Apollo to Go Forward as Planned

What might have happened to Project Apollo if John F. Kennedy had not been assassinated in Dallas on November 22, 1963, is an unanswerable ques­tion. Historian Roger Launius has suggested that “had Kennedy served two full terms, it is quite easy to envision a point. . . in which he might have decided that the international situation that sparked the announcement of a lunar landing ‘by the end of the decade’ had passed and he could have safely turned off the landing clock.” Such a thought could well have been the president’s mind as he worried during the summer and fall of 1963 about the increasing criticisms and costs of Apollo and sought Soviet cooperation in a lunar mission; it was certainly one of the options being considered at the White House senior staff level. However, backing off of being first to the Moon did not seem to be on Kennedy’s mind in November 1963. In remarks he planned to deliver in Dallas on November 22, Kennedy would have said “the United States of America has no intention of finishing second in space. This effort is expensive—but it pays its own way for freedom and for America.”15

As already noted, during October and November, NASA and DOD car­ried out independent reviews in response to the October 5 White House questions; they then began to prepare joint reviews on several key questions, such as what should be the Earth orbital human space flight effort and what should be the country’s launch vehicle program. The pace of the lunar land­ing program was not an issue in the joint NASA-DOD effort. Rather, the focus with respect to human space flight was the balance between NASA and DOD in Earth-orbital spaceflight activities. The Department of Defense at this point was becoming increasingly interested in the military and intelli­gence potentials of humans in orbit, and there were suggestions that DOD at some point might take over from NASA the leading role in the Gemini proj­ect. NASA during this period examined what was “the minimum manned earth-orbit program required to support a manned lunar landing”; the space agency wanted to make sure that there were enough Gemini flights to satisfy its requirements in support of Apollo before any consideration was given to the potential transfer of the project to Air Force control. The NASA study operated under the assumption that the White House objective in the joint program review was “to find ways and means of reducing the projected cost of the total (NASA and DOD) national space program without abandoning the objective of the manned lunar landing, while at the same time increasing the responsiveness of the program to military needs.”16

The pace of the lunar landing program was an issue in the BOB review of the national space program, which was taking place in parallel with the NASA-DOD effort. In late November, a report summarizing BOB’s conclu­sions was drafted by the BOB staff, primarily Willis Shapley, in consultation with senior representatives of NASA and the Department of Defense. This report had two sections, one dealing with the “Manned Lunar Landing Program” and the other with “Military Space Objectives,” with a particular focus on the future of a separate Air Force effort in human space flight.

A November 13 draft of report of this “Special Space Review” contained a clear statement of the goal of the lunar landing program: “to attempt to achieve a manned lunar landing and return by the end of the decade” with “principal purposes” of (1) “demonstrating an important space achievement ahead of the USSR”; (2) “serving as a focus for technological developments necessary for other space objectives and having potential significance for national defense”; and (3) “acquiring useful scientific and other data to the extent feasible.” (This statement reinforces the reality that science was never the primary goal of going to the Moon.) The conclusion of the draft review was that “after examining the pros and cons and the fiscal implications of possible alternatives. . . the goal as stated above should be adhered to at this time, with due recognition of the problems involved and of the possibility that it may be necessary to change the objective at some future date.”17 The next draft of the report was dated November 20. It expanded on the analysis of why it was prudent to stay with the lunar landing program as planned, saying that “the feasible alternatives available for major changes. . . are quite limited.” First, “there were generally good and sufficient reasons” for setting the lunar landing goal which were “still valid today.” In addition, “previous administration policy statements, testimony, and ‘commitments’ tend to limit the flexibility for major changes.” Also, “significant losses in time, money, and other disruptions are likely to result from major changes at this time.”18

The final draft of the Special Space Review was dated November 29, one week after President Kennedy’s assassination. This draft best represents the analysis and conclusions that would have been presented to the president for final decision if he had lived. The draft noted that its contents had been prepared “by Bureau of the Budget staff in consultation with senior repre­sentatives of NASA and the Department of Defense.” The report first asked: “Should consideration be given at this time to backing off from the manned lunar landing goal?” Three alternative actions were offered:

1. “Adhere to the present goal.”

