointed out that the report ignored Secretary McNamara’s suggestion that “the responsibility for monitoring NASA-Defense problems in the space area be assigned to the Bureau of the Budget and to the Director of the Office of Science and Technology.”14
The Bureau of the Budget (BOB) noted that “the statement of the ‘benefits’ to the national economy from the space program has the unintended effect of showing, probably accurately, how slight and intangible such benefits have been and are likely to be in the future.” Also, “the question of whether the space program is having detrimental effects on the supply or activities of scientific and technical manpower is still not clearly answered either way.” The BOB suggested that while “the report does gloss over current problems and differences between the Department of Defense and NASA,” because “the issues involved are either petty or very complex. . . we would see no useful purpose in presenting any of them to the President at this time.” Finally, BOB suggested that “while the point might be overstated” in the concluding paragraphs of the report, “we are inclined to agree with the conclusion that the fundamental justification at this time for a large-scale space program lies. . . in the fundamental unacceptability of a situation in which the Russians continue space activities on a large scale and we do not.”15
The individual on McGeorge Bundy’s staff with primary responsibility for tracking space issues was Charles E. Johnson. When Bundy received a copy of the Space Council report, he asked Johnson “do you think well of this?” Johnson replied to Bundy that while the “purple prose” in the report’s conclusion left him “quite unimpressed,” his primary concern was that the report might be released as a public statement of the administration’s position on the space program. He saw “no need or urgency for such a statement,” believing that public debate could go on “without getting the
President more firmly signed on to a hard position with respect to the space program.” He suggested that “the ‘Cold War’ aspects should not be magnified,” since “there is already too much religion in the space program.” The NSC staffer suggested that “the Administration’s ability to maneuver should be retained so we can adjust to developments.” He added, in what turned out to be a perceptive comment, that “it is possible that the Soviets may not be engaging in a race (the intelligence is not conclusive) or may wish to join in a cooperative space program as an alternative to an expensive national program that strains their economy.”16
Although President Kennedy requested that an unclassified version of the Space Council report be prepared, it was not publicly released or referred to in the continuing debate over space priorities. While Kennedy himself remained publicly committed to proceeding with the accelerated space program he had endorsed in May 1961, the questioning of the program’s values and implementation by his senior staff suggested not only that was there a public debate over the proper goals and pace of the space program, but also that a similar debate was beginning to take place inside the top levels of the Kennedy administration.