Monday, March 14, 2011

Book Review: "John F. Kennedy and the Race to the Moon"

Once upon a time, King Arthur dreamed of a great steed that would aid his Knights of the Round Table in their quest for the Holy Grail. These travels would surely impress other lands that hadn't yet decided whether to align with Camelot or the Saxons. He entrusted his wizard Merlin to conjure up this noble beast to be known as “Apollo,” a god of light and the sun.

As with all fables, this one is fantasy too.

President John F. Kennedy and Arthurian lore were forever linked in American mythology by his wife Jackie shortly after his November 22, 1963 assassination.

And because Kennedy had chosen a manned Moon mission as the field upon which to joust with the Soviet Union, Apollo became part of his administration's Camelot mythology.

Take for example this page on NASA's web site promoting President George W. Bush's Vision for Space Exploration proposal in 2004:

In a time of uncertainty at home and abroad, an American president proposes bold new steps in the exploration of space.

He calls for "longer strides" which "may hold the key to our future here on Earth." He touts the potential of "even more exciting and ambitious exploration of space, perhaps beyond the moon, perhaps to the very end of the solar system itself."

The year is 1961. The president is John F. Kennedy. But the words ring true today, as NASA once again aims for new frontiers with the Vision for Space Exploration.

Kennedy's legacy as a space visionary has been diffused by the prism of history. This myth was substantially debunked by a tape recording of a November 21, 1962 meeting between Kennedy and NASA Administrator James Webb, along with budget and other government officials. Webb pressed for more money to accelerate Apollo as well as conduct more science missions. Kennedy replied, "I'm not that interested in space," and reiterated that his sole interest was in showing the world that U.S. technology was superior to the Soviet Union.

Kennedy with NASA Administrator James Webb.

Now comes John F. Kennedy and the Race to the Moon by Dr. John M. Logsdon, arguably the pre-eminent American space historian of our time. Originally a physicist by education, Logsdon changed careers and by 1970 held a Ph.D. in Political Science. His seminal work, The Decision to Go to the Moon: Project Apollo and the National Interest, was published in 1970 and is described by fellow historian Roger D. Launius as "THE classic study of the process whereby U.S. President John F. Kennedy reached the decision to support an effort to land Americans on the Moon by the end of the 1960s."

Forty years later, Logsdon himself views that original work as insufficient. He writes in his new book's preface, "... I became increasingly dissatisfied with the completeness of the study's narrative elements. The basic story stood the test of time, but because my research for the book was carried out even before Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin reached the Moon, only a very limited base of primary documents on which to base the study was available." He also notes that "I had totally missed an important theme in President Kennedy's thinking in the January - May 1961 period" — Kennedy's desire to seek cooperation in space with the Soviet Union, not competition.

During his Senate years, Kennedy showed no interest in space exploration. Like many Americans in the late 1950s, he mistakenly viewed Soviet achievements with the Sputnik launches aboard their R-7 intercontinental ballistic missiles as evidence of a "missile gap" that threatened U.S. security. (Apparently Kennedy himself originated the phrase, in a Senate speech on August 14, 1958.) During his 1960 presidential campaign, Kennedy received a CIA briefing which showed him no missile gap existed — but he didn't correct the public misperception he himself helped create.

In 1960, Kennedy wrote a letter to a college freshman in which he claimed "it is evident that we have suffered damage to American prestige and will continue to suffer for some time."

The choice of the word "prestige" is interesting because, as the Kennedy administration evolved its thinking about space through an early 1961 task force headed by Vice-President Lyndon Johnson, the word "prestige" is the primary justification. Logsdon cites many internal documents and interviews where "prestige" was weighed as a benefit.

Ted Sorensen, Kennedy's speechwriter and confidant, said that prestige was an important element of the President's decision to propose a manned lunar mission.

Ted Sorensen, Kennedy's advisor and speechwriter, recalls that Kennedy's attitude towards the space program was influenced by "the fact that the Soviets had gained tremendous world-wide prestige from the Gagarin flight at the same time we had suffered a loss of prestige from the Bay of Pigs. It pointed up the fact that prestige was a real and not simply a public relations factor in world affairs."

