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Project Apollo: The Debate

Support for the Apollo commitment was not unanimous, either in Congress or among the public. The public opposition most often questioned the wisdom of spending so much money on space when so many domestic problems confronted the country. Those who spoke for science often shared this concern, but their special objection was Apollo's distortion of priorities within the space program. One unidentified astronomer was reported to have complained to Senator Paul Douglas of Illinois that the space program was becoming "an engineering binge instead of a scientific project."23 Petulant as that comment may sound, it epitomized what many space scientists most feared about the lunar landing project. Space science was a rapidly expanding field, offering almost limitless possibilities for exploitation by ambitious investigators. It had been generously supported by NASA for three years and had produced a rich harvest of scientific knowledge, much of it unfamiliar to the public. Manned space flight, merely because of man's participation, drew attention that gave it prominence far out of proportion to its scientific value. The pioneers of space science were what one historian has called "sky scientists" - mainly astronomers and physicists interested in studying the sun and stars and particles, fields, and radiation in near-earth space.24 Sky scientists could well have believed that their projects would suffer as lunar and planetary science gained support. Lunar science, which stood to gain the most from Apollo, counted only a few practitioners who did not yet have the influence of the established space science programs.

American science generally was still riding a wave of public esteem and government subsidy that had begun in the early 1950s and had swelled again after Sputnik. Basing their arguments on the indisputable contributions made by scientists to the war effort during World War II, American scientists had worked long and hard after the war to convince the public and the Congress that America's standard of living and position in world affairs depended on a strong scientific base, which in turn depended on generous funding of basic research. By the mid-1950s government support of basic research had risen to a level that prewar researchers could not have dreamed of. This new status had not been easily achieved and often had to be defended; many congressmen would have preferred to support practical projects rather than pure research, which often seemed pointless. (Indeed, congressmen and journalists frequently enjoyed making fun of research projects that had absurd-sounding titles, such as the reproductive physiology of the screwworm fly.25 But scientists had grown increasingly influential in governmental affairs. Prominent scientists found their counsel being sought more and more frequently by government at all levels, and science had enough influential friends in and out of government to ensure the continuity of a substantial level of support throughout the postwar years.26

Nonetheless, the most prominent and influential spokesmen for science seemed to feel uneasy about the viability of their favored status. Their behavior was characterized by one critical observer of the science-government interaction as "not unlike [that of] a nouveau riche in a fluctuating market." Every threat, real or imagined, to reduce the support of science - or even to reduce its rate of growth - was regarded as a potential catastrophe.27 So the space scientists may have perceived Apollo as a threat. No one could accurately predict its ultimate cost - estimates ranged upward from $20 billion - but it would be expensive enough that Congress might trim other programs to provide its funds.

Scientists' misgivings about Apollo were expressed intramurally in the summer of 1962 at the Space Science Board's first summer study of NASA's science programs. Convened at the request of NASA, the six-week summer study brought together more than a hundred participants from universities and industry to evaluate NASA's past activities and recommend future policies and programs. The final report of the study, noting that "there is considerable confusion about the Apollo mission and its proper justifications," stated that Apollo was just what Kennedy had said it was: a program to put America first in space, with no necessary commitment to science. Until the success of the lunar landing could be clearly foreseen, Apollo was, and must be, an engineering effort, "and the engineers must be protected in their ability to do their jobs." Scientific investigations would be phased into the program later; still later, assuming intermediate success, "scientific investigations will become the primary goals." It was evident that these considerations were not well understood - and perhaps not accepted - by the scientific community, for the report urged NASA to work harder to make them clear.28

This section of the report was addressed primarily to the scientific community rather than to NASA, but whether it allayed any fears is debatable. If it did, events of the following fall could well have raised stronger ones. In November, manned space flight projects were severely cramped by lack of funds, and Brainerd Holmes, director of Headquarters's Office of Manned Space Flight, wanted to ask Congress for a $400-million supplemental appropriation to cover unanticipated costs. NASA Administrator James Webb, unwilling to risk undermining congressional support, did not agree. Holmes then proposed to transfer money to Apollo from other NASA programs, including science, but again Webb refused. When the question was taken to the White House, Webb told the President he would not take responsibility for a program that subordinated all else to the lunar landing. The extra funds could wait, he said, until NASA went to Congress with its fiscal 1964 budget. President Kennedy accepted this compromise.29 Webb's stand for a balanced program should have surprised no one, for both he and his Deputy Administrator, Dr. Hugh L. Dryden, had repeatedly stated their view that the lunar landing was not in itself the ultimate goal of the space program; it was a project which, to be successful, required the advancement of space technology and science on a broad front.30

Webb went to Capitol Hill in March 1963 asking for $5.712 billion - $2.012 billion more than the previous year's budget request. Nearly 80 percent of the increase was for manned programs, but funding for space science was also substantially raised, by 50 percent over the previous year's budget.31 For the first time NASA met significant resistance to its presentation. The sudden drastic increase in the total budget (54 percent in one year), the growing awareness of the probable total cost of Apollo (estimated at $20-$40 billion), and the increasing dissatisfaction in the country with the administration's priorities all combined to raise opposition to the manned space program to a peak during the spring and summer of 1963.

