The Dark Side of the Moon

John Kennedy’s commitment to put a man on the Moon in the 1960s is often quoted as an inspired civic vision. Gerard DeGroot sees the reality somewhat differently.

30k USSR postage stamp depicting Sputnik 1The Soviet launch of Sputnik on October 4th, 1957, plunged the American people into black despair. In one dramatic stroke, the Russians had undermined the credibility of the United States as a modern, dynamic nation. Worse still, it seemed that if the Russians could put a satellite into orbit, they could surely fire intercontinental ballistic missiles at American cities with deadly accuracy, a point made repeatedly by Senator Lyndon Johnson, the Democratic frontrunner in the race for the presidency. He warned his fellow Americans that, if they did not wake up to the problem, before long the Russians ‘will be dropping bombs on us from space like kids dropping rocks onto cars from freeway overpasses’.

A few days later, when rockets were on everyone’s mind, Senator John Kennedy was enjoying a drink at Boston’s Loch Ober Café. The bartender introduced him to Charles ‘Doc’ Draper, a physics professor at Massachusetts Institute of Tech­nology (MIT) who specialized in rocket guidance. Kennedy got into a good-natured argument with Draper about the value of rockets. While he accepted that they had some practical uses, like propelling nuclear weapons, the idea of exploring space seemed to him a fantasy suitable only for comic books.

Kennedy was, however, an ambitious man who had no intention of letting Johnson ride a rocket to the White House. He therefore decided to challenge LBJ in spreading fear. ‘If the Soviets control space’, he warned,

... they can control the earth, as in past centuries the nation that controlled the seas dominated the continents. … We cannot run second in this vital race. To insure peace and freedom, we must be first.

In fact, Kennedy never remotely believed that Soviet space spectaculars endangered American safety, but he did realize that there were votes to be won from panic.

One month after Sputnik I, the Soviets launched Sputnik II, a capsule weighing about 500 kilos. Inside was Laika, an unfortunate little dog on a one-way trip into space. Laika changed everything. Before her mission, the important issue seemed to be the ability to launch heavy objects into orbit. That capability threatened US security, given its application to Inter-Continental Balistic Missiles. Putting a dog in space, however, was hardly more than a circus stunt. It did not remotely worsen the threat to America. It did, however, complicate the space equation. If, as Laika implied, the future lay in manned missions, that meant that capsules would in future have to include life support systems. What went up would have to come down – safely. The distance a spacecraft could travel and the sort of environment it could explore would be limited by the need to keep astronauts alive. The exact point of it all was not immediately apparent. The Russians had embarked on manned space travel before anyone had realistically discussed whether man had any purpose in space. Where the Russians went, the Americans followed – rather like a blind man being led by a dog.

Kennedy’s adroit manipulation of the space issue helped to ensure his victory in 1960. After that victory, he privately hoped that the space fad would grow stale, rather like the craze for hula-hoops. The new NASA administrator, however, did his best to keep the space mania stoked. James Webb, a former Budget Director, knew precisely how the system of allocating federal funds worked. The one-time gamekeeper became poacher. In order to protect NASA, Webb embedded the agency deeply into the American way of life. As Time observed, NASA under Webb ‘sprouted like Jack’s beanstalk, sucking up men and money at a prodigious rate, sending its tendrils into every state’.

Alarmed by NASA’s remarkable ability to spend money, Kennedy’s science advisor, Professor Jerome Weisner, urged him to abort the man in space programme before it grew into an uncontrollable monster. He warned that, thanks to Laika, the enthusiasm for space travel had moved attention away from the most important rocket application, namely that of strengthening America’s nuclear defences. ‘A crash program aimed at placing a man into an orbit at the earliest possible time cannot be justified solely on scientific or technical grounds’, Weisner argued. ‘Indeed, it may hinder the development of our scientific and technical program … by diverting manpower, vehicles and funds’.

Weisner feared that the space programme would become a quagmire which would engulf the new administration. Granted, that mess was partially of Kennedy’s making, since he had encouraged Americans to draw dangerous conclusions about the significance of Sputnik. Because Kennedy had been so persuasive during the campaign, he was unable to act on Weisner’s advice once in the White House. Thanks to Kennedy, and Laika, the American people had begun to equate technological dominance with the ability to put a man in space.