Defense Secretary Robert McNamara wrote to Johnson that "Dramatic achievements in space, therefore, symbolize the technological power and organizing capacity of a nation," that "major achievements in space contribute to national prestige" and "constitute a major element in the international competition between the Soviet system and our own."

The task force's May 1961 final report stated that, "Projects in space may be undertaken for any one of four principal reasons." They were "gaining scientific knowledge," "commercial or chiefly civilian value," "potential military value," and "for reasons of national prestige."

The U.S. is not behind in the first three categories. Scientifically and militarily we are ahead. We consider our potential in the commercial/civilian area to be superior. The Soviets lead in space spectaculars which bestow great prestige. They lead in launch vehicles need for such missions. These bestow a lead in capabilities which may some day become important from a military point of view.

In retrospect, the last assumption was inaccurate. Kennedy repeatedly sought collaboration in space with the Soviets. Logsdon cites that Nikita Khrushchev wrote in his memoirs he was unwilling to collaborate because it would expose the true weakness of Soviet ICBMs. "We had only one good missile at the time; it was the Semyorka [the R-7 ICBM] ... Had we decided to cooperate with the Americans in space research, we would have had to reveal to them the design of the booster for the Semyorka ... They would have learned its limitations, and from a military standpoint, it did have serious limitations. In short, by showing the Americans our Semyorka, we would have been giving away both our strength and revealing our weakness."

In any case, the Johnson task force report continued:

It is for reasons such as these that major achievements in space contribute to national prestige. Major successes, such as orbiting a man as the Soviets have just done, lend national prestige even though the scientific, commercial or military value of the undertaking may by ordinary standards be marginal or economically unjustified.

This nation needs to make a positive decision to pursue space projects aimed at enhancing national prestige. Our attainments are a major element in the international competition between the Soviet system and our own. The non-military, non-commercial, non-scientific but "civilian" projects such as lunar and planetary exploration are, in this sense, part of the battle along the fluid front of the cold war. Such undertakings may affect our military strength indirectly if at all, but they have an increasing effect upon our national posture. (Emphasis in the original text.)

It was in this context of "prestige" that Kennedy proposed a manned lunar mission, before a joint session of Congress on May 25, 1961. I've written before about that speech and subsequent events, so I won't cover that again, and of course it's covered at length in Logsdon's book.

Logsdon adds a new dimension to the subject, documenting Kennedy's ongoing efforts throughout his administration to collaborate with the Soviets rather than compete.

In his September 20, 1963 speech to the United Nations, President John F. Kennedy proposed a joint Moon mission with the Soviet Union.

Logsdon recalls Kennedy's September 20, 1963 speech before the United Nations. Kennedy proposed that the U.S. and USSR embark on a joint expedition to the Moon. He said:

Why, therefore, should Man's first flight to the Moon be a matter of national competition? Why should the United States and the Soviet Union, in preparing for such expeditions, become involved in immense duplications of research, construction and expenditures?

It may have been the immense expense of Apollo was foremost on his mind. Logsdon writes that Kennedy directed three different reviews in 1963 questioning whether Apollo was worth the cost. All three, including the last that was completed one week after his death, concluded the expense was justified.

But there's also some evidence to suggest that JFK was looking for a way out. At his lecture last Friday at Brevard Community College, Logsdon said a second audio tape exists of Kennedy meeting with NASA administrator James Webb. This meeting was on September 18, 1963, two days before the U.N. speech. The John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum has the tape but so far declines to release it. Until then, we can only speculate about its contents.

In a 1969 oral history interview, Webb said (as quoted by Logsdon):

The President said that he was thinking of making another effort with respect to cooperation with the Russians, and that he might do it before the United Nations, and he said, "Are you in sufficient control to prevent my being undercut in NASA if I do that?" So in a sense he didn't ask me if he should do it; he told me he thought he should do it and wanted to do it and that he wanted some assurance from me as to whether he would be undercut at NASA.

Logsdon's book also sheds light on the early days of NASA and why it grew into today's unwieldly bureaucratic behemoth. Why is the Johnson Space Center located in Houston? It's not because of Lyndon Johnson, common myth to the contrary.