2. “Decide now to abandon current work directly related to the manned lunar landing objective but to continue development of the large launch vehicle (Saturn V) so that it will be available for future space programs.”

3. “Decide now to abandon both current work toward the manned lunar landing objective and the development of the Saturn V large launch vehicle.”

In support of alternative 1, the report suggested that “in the absence of clear and compelling external circumstances a change in present poli­cies and commitments would involve an unacceptable ‘loss of face’ both domestically and internationally” and that cancelling Apollo would not “in fact reduce criticism of the total magnitude of the budget or increase sup­port for other meritorious programs to which the funds might be applied.” The arguments in support of alternative 2 included “doubts that Congress will provide adequate support for the manned lunar landing program in 1965 and succeeding years” and “the apparent absence of a competitive USSR manned lunar landing program at this time.” Arguments in support of alternative 3 included “that an adequate continuing space program can be built around the use of the Saturn IB (and perhaps Titan III) launch vehicle.”

The report also raised the possibility of deciding “that the [manned lunar landing] program should be geared to a schedule slipping the first manned lunar landing attempts one or two years later than now planned to the very end of the decade (i. e., end of CY 1969 or 1970, depending on the defini­tion of ‘decade’).” The review pointed out that “some slippage in present schedules is recognized as inevitable, so that eliminating the present mar­gin. . . would be tantamount to and generally recognized as an admission that the achievement of the goal has been deferred beyond the end of the decade.”

Another issue addressed was “should our posture on the manned lunar landing program attribute a greater degree of military significance to the program?” The review concluded that “the facts of the situation justify the position that the launch vehicle, spacecraft, facilities, and general technology being developed by NASA. . . do have important future military significance.” However, “overplaying this point could have the effects of undercutting the general peaceful image of the program.” The review concluded with respect to a joint effort with the Soviet Union that “in the present situation we must necessarily take the posture that we are prepared to enter into any construc­tive agreement which will not jeopardize our national security interests and which will not delay or jeopardize the success of our MLL [manned lunar landing] program.”

After it spelled out these various options, the BOB report concluded that “in the absence of clear changes in the present technical or international situations, the only basis for backing off from the MLL objective at this time would be an overriding fiscal decision.” (This conclusion had first appeared in the November 20 draft of the report.) That decision might be either “that budget totals in FY1965 or succeeding years are unacceptable and should be reduced by adjusting the space program” or “that within present budgetary totals an adjustment should be made shifting funds from space to other pro­grams.” The BOB analysis was that the lunar landing program could indeed be accommodated within the projected FY1965 and subsequent budget lev­els, and thus that there was also no basis on fiscal grounds for recommend­ing significant changes in the program’s character or pace.19

The bottom line of the 1963 Special Space Review was that there was no reason for “backing off” the lunar landing goal. It is very unlikely that either President Kennedy’s top advisers or the president himself would have coun­termanded this conclusion, had Kennedy lived to consider that choice.

When James Webb, Robert McNamara, Jerome Wiesner, Edward Welsh, new budget director Kermit Gordon, and their top associates met on November 30 to consider the draft Special Space Review, the possibility of changes in Apollo was not even discussed; the meeting focused on the second part of the report dealing with the Air Force program of human space flight. The group decided to cancel the Air Force DynaSoar program and replace it with the Manned Orbital Laboratory program, a small outpost combining the Gemini spacecraft and an attached module with room to experiment with various military and intelligence payloads. With respect to Apollo, Secretary of Defense McNamara was insistent that there was no military justification for a lunar landing effort, but the group agreed that broader national secu­rity considerations were part of the rationale for sending Americans to the

Moon. Without even reaching the level of a presidential decision, Apollo had survived an intense and wide-ranging review with its basic character intact.20