Monday, April 20, 2015

Book Review: After Apollo, Part One

You can't really read John Logsdon's After Apollo? Richard Nixon and the American Space Program without reading its predecessor, John F. Kennedy and the Race to the Moon.

I reviewed the JFK book in March 2011, shortly after its publication in hardcover. The book's principal contribution was debunking many of the myths that surround Kennedy's May 1961 proposal to send a man to the Moon by the end of the 1960s. Generally recognized as our nation's foremost space policy analyst, Dr. Logsdon produced one document after another to prove that Kennedy's primary interest in space was “prestige.” In fact, a November 21, 1962 recording of a heated meeting between Kennedy and Webb reveals the President stating, “I'm not that interested in space,” reminding the NASA administrator that the program's purpose was to prove to the world that American technology was superior to the Soviet Union.

We can only speculate what would have happened if Kennedy had not died in Dallas on November 22, 1963.

The political consequences of what he unleashed are reflected in Dr. Logsdon's After Apollo.

The full title has a question mark in it, but for brevity's sake I'll drop it here.

Whatever political “prestige” Kennedy believed the nation would reap from Apollo, the irony is that it was reaped by Richard Nixon.

I grew up in Nixon's suburban Southern California stomping grounds. My family's home was in Nixon's first Congressional district. I lived for over 30 years in Orange County, frequenting not only the Nixon Presidential Library & Museum in Yorba Linda, but also San Clemente where Nixon's Casa Pacifica was located.

Nixon's impeachment trial was during my senior year of high school. Jimmy Carter had already succeeded Gerald Ford when my university offered a Political Science course on Nixon's political career. (I wrote a paper on Nixon's psychology, despite the teacher's warning not to do so.)

I even frequented Nixon's favorite Mexican restaurant, El Adobe in San Juan Capistrano. More about Nixon and El Adobe in this July 2014 San Clemente Times article.

You couldn't be a political wonk in those days without Richard Nixon being an influence on your thinking, for better or for worse.

The word “Watergate” is all but unmentioned in After Apollo. My guess is Dr. Logsdon found no relevance between the scandal and the decision to build what we know today as the Space Shuttle. The critical decisions were made long before the investigations in 1973 and 1974 that led to the downfall of Nixon and many in his administration.

The original design of the Nixon Library featured a Watergate room that implied the Kennedys were behind the investigation. Although Nixon and John Kennedy had been good friends, politically Nixon seemed to have an inferiority complex when it came to the Kennedy clan.

And so the god of irony chose to put Nixon in office in January 1969 to reap the “prestige” from the program most identified with his political rival.

Kennedy never had the opportunity to reap his prestige. Based on Logsdon's books, I conclude that JFK wanted the nation — not himself personally— to reap the prestige. If successful, politically he would personally benefit as a consequence.

For Nixon, it was the reverse. He and his inner circle determined in early 1969 that any Apollo prestige would accrue to Nixon personally, which he would spend as he saw fit.

Both Presidents saw the political value in being associated with astronauts, but Nixon took it one step further by requesting active astronaut Frank Borman as his personal liaison with NASA. To my knowledge, no President before or since has sought to have an active duty astronaut assigned to the Oval Office.

July 24, 1969 ... Astronaut Frank Borman (right) attends to President Nixon as he watches Apollo 11 land. Image source:

Nixon fully intended to reap Kennedy's “prestige” by sending Borman on a tour of allied nations. Subsequent Apollo crews, in particular the Apollo 11 crew who had first set foot on the Moon, were directed by the White House to take tours of nations friendly to the United States.

Logsdon quotes Borman on page 9 as saying that “Nixon was not only genuinely interested in space, but seemed to have embraced me personally as the space program's symbolic representative.” Borman was sent after the inaugural on a tour of European allies, the earliest steps towards a Nixon idea of flying astronauts from nations friendly to the United States as a reward for their support.

For all his neuroses, Nixon was a foreign policy chess master. He saw the southeast Asian wars as a sideshow distracting from the more important task of finding a détente with the Soviet Union. Nixon and his foreign policy advisor, Henry Kissinger, planned to normalize the relationship between the United States and China, which might be coaxed from its alliance with the USSR.

