Wednesday, May 25, 2011

JFK Feared Apollo Would "Look Like a Stunt"

President John F. Kennedy with NASA Administrator James Webb.

On the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy's speech before Congress proposing a Moon program, the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum released excerpts from a recording of a September 1963 meeting between Kennedy and NASA Administrator James Webb.

The recording is the second released by the JFK Library. The first was a recording of a November 1962 meeting that included Kennedy, Webb, and various NASA and administration officials.

The first recording substantially debunked the mythology that Kennedy was a space visionary. He is heard telling Webb, "I'm not that interested in space," reinforcing that his goal was not a robust and sustained space exploration program but to show the world that U.S. technology was superior to the Soviet Union.

The new release contains six excerpts totalling about 10 minutes from a 46-minute meeting. I've requested a copy of the entire recording and will post it online when available.

This meeting was held on September 18, 1963, two days before a speech to the United Nations in which he proposed that the U.S. and USSR merge their space programs for a joint Moon mission. It was about two months before his assassination in Dallas.

In the excerpts released by the Library, Kennedy worries that public support of the Moon program is waning, and that it will affect his re-election chances. As heard in the recording of the November 1962 meeting, Kennedy is very concerned about the escalating costs.

Acknowledging it may be difficult to justify the expense solely on prestige — which was a main reason during internal Administration discussions in early 1961 — Kennedy suggests to Webb that they abandon the nominally civilian nature of NASA to declare the Moon program was a military adventure:

Well I talked to the other day, about 2 weeks ago, to McNamara and Gilpatric for a few minutes and said that I thought the space program, looking ahead, unless the Russians did something dramatic and we don’t have anything dramatic coming up for the next 12 months, so it’s going to be an attack on the budget, but this looks like a hell of a lot of dough to go to the moon when you can go — you can learn most of that you want scientifically through instruments and putting a man on the moon really is a stunt and it isn’t worth that many billions. Therefore the heat's going to go on unless we can say this has got some military justification and not just prestige. Otherwise Eisenhower is going to be kicking us around and we’re going to look like he’s probably right — they don’t want to spend that kind of dough. Why should we spend that kind of dough to put a man on the moon? (break) But it seems to me what we’ve got to try and do, is for the reasons you suggested: we’ve got to wrap around in this country, a military use for what we’re doing and spending in space. If we don’t, it does look like a stunt and too much money — some people – Christ, we can’t get money for some ( ) and all the rest and people saying we’re spending billions in going to the moon. If we can show that that’s true but there’s also a very significant military use. Now how are we going to do that.

It's stunning that Kennedy would toy with the notion of converting the Moon program to a military affair, because the National Aeronautics and Space Act is clear that NASA is civilian in nature and all military activities in space are the purview of the Department of Defense. That separation was written into the Act in 1958 because President Eisenhower feared any U.S. militarization would give the USSR justification to do the same.

I wrote a year ago that the Moon program was "a publicity stunt" intended to "show the world our technology was better than the Soviet Union."

In his own words, Kennedy admitted as much and suggested making Apollo a military program to conceal that.

This new recording is yet more evidence that Kennedy's Moon program was not what fifty years of mythology have portrayed it.

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