Goodnight Moon

Will America ever escape the shadow of Apollo?

By Charles Homans

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John F. Kennedy and the Race to the Moon
by John M. Logsdon
Palgrave Macmillan, 291 pp.

 he 1961 baseball season opened on a damp and cold Monday afternoon in early April, in Washington’s Griffith Stadium, the half-century-old ballpark where American presidents since William Taft had made a tradition of throwing out the first pitch of the first game of the year. John F. Kennedy, less than three months into his presidency, had taken his turn, and was still watching the early innings—the Washington Senators were enjoying a narrow lead over the Chicago White Sox, though it would not hold—when a deputy press aide arrived with news: the wire services were about to report the return to earth of the first Soviet cosmonaut.

The news proved to be premature, and the waiting extended through Tuesday and then Wednesday, when U.S. intelligence managed to intercept video transmissions of a Soviet air force pilot named Yuri Gagarin strapped inside of the Vostok, a capsule shaped like a diving helmet and measuring not even eight feet from end to end. At first the symbolic importance of Gagarin’s flight, and the necessity of formulating an answer to it, seemed lost on Kennedy. Pressed by reporters that afternoon, the president insisted that there were still plenty of things the United States could accomplish before the Russians; mastering the desalinization of seawater, he told them, “would really dwarf any other scientific accomplishments.” By Friday, however, he was telling his advisers that there was “nothing more important” than catching up with the Soviet Union in space. When he addressed Congress the following month, his ambitions had taken on shape. “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out,” he declared, “of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth.”

By the time these words flashed onto the video screen at NASA Mission Control in Houston, as NASA administrators and engineers celebrated the splashdown of the Apollo 11 command module in the Pacific Ocean, Kennedy had been dead for more than five years. The proximate terrors of the early Cold War that had prompted the breakneck race to the moon had mostly receded from view. What remained was Kennedy’s challenge, transformed by his assassination into a non-negotiable imperative: before this decade is out. In life, Kennedy had conceived Project Apollo as an outward-looking endeavor; his death had made it an inward-looking one. What had once been about proving America’s worth to the world had become about demonstrating America’s ability to live up to its own expectations.

Was putting a man on the moon ever as important to Kennedy as Kennedy was to putting a man on the moon? The question hangs over John F. Kennedy and the Race to the Moon, a new account by John Logsdon, an eminent historian of the space program—he was studying the lunar mission before it was even accomplished—who served on the government panel investigating the space shuttle Columbia disaster in 2003. Logsdon reconstructs in meticulous detail the discussions and debates that took place between Kennedy, Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson, and their administration’s space policy team from the days just before Kennedy took office to the last days before his assassination. The image that emerges is one of a president who undertook the most sentimental of government programs for the least sentimental of reasons.

Kennedy had arrived in office after campaigning on the need for a more ambitious space program, though it was more a matter of political opportunity than anything else. Nineteen-sixty was the first post-Sputnik presidential election, and the space issue decidedly favored the Democrats. After the first Soviet satellite’s launch, Congress had created a civilian space agency at the request of President Dwight Eisenhower, but the early NASA was a desultory and unfocused effort. While he recognized the need to muster a response to Sputnik, Eisenhower, with his qualms about the military-industrial complex and the scientific-technological elite, was deeply ambivalent about a hard-charging space agency. When a government panel on space exploration delivered a report in 1960 suggesting the possibility of a lunar landing—an undertaking the group estimated would cost upward of 100 times the anticipated price tag of the Mercury project then under way at NASA—he was shocked that anyone was even considering the idea.

Eisenhower was concerned about the military implications of the Soviet space program, and Sputnik had genuinely alarmed him. But going to the moon, a venture of dubious strategic value, was another matter; it seemed only marginally relevant to the United States’ influence in the world. Eisenhower believed that American power was rooted in economic strength, fiscal solvency, and a military adequate to keep the Soviets in check. “The space program, in my opinion, is downright spongy,” he would mutter in his post-presidential years. “I have never believed that a spectacular dash to the moon, vastly deepening our debt, is worth the added tax burden it will eventually impose on our citizens.”

Kennedy, by contrast, saw American geopolitical strength as inextricably linked to American prestige. The Soviets’ early space successes took place against a backdrop of sweeping decolonization in Asia and Africa, and drawing newly independent nations into the American sphere of influence, Kennedy believed, required something beyond cautious realism. It required demonstrating the superior powers of the Western democratic model on every stage available—even if doing so entailed launching a massive, centrally planned engineering effort that was arguably antithetical to it. Ideological contradiction or no, polls showed that Americans agreed with Kennedy—Eisenhower’s outlook fit poorly with the mood of a country growing into its newfound exceptionalism. 