As hearings on the administration's budget proceeded, the space program drew fire from many sources. Retired President Eisenhower reiterated his conviction that Apollo was not worth the tax burden it would create.33 The Senate Republican Policy Committee published a report questioning the Democratic administration's expenditures on space rather than on other urgent national needs.33 Two years before, Kennedy had warned that the cost would be high and that careful consideration by Congress and the public was essential. It was useless to agree that the country should bid for leadership in space, he had said, unless "we are prepared to do the work and bear the burdens to make it successful."34 Under the pressure of Soviet achievements, the commitment had been endorsed. When the bills began to come due, the country was not so sure.

In the debate that spring and summer, many scientists spoke from their peculiar point of view concerning the space program. On April 19 Philip H. Abelson, editor of Science,* summarized the case against Apollo in an editorial. It did not deserve the priority it had been given in the space program, Abelson believed. Its scientific value, small at best, would be even less if (as seemed likely) a trained scientist was not sent on the first landing mission. More and better data could be obtained by unmanned probes, at about one percent of the cost. In Abelson's view, neither the military advantages nor the "technological fallout" cited by advocates could justify the cost of sending men to the moon.35

After Abelson's editorial, many other scientists expressed their reservations concerning the space program, and a general debate ensued in the press.36 Criticism focused on several points: the lunar landing program had almost no scientific value and science would be advanced much more by spending the same money on unmanned projects; the space program lured promising young talent away from other worthwhile research, creating an imbalance in the nation's overall scientific effort; and the money spent on Apollo could be better invested in educational, social, and environmental programs. Some seemed to feel that Apollo had been promoted as a scientific program and to resent the confusion in the public mind. Hugh Dryden reminded the critics that "no one in NASA had ever said [Apollo] was decided upon solely On the basis of its scientific content."37 Other scientists agreed with Dryden and expressed their acceptance of the lunar landing On its own terms.38

Senator Clinton P. Anderson, chairman of the Senate Committee on Aeronautical and Space Sciences, which was then considering NASA's authorization bill for fiscal 1964, reacted to this debate by inviting several prominent scientists to present their views to the committee. During two days of hearings, ten scientists (including Philip Abelson, who was the first to be heard) ranged over most of the ground covered in the public debate. If there was any general agreement, it was that the time limit set for Apollo was probably conducive to waste, and that many national problems deserved equal attention; but there was no agreement that American science was being skewed by so much attention to space. The strongest protest against the program was a written statement provided by Warren Weaver, vice-president of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, who listed many good things that could be bought with $30 billion** - a price he said was "undoubtedly an underestimate"*** of Apollo's ultimate cost.39

Senator Anderson got what he wanted from the scientists - a variety of views that improved his perspective of the space program.40 The disapproving witnesses' doubts were echoed in Congress. NASA's budget did not go through unscathed, but the cuts actually made were less than some in Congress would have liked. When the House approved NASA's authorization bill on August 1, support for the space program was still strong: the majority was six to one.41 After three more months of debate and cuts totaling $612 million, NASA's appropriation ($5.1 billion) passed both houses by large majorities.42 Many opponents of expensive manned space flight programs would express their objections over the next decade, but Apollo would go forward, carrying - as some thought - the rest of the space program with it.43

What might have been, if there had been no lunar landing project, can be (and was) long debated. Over and over, advocates of the manned programs pointed out the reality of the situation: the nation could afford whatever it valued enough to pay for. Social welfare and other desirable programs had to win support on their own merits and would not necessarily be given Apollo's $3 billion a year if it were canceled. The politics of a technological project with a clear goal and self-evident success or failure were much simpler than any plan to conquer poverty, rebuild the cities, or clean up the environment.

No proof is possible that space science (or science generally) would have been better supported if Apollo had not been claiming such a large fraction of the space budget. In fiscal 1964, when NASA's budget request first encountered serious resistance in Congress, space science was authorized $617.5 million; its spending authority grew to $621.6 million and then to $664.9 million in the next two fiscal years.44 (The entire Mercury project, from 1958 to 1966, cost about $400 million.45 But manned space flight budgets were three to four times those mounts, and Homer Newell, director of NASA's science programs for the first nine years, would later recall that space scientists never hesitated "to complain about not getting their fair share of the space budget." Newell, a space scientist himself and as active an advocate as space science had, understood and accepted the overall priorities of the space program, as the scientists apparently did not, and they sometimes tried his patience. He would later remark that "whatever complaint there might have been about either the absolute or relative level of the space science budget. . . , there can be little doubt that it represented a substantial program."46

* Science, the weekly journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), probably reaches more scientists in different disciplines than any other single scientific publication. (In 1963, AAAS numbered about 76,000 members.) Besides publishing technical papers, Science provides news and analysis of many subjects of interest to the scientific community. Acerbic and outspoken, Abelson characterized himself as "a damned maverick" in testimony before the Senate space committee later in the year.

