When President John F. Kennedy made his remarks before a joint session of Congress on May 25, 1961, the American space program was in a bad way. Having been beaten by the Soviets in the race to put the first satellite into low Earth orbit, the United States had been beaten again when Yuri Gagarin became the first man to orbit the Earth on April 12, 1961.
Clearly something had to be done.
Just over a week later, President Kennedy sent a memo to the office of Vice President Lyndon Johnson and asked him the following questions in his capacity as chairman of the White House space council.
“1. Do we have a chance of beating the Soviets by putting a laboratory in space, or by a trip around the moon, or by a rocket to go to the moon and back with a man. Is there any other space program which promises dramatic results in which we could win?
“2. How much additional would it cost?
“3. Are we working 24 hours a day on existing programs. If not, why not? If not, will you make recommendations to me as to how work can be speeded up.
“4. In building large boosters should we put out emphasis on nuclear, chemical or liquid fuel, or a combination of these three?
“5. Are we making maximum effort? Are we achieving necessary results?”
Eight days later Johnson responded. Noting that space achievements increasingly were being seen as an indicator of world leadership and that if the United States did not increase its efforts, it would in due course become hopelessly behind the Soviets, Johnson recommended the moon race.
It was with this evaluation in mind that President Kennedy called a joint session of Congress on May 25. The speech, which was about “urgent national needs,” contained a laundry list of proposals. All most people remember was the following:
“First, I believe 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 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. We propose to accelerate the development of the appropriate lunar space craft. We propose to develop alternate liquid and solid fuel boosters, much larger than any now being developed, until certain which is superior. We propose additional funds for other engine development and for unmanned explorations–explorations which are particularly important for one purpose which this nation will never overlook: the survival of the man who first makes this daring flight. But in a very real sense, it will not be one man going to the moon–if we make this judgment affirmatively, it will be an entire nation. For all of us must work to put him there.”
The Apollo program was motivated by the Cold War between the United States and its allies and the Soviet Union. At its core, it was a psychological warfare strategy to prove the superiority of western democracy over Soviet communism. It was the ultimate shock and awe campaign, but without bombing or gun fire. Apollo could only be compared to the Panama Canal or the Manhattan Project in its scope and its vision.
Kennedy repeated his call for landing a man on the moon during a speech made at Rice University in Houston on September 12, 1962. He repeated the themes of the Cold War competition with the Soviets, adding references to America’s pioneering past to support the moon landing effort.
“We set sail on this new sea because there is new knowledge to be gained, and new rights to be won, and they must be won and used for the progress of all people. For space science, like nuclear science and all technology, has no conscience of its own. Whether it will become a force for good or ill depends on man, and only if the United States occupies a position of pre-eminence can we help decide whether this new ocean will be a sea of peace or a new terrifying theater of war. I do not say the we should or will go unprotected against the hostile misuse of space any more than we go unprotected against the hostile use of land or sea, but I do say that space can be explored and mastered without feeding the fires of war, without repeating the mistakes that man has made in extending his writ around this globe of ours.
“There is no strife, no prejudice, no national conflict in outer space as yet. Its hazards are hostile to us all. Its conquest deserves the best of all mankind, and its opportunity for peaceful cooperation many never come again. But why, some say, the moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? Why does Rice play Texas?
“We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.
“It is for these reasons that I regard the decision last year to shift our efforts in space from low to high gear as among the most important decisions that will be made during my incumbency in the office of the Presidency.“
Nevertheless, about a year later, Kennedy seemed to shy away from the idea of a race to the moon as a means of super-power competition. He made a surprise speech before the UN General Assembly on September 20, 1963 in which he held out the idea of a joint America/Soviet lunar expedition.
The proposal was made for two reasons. First, not only Kennedy but Congress was starting to get leery about the enormous costs of the Apollo program. Sharing resources with the Soviets would seem to be a good way to share the burden. Second, by late 1963 Kennedy was looking for ways to establish friendlier relations with the Soviet Union, A joint space mission seemed to fit right into that strategy.
The joint moon mission proposal went nowhere. The Soviets were cool about the idea. Congress and the American public were decidedly hostile. It smacked of changing directions in midstream. It was understood that the Apollo program was meant to beat the Soviets, not to make friends of them. In any case, the idea died with Kennedy when he was assassinated in Dallas. Though President Johnson tried to revive it briefly, Congress made sure through legislation that it would never fly.
It turned out that President Kennedy was not the only one who was starting to get sticker shock concerning the Apollo program. But the House and the Senate proposed deep cuts in NASA funding for FY1964, essentially proposing a $5.1 billion budget that would have placed the goal of landing on the moon by the end of the decade in doubt.
Sen. William Proxmire, a Democrat from Wisconsin, was a driving force behind this effort, proposing an amendment in the Senate that cut NASA funding roughly $700 million below the Kennedy administration’s request. Proxmire was later to become a tireless foe of manned space flight, opposing virtually every NASA program that involved astronauts, including the space shuttle and the space station Freedom programs as well as SETI, the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence.