If the American self-image was jarred by Gagarin exchanging stiff pleasantries with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev upon his return from orbit (Khrushchev: “Let the capitalist countries catch up with our country!”), it was battered worse by the farcical attempted invasion of Cuba by a U.S.-backed band of exiles less than a week later. The Bay of Pigs fiasco, coming fast on the heels of the Soviets’ accomplishment, made the American moon shot all but inevitable. The official recommendation of a lunar mission prepared for Kennedy by NASA Administrator James Webb and Defense Secretary Robert McNamara—each interested in expanding NASA for his own quotidian bureaucratic reasons—reflected the tenor of the moment: “Our attainments are a major element in the international competition between the Soviet system and our own,” they wrote. “The non-military, non-commercial, non-scientific but ‘civilian’ projects such as lunar and planetary exploration are, in this sense, part of the battle along the fluid front of the Cold War.”

Presidential historians who have looked at Kennedy’s space ambitions in the broader context of his presidency have cast them as a panicked function of Cold War tensions at their early zenith. Logsdon argues against this view, though the evidence he has assembled at times suggests otherwise, showing Kennedy’s interest in the lunar mission waxing and waning along with the state of U.S.-Soviet relations. Logsdon relates the story of an Oval Office meeting, captured on the White House’s newly installed tape-recording system, between Kennedy and Webb in November 1962. The Cuban missile crisis had just been narrowly averted and the mortar in the Berlin Wall was barely dry; it was an inopportune time for discord within NASA over the lunar mission to spill into the press, as it had in a recent issue of Time, and Webb had been summoned for a dressing-down. After a brief interrogation, Kennedy came clean with him:

I’m not that interested in space. I think it’s good, I think we ought to know about it, we’re ready to spend reasonable amounts of money. But we’re talking about these fantastic expenditures which wreck our budget and all these other domestic programs and the only justification for it in my opinion to do it in this time or fashion is because we hope to beat [the Soviets] and demonstrate that starting behind, as we did by a couple of years, by God, we passed them.

But Kennedy’s drive to get to the moon existed in a sharply limited context. He was not trying to win the space race to demonstrate ineffable qualities of the American spirit; he was trying to win it to keep the Soviets from winning. The possibility of a joint U.S.-Soviet mission, and its utility as a bargaining chip for more tangible Cold War goals, was always on his mind, even as he was calling for Congress to increase Apollo’s budget a second, then a third time.

Khrushchev blew off early offers of cooperation, not unreasonably: the Soviet space program was years ahead of NASA at the time, sharing civilian rocket technology would have risked compromising his country’s missile program, and Kennedy was unwilling to consider Khrushchev’s proposal to tie cooperation in space to a nuclear disarmament agreement. By 1963, however, Kennedy was facing persistent questioning from Congress about Apollo’s exploding budget, dubious national security value, and uncertain odds of victory. (From the beginning to the end of the space race, American intelligence agencies knew astoundingly little about the Soviet space program.) He proposed a U.S.-Soviet collaboration for the first time publicly in a speech at the United Nations, asking, “Why should man’s first flight to the moon be a matter of national competition?” Relations between the countries had improved from the nadir of the missile crisis, and Khrushchev, more confident in the Soviet Union’s missile arsenal and no more eager than Kennedy to continue throwing outlandish sums of money at the moon, had begun to warm to the prospect of a joint effort.

On November 12, 1963, Kennedy signed a directive entitled “Cooperation with the USSR on Outer Space Matters.” Four days later, he visited Cape Canaveral to inspect Apollo’s progress; NASA officials would later recall the president marveling at the model of the new Saturn V rocket in a manner that suggested he had never before quite grasped the magnitude of the undertaking he had ordered into existence. As Air Force One flew toward Dallas six days later, Kennedy told Olin Teague, the Texas congressman traveling with him, how much he wanted to see the rocket’s maiden voyage in December.

Logsdon quotes the space historian Roger Launius supposing that, “had Kennedy served two full terms, it is quite easy to envision a point … in which he might have decided that the international situation that sparked the announcement of a lunar landing ‘by the end of the decade’ had passed and he could have safely turned off the landing clock.” Instead, the possibility of a collaborative mission died with Kennedy, and Apollo went ahead as planned, slipping further and further out of the geopolitical context in which it had been conceived. In time, “the U.S. space program, and particularly the lunar landing effort,” Logsdon writes, turned “into a memorial to the fallen president.” NASA was still nominally trying to beat the Soviets, but really, the project had become about living up to the dreams of a young president, frozen at the apex of his ambition, for what kind of country the United States should be.

