John F. Kennedy's Space Legacy and Its Lessons for Today

Article excerpt

Fifty years ago, on May 25, 1961, President John F. Kennedy, only four months in office, proposed before a joint session of Congress 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 Earth." Kennedy was blunt; he said that agreeing to his proposal would involve a burden that "will last for many years and carry very heavy costs," and that "it would better not to go at all" if the United States was not "prepared to do the work and bear the burdens to make it successful."

In the 30 months remaining in his tragically shortened presidency, Kennedy proved willing to follow through on his proposal, approving an immediate 89% increase in the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) budget and then, in the next year, another 101%. These increases started the lunar landing program, Project Apollo, on its way to becoming the most expensive peacetime mobilization of U.S. financial and human resources ever undertaken in pursuit of a specific goal. In 2010 dollars, Apollo cost $151 billion; by comparison, the Manhattan Project cost $28 billion and the Panama Canal, $8.1 billion.

In my new book John F. Kennedy and the Race to the Moon, I trace the factors that convinced Kennedy that the United States had to undertake what he termed a "great new American enterprise" and the steps he took to turn his decision to go to the Moon into the effort that led to Neil Armstrong's first step onto the lunar surface in July 1969.I also reflect on what lessons the Apollo experience may have for today's situation, in space and elsewhere.

Before Kennedy decided that the United States should send people to the Moon, the U.S. reaction to a series of Soviet Union space successes, beginning with the launch of Sputnik 1 in October 1957, had been relatively muted. President Dwight Eisenhower did not believe it wise to try to compete with the Soviets in space achievements undertaken primarily for prestige purposes and thus was unwilling to approve a fast-paced U.S. effort in response to Soviet successes. In reality, there was in 1957 no "Sputnik moment" that led to accelerated government support of innovative space technology. That acceleration came only after Kennedy, seeing the global and domestic reaction to the first orbital flight of Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin on April 12, 1961, decided that the United States by default could not cede control over outer space to the Soviets and thus must enter a space race with the intent of winning it. It was a "Gagarin moment" rather than a "Sputnik moment" that precipitated massive government support for the technological innovations needed for success in space.

In retrospect, the impression is that Apollo moved forward without political problems; this is not correct. In 1961 and 1962, there was widespread political and public support for Kennedy's lunar initiative, in part propelled by the enthusiasm of the initial flights of Project Mercury, including Alan Shepard's suborbital mission on May 5, 1961, and John Glenn's three-orbit flight on February 20, 1962. But by 1963, there was rising criticism of Apollo from several fronts. Eisenhower called the race to the Moon "nuts." Many Republicans suggested that Kennedy should be spending more money on military space efforts nearer the Earth rather than on a lunar adventure. Leading scientists and liberals joined forces to suggest that Project Apollo was a distortion of national priorities and that there were many more worthy uses for the funds being spent on going to the Moon. Congress cut the NASA budget by 10% in 1963, slowing down its exponential increase.

Kennedy was quite sensitive to these criticisms, and in April, August, and October 1963 mandated major reviews of the Apollo commitment. The last of these reviews examined the options of slowing down Apollo, giving up on the Moon goal but continuing to develop the heavy-lift Saturn V Moon rocket, or canceling Apollo altogether. …