Ironically opposition to the Apollo program died with President Kennedy. Apollo became a memorial to the fallen president, a sentiment that sustained the program for the next nine years, until the last moon landing to date, the Apollo 17 mission in December, 1972. A lot of historians give short shrift to the moon landing goal, but Kennedy himself believed that it was the most important decision of his administration. It will almost certainly be the one remembered most, long after the Cuban Missile Crisis, the nuclear test ban treaty, and the civil rights struggle are consigned to history.
The Apollo 11 moon landing was one of the singular events in human history, followed by upwards to a billion people in real time on live TV and radio broadcasts. This viewership was on a planet that had 3.5 or so billion people at the time. The moon landing garnered for the United States a considerable amount of international prestige, something that was somewhat tattered by the Vietnam War and civil strife.
Even so the American people, at least according to polling data gathered by historian Roger Launius, were at best tepid in their response to the Apollo moon landing. Only during the flight of Apollo 11 did more than 50 percent of the American people supported the proposition that the moon landings were worth the cost. This was one reason that the political class was disposed to pull back on space spending, even going so far as cancelling the last three moon landing missions, despite the fact that the hardware had already been built and that savings were minimal.
The Apollo 11 launch was the venue of a protest march, led by a civil rights leader named Rev. Ralph Abernathy led several hundred people to Cape Canaveral to protest what he saw as misplaced priorities, spending money on expeditions to the moon instead of feeding the poor. He was met by then NASA Administrator Thomas Paine, who argued that the great advances made in the exploration of space were child’s play compared to the intractable problems of poverty. Paine said, “if we could solve the problems of poverty by not pushing the button to launch men to the moon tomorrow, then we would not push that button.” The implication clearly was that stopping the lunar expedition would not solve the problems of poverty. Nevertheless Abernathy’s position gained some resonance in the minds of many Americans, particularly politicians on the left,
There is some evidence that the Apollo moon landing program was of net economic benefit for the United States, something that is unique for a government program. According to Jerome Schnee of the Business Administration Department at Rutgers University, at least three economic studies conducted in the 1970s and 1980s suggested that research and development derived from the space program was of net economic benefit for the United States. Much of this occurred in the form of technological spin-offs, technology developed for flying to the moon that wound up having more mundane applications. While NASA and some space enthusiasts have tended to oversell this phenomenon, it still exists and should be taken into account when considering the cost/benefit equation for government space spending.
Some libertarian analysts suggest that the spinoff argument is folly, that money spent on space could be more efficiently be spent in the private sector. This may or may not be so, but it tends to ignore unpleasant political realities. If NASA were abolished and all government space programs were scrapped, there is little hope that the money saved would be plowed into the private sector. It would likely be spent on other government programs, such as social welfare, that would derive far less benefit for the United States.
The Apollo program did lead to a certain degree of good will for the United States around the world. Roger Launius suggests that the Apollo moon landing “met with an ecstatic reaction around the globe, as everyone shared in the success of the astronauts. The front pages of newspapers everywhere suggested how strong the enthusiasm was. NASA estimated that because of nearly worldwide radio and television coverage, more than half the population of the planet was aware of the events of Apollo 11.”
Paul Spudis, a lunar geologist who writes frequently about space policy matters, suggests that it had a different reaction among the Soviet leadership, one the reverberated to the very end of the Cold War, affecting perceptions of another big, technological project.
“President Kennedy started Apollo and the race to the Moon as a Cold War gambit; a way to demonstrate the superiority of a free and democratic way of life to that of our communist adversaries. That goal was successfully achieved to a degree still not fully appreciated today. The success of the Apollo program gave America something it did not realize was so important – technical credibility. When President Reagan announced SDI twenty years later, the Soviets were against it, not because it was destabilizing and provocative, but because they thought we would succeed, rendering their vast military machine, assembled at great cost to their people and economy, obsolete in an instant. Among other factors, this hastened the end of the Cold War in our favor.”
In other words, the Soviets concluded that if the Americans could land a man on the moon, they could succeed in President Reagan’s goal in making nuclear weapons obsolete with a space based missile defense system. Spudis draws a direct line from the Apollo program to SDI and, by implication, to the American victory in the Cold War. The analysis makes one think how sooner the Cold War could have been won had America doubled down on Apollo and drove the lesson of American technological superiority home. Someone should write a book series about that.
The science returns from Apollo are almost beyond evaluation. Smithsonian’s Air and Space Magazine lists just ten of many that reveal much about the moon’s geology and history. Using analytical tools that did not exist during the Apollo lunar missions, scientists continue to make new discoveries.
The closing question for this chapter is, was the Apollo program, which cost roughly $100 billion in current dollars, worth it? It seems that by every measure, politically, economically, and scientific, the answer has to be yes. But that did not matter to those who saw large scale space adventures as an affront.
Mark R. Whittington is the author of The Man from Mars: The Asteroid Mining Caper, The Last Moonwalker and Other Stories and the Children of Apollo trilogy .