John F. Kennedy’s call to send a man to the moon symbolized the soaring ambition associated with his presidency. In private, he was more a cold-eyed realist, concerned that the mission would be dismissed as a costly “stunt” and might be better recast as a military venture.
A presidential recording to be released today by the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum reveals a Kennedy conversation in the Oval Office with then-NASA administrator James Webb in which the president expresses doubts that belie his public promotion of manned space travel.
“This looks like a hell of a lot of dough to go to the moon,” Kennedy told Webb at the September 1963 meeting.
The release marks the 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s speech to Congress on May 25, 1961, in which he said the U.S. should commit within the decade to “landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth.”
“No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish,” Kennedy said.
Two years after that address, the president was confronting budget issues as he was contemplating his 1964 re-election campaign, acknowledging that the moon mission probably wouldn’t be accomplished during his time in office.
His conversation with Webb took place on Sept. 18, 1963, two months before the president was assassinated in Dallas.
Heat Is On
During the meeting, Kennedy voiced concern about possible criticism of the venture when “you can learn most of that you want scientifically through instruments,” according to a transcript. Some people might think “putting a man on the moon really is a stunt and it isn’t worth that many billions,” Kennedy told Webb of the program, which ultimately cost about $20 billion, according to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
“Therefore, the heat’s going to go on unless we can say this has got some military justification and not just prestige.”
John Logsdon, author of the book, “John F. Kennedy and the Race to the Moon,” said the space program “was never dreamy and lofty in Kennedy’s mind. He was worried that the prestige value wasn’t enough.”
“The key was that this was a political conversation in which Kennedy was worried about how he was going to maintain support for a program that he thought in the long run was a good idea,” said Logsdon, a space-policy specialist at George Washington University in Washington.
Logsdon said Kennedy had been bothered by a Reader’s Digest article in August 1963 that questioned whether the U.S. pursuit of a moon landing was as valuable as the Soviet Union orbiting the Earth, a mission with greater direct military application.
‘I Am Concerned’
At one point, Webb asked the president, “Would you be better off thinking about ‘64 in the political year, if you just took a military man and put him in charge of this program?”
Kennedy said that wasn’t necessary, “but I am concerned.” He added: “I think this can be an asset, this program. I think in time, it’s like a lot of things, this is mid-journey and therefore everybody says ‘what the hell are we making this trip for’ but at the end of the thing they may be glad we made it.”
Maura Porter, archivist of the Kennedy Library, said the conversation showed the “full spectrum” of the president’s views on the space program.
“You have the president being doubting, that space programs have no political positives, but then later on he talks about how they are mid-journey and happy we did this,” Porter said. “He doesn’t want to back away but wants to make it happen. Do we tie it to national security? How do we sell it the best way?”
Porter also said Kennedy was weighing the cost of the program against the probability that there would be no political payoff for him while in office.
“If I get re-elected, I’m not -- we’re not -- go to the moon in my -- in our period, are we?” Kennedy said.
“Ah, no, you’re not going,” Webb replied.
The NASA chief emphasized to Kennedy that the moon mission would enhance “a basic ability in this nation to use science and very advanced technologies to increase national power -- our economy all the way through.”
More than looking at the space program for its technological potential, Kennedy viewed it through a Cold War prism, telling Webb that if the Soviets didn’t pull off any breakthroughs, it could be difficult to maintain domestic support.
Trouble Catching Up
The U.S. had been struggling to catch up to the Soviets. On April, 12, 1961, Yuri Gagarin had become the first human to orbit the Earth, a victory for the Russians over the Americans and a source of embarrassment to Kennedy. A month later, Kennedy addressed a joint session of Congress with his man-on-the moon challenge.
In public, Kennedy continued to champion NASA. In a speech at the dedication of the Aerospace Medical Health Center in San Antonio, Texas, the day before he was killed, Kennedy said: “This nation 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. Whatever the hazards, they must be guarded against.”
When astronaut Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon on July 20, 1969, the goal was realized.