Desperate to put the space genie back into its bottle, Kennedy suggested that coming first in the race was not worth the risk of losing an astronaut. ‘We are very concerned’, he announced on February 8th, 1961, ‘that we do not put a man in space in order to gain some additional prestige and have a man take disproportionate risk, so we are going to be extremely careful in our work’. That caution meant that the first man in space was Russian. On  April 12th, 1961, Yuri Gagarin was shot into orbit in a Vostok capsule. In contrast to Laika, he returned to earth and immediately began boasting about the superiority of the Soviet system.

Americans again indulged in self-pity. In Congress, politicians argued that the Russian lead in space was directly attributable to the American fondness for luxury – big houses, shag carpets and huge cars with tail fins. Meanwhile, polls across Europe revealed that most people thought the Soviets were technologically superior and militarily stronger than the United States. Newspapers in Africa, Asia and the Middle East showered Gagarin’s accomplishment in hyperbole. According to which paper one read, the achievement was more important than the invention of the printing press, the discovery of the New World, or the advent of the wheel.

American humiliation worsened when, just five days after Gagarin’s flight, the US sent a puppet army of Cuban exiles into the Bay of Pigs. The operation was immediately crushed, leaving Kennedy deeply embarrassed. It seemed that the US could do nothing right. That suggestion was reinforced when, on April 25th, an Atlas rocket went astray and had to be blown up just 40 seconds after take-off. A second test three days later lasted only 33 seconds before explosion painted the sky.

Kennedy kept a brave face, urging his fellow Americans to be patient. In private, however, the President made no attempt to hide his concern. ‘Is there any place we can catch them?’, he asked a small group of experts gathered at the White House:

When we know more, I can decide if it’s worth it or not. If somebody can just tell me how to catch up. Let’s find somebody, anybody, I don’t care if it’s the janitor over there, if he knows how. There’s nothing more important.

Kennedy asked Vice-President Johnson to find a contest which the US might win.

Do we have a chance of beating the Soviets by putting a laboratory in space, or by a trip around the moon, or by a rocket to land on the moon, or by a rocket to go to the moon and back with a man? Is there any other space program which promises dramatic results in which we could win?

Glen Wilson, at that time a professional staffer on the Senate Space Committee, felt that the phrasing of Kennedy’s request was hugely significant:

He didn’t say: What can we do to advance the scientific effort here; what can we find out if we send scientists to the moon? He didn’t say any of that stuff. He said: what can we do to beat the Russians?

Johnson consulted a loaded deck of ‘experts’. NASA engineers were all for going to the moon. Everyone stressed the importance of prestige, even if they admitted that the destination itself was pointless. Greedy congressmen wanted fat contracts for their constituencies. Rather surprisingly, Robert McNamara, the Defense Secretary, threw his weight behind a moon mission. He was trying to reduce budgets in his department and realized that, since NASA was a civilian agency, vast sums could be funnelled into the aerospace industry without affecting the military budget. McNamara liked the idea of rescuing the industry without having to pay a dime.

Johnson reported back to Kennedy on April 28th. ‘Dramatic accomplishments in space are being increasingly identified as a major indicator of world leadership’, he warned. Time was running out. The only way to beat the Russians was to choose a goal much more complicated than that of throwing objects into earth orbit. A race to the moon would force the Russians to compete in areas where the US was still dominant, namely telecommunications, electronics and guidance. That meant that the finishing line had to be the moon.

The fifteen-minute flight of Alan Shepard on May 5th, 1961, was the last piece in Kennedy’s puzzle. Forty-five million Americans watched on live television, and 250,000 turned out to honour Shepard at a ticker tape parade in New York. Kennedy understood how that reaction put enormous pressure on Congress. With impeccable timing, he presented a new space initiative to legislators on May 25th, 1961, proclaiming:

I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range explor­ation of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish. 

