Kennedy's Space Policy Reconsidered: A Post-Cold War Perspective

By Launius, Roger D. | Air Power History, Winter 2003 | Go to article overview

Kennedy's Space Policy Reconsidered: A Post-Cold War Perspective


Launius, Roger D., Air Power History


Is it time to reconsider Kennedy's space policy? The answer to this question is a resounding yes. From the perspective of nearly forty years, the Apollo program had enormous consequences. In this paper I shall discuss a few of them:

1. The Apollo decision has been used as a model for public policy formulation. This is an important legacy of the program, but one that requires reconsideration.

2. Apollo reshaped a very orderly, economical space exploration effort underway at NASA put in place by the Eisenhower administration that would have led to lunar and planetary exploration in the decades of the 1970s and 1980s.

3. Apollo expanded enormously the size and shape of NASA as a government organization and set the agency at odds with other parts of the federal government, a conflict that has not abated even in the twenty-first century.

4. Apollo established an unusual and difficult to meet set of expectations from the public when it came to NASA and space exploration.

5. Apollo left, a questionable technological legacy, as most of its hardware was scrapped at the conclusion of the program in favor of an entirely different technological direction for later efforts. While there are other aspects of Apollo that might be appropriately discussed, this essay represents an attempt to stimulate discussion for future research. It does not represent a final historical judgment, but seeks only to be provocative of possibilities for future consideration.

The Apollo Decision as a Model of Public Policy Formulation

In the more than forty years since President John F. Kennedy stood before the American people and declared that we should send astronauts to the Moon, scholars have offered four basic approaches to interpreting the Apollo decision-making process. (1) By far the most influential of these interpretations is the conception that Kennedy made a single, rational, pragmatic choice to undertake the U.S. sprint to the Moon as a means of competing with the Soviet Union and raising international prestige during the height of the Cold War. The President and his advisors, therefore, undertook an exceptionally deliberate, reasonable, judicious, and logical process to define the problem, analyze the situation, develop a response, and achieve a consensus for action. (2) The timeline progressed from point to point with few detours from problem definition to sensible decision. Neat and tidy, it has served as a model for public policy formulation.

This rational choice argument begins with the assertion that JFK's space policy was a relic of the Cold War struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union, and that it revolved around the question of international prestige. In this view, Apollo was a clear result of competition between the world's two superpowers to win over the "minds of men" to a specific economic and political system. In essence, the Apollo program was nothing less than the "moral equivalent of war." It sought to weaken the Soviet Union, while enhancing the United States. (3)

There is much to recommend this interpretation; and its study as a model of outstanding policy formulation is appropriate. Its main strength is its insistence that the American effort to land on the Moon served as an enormously effective response to a Cold War crisis with the Soviet Union. At the same time, the most significant problem with this interpretation is its unwavering belief that individuals--and especially groups of individuals, even competing ones--logically assess situations and respond with totally reasonable consensus actions. Since virtually nothing is done solely on a rational basis this is a difficult conclusion to accept. Charles E. Lindblom wrote, a generation ago, that the "science of 'muddling through'" is perhaps as useful an alternative approach to the study of decision-making as any, recognizing that "policy is not made once and for all; it is made and re-made endlessly. …

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