Sunday, January 23, 2011
When JFK Met with NASA
President John F. Kennedy recorded a November 21, 1962 meeting with NASA Administrator James Webb.
In a May 6, 2010 article, I exposed the myth that President John F. Kennedy was a space visionary who wanted to create a vigorous — and permanent — government-funded human space flight program.
The key evidence is an audio recording of a November 21, 1962 meeting in the Oval Office that included Kennedy, NASA Administrator James Webb, and various other executives from NASA and the Bureau of the Budget. In the recording, Kennedy can be heard telling Webb, "I'm not that interested in space," reminding the bureaucrats his priority was to show the world that American technology is superior to the Soviet Union, not science or space exploration.
The NASA History web site has the audio recording online, and a transcript. This is your opportunity to listen yourself, and/or read the transcript, to understand in context JFK's motivations behind the Moon program.
Click here for the two-part audio links. (You will need RealPlayer if you don't already have it; the download is free.)
Click here for the 28-page transcript. (You will need Acobe Acrobat Reader if you don't already have it; the download is free.)
The debate between Kennedy and Webb about priorities begins on Page 14 of the transcript. Here's one key statement by JFK:
[The Moon program] is important for political reasons, international political reasons. This is, whether we like it or not, in a sense a race. If we get second to the Moon, it's nice, but it's like being second any time. So that if we're second by six months, because we didn't give it the kind of priority, then of course that would be very serious. So I think we have to take the view that this is the top priority with us.
Keep in mind that, in the wake of Sputnik, Kennedy had criticized the Eisenhower administration for allegedly being too passive in its rocket development. He didn't want that same argument used against him, having established the precedent himself.
When Webb argued for more funding and priority for science, Kennedy bristled. In response to Webb's question asking why science can't be used to show American technological superiority, JFK replied:
Because, by God, we keep, we've been telling everybody we're preeminent in space for five years and nobody believes it because they have the booster and the satellite. We know all about the number of satellites we put up, two or three times the number of the Soviet Union . . . we're ahead scientifically.
Webb continued to argue his position, but Kennedy was blunt about what was the official policy.
I do think we ought get it, you know, really clear that the policy ought to be that this is the top-priority program of the Agency, and one of the two things, except for defense, the top priority of the United States government. I think that that is the position we ought to take. Now, this may not change anything about that schedule, but at least we ought to be clear, otherwise we shouldn't be spending this kind of money because I'm not that interested in space. I think it's good; I think we ought to know about it; we're ready to spend reasonable amounts of money. But we're talking about these fantastic expenditures which wreck our budget and all these other domestic programs and the only justification for it, in my opinion, to do it in this time or fashion, is because we hope to beat them and demonstrate that starting behind, as we did by a couple years, by God, we passed them.
On January 20, 2011, Congress noted the 50th anniversary of Kennedy's inauguration. U.S. Senator Harry Reid (D-NV) recalled Kennedy's lunar program proposal. Like most people, he invoked the mythology rather than the reality behind Apollo.
He was right — it would be hard. Not just the technology, but also the politics. Opponents called his vision a "boondoggle" and a "science-fiction stunt." But President Kennedy knew from the start what was waiting for America in the stars.
On his first day as president, he invited the crowd gathered here at the Capitol — and the millions who were watching and listening — to join him in exploring the worlds beyond ours and seizing the wonders of science.
And throughout the brief time he was our nation’s leader, he insisted that our nation lead the sprint to conquer space — and that we finish that race first.
Reid was right that Kennedy wanted the United States to win the space race. But it was for reasons that had little to do with exploration or science.