The adventure would indeed be costly. In 1961, the total Federal Budget was $94 billion. The budget for the War on Poverty was $1.8 billion. Elementary and secondary education was receiving just $2 billion in federal money. During his speech, Ken­nedy asked Congress for an additional $531 million for the fiscal year 1962, and a five-year commitment of between $7 and $9 billion in order to put a man on the moon. In fact, those requests were misleadingly small. Privately, Webb thought the mission would cost around $40 billion. These costs frightened Ken­nedy, but he could not kill the programme because he had argued that it was essential to American safety and prestige. The space programme was ring-fenced by Cold War fears.

Thanks to Kennedy, Americans were on their way to the moon. But going there had nothing to do with exploring the cosmos or understanding the origins of the universe. The impetus was cold politics. McNamara needed to save the aerospace industry. Johnson wanted to restore American prestige. Congressmen wanted fat contracts. Kennedy wanted to rescue his image. Everyone wanted to beat the Russians. If good reasons for going to the moon ever existed, they had been buried under a pile of politics. ‘We talked a lot about do we have to do this’, Weisner later revealed. Kennedy replied: ‘Well, it’s your fault. If you had a scientific spectacular on this earth that would be more useful – say desalting the ocean – or something that is just as dramatic and convincing as space, then we would do it.’ Weisner concluded that

If Kennedy could have opted out of a big space program without hurting the country … he would have … I think he became convinced that space was the symbol of the twentieth century. It was a decision he made coldbloodedly.

On February 21st, 1962, the day after John Glenn’s successful orbit of the earth, Kennedy sensed an opportunity to bring the space juggernaut under control. He revealed how he had received a phone call from the Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev suggesting that ‘it would be beneficial to the advance of science if our countries could work together in the exploration of Space’. Kennedy announced that he would be replying positively:

I regard it as most encouraging …

We believe that when men reach beyond this planet they should leave their national differences behind them. All men will benefit, if we can invoke the wonders of science instead of its terrors.

Testing the water, Kennedy sent his brother Robert to the Soviet Union to explore the possibility of joint space missions. It seems he wanted to offer the Soviets the opportunity to call off the race, in order to avoid a situation which threatened to cripple both countries financially. Co-operation not only offered a way out of the expensive lunar commitment, it also presented the tantalizing possibility of a foreign policy breakthrough so big that it would put the space race permanently into shade. Détente with the Soviet Union would allow Kennedy to be forgiven for backtracking on his lunar pledge.

The idea, however, was never more than pie in the sky. Without the element of competition, there was no reason to go to the Moon at all. The existence of a high profile, supposedly important, race with the Soviets was the best reason NASA could give for its ever-increasing demands for cash. The same held true for the Russians. As Leonid Sedov of their space agency remarked at the time:

If we really cooperated … neither country would have a program because the necessary large support in money and manpower was only because of the competitive element.

Leaving aside the fact that both the Russian and American space programmes were deeply entangled with secretive military projects (and that is a big matter to leave aside), there was one huge problem with co-operation, namely that so much of what the Soviets had achieved was based on bluff. Their space programme was a great Potemkin village shot into the sky. They knew how to build big boosters, but little else. Huge propaganda gains had been made from their simple ability to throw large objects into orbit. Co-operating with the Americans would destroy the façade of superiority. They would have to open up their space programme to American eyes, whereupon it would become painfully obvious how limited Soviet capabilities actually were. In all the sophisticated techniques needed to put a man on the moon, the US was far ahead, even if this lead could not yet be demonstrated.

A worse situation faced the Americans. If they were to co-operate, the world would assume they were the junior partners in the enterprise and that any subsequent achievements were Russian-led. In other words, neither side would ever be able to  join together while still saving face. The pointless race would therefore have to go on.

With co-operation a dead end, Kennedy searched for other ways to bring NASA under control. In early November 1962, he asked Webb to accelerate Apollo with a view to a lunar landing in 1966. In order to achieve this, Kennedy wanted all other space programmes cut back, including those, like telecommunications and weather satellites, which had genuine value. Webb replied that the idea was unwise and dangerous. A few weeks later, the President returned to the subject. Webb made it clear that getting to the Moon was one of the main objectives of the space agency, but not the only one. Kennedy was not pleased to hear this and insisted that going to the Moon had to be the top priority. ‘Everything that we do should be tied into getting on to the moon ahead of the Russians’, he shouted.

