The Man Who Chose the Moon

I’ve recently posted two articles about the first men in space. After the Soviet Union launched the space age with the artificial satellite Sputnik in 1957, the nation achieved another first with Yuri Gagarin’s Earth-orbital flight on April 12, 1961 in Vostok 1. Three weeks later, NASA evened the score when Alan Shepard became the first American in space on May 5, 1961. (Left, the 35th President of the United States, John Fitzgerald Kennedy. 1961.)

But the US barely caught up to the Soviet Union with Shepard’s Freedom 7 mission – the 15-minute suborbital first flight of the Mercury program was less impressive and demonstrated less technological power than Gagarin’s orbital flight. Nevertheless, Americans were elated at finally putting a man in space. President Kennedy was also aware of, and sought to capitalize on, the pride that swept through the nation in the wake of the Mercury flight. And so he set a new goal twenty days later: to land a man on the moon by the end of the decade.

Kennedy’s decision to land a man on the moon during the 1960s grew out of the American emotional response to Alan Shepard’s Freedom 7 flight (right, the morning of his flight). The elation of the sailors who were fortunate enough to recover America’s first astronaut paled in comparison to the reactions of citizens across the country. People dropped what they were doing to stand in the streets and watch the flight in Florida. Splashdown parties cropped up throughout the US.

But the mission didn’t come close to matching the Soviet orbital accomplishment, leaving the US the second-best nation in space-faring activities. Second was not a standing Kennedy wanted, nor one he wanted for his nation. He wanted the US to surpass and exceed its rival. For their part, the American people at large were less concerned with their secondary standing and more focussed on NASA’s accomplishment. The joy coursing through the nation was infectious and Kennedy wasn’t immune. He saw in the space program a chance to prolong the positive mood.

Three days after the flight on May 8, 1961, Kennedy invited the Mercury astronauts and a selection of NASA administrators to the White House. During a special ceremony, Kennedy presented Shepard with a Distinguished Service Medal for his contribution to the nation’s space efforts. (Left, Kennedy presents Shepard with NASA’s distinguished Service Medal, May 8, 1961.)

More happened that night at the White House than a simple medal presentation followed by cocktails. Alan Shepard recalls in his memoirs the more intimate meeting that took place after the formal proceedings wound down. Jackie Kennedy took the astronauts’ wives on a tour of the White House while the President, the astronauts, a selection of White House staff, and a handful of NASA officials moved into the Oval office.

Without preamble, Kennedy asked for a briefing of what NASA was doing – not planning or thinking about, actually doing. He wanted something bigger than a suborbital flight, some great goal the nation could rally behind that would be personified by the astronauts the country was so eager to celebrate. He wanted to exploit the honour and courage the astronauts radiated. It was clear that the space race was gathering steam, and the young President knew the world was watching – he was all too aware that he had to take the proper steps in confronting the conflict if he and his country were to come out on top.

The ensuing discussion in the Oval Office revealed that NASA was thinking about sending a man to the moon – a daring proposal not unanimously supported within the organization but a plausible one nonetheless. Kennedy turned to the astronauts and asked their opinion since they would be likely be the very men to go; all seven declared they were ready.

In fact, NASA had been doing more than just think about it. Before the National Aeronautics and Space Act actually created NASA, research centres had been researching the technology necessary for a moon program.

In 1955, before the space age had properly begun, North American Aviation (NAA, the company that built the X-15) began developing a 1 million-pound thrust rocket. In 1957, the Army Ballistic Missile Association (ABMA, right) under the direction of Wernher von Braun began working on a clustered-engine launch vehicle capable of 1.5 million pounds of thrust.

Between August and September 1959, the Space Task Group (STG) under the direction of Robert Gilruth determined the long-term plan for NASA focused on advanced manned flight. The resulting document was released on December 15, just over a year after NASA’s inception. It outlined a decade long plan culminating in a lunar landing program sometime after 1970 – a program, not an actual landing.

The report anticipated that the first manned flights, part of Project Mercury, would orbit the Earth in 1961 or 1962. Aside from this, however, the report makes no mention of further manned missions for the remainder of the decade. Instead it focussed on unmanned planetary missions: Mars and Venus were targets, as was a soft landing on the moon and a trip to lunar orbit and back again. These missions would give NASA necessary experience it could then apply to the more daring manned missions. Flight planners needed to know how to get to the moon and how to fly in space before they could think about sending a man.

In the spring of 1960, the STG had begun preparing the guidelines for a three-man advanced spacecraft with lunar capabilities in terms of mission duration and life-support systems. In July of that year, NASA announced Apollo to representatives of American industry; the organization was already seeking subcontractors to build the machines that would take men to the moon. (Right, a test of the Saturn V’s third stage engine by the Douglas Aircraft Co. 1960.)

The project was coming together, and it was an attractive prospect to Kennedy. If the national reaction to Freedom 7 was any indication of America’s support of its space program, a lunar landing was exactly what the young President wanted. It would be the perfect project to unite a nation against an adversary.

