Kennedy’s Public and Private Thoughts on Apollo

Kennedy during the famous speech at Rice University on September 12, 1962. The full video of the speech is at the end of this article. Image via John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum Online

On September 12, 1962, President Kennedy gave his famous speech at Rice University in Texas proclaiming that Americans take on lofty goals like landing a man on the Moon not because it is easy but because it is hard. It’s a speech that still resonates with spaceflight enthusiasts half a century later, often considered indicative of a time when NASA had clear goals and the necessary support to achieve them. But Kennedy’s own feelings about going to the Moon might have been different than the stirring words he said at Rice. In private conversations in the months and years that followed, he expressed worries over the cost of Apollo, raised questions regarding NASA’s commitment to a lunar program, and disappointment that the lunar landing wouldn’t happen within his presidential tenure. 

Kennedy’s decision to go to the Moon wasn’t made without consulting NASA. He knew the space agency could manage the task when he stood up before congress on May 25, 1961, and expressed his belief that “this nation should commit itself of achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and landing him safely on the Earth.”

Kennedy before congress on May 25, 1961, the day he pledge America to landing a man on the Moon within the decade. Credit: NASA

The speech at Rice a little over a year later outlined the reasons to go to the Moon. Only if the US occupies a leading position in space, he said, could the nation determine whether space would be a peaceful realm to explore or one wrought with war and competition. “Its hazards are hostile to us all,” he said, including all of humanity in the exploration of space, and “its conquest deserves the best of all mankind, and its opportunity for peaceful cooperation may never come again.”

But the lunar program might have cost a little more than Kennedy anticipated. Going to the Moon, like he said at Rice, is hard. In the early 1960s, NASA knew more or less howto get to the Moon but not exactly what hazards lay ahead. To take as many unknowns out of sending men to the Moon, the agency pursued a number of science programs like the Surveyor lunar landing probe, but Kennedy wasn’t convinced this science was worth the money.

Kennedy and NASA Administrator James Webb came to a head over the issue on November 21, 1962. The President’s convictions were firm and his political confidence clear: Apollo couldn’t slip. Getting to the Moon ahead of the Soviets was important for political reasons and he expected NASA to make the lunar program its top priority. And it wasn’t just NASA’s priority; aside from national defense it was the nation’s top priority.

James Webb. Credit: NASA

Webb took a somewhat different line. While he  agreed that Apollo should be a high priority, he didn’t think it ought to be NASA’a top priority. The scientific programs leading up to Apollo – the scientific programs that would inform the design and operation of the spacecraft to ensure the lunar landing program was a success – was the agency’s priority. The lunar landing was the product of these science program. Uncovering the science about space, about the realm that Apollo would operate in, was the first step towards landing on the Moon.

But Kennedy wasn’t interested in science unless it directly supported Apollo. Even preeminence in space was secondary if it took away from the Apollo effort. We’re going to the Moon because of the Soviets, he said. “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’ve wrecked our budget and all these other domestic programs, and the only justification for it, in my opinion, to do it in this pell-mell fashion is because we hope to beat them.”

Webb took a somewhat cheap shot: “I have some feeling that you might not have been as successful on Cuba if we hadn’t flown John Glenn and demonstrated we had a real overall technical capability there.” Kennedy conceded that the orbital flight had been dramatic.

The tense meeting ended abruptly with Kennedy asking Webb to write a letter outlining how all NASA’s other programs tied in to Apollo (though the president only referred to Webb in the third person; he addressed someone else with the request).

Kennedy and Webb shake hands on January 30, 1961 during a meeting in the Oval Office. Credit: Abbie Rowe in the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Musuem

It seems the young president’s worries about Apollo’s escalating budget were no less great a year later when he addressed the United Nations on September 20, 1963. At the 18th General Assembly, he made a somewhat startling proposal:

“Finally, in a field where the United States and the Soviet Union have a special capacity—in the field of space—there is room for new cooperation, for further joint efforts in the regulation and exploration of space. I include among these possibilities a joint expedition to the moon. Space offers no problems of sovereignty; by resolution of this Assembly, the members of the United Nations have foresworn any claim to territorial rights in outer space or on celestial bodies, and declared that international law and the United Nations Charter will apply. Why, therefore, should man’s first flight to the moon be a matter of national competition? Why should the United States and the Soviet Union, in preparing for such expeditions, become involved in immense duplications of research, construction, and expenditure? Surely we should explore whether the scientists and astronauts of our two countries—indeed of all the world—cannot work together in the conquest of space, sending someday in this decade to the moon not the representatives of a single nation, but the representatives of all of our countries.”

