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Project Apollo: The Decision

During NASA's first two years, manned space flight managers struggled with the problems of organizing extremely complex and technologically demanding projects. The established space science programs continued to produce new data on the earth and its space environment. President Eisenhower, among others, favored continuing the productive (and comparatively inexpensive) unmanned science programs and withholding judgment on manned programs. In his departing budget message to Congress, the retiring president noted that more work would be needed "to establish whether there are any valid scientific [emphasis added] reasons for extending manned spaceflight beyond the Mercury program."10 In early 1961, a committee of scientists appointed by newly elected President John F. Kennedy recommended that "we should stop advertising Mercury as our major objective in space activities [emphasis in the original]," and instead try to "find effective means to make people appreciate the cultural, public service, and military importance of space activities other than space travel."11 So problem-ridden did Mercury seem that Kennedy's advisers felt the new president should not endorse it and thereby risk being blamed for possible future failures; better, the scientists believed, to emphasize the successful science and applications programs and the tangible benefits they could be expected to produce.

In spite of Mercury's early problems, manned space flight enthusiasts were thinking far beyond manned earth-orbital flights. NASA's engineers were confident that they could send people to the moon and back. A moon flight was an obvious goal for the manned programs. It would be an end in itself, needing no justification in terms of its contribution to some larger goal, and it would demonstrate the nation's superiority in space technology to all the world. Preliminary work and discussion during 1959 turned up no insurmountable obstacles, and in mid-1960 NASA announced its intention to award contracts to study the feasibility of a manned lunar mission. The project even had a name: Apollo. On October 25, study contracts were let to three aerospace firms.12

NASA might conduct studies to show that man could go to the moon, and scientists might argue that manned space flight was of doubtful value, but Congress and the president would have to make the commitment, and the decisive stimulus was still lacking. Then on April 12, 1961, the Soviets once more spurred a major advance in the American space program by sending Major Yuri A. Gagarin into space for one orbit of the earth. Congressional advocates of an all-out effort to "beat the Russians" renewed their cries; influential media organs saw a challenge to America's world leadership, as did many high government officials. President Kennedy called on Vice-President Lyndon Johnson, chairman of the National Space Council, to survey the national space program and determine what project promised dramatic results that would show the United States' supremacy in space. Johnson immediately began consultations with NASA and Defense Department officials and with key members of Congress.13

Kennedy's desire for "dramatic results" did not coincide with what others had in mind for the space program - especially the scientists. Neither Eisenhower's nor Kennedy's science advisers believed that any results from manned space flight could compare with those expected from space science and applications programs. During the debate on the creation of a space agency, the President's Science Advisory Committee (PSAC) issued an "Introduction to Outer Space," which asserted that "scientific questions come first" and that "it is in these [i.e., scientific] terms that we must measure the value of launching satellites and sending rockets into space."14 Eisenhower's chief scientific adviser, James R. Killian, former president of Massachusetts Institute of Technology and chairman of PSAC, said after leaving his White House position in 1960 that the Soviets' space exploits were attempts "to present spectacular accomplishments in space as an index of national strength." He deplored the tendency to design American programs to match the Soviet Union's and urged that the United States define its own objectives and pursue them on its own schedule, not indulge in costly competition for prestige in space exploration - by which he apparently meant manned space flight. "Many thoughtful citizens," Killian said, "are convinced that the really exciting discoveries in space can be realized better by instruments than by man."15 His views were shared by many scientists, including Jerome Wiesner, a member of PSAC since its formation who became principal scientific adviser to John Kennedy. What the scientists could not, or would not, recognize was that their excitement was neither understood nor shared by any substantial majority of the people.

Some scientists, however, believed the space program should include elements with strong public appeal. The Space Science Board of the National Academy of Sciences,* NASA's officially designated source of scientific advice, discussed the question of man in space early in 1961 and later that year adopted a position paper on "Man's Role in the National Space Program." The board asserted that the goal of the nation's space program should be the scientific exploration of the moon and the planets but recognized that nontechnical factors were vital to public acceptance of a space program. Human exploration of the moon and planets would be "potentially the greatest inspirational venture of this century and one in which the world can share; inherent here are great and fundamental philosophical and spiritual values which find a response in man's questing spirit. . ." Thus the space exploration program must be developed "on the premise that man will be included. Failure to adopt . . . this premise will inevitably prevent man's inclusion," presumably because of the costs involved. "From a scientific standpoint," the paper went on, "there seems little room for dissent that man's participation in the exploration of the Moon and planets will be essential, if and when it becomes technologically feasible to include him."16 This endorsement of man's participation in space exploration was at variance with a substantial body of opinion in the American scientific community, as events of the next two years would show; and the board's adduction of nonscientific values to justify manned space flight would later draw pontifical rebuke from an influential scientific organization.17