Logdson writes on page 13 that Nixon saw the Apollo 11 prestige as a tool in that quest.

Nixon also decided in June to make his long flight to the Apollo 11 splashdown on July 24 the first stop on a round-the-world diplomatic tour that would have as its theme “The Spirit of Apollo.” In this way Nixon could use his long trip to be present at the mission's end as a springboard for broader diplomatic purposes. In particular, Nixon was eager to visit Romanian head of state Nicolae Ceausescu, who had indicated that he could serve as a communication channel to Chinese Premier Chou En-Lai for a Nixon initiative to begin the process of normalizing the U.S.-Chinese relationship. This planning assumed ths mission's success, which was certainly not guaranteed, and thus represented significant risk-taking on Nixon's part.

Click the arrow to watch President Nixon address the quarantined Apollo 11 crew on July 24, 1969. The presidential seal was added to the Mobile Quarantine Facility just before Nixon's arrival. Original video source: NBC News.

On Page 16, Logsdon writes that in early July 1969, as the Apollo 11 launch date approached, Nixon dispatched Borman to the Soviet Union, accepting an earlier invitation from Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin. Logsdon quotes Borman as remembering that Nixon “was already intrigued” with the idea of a joint U.S.-Soviet space mission — something President Kennedy proposed at the United Nations in September 1963, as Logsdon wrote in his JFK book. Where Kennedy failed, Nixon would succeed. The 1975 Apollo-Soyuz mission became the public face of détente. But Nixon was in disgrace by then, having resigned in August 1974.

Logsdon also writes on page 28 that the White House wanted to personally choreograph the Apollo 11 crew's global tour.

Little in what NASA was proposing was acceptable to the White House, which wanted a “highly political and carefully choreographed” tour designed to “reward friends, snub foes” and to produce “a flood of positive foreign headlines.” Nixon, reflecting his August 14 decision to take over from NASA the responsibility for planning the astronaut trip, told Kissinger “if you leave things in their [government bureaucrats] hands like this, they come out with an utter disaster.”

A replica of the plaque left by Apollo 11 astronauts on the Moon. Image source: NASA.

Nixon's signature appears on the Apollo 11 plaque left on the Moon. According to Logsdon, that idea came from NASA, “without White House urging, reflecting the space agency's interest in making the president positively disposed toward NASA's post-Apollo plans.”

After Apollo implicitly argues that Kennedy was right — the human lunar spaceflight program could be reaped for international prestige at the expense of the Soviet Union.

But my opinion is that it was Richard Nixon who reaped it far more than Kennedy or his successor, Lyndon Johnson.

In John F. Kennedy and the Race to the Moon, Logsdon concludes on page 238 that Apollo did result in prestige for the United States and therefore for Kennedy, although the evidence he offers is largely intangible:

In terms of both shorter-term and more lasting impacts on U.S. international prestige and the associated national pride, Apollo was a substantial success. Within months of JFK's clarion call, NASA and U.S. industry were mobilized in a high-profile pursuit of the lunar landing goal. By declaring that the United States intended to take a leading position in space, and by then taking the steps to turn that declaration into practice, Kennedy effectively undercut the unilateral Soviet space advantage in dramatic space achievements well before any comparable U.S. success. The successful achievements of Projects Mercury and Gemini, and most notably the February 1962 first U.S. orbital flight of John Glenn, became initial steps in JFK's lunar quest and thus made the U.S. space program of the 1960s a source of international prestige and national pride. The psychological and political advantages of early Soviet space successes were quickly and effectively countered.

Logsdon seems to suggest that it was the mobilization itself, and not the actual achievement of boots on the Moon, that created prestige for the nation.

I don't know if this conclusion can be quantified. Kennedy never faced his re-election, so we don't know how the Moon program would have played out as a 1964 campaign issue. And as space historian Roger Launius wrote in 2003, polls throughout the 1960s show that voter support for the Moon program was tepid at best:

Consistently throughout the 1960s a majority of Americans did not believe Apollo was worth the cost, with the one exception to this a poll taken at the time of the Apollo 11 lunar landing in July 1969. And consistently throughout the decade 45–60 percent of Americans believed that the government was spending too much on space, indicative of a lack of commitment to the spaceflight agenda.