The cost of Apollo might have been a factor in his decision; NASA’s budget requests didn’t get any smaller in the year after that adversarial 1962 conversation with Webb. But it may not have been a surprising time for Kennedy to propose a joint mission with the Soviets – the Mercury program had just ended, Apollo was still far in the future, and the Gemini program was recovering from one budget crisis but heading for another. It’s not clear how much the President knew about NASA’s internal issues at the time, these budget overruns from individuals projects within a program often took the agency by surprise, but Kennedy might have had some justifiable worries that the money he was spending in the Moon race would produce any positive results beyond Mercury’s three orbital flights.

On September 11, 1962, the day before his speech at Rice University, Kennedy attends a briefing from Rocco Petrone during a tour of Blockhouse 34 at the Cape Canaveral Missile Test Annex. Also in the audience are Webb, Vice President Lyndon Johnson, NASA Launch Center director Kurt Heinrich Debus, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. Credit: NASA

That same month, Kennedy, facing waning public support, sat down again with Webb. The President half asked and half stated that if he were to be reelected, NASA wouldn’t get to the Moon within his presidency. Webb confirmed this would be the case, but added that regardless of the time frame landing on the Moon would be “one of the most important things that’s been done in this nation.” When Kennedy asked Webb whether he thought going to the Moon was a good idea, the Administrator said yes; he pointed to the generation of students already inspired to pursue career in science and technology as proof that Apollo would have lasting positive effects on the nation. “I predict,” he added, “you are not going to be sorry, no Sir, that you did this.”

Whatever his personal concerns over the escalating space race and however seriously he considered canceling Apollo in favour of a joint program with the Soviet Union, Kennedy wasn’t about to publicly shy away from the goal he’d set.

Had his life not ended on November 22, 1963, he would have addressed the space race that evening in Texas: “And we have made it clear to all that the United States of America has no intention of finishing second in outer space… For this country is moving and it must not stop. It cannot stop. For this is a time for courage and a time for challenge. Neither conformity nor complacency will do. Neither the fanatics nor the faint-hearted are needed. And our duty as a party is not to our party alone, but to the Nation, and, indeed., to all mankind. Our duty is not merely the preservation of political power but the preservation of peace and freedom.”

Author’s note: This is absolutely scratching the surface of Kennedy’s role in the space race and his feeling towards the Apollo program. I’m sure Kennedy historians will have a lot to add to this brief article; my own research on the subject is far from over. 

Comments

  1. Mark Roberts says

    Good article Amy. Interesting thing about the cost overruns: they rightfully cause concern when discovered, but under George Mueller NASA developed effective cost control methods. In 1961 JFK estimated the cost of getting to the Moon and back to be $15-20 billion, upping that figure later that year to $22-29 billion. James Webb was more pessimistic, estimating $40 billion over 10 years. Gemini + Apollo ended up costing about $22 billion: a bargain!

  2. Mark H says

    Nice article Amy. Its great to see a clear appraisal for the reasons why Kennedy committed the US to landing a man on the moon.

    As you point out, the reasons were political. Unfortunately many people think that Kennedy was a passionate visionary for space exploration. Its a common misconception. But by Kennedy’s own admission, privately he said “…I’m not that interested in Space”.
    Maybe this misconception is due to all the documentaries about Apollo that only show the rhetorical and passionate sections of his speeches?

    Anybody interested in the real reasons we went to the Moon can read a memo titled “Evaluation Of Space Program” written by then Vice President Lyndon Johnson to Kennedy. It is an important NASA archive document that sets out the justifications and conclusions for going to the moon.
    The memo can be accessed here-
    http://history.nasa.gov/Apollomon/apollo2.pdf

    In a nut shell the Primary reason for beating the Russians to the moon was to influence other countries in the world in order to get them to align themselves with the US and not join with Russia and China to become Communist.

    Effectively the US went to the Moon for the same reason they went to war in Korea and Vietnam namely to stop the spread of Communism by proving that Western ideologies are superior to Communism.

    If you listen to Kennedy’s Full speech he gave before Congress on May 25, 1961. It is clear that he agrees with everything Lyndon Johnson lays out in the Memo.
    http://www.jfklibrary.org/Asset-Viewer/xzw1gaeeTES6khED14P1Iw.aspx

    These days, the fear of Communism has greatly abated but in those days it was as compelling as the fear of Terrorism is today.

    Apollo was a great achievement but it could be argued that in their over zealousness to prove that the US was mightier than Russia they won the goal but couldn’t sustain it, leaving the rest of us expecting Moon bases and men landing on Mars. Unfortunately we all fell for the propaganda ;)

  3. mark robinowitz says

    Thanks for mentioning the Sept 20, 1963 proposal for the cooperative moon landing. You can read the speech (and listen to it) at my site jfkmoon.org

    What parallel universe would we be in today if the Cold War had ended in JFK’s second term, as proposed in the speech (and via policy initiatives reversed after he was removed from office)?

    http://www.JFKMOON.org
    Kennedy’s 1963 plan to convert the Moon Race to global cooperation

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