May 25, 2011 --
Today marks the anniversary of a major milestone in human spaceflight history. Fifty years ago, on May 25, 1961, President John F. Kennedy announced before a special joint session of Congress the ambitious goal of sending American astronauts to the moon before the end of the decade. This moment pushed the United States down a path that culminated in the first manned lunar landing in 1969. But as a new 46-minute audio tape released in Wednesday can attest, convincing lawmakers to send men to the moon was far from easy. The tape is part of 260 hours of White House recordings from the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum.
1961 was a landmark year for Kennedy's presidency and for the beginning of an idea that would ultimately shape the burgeoning U.S. space agency, NASA. Soviet Russia had beaten the U.S. into space in 1957 with the launch of the world's first artificial satellite, Sputnik. To add insult to injury, the Soviets also put the first man in space on April 12, 1961. Add all this to the tensions following the Bay of Pigs fiasco, Kennedy was under mounting pressure to ensure the U.S. could overtake its Space Race superpower rival. Saving some face, on May 5, 1961, Alan Shepard carried the U.S. into the history books with his suborbital flight. It may not have been the orbital feat Yuri Gagarin had experienced, but it was enough to win over the U.S. public and lawmakers. Then Kennedy announced that the target should become the ultimate "high ground:" He set NASA to the task of sending mankind to the moon.
On May 25, 1961, Kennedy addressed Congress, making his famous call for the U.S. to reach the moon by the end of the decade. Although it was a bold, impassioned statement, Kennedy was realistic about the commitment the nation would need to make: "No single space project in this period ... will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish." According to the released White House audio tapes -- recorded 2 years after his famous Congressional appearance and only 2 months before he was assassinated on Nov. 22, 1963 -- Kennedy had a conversation with NASA Administrator James Webb, both men battling to justify the expense of pushing to the moon.
"It's become a political struggle now," Kennedy said in the Sept. 18, 1963, conversation with Webb. "We've got to hold this thing, goddamn it." In undertones that mirror many of the human spaceflight funding issues we have today, the pair were worried about the "driving desire to cut the budget," as Webb put it.
"We choose to go to the moon in this decade..."
In the 1963 recording, Kennedy shares his concerns for the moon program. "I don't think the space program has much political positives," Kennedy tells Webb. Interestingly, Kennedy highlights the political motivation for the development of the Apollo Program. The Soviets appeared to slow its momentum for human spaceflight development, despite early gains. The lack (or slowdown) of a Soviet threat appeared to be impacting U.S. political impetus. "I mean if the Russians do some tremendous feat, then it would stimulate interest again, but right now space has lost a lot of its glamor," he said. Webb pushed the spin-offs of the program, pointing out that the gains of science and technology should be enough. "I think it's going to generate the technology that's going to make a difference for this country far beyond space," he says.
Instruments For Less?
Kennedy and Webb also debated whether humans should be sent to the lunar surface at all. "Do you think the lunar, manned landing on the moon is a good idea?" Kennedy asks. Was a manned mission just a PR stunt? Wouldn't it be better just to send scientific instruments to the moon, saving billions in the process? While Webb argued the scientific positives, the pair agreed that the manned mission would have national security benefits, too. "The heat's going to go on unless we can say this has got some military justification and not just prestige," Kennedy says in the recording. "I think it's the only way we're going to be able to defend it before the public in the next 12 months," he added. "I want to get the military shield over this thing."
In an interview with the Associated Press, Maura Porter, a John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum archivist, said that despite the political wrangling and pressure of the Space Race with the Soviets, Kennedy had a very basic drive to send the U.S. to the moon. "He loved the idea of being adventurers and being explorers," Porter said. Unfortunately, Congress wouldn't have funded NASA on that basis alone and Porter speculates that if Kennedy had won a second term in office, he would have likely backed away from the space program. But in the recording, Kennedy asks Webb if there was any chance that he would see a lunar landing while he was in office. "It's just going to take longer than that," Webb says. "This is a tough job, a real tough job." Kennedy sounded deflated on hearing this. Although Kennedy kick-started the lunar program, he never saw a bootprint in the lunar regolith. He was assassinated in Dallas, Texas, on on Nov. 22, 1963. Neil Armstrong descended from the Apollo 11 lunar module on July 20, 1969.