One-sided race to the Moon nearly derailed

It’s a popular narrative that the race to land a man on the Moon in the 1960s was launched by President John F. Kennedy in a speech to Congress in May of 1961, and was a gung-ho, nonstop effort until the goal was achieved in 1969. In fact, the space policy expert Dr. John M. Logsdon says the whole thing was nearly undone in 1963.

John Logsdon

Space policy expert Dr. John Logsdon spoke June 13 at the Museum of Flight. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

Logsdon is the founder and longtime director of the Space Policy Institute at the George Washington University and author of John F. Kennedy and the Race to the Moon (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013) and After Apollo?: Richard Nixon and the American Space Program (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015). He gave a talk titled, “John Kennedy, Richard Nixon, and the American Space Program” last weekend at the Museum of Flight.

Logsdon pointed out some interesting contrasts between the two presidents. Richard Nixon was an early space booster, arguing for a civilian space agency when he was Vice President under Dwight Eisenhower. Some historians think of Nixon as the father of NASA. Meanwhile Kennedy didn’t have much interest in space until the Soviet Union launched Yuri Gagarin into orbit in April of 1961. This got Kennedy’s attention, and he gave his advisors the task of coming up with a space effort that the United States could win. Their answer was landing on the Moon, and that became Kennedy’s goal.

“It had very little to do with a view of humanity’s future in space or some romantic image of the space frontier,” Logsdon explained. “This was a Cold War, deliberate act of competition, seeing space as an area to demonstrate which social system, which governmental system was superior.”

Ramping up space spending

“Kennedy not only talked the talk, but he backed up his rhetoric with commitment,” Logsdon added. “This was a war-like mobilization of human and financial resources.”

Indeed, the NASA budget nearly doubled the first year and more than doubled again the second, and the skyrocketing cost came under considerable criticism. Kennedy was sensitive to this for a couple of reasons. He was concerned about the political impact of the Apollo program losing support, and worried that spending on space could be a negative in his 1964 re-election campaign. There was some talk of cutting the budget or relaxing the end-of-decade timeline for the goal. Kennedy also spoke openly of making the quest for a Moon a cooperative venture with the Soviet Union. Logsdon said that Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev originally expressed some interest in the idea, but was talked out of it by advisors worried that cooperation would reveal that the Russians really didn’t have lunar launch capability.

The one-sided race

“The United States was racing only itself,” Logsdon said of that lack of capability. “The Soviet Union, as of September of 1963, didn’t have a lunar program” and, in fact, didn’t decide to try until 1964.

“It was not reality as long as Kennedy was president. It became reality by the end of the decade,” Logsdon said.

Kennedy visited the launch center in Florida on Nov. 16, 1963 and was impressed by the rockets and the facilities.

“This visit excited Kennedy,” Logsdon said. “He came away from the visit full of regained enthusiasm for the program.”

On Nov. 21 Kennedy made a speech in San Antonio in which he said that the conquest of space must and will go ahead. He was assassinated the next day, and that ended any possibility that Apollo would be scrubbed. It became a memorial to the fallen president. Logsdon said it is interesting to speculate about what might have happened if JFK had lived or if Khrushchev had said “yes” to collaboration.

Logsdon said he doesn’t see Kennedy as a visionary in terms of humanity’s future in space.

“He was rather a pragmatic politician that saw a leadership-oriented space program as in the national interest in the particular situation of the early 1960s. He chose the lunar landing as a way of demonstrating the capabilities of this country,” Logsdon said.

Nixon and Apollo

Nixon was sworn in as president six months to the day before Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the Moon with Apollo 11.

“Unlike Kennedy, who saw space in geopolitical and foreign policy terms, Nixon viewed the space program as an issue of domestic politics: of technology, of innovation, of job creation, of something that is part of what the government does to stimulate society,” Logsdon said.

He contends that Nixon made three key decisions about space. He didn’t set a grand goal like going to the Moon or Mars. He opted to treat space exploration as just another one of the things that government does, nothing special. And his administration approved the space shuttle, though Logsdon said they chose to, “build a program around the shuttle without a long-term goal for the shuttle to serve.”

Logsdon said there may have been some wisdom there. A big goal, and an accompanying big budget, could have been a target, while a small, sustainable space program didn’t attract much opposition.

“Nixon was totally convinced of the importance of human spaceflight and of keeping astronauts in orbit, and that human spaceflight was essential to a U.S. leadership position,” Logsdon said. “He was intrigued by the various national security uses of the shuttle, which never happened.”

Naturally, electoral politics entered into it as well. The shuttle program created jobs in California, and Nixon needed to win California to gain re-election.

Logsdon is an engaging speaker and used a lot of video and audio clips in his presentation. His books are worth a look for anyone interested in the history of the space program. To buy the books click the links or book covers above, or visit the Seattle Astronomy Store.

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