Did Politics Fuel the Space Race?

The Apollo 11 astronauts in official NASA portrait, black and white photograph.
The Apollo 11 Crew: Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins, and Edwin "Buzz" 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 President 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 urged Webb to adjust his priorities because, in his words, "this is important for political reasons, international political reasons. This is, whether we like it or not, an intensive race."

NASA Fears Dangers of a 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 stated, 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 President and Commander-in-Chief Kennedy, himself a decorated World War II hero, the survivability of missions undertaken by military personnel was rarely the main go/no-go factor.

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

Sputnik Calling 

In the years the U.S. had fallen behind, the Soviets launched both the first Earth-orbiting satellite (Sputnik in 1957) and the first Earth-orbiting human Yuri A. Gagarin. 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 November 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, during a speech before the United Nations, just two years after asking Congress to help “put a man on the moon by the end of the decade,” Kennedy 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 smokescreen by telling reporters that the USSR had withdrawn from the moon race. While some foreign policy analysts feared this might mean the Soviets intended to use the money from 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 continued, Kennedy reminded Webb of the "fantastic" amount of money the federal government had spent on NASA and asserted that future funding should be directed exclusively toward the moon landing. "Otherwise," declared 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

Kennedy eventually sided with Webb in pushing NASA to achieve broad scientific goals as nuclear tensions lessened, 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

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

The successful moon landing occurred during NASA's Apollo 11 mission. APOLLO was an acronym used by NASA meaning "America's Program for Orbital and Lunar Landing Operations."

Between 1969 and 1972, a total of 12 Americans walked and drove on the surface of the moon during six separate missions. The sixth and final Apollo lunar landing occurred 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.

Sources

  • "Home." National Aeronautics and Space Administration, 3 March 2020, https://www.nasa.gov/.
  • McDougall, Walter A. "The Heavens and the Earth: A Political History of the Space Age." Paperback, F Second Printing Used edition, JHUP, 24 October 1997.
  • "Mir Space Station." NASA History Division, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, 3 March 2020, https://history.nasa.gov/SP-4225/mir/mir.htm.
  • "Transcript of Presidential Meeting in the Cabinet Room of the White House." NASA History Division, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, 21 November 1962, https://history.nasa.gov/JFK-Webbconv/pages/transcript.pdf.