A potential lunar landing became increasingly appealing as the month of April wore on. Kennedy took a serious blow after the failed invasion of the Bay of Pigs between April 17 and 19. The US undertook an attempt to overthrow Castro using CIA-trained Cuban exiles. During the attack, US military forces were on hand to support the exiles, as they were the first to enter into Cuba. At the last minute, however, Kennedy recalled the US support forces and the exiles were massacred. Kennedy’s actions were questionable, and did nothing to strengthen his standing among the American people. No one wanted a President who said one thing and did another at the cost of human lives.

At the same time as the Bay of Pigs fiasco, NASA was continuing to develop the possible lunar program. On April 15, the organization had completed feasibility tests of the spacecraft and deemed the project was ready to move into stages of actual development. The timing was perfect. Apollo was coming together just when Kennedy sought a way back into the good graces of Americans. With his popularity at an all-time low, the President chose to pursue the moon program as the bold move to regain his standing and unite his country. (Left, impact test on a model Apollo capsule, 1961.)

There were obstacles other than technological development that stood in the way of realizing Apollo. There were those within the government who vehemently opposed the man in space program, most notable Kennedy’s science advisor Jerome Weisner. The value of NASA had been under review since the President took office. Since the organization was established under his predecessor President Eisenhower, its strengths and weaknesses had to be weighed relative to the new administration. Kennedy, however, never considered dissolving NASA. It was the only organization able to assume leadership in space exploration.

Kennedy first presented the moon landing proposal to the public in a special address to congress on urgent national needs on May 25, 1961 (left). “These are extraordinary times, and we face an extraordinary challenge”, he began. He continued to describe America as a leader in freedom’s cause, a role it had to maintain. He pointed to recent advancements in space, specifically Gagarin’s and Shepard’s flights, and how the advances were clear evidence of the role space would play in the future – an extension of the free world or an extension of a communist state. The foray into space was the beginning of what Kennedy called a “cosmic adventure”, one that will have a profound impact on the minds of men everywhere who are attempting to make a determination of which road they should take. It came back to the difference between a democracy and communist state.

The obvious path for America was to become a leader in space in support of a free world. The nation had the resources and talent to put a man on the moon; it just needed to manage those resources towards the singular goal. And so, he appealed to congress for financial support for the lunar landing program.  “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish.”

This plea for support came twenty days after Shepard’s suborbital flight at a time when NASA didn’t have the technology to go to the moon by a long shot. A launch vehicle capable of putting a capsule in orbit hadn’t been man-rated; it hadn’t yet been proved that a man could survive the physical and psychological stresses associated with a long-duration lunar flight. But the potential was there and Kennedy was banking on it.

He spoke openly about America’s standing in space, recognizing that the Soviet Union was currently ahead and that the US might never be able to catch up to or surpass its achievements. But the greatest loss, he said, wouldn’t be to lose the race in space – a failure to try was far worse. The project would be long and expensive, but the gains were potentially well worth the effort.

More importantly, perhaps, was that the Soviet Union didn’t have lunar capabilities either. The two nations were on equal footing, and the end point of the moon was fair game. Kennedy had every reason to believe that the US could come from behind to win the race in space. The lofty goal allowed NASA to bide its time and come out with a solid lunar program. Nine years was ample time to develop the already researched Apollo program. (Right, Kennedy and von Braun pictured with a model Saturn IV rocket.)

Kennedy expedited NASA’s lunar program and at the same time gave the nation a common goal around which to rally. The plan supported NASA’s original directive: “to explore and to utilize both the atmosphere and the regions outside the earth’s atmosphere for peaceful and scientific purposes, while at the same time providing research support to the Department of Defense.” The peaceful and technological goals of Apollo took precedence over the still-present concerns for national security.

Reactions to the lunar proclamation were mixed within NASA, ranging from excitement to disbelief. The Mercury astronauts particularly were all too aware that NASA didn’t have the technology for such a program. Gus Grissom called the President “nuts”. Nevertheless, they stood behind the president. When Kennedy was assassinated in November 1963, many within NASA felt more committed to reaching his lunar landing goal by the decade’s end. Accomplishing the lunar landing goal was the most fitting tribute to the man who had chosen and supported the daring program.

Suggested Reading/Selected Sources

1. Alan Shepard and Deke Slayton. Moonshot. Virgin Books, 1994

2. Kris Kraft. Flight. Plume, 2001.

3. Gene Kranz. Failure is Not an Option. Berkley, 2000.

4. “The Decision to go to the Moon“. NASA History’s website on Kennedy’s May 25, 1961 address. [Accessed May 15, 2011]

5. NASA’s Long Rang plan published December 13, 1959.

6. Audio of JFK Special Message to Congress on Urgent National Needs, May 25, 1961.

7. Video of lunar aspects of JFK’s Special Message to Congress, May 25, 1961.


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