The vision of a unified American society in which such a hope made sense, however, had begun to fall apart the moment Kennedy died in Dallas. As Apollo advanced inexorably toward the moon, the country that had launched it was coming apart at the seams amid urban riots and assassinations. The Vietnam War devoured 58,000 American soldiers, a domestic agenda, and a presidency. By the time the Eagle touched down on the lunar surface, it was already a historical anachronism, the astronauts on board emissaries from a distant-seeming era of buzz-cut optimism.

“The first lunar landing will be a great occasion; subsequent boredom is inevitable,” Philip Abelson, the editor of Science, warned in 1963. In fact it was worse than that—Apollo’s impact on the U.S. space program, Logsdon argues, “has on balance been negative,” placing NASA on an operational and technological trajectory that could not possibly have been sustained beyond the exigencies of the 1960s. After the mission was accomplished, NASA’s leaders set about planning an ambitious future for the next several decades of exploration, complete with orbiting space colonies and Mars missions, only to see it unceremoniously rejected by Richard Nixon, who wanted space missions to “take their proper place within a rigorous system of national priorities.” The race won, space commanded so little political interest that Nixon was willing to abdicate it entirely (if temporarily) to the Soviets in 1975, shutting down Apollo early to redirect resources to the more modestly conceived space shuttle program, which ambled along unspectacularly for a quarter century.

In the soul searching that followed the Columbia tragedy, Michael Griffin, George W. Bush’s second NASA administrator, tried to recapture the glory of Apollo, unveiling a plan to build a suite of rockets, capsules, and landing craft to reconquer the moon and, eventually, reach Mars. But he mostly succeeded in demonstrating what an awkward fit Kennedy-era space ambitions were for twenty-first-century America: Bush and Congress never had any serious intention of adequately funding his vision, and Barack Obama—whose view of human spaceflight resembles no president’s so much as Dwight Eisenhower’s—announced plans to scrap most of it last year.

It is not just NASA, of course, that must contend with Apollo’s legacy. Conservative critics of the space program once feared that the lunar mission was a Trojan horse for technocratic liberalism, a trial run of centralized governance-by-expert without which the Great Society could never have happened. There is a kernel of truth to this, if only a kernel: in the years since the moon landing, Americans have routinely looked to Apollo as a precedent and even a model for solving the United States’ big problems, despite the fact that none of America’s challenges since have particularly resembled the space race.

Logsdon was once among that number. In his first book about the Kennedy space program, published amid the giddy euphoria of the year after the moon landing, he argued that “the experience of the lunar landing decision can be generalized to tell us how to proceed toward other ‘great new American enterprises.’ ” In the last pages of John F. Kennedy and the Race to the Moon, however, he offers a striking reassessment:

Forty years later, I find these comments either remarkably optimistic or remarkably naïve, probably both. What was unique about going to the Moon is that it required no major technological innovations and no changes in human behavior, just mastery over nature using the scientific and technological knowledge available in 1961. There are very few, if any, other potential objectives for government action that have these characteristics … [T]he Apollo experience has little to teach us beyond its status as a lasting symbol of a great American achievement.

A symbol, undoubtedly—but what exactly do we do with it? In a speech in November, Steven Chu, Obama’s forward-thinking energy secretary, invoked the space race in calling for the United States to embrace an ambitious clean energy research and development agenda. China’s rapid advances in manufacturing solar photovoltaics, advanced electric-car batteries, and the like, Chu said, should be a “Sputnik moment”: a frightening wake-up call mobilizing Americans to once again prove their mettle at the barricades of technological progress.

But the United States in 2010 feels like a nation that no longer responds to Sputnik moments. The American exceptionalism that Kennedy nurtured as a goad to accomplishment has become a cocoon. Kennedy once lamented that the Soviets’ primacy in space had left the “psychological feeling in the world that the United States has reached maturity, that maybe our high noon has passed … and that now we are going into the long, slow afternoon.” In retrospect, he had it backward. It is the moon landing, not Sputnik or Gagarin, that haunts us. It is the point from which we measure our descent.

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Charles Homans is a contributing editor of the Washington Monthly and an associate editor of Foreign Policy.  
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