It's doubtful that Kennedy had calculated any long-range strategy for reaping this “prestige” when he proposed the Moon program to Congress on May 25, 1961. The proposal, near the end of a 45-minute speech titled On Urgent National Needs, was a reaction to a political crisis created by Yuri Gagarin's April 12, 1961 orbit of the Earth and exacerbated by the Bay of Pigs fiasco a week later.

That political crisis was partially Kennedy's fault, because as a Senator and presidential candidate he had claimed a “missile gap” existed between the U.S. and USSR.

It was an accusation he used against candidate Nixon in the 1960 general election. Nixon was Vice President under Dwight Eisenhower, and became the surrogate target of claims that the incumbent administration was weak on defense.

But the accusation was false. There was no missile gap, and Kennedy was told just that by government intelligence experts once he assumed office.

In Dr. Walter McDougall's 1986 Pulitzer Prize-winning space history book ... the Heavens and the Earth, he quotes on page 204 comments made by Vice President Nixon on December 10, 1959 at a dinner meeting of NASA and presidential science advisors to debate the administration's future space policy:

Speaking without notes, Nixon rambled on for forty-five minutes, the august audience listening in confusion, boredom, or admiration to a man who grasped, rightly or wrongly, the political symbolism of the Space Age. Politics, thought Nixon, had to rank higher than science. Congress would seek to make the U.S. program seem a failure and try to vote more money whatever the budgetary consequences. The real motive in space was prestige, but the excuse for action would be the presumed military implications.

McDougall writes on pages 218-219 of how, as early as the Sputnik crisis in the fall of 1957, the Democrats in Congress plotted to “play up the missile gap” allegedly caused by the Eisenhower administration being “primarily interested in restraining the federal budget.” This Democratic strategy was aimed squarely at Nixon, and was formulated in January 1960, just a month after Nixon's dinner comments.

John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon at a 1960 televised campaign debate. Image source: Life.

So I suppose there's a certain vengeance in Nixon reaping Kennedy's prestige, intended or not.

It's a line of thought that Logsdon doesn't consider in the book, although certainly he notes how the Nixon administration went out of its way to avoid any acknowledgement of Kennedy during the events of 1969.

Logsdon writes on page 9 that “Richard Nixon agreed with Kennedy's rationale for the lunar landing effort.” The historical evidence is persuasive that Nixon concurred with the “prestige” argument, and exploited it as a foreign policy tool to a degree that Kennedy and Johnson never attempted.

If, indeed, it played some peripheral role in coaxing China to normalize relations with the United States at the Soviet Union's expense, then Nixon reaped the prestige in a way Kennedy never could have imagined.

Logsdon writes at the end of Chapter 1, on page 30:

Richard Nixon was able to harvest the fruits of Kennedy's and Johnson's nurturing of Apollo without any additional commitment of tangible resources on his part. His major, and not insignificant, contribution was linking the prestige of the office of the president of the United States to the Apollo achievement. He did so skillfully, personally orchestrating his engagement with the lunar landing and its aftermath.

The rest of the book is about how the Nixon administration moved beyond the “prestige” rationale, acknowledging that, as peace was made with the Communist bloc, prestige would no longer be a convincing argument for spending billions on space as a propaganda stunt.

The end of “prestige” as a rationale was lost on NASA's administrators, who believed the rhetorical arguments of a decade ago would still apply in the decade ahead.

In a bit of literary whimsy, Dr. Logsdon chose to structure After Apollo as a two-act play, with an overture, Act One “No More Apollos,” Act Two “What Next?” and then a finale followed by an epilogue.

So it's only fitting that my review also be in two acts.

Part Two will focus on the core of After Apollo, the long and tortured process that led to the Space Shuttle program.

UPDATE May 29, 2015Click here to read Part Two of the review.

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