** Thirty billion dollars, Weaver said, would give every teacher in the U.S. a 10 percent annual raise for 10 years; give $10 million each to 200 small colleges; provide 7-year scholarships at $4,000 per year to produce 50,000 new Ph.D. scientists and engineers; give $200 million each to 10 new medical schools; build and endow complete universities for 53 underdeveloped nations; create 3 more Rockefeller Foundations; and leave $100 million over "for a program of informing the public about science."

*** The official estimate provided to Congress in 1973 was $25.4 billion. House, Subcommittee on Manned Space Flight of the Committee on Science and Astronautics, 1974 NASA Authorization, Hearings on H.R. 4567, 93/2, Part 2, p. 1271.

23. Robert Colby Nelson, "Full Moon Debate," Christian Science Monitor, June 14, 1961.

24. Hall, Lunar Impact, pp. 10-12.

25. House, Subcommittee on Space Sciences and Applications of the Committee on Science and Astronautics, 1965 NASA Authorization, Hearings on H.R. 9641, 88/2, part 3, pp. 1897-98. See also Hechler, Toward the Endless Frontier, pp. 541-42.

26. For a study of the changing relationships between science and government before and after World War II, see Daniel S. Greenberg, The Politics of Pure Science (New York: The New American Library, Inc., 1967).

27. Ibid., p. 288.

28. National Academy of Sciences - National Research Council, A Review of Space Research, NAS/NRC Publication 1079 (Washington, 1962), pp. 1-21 to 1-22; see also Newell, Beyond the Atmosphere, pp. 208-209.

29. Newell, Beyond the Atmosphere, p. 386.

30. See, for example: Webb's address to the Greater Hartford (Conn.) Chamber of Commerce, Oct. 1, 1962, cited in Astronautical and Aeronautical Events of 1962, NASA Report to the House Committee on Science and Astronautics, 88/1 (Washington, 1963), p. 206; Webb's address to the Northeast Commerce and Industry Exposition, Boston, Oct. 2, 1962, ibid., p. 207; Hugh L. Dryden, letter to Sen. Robert S. Kerr, chmn., Senate Committee on Aeronautical and Space Sciences, cited in Astronautical and Aeronautical Events of 1961, NASA Report to the House Committee on Science and Astronautics, 87/2 (Washington, 1962), p. 28. While program office officials covered details of the current programs' budgets and plans with congressional subcommittees, Webb and Dryden consistently stressed the broader aims of the programs before the full committees. Consult the various House and Senate committee hearings on NASA authorization bills, fiscal years 1961-1969, for more examples.

31. House, Committee on Science and Astronautics, 1964 NASA Authorization, hearings on H.R. 5466, 88/1, part 1, pp. 2-3; idem, 1963 NASA Authorization, hearings on H.R. 10100, 87/2, part 1, pp. 3-9.

32. Endless Frontier, p. 171.

33. "A Matter of Priority: An examination of the budget and benefits of the moon shot in relation to other problems," report prepared by the staff of the Senate Republican Policy Committee, May 10, 1963.

34. Logsdon, Decision, p. 128.

35. P. H. A[belson]., "Manned Lunar Landing," Science 140 (1963): 267.

36. See, for example: Frederick D. Hibben, "NASA, Scientists Divided on Space Goals," Aviation Week & Space Technology, Apr. 29, 1963, pp.24-25; Albert Eisele, "Nobel Winners Criticize Moon Project," Washington Post, May 6, 1963; Robert Hotz, "Apollo and Its Critics," Aviation Week & Space Technology, Apr. 29, 1963; William J. Perkinson, "Engineers vs. Scientists," Baltimore Sun, Apr. 30, 1963; Howard Simons's 3-part series in the Washington Post, "Scientists Divided on Apollo," May 12-14, 1963.

37. "U.S. Official Answers Critics of Manned Lunar Program," Baltimore Sun, Apr. 30, 1963.

38. "Man-on-Moon Project Backed by 8 Scientists," Washington Evening Star, May 27, 1963.

39. Senate Committee on Aeronautical and Space Sciences, Scientists' Testimony on Space Goals, Hearings, 88/1, June 10-11, 1963.

40. Ibid., pp. 242-43.

41. Endless Frontier, pp. 169-74.

42. Astronautics and Aeronautics, 1963, pp. 440, 464, 474.

43. Newell, Beyond the Atmosphere, p. 385.

44. Ibid., p. 384.

45. Swenson, Grimwood, and Alexander, This New Ocean, p. 643.

46. Ibid., pp. 384-86.

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