Congressman Albert Thomas was the chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee that controlled NASA's funding. In October 1958, he told NASA Administrator T. Keith Glennan that he would sever funding for a new laboratory unless it was located in Houston.

Rice University was willing to donate 1,000 acres of land to attract the Manned Spacecraft Center (JSC's original name) to Houston. Thomas repeated the earlier offer to James Webb, NASA's new administrator, as well as the implied consequence of turning him down. An initial assessment by the NASA site selection team suggested nine locations — none of them Houston — but "an additional fourteen sites were brought to the attention of the team," Logsdon writes.

President Kennedy with Rep. Albert Thomas in Houston on November 21, 1963. Kennedy was murdered the next day in Dallas.

Logsdon quotes Webb's recollections in his 1969 oral history interview:

... Kennedy at some point called Albert Thomas to seek his support for several bills before the House of Representatives. Thomas had been vague about his willingness to support the bills until Kennedy told him: "Now, you know Jim Webb is thinking about putting this center down in Houston." From that point on, Thomas supported the three bills and "felt that he had a commitment from Kennedy" about the location of the new center.

Twenty-three sites were visited, and more were considered due to political pressures. Massachusetts Governor John Volpe lobbied Kennedy to bring the center to Boston, even though the selection criteria made it clear that local weather must be favorable year-round. Delegations from Virginia and Rhode Island also lobbied for consideration.

The first site chosen was MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, which was scheduled for closure, but the Air Force changed its mind and the selection team moved on to the second choice, the Rice University site in Houston.

The book concludes with a chapter assessing "how well Apollo served the objectives sought by President Kennedy in sending Americans to the lunar surface, in terms of its impact on the evolution of the U.S. space program since the end of Project Apollo, and in terms of how humanity's first journeys beyond the immediate vicinity of their home planet will be viewed in the long sweep of history."

I prefer to evaluate the book in terms of the lessons it can teach us about today's U.S. space program.

The book documents that the Moon program didn't happen simply because JFK walked into Congress one day and said let's go. His proposal happened in a very specific and limited context.

Kennedy had run for office claiming that a "missile gap" existed, and once elected found himself trapped by that claim. He defined the "space race" as the ability to lift heavy payloads into orbit, not by who could first explore the heavens. Like many others of his time, he mistakenly assumed that a heavier payload meant a more devestating nuclear weapon; in reality, it meant that the U.S. was better at miniaturization than the USSR.

When Kennedy visited Cape Canaveral one week before his death, he learned that the Saturn I would be the first American rocket with more thrust than the Soviet equivalent. "That's very important," he told NASA Associate Administrator Robert Seamans. "Now, be sure that the press understands this." Later in the day, he said to Seamans, "Now, you won't forget, will you, to do this?"

In the next two years, Kennedy reiterated to NASA bureaucracy that the goal was to best Soviet lift thrust, as measured by the ability of the Saturn rocket to send a crew to the Moon. Science was not the primary motivation. Prestige was.

President Bush proposes the Vision for Space Exploration on January 14, 2004. His administration attempted to draw parallels with President Kennedy's space program.

That competitive element is missing from today's world of space politics. President Bush proposed in 2004 his Vision for Space Exploration, which begat Constellation and its Ares V heavy-lift rocket intended for missions beyond low Earth orbit. But the Bush administration never sought funding adequate to make it a reality, and Congress showed no inclination to provide it anyway other than to assure jobs were preserved in their districts.

No urgency exists today because there's no perceived external threat making such an exorbitant expense necessary. No other nation has an active crewed lunar mission in the works, nor has one been attempted since the U.S. left the Moon in 1972. Let's say that China, the current bogeyman in some quarters, were to land on the Moon in 2020. So what? We did it fifty years before.

I strongly believe in a permanent human presence in space. It is humanity's destiny to expand and explore, as we've done over the millenia.

But it's wrong to think the answer is an Apollo rerun. The circumstances have changed. A new model is required.

That's a subject for another day. But I recommend that those who think the answer is an "Apollo on Steroids" should read Logsdon's book. Myths are inspirational, but it's important to remember that they're only myths.

1 comment:

  1. Well done, Stephen. This was very interesting and I appreciate the effort that went into it.