|Did Politics Fuel the Space Race?|
Recently released audio recordings from the Kennedy White House reveal that politics, more than science, may have fueled America's race to the moon against the Soviets.
The 73-minute tape, recently released by the John F. Kennedy Library, records a meeting between President Kennedy, NASA Administrator James Webb, Vice President Lyndon Johnson and others in the Cabinet Room of the White House on November 21, 1962.
The discussion reveals a president who felt landing men on the moon should be NASA's top priority and a NASA chief who did not.
When asked by Kennedy if he considered the moon landing to be NASA's top priority, Webb responded, "No sir, I do not. I think it is one of the top priority programs."
Kennedy then urges Webb to adjust his priorities because, "This is important for political reasons, international political reasons. This is, whether we like it or not, an intensive race."
The worlds of politics and science were suddenly at odds. Webb told Kennedy that NASA scientists still had grave doubts about the survivability of a moon landing. "We don't know anything about the surface of the moon," he states, going on to suggest that only through a careful, comprehensive and scientific approach to manned exploration could the U.S. gain "pre-eminence in space."
In 1962, NASA was still generally perceived as a military operation and all of the astronauts were active duty military personnel. To Commander in Chief Kennedy, himself a decorated WWII hero, the "survivability" of military missions undertaken by military personnel, was rarely the main go-no-go factor.
Stressing the importance of beating the Soviets to the moon, Kennedy tells Webb, "We hope to beat them to demonstrate that, starting behind, as we did by a couple of years, by God we passed them."
In the "couple of years" the U.S. had fallen behind, the Soviets had launched both the first earth-orbiting satellite, Sputnik in 1957, and the first earth-orbiting human, Yuri A. Gagarin. In 1959. Also in 1959, the Soviets claimed to have reached the moon with an unmanned probe called Luna 2.
This largely unanswered string of Soviet space successes had already left Americans with chilling visions of nuclear bombs raining down on them form orbit, maybe even the moon. Then, just a few weeks before the Nov. 1962 Kennedy-Webb meeting, a national near-death experience -- the Cuban Missile Crisis -- solidified beating the Soviets to the moon as an absolute necessity in the hearts and minds of the American people.
A mission of military and political importance? You bet it was.
As the White House conversation continues, Kennedy reminds Webb of the "fantastic" amounts of money the federal government had spent on NASA and asserts that future funding should be directed exclusively toward the moon landing. "Otherwise," declares Kennedy, "we shouldn't be spending this kind of money because I'm not that interested in space."
Speaking at the official release of the tape, Kennedy Library archivist Maura Porter suggested that the Kennedy-Webb discussion shows the Cuban Missile Crisis may have caused President Kennedy to view the space race as more of a Cold War battlefield than a field of scientific advancement.
As nuclear tensions lessened, Kennedy eventually sided with Webb in pushing NASA to achieve broad scientific goals, according to John Logsdon, director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University. Kennedy even proposed a joint U.S.-Soviet moon landing mission in a September 1963 address to the United Nations.
Six years after the White House meeting between Kennedy and Web , on July 20, 1969, American Neil Armstrong became the first human to set foot on the moon. The Soviets had by then largely abandoned their lunar program, working instead on extended manned earth-orbital flights culminating years later in the long-lived Mir Space Station.
Between 1969 and 1972, a total of twelve Americans walked and drove the surface of the moon on six separate missions. The sixth and final Apollo lunar landing came on Dec. 11, 1972, when Apollo 17 delivered astronauts Eugene A. Cernan and Harrison H. Schmitt to the moon. Earthlings have not visited the moon since and no future lunar missions are planned by NASA.
Historic Tidbit of Trivia: APOLLO was an acronym for "America's Program for Orbital and Lunar Landing Operations."