Fifty-five years ago, this week, John Fitzgerald Kennedy—35th President of the United States—gave a speech before Congress which, arguably, defined not only his administration, but also the hopes and dreams of America itself. The 43-year-old president had only assumed office a few months earlier and had been severely tested when Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space and a CIA effort to support the overthrow of Fidel Castro had fallen catastrophically to pieces. In the aftermath of both of these events, Alan Shepard became the first American in space, albeit on a suborbital “hop,” lasting barely 15 minutes. As outlined in yesterday’s AmericaSpace history article, it was a combination of this and other factors which drove Kennedy to commit his nation to landing a man on the Moon.
On 25 May 1961, the president stood before a joint session of Congress and publicly declared his vision. He knew, after recommendations from both NASA Administrator Jim Webb and Secretary of Defense McNamara, that the presence of men in space would truly capture the imagination of the world. The first part of his speech focused upon ways in which the United States could exploit its economic and social progress against Communism, then called for increased funding to protect Americans from a possible nuclear strike. Lastly, Kennedy hit Congress with his lunar bombshell. “I believe,” he told them, “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 would be more impressive to mankind or more important for the long-range exploration of space. And none would be so difficult or expensive to accomplish.”
Expense, indeed, was the major stumbling block. Following budgetary meetings with Webb in March 1961, Kennedy had requested a revised Fiscal Year (FY) 1962 budget for NASA, increasing it more than $125 million over the Eisenhower administration’s recommended $1.11 billion. By the end of 1961, NASA’s budget would grow to more than $5 billion, some 10 times as much as had been spent on space research in the past eight years combined and roughly equivalent to 50 cents per taxpayer. Kennedy acknowledged that it was “a staggering sum,” but reinforced that most Americans spent more each week on cigars and cigarettes. Still, he would have to face harsh criticism by placing the lunar goal ahead of educational projects and other social welfare efforts for which he had campaigned so hard during his years in the Senate. He would admit in his speech that he “came to this conclusion with some reluctance” and that the nation would have to “bear the burdens” of the dream.
Kennedy met almost no internal opposition from both the Senate and the House of Representatives, but others did not wish to accept such burdens. Immediately after the speech, a Gallup poll revealed that just 42 percent of Americans supported the drive for the Moon. Yet the president also gained immense support, both as a risk-taker and as a statesman. The decision, said his science advisor Jerome Wiesner, was one that he made “cold-bloodedly.” It was also a decision that he firmly stood by. Only hours after Virgil “Gus” Grissom flew America’s second suborbital mission on 21 July 1961, Kennedy signed into law an approximately $1.7 billion appropriation act for Project Apollo. In a subsequent address, given at Rice University in September 1962, he admitted that Apollo and Saturn would contain some components still awaiting invention, but remained fixed in his determination to “set sail on this new sea,” because “there is new knowledge to be gained and new rights to be won.”
The overall picture still seemed to show that Kennedy was broadly supportive of the lunar goal, although taped conversations with Jim Webb—now ensconced in the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston, Mass.—imply otherwise. In November 1962, at a meeting to discuss the space budget, Kennedy categorically told Webb that he was “not that interested in space” and that his stance in support of the program was based purely on the need to beat the Soviets. Nonetheless, he had approached Nikita Khrushchev on two occasions—in June 1961 and again in 1963—to discuss space co-operation; in the first case, his entreaties fell on deaf ears, but in the second case, the Soviet premier responded with greater warmth.
Still, there remained doubts in large swathes of the American populace about the lunar goal. In April 1963, Kennedy had asked Vice-President Lyndon Johnson—in his capacity as head of the National Aeronautics and Space Council (NASC)—to review Project Apollo’s progress. “By asking Johnson to conduct the review, Kennedy was virtually assured of a positive reply,” wrote space policy analyst Dwayne Day in a 2006 article for The Space Review. “Furthermore, Kennedy’s request in effect ruled out cutting Apollo so as not to ‘compromise the timetable for the first manned lunar landing.’” In his report, Johnson advised that, if cuts were to be made to NASA, they ought to be diverted to safeguard Apollo.
A few days after Kennedy’s 20 September 1963 speech to the United Nations General Assembly—in which he proposed a “joint expedition to the Moon”—Congressman Albert Thomas, chair of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Independent Offices, wrote to the president and asked if he had altered his position on the lunar landing. Kennedy replied that the United States could only co-operate in space from a position of strength, but shortly before his assassination he asked the Bureau of the Budget to prepare a report on NASA. A draft of this report, which addressed the question of “backing off from the manned lunar landing goal” was written in early 1964 and still exists. In his analysis, Day posited that this was the very question that Kennedy had asked them to consider. The bureau’s consensus was that the only basis for backing off from Apollo, aside from technical or international situations, would be “an overriding fiscal decision.”
Throughout the Sixties, and long after Kennedy’s death, the road to the Moon remained fraught with danger and risk. Several astronauts lost their lives in training accidents, and the Apollo 1 crew died during a “plugs-out” ground test in January 1967, putting the program on hold for almost two years. The pace at which the United States moved from suborbital missions in early 1961 to Earth-orbital rendezvous in 1965 to the first piloted voyage to the Moon in 1968 to the first landing itself in 1969 remains one of the most phenomenal feats in the history of human accomplishment. Four percent of the federal budget had much to do with this pace, but it puts several of our subsequent efforts to return humans to the Moon to shame.
Twenty-four hours before the paths of the president and his assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, tragically intertwined, on 21 November 1963, Kennedy recounted a story to an audience in San Antonio, Texas. Reminding them that it was still “a time for pathfinders and pioneers,” he told the tale of a group of Irish boys who reached an orchard wall and were dismayed that it was too tall to scale. Throwing their caps over the wall, they presented themselves with no choice but to force themselves to scale it. “This nation,” Kennedy explained, “has tossed its cap over the wall of space and we have no choice but to follow it. Whatever the difficulties, they will be overcome.”
And six years after his death, they were. Today, 55 years to the week since Kennedy’s commitment to reach the Moon, it can be hoped that the difficulties and challenges which lie before humanity today can be similarly overcome and a return of humans to the Moon, and perhaps also to Mars, can be accomplished in our lifetimes. Only then can we humans cement our credentials as a truly spacefaring civilization.
This is part of a series of history articles which will appear each weekend, barring any major news stories. Next week’s article will focus on the 50th anniversary of Gemini IX-A, which arose from the ashes of tragedy and turned into one of the most challenging human space missions ever undertaken.