Did Politics Fuel the Space Race?

The Apollo 11 astronauts in official NASA portrait
The Apollo 11 Crew, Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins, and Edwin Aldrin Jr. Central Press / Getty Images

 A transcript of a meeting at the White House reveals that politics, more than science, may have fueled America's race to the moon against the Soviets.

The transcript, released by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), records a meeting between President John F. Kennedy, NASA Administrator James Webb, Vice President Lyndon Johnson and others in the Cabinet Room of the White House on November 21, 1962.

The discussion reveals a president who felt landing men on the moon should be NASA's top priority and a NASA chief who did not.

When asked by Predsident Kennedy if he considered the moon landing to be NASA's top priority, Webb responded, "No sir, I do not. I think it is one of the top priority programs."

Kennedy then urges Webb to adjust his priorities because, "This is important for political reasons, international political reasons. This is, whether we like it or not, an intensive race."

NASA Fears Dangers of Moon Mission

The worlds of politics and science were suddenly at odds. Webb told Kennedy that NASA scientists still had grave doubts about the survivability of a moon landing. "We don't know anything about the surface of the moon," he states, going on to suggest that only through a careful, comprehensive and scientific approach to manned exploration could the U.S. gain "pre-eminence in space."

In 1962, NASA was still generally perceived as a military operation and all of the astronauts were active duty military personnel. To Commander in Chief Kennedy, himself a decorated World War II hero, the "survivability" of military missions undertaken by military personnel, was rarely the main go-no-go factor.

Stressing the importance of beating the Soviets to the moon, Kennedy tells Webb, "We hope to beat them to demonstrate that, starting behind, as we did by a couple of years, by God we passed them."

Hello, Comrades! Sputnik Calling 

In the "couple of years" the U.S. had fallen behind, the Soviets had launched both the first earth-orbiting satellite, Sputnik in 1957, and the first earth-orbiting human, Yuri A. Gagarin. Also in 1959, the Soviets claimed to have reached the moon with an unmanned probe called Luna 2.

This largely unanswered string of Soviet space successes had already left Americans with chilling visions of nuclear bombs raining down on them from orbit, maybe even the moon. Then, just a few weeks before the Nov. 1962 Kennedy-Webb meeting, a national near-death experience—the Cuban Missile Crisis—solidified beating the Soviets to the moon as an absolute necessity in the hearts and minds of the American people.

In his 1985 book, "The Heavens and the Earth: A Political History of the Space Age," Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Walter A. McDougall provides a behind-the-scenes view of space race politics that took place between U.S. President Kennedy and flamboyant Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev.

In 1963, just two years after asking Congress to help “put a man on the moon by the end of the decade,” Kennedy, in a speech before the United Nations, tempted domestic criticism by asking America’s then Cold War archenemy Russia to come along for the ride. “Let us do big things together . . .,” he said. After a month of silence, Khrushchev joked of Kennedy’s invitation, stating, “He who cannot bear earth any longer may fly to the moon. But we are all right on earth.” Khrushchev later went on to throw up a smoke screen by telling reporters that the U.S.S.R. had withdrawn from the moon race. While some foreign policy analysts feared this might mean the Soviets intended to use the money for their space program to develop orbiting platforms for launching nuclear weapons rather than for manned missions, no one knew for sure.

Of the Soviet Union and its space race political stance, McDougall concluded that “no previous government in history was so openly and energetically in favor of science, but neither had any modern government been so ideologically opposed to the free exchange of ideas, a presumed prerequisite of scientific progress.” 

Money Enters the Equation 

As the White House conversation continues, Kennedy reminds Webb of the "fantastic" amounts of money the federal government had spent on NASA and asserts that future funding should be directed exclusively toward the moon landing. "Otherwise," declares Kennedy, "we shouldn't be spending this kind of money because I'm not that interested in space."

Speaking at the official release of the tape, Kennedy Library Archivist Maura Porter suggested that the Kennedy-Webb discussion shows the Cuban Missile Crisis may have caused President Kennedy to view the space race as more of a Cold War battlefield than a field of scientific advancement.

The Cold War Speeds the Space Racers

As nuclear tensions lessened, Kennedy eventually sided with Webb in pushing NASA to achieve broad scientific goals, according to John Logsdon, director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University. Kennedy even proposed a joint U.S.-Soviet moon landing mission in a September 1963 address to the United Nations.

Moon Rocks Come to America

Six years after the White House meeting between Kennedy and Webb, on July 20, 1969, American Neil Armstrong, on board Apollo 11, became the first human to set foot on the moon. The Soviets had by then largely abandoned their lunar program, working instead on extended manned earth-orbital flights culminating years later in the long-lived Mir Space Station.

Historic Tidbit of Trivia: APOLLO was an acronym used by NASA for "America's Program for Orbital and Lunar Landing Operations."

Between 1969 and 1972, a total of twelve Americans walked and drove the surface of the moon on six separate missions. The sixth and final Apollo lunar landing came on Dec. 11, 1972, when Apollo 17 delivered astronauts Eugene A. Cernan and Harrison H. Schmitt to the moon. Earthlings have not visited the moon since.