On May 8, 1961, Lyndon Johnson's survey of the space program culminated in a lengthy report drafted by NASA and Defense Department officials. The report recommended strengthening the civilian space program in all areas. Particularly pressing was the need for new and much more powerful launch vehicles. As for the best way to put the nation ahead of the Soviets, the report chose a manned lunar landing: "It is man, not mere machines, in space that captures the imagination of the world." However small its value in military or scientific terms, such a project would not only recover the country's lost prestige, it would stimulate advances in every phase of space technology and give the nation the means to explore space in whatever way best suited the circumstances.18

With this strong endorsement of a lunar landing project, and after Alan Shepard's successful suborbital Mercury flight on May 5, Kennedy put together a message to Congress on "Urgent National Needs," which he delivered in person on May 25, 1961. While the speech covered many issues, its major impact was on the space program. In it Kennedy expressed his belief that a manned lunar landing, "before this decade is out," should be the principal goal of the American space effort. Stressing that this meant a long and costly development program to reestablish the nation's world leadership in technology, he cautioned that "if we are to go only halfway, or reduce our sights in the face of difficulty . . . it would be better not to go at all."19 It was a call for the country to commit itself wholeheartedly to a long-term project that required sustained effort, substantial cost, and determination to see it through to a successful conclusion.

If congressional reaction was less than enthusiastic, as Kennedy is reported to have felt afterwards,20 events of the following summer proved that Congress was solidly behind the venture. The supplemental budget request to get Apollo under way - $675 million over Eisenhower's proposed $1.1 billion - carried both houses with large majorities after little debate and suffered only minor reduction by the House Appropriations Committee.21 Congress and the nation were eager to see Apollo succeed; but NASA engineers, while confident that it could be done, better understood the magnitude of the task. Robert R. Gilruth, head of the Space Task Group, recalled later that he was simply aghast at what NASA was being asked to do.22

* The National Academy of Sciences is a private, nongovernmental body chartered in 1863 to promote the advancement of science and to provide advice, when asked, to the government on scientific matters. Membership in the Academy is regarded as recognition of eminence in research and is the highest honor an American scientist can be awarded short of the Nobel prize. See Daniel S. Greenberg, "The National Academy of Sciences: Portrait of an Institution," Science 156 (1967): 222-29, 360-64, and 488-93. In June 1958 the Academy created a Space Science Board to advise the government on the space science program.

10. Documents on International Aspects of the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, 1954-1962, staff report prepared for the Senate Committee on Aeronautical and Space Sciences (Washington, 1963), p. 188: the quote is from Eisenhower's annual budget message to Congress, Jan. 18, 1961.

11. "Report to the President-Elect of the Ad Hoc Committee on Space," Jerome B. Weisner, chmn., (classified version), Jan. 12, 1961, p. 10.

12. Brooks, Grimwood, and Swenson, Chariots, pp. 7-17.

13. John M. Logsdon, The Decision to Go to the Moon: Project Apollo and the National Interest (Cambridge Mass.: MIT Press, 1970), pp. 108-109, 112-115.

14. President's Science Advisory Committee, Introduction to Outer Space (Washington, 1968), p. 6.

15. James R. Killian, address to the M.I.T. Club of New York, Dec. 13, 1960; quoted in Logsdon, Decision, p.20.

16. Space Science Board of the National Academy of Sciences-National Research Council, " Role in the National Space Program," reprinted in Senate, Committee on Aeronautical and Space Sciences, National Space Goals for the Post-Apollo Period, 89th Cong., 1st sess. (henceforth 89/1), 1965, pp. 242-43.

17. Logsdon, Decision, p. 86.

18. James E. Webb and Robert S. McNamara, memo to the President, "Recommendations for our National Space Program: Changes, Policies, Goals, " May 8, 1961.

19. Logsdon, Decision, pp. 127-28.

20. Ibid., p. 129.

21. Ibid.

22. Brooks, Grimwood, and Swenson, Chariots, p. 31.

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