Thursday, June 2, 2011

JFK and Apollo, Upon Further Review

NASA Associate Administrator Robert Seamans, Wernher Von Braun and President John F. Kennedy inspect the Saturn 1 rocket at Cape Canaveral on November 16, 1963. Kennedy was assassinated six days later in Dallas.

I wrote a blog on May 25 about the release by the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum of a September 18, 1963 recording of a meeting between Kennedy and NASA Administrator James Webb.

The Library web site released only ten minutes of excerpts online, but was gracious enough to send me the recording of the entire 46-minute meeting.

Click here to listen to the recording. Windows Media Player required.

Dr. John M. Logsdon, the foremost authority on the subject of Kennedy and the space program, published May 31 on The Space Review his review of the entire recording.

In my May 25 blog, I wrote that Kennedy "suggested making Apollo a military program" to conceal that Apollo was, in his own words, "a publicity stunt."

Logsdon's review along with the entire recording show that wasn't a correct interpretation. Logsdon wrote:

What is perhaps the most surprising thing to come out of the tape release is Kennedy's statements that "unless the Russians do something spectacular, the only way we can defend ourselves is if we put a national security rather than a prestige label" on Apollo and that "we've got to wrap around ... a military use for what we’re doing and spending in space" ... At the end of the meeting, Webb offers to bring together a small group of trusted individuals to provide options to the president with respect to giving Apollo a more military aspect, providing what Kennedy had described during the meeting as a "military shield."

Webb offered to step aside so Kennedy could put a "military man" in charge of the Apollo, but Kennedy declined.

I'll also offer the perspective of another book I'm currently reading titled Gateway to the Moon: Building the Kennedy Space Center Launch Complex by Charles D. Benson and William B. Faherty. The book was published in 1978, long before the release of the JFK audio tapes.

The authors on page 144 refer to mid-1963 as "A Time of Reappraisal," noting that various groups were rethinking the wisdom of the Moon program.

... Scientists began to see that the space program made distorting demands on skilled manpower, economic resources, and human determination. And they began to ask if it was really worth doing. Did we have to beat the Russians? Was this the most important scientific effort we could perform? Was NASA perhaps traveling too fast? The President himself seemed to have his doubts when he began to suggest joint space efforts with the Russians.

After Kennedy proposed on September 20, 1963 before the United Nations that the U.S. and USSR explore merging their Moon efforts, he received a letter from Rep. Albert Thomas of Houston, who chaired the House committee in charge of NASA funding. Thomas had used his position to influence directing the Manned Spacecraft Center (now known as Johnson Space Center) to Houston. His letter, according to Benson and Faherty, asked Kennedy "if he had changed his position on the need for a strong U.S. space program. The President replied on 23 September that the nation could cooperate in space only from a position of strength and so needed a strong space program."

This reply would seem to reaffirm Logsdon's interpretation that Kennedy intended no longer to justify Apollo solely on the basis of national prestige, but "a basic need to use technology for total national power" to quote Webb from the September 18 meeting.

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