Otherwise we shouldn’t be spending this kind of money, because I am not that interested in space. I think it’s good. I think we ought to know about it. But we’re talking about fantastic expenditures. We’ve wrecked our budget, and all these other domestic programs, and the only justification for it, in my opinion, is to do it in the time element I am asking.

In late October 1963, Khrushchev told reporters that:

It would be very interesting to take a trip to the moon, but I cannot at present say when this will be done. We are not at present planning flights by cosmonauts to the moon.

The newspapers, accustomed to telling readers that the Soviets were far ahead in space, could not contain their astonishment at the possibility that they might abandon the race. Khrushchev, alarmed at the reaction he had provoked, immediately backtracked. ‘Give up such hopes once and for all’, he told Americans. ‘We never said we are giving up on the lunar project. You are the ones who said that.’

The issue underlined Kennedy’s dilemma. He would have loved to be relieved of his commitment to go to the Moon. But, in order to sell the programme, he had been forced to present it as much more than a simple race. He had encouraged Americans to believe in ‘new frontiers’ and had reminded them that man must always explore. While those justifications did not depend on the Soviets retaining interest in the Moon, Soviet interest nevertheless validated them. If the Soviets pulled out, it would be impossible to continue to claim that the quest was important.

By November 1963, the Kennedy space program was a dog’s dinner. He had made the great pledge to land on the Moon by the end of the decade. He had ridden an enormous wave of popular enthusiasm for the Mercury astronauts. He had repeatedly referred to Soviet and American space efforts as a race, a race that the United States had to win. But while the presence of the Soviets in that race made life difficult, given their tendency to trump NASA’s every move, Kennedy could not do without them. The quest lay in the pursuit itself, not in what would be found at the finish line. Kennedy was painfully aware that without the Russians, the race, and certainly spending all that money, would lose its point. He was desperate to find a way out of the bizarre pledge he had made, but the Russians would not co-operate.

On November 22nd, 1963, Kennedy was due to address the Texas Democratic State Committee, in Austin. In the middle of his wide-ranging speech, a paragraph dealt with space:

We have made it clear to all that the United States of America has no intention of finishing second in outer space. … This is still a daring and dangerous frontier; and there are those who would prefer to turn back or to take a more timid stance. But Texans have stood their ground on embattled frontiers before, and I know you will help us see this battle through.

The speech was never delivered. While his motorcade was passing through Dallas, Kennedy was fatally wounded by an assassin’s bullet. His assassination gave the space programme an importance he had hoped to avoid.

Kennedy, it appears, was genuinely frightened by the monster he had created. The exploits of the Mercury astronauts brought him enormous popularity, but also a massive financial commitment. He encouraged the growth of NASA into a mega-institution which devoured money faster than any other federal program. Recognizing what effect this monster would have upon his domestic plans, he tried to defuse the space race, primarily through an agreement with the Soviets to co-operate on a lunar mission. But few people took that quest seriously, especially not the Soviets.

It is reckless to speculate upon what might have happened to the space programme if Kennedy had lived. But what is clear is that the Congressional coalition he had created in 1961 in order to gain approval for the lunar mission had begun to unravel. It is also clear that Kennedy would have welcomed a way out of the space race, if not through co-operation with the Soviets, then perhaps through restrictions imposed by a penny-pinching Congress. But none of that happened. After his death, the space programme became a homage to Kennedy and, as such, untouchable. In 1966, when the combination of the lunar mission and the Vietnam War threatened to derail Johnson’s precious social programmes, he rejected advice that he should abandon the lunar quest. He had no desire to go to the Moon, but could not bring himself to betray Kennedy. In a strange sort of way, the fact that the Americans landed on the Moon in 1969 owes much to Lee Harvey Oswald.

Shortly after Apollo 11 made its lunar landing, an unknown person left a simple message on Kennedy’s grave at Arlington National Cemetery. It read: ‘Mr President, the Eagle has landed.’ One of Kennedy’s most stunning achievements was the way he managed to convince Americans that he actually cared about space. He sold them a sublime adventure which he said was part of their destiny, but was instead motivated by nothing more than a cheap desire to kick lunar dust in Soviet faces. Americans went to the moon for the sake of the President who never really cared.

Gerard DeGroot is Professor of Modern History at the University of St Andrews.

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