In 1957, The USSR launched Sputnik to orbit the Earth. Two years later, in 1959, the USSR orbited the moon with Luna 3. By April of 1961, the USSR put the first man in space: Yuri Gagarin.
The U.S. needed to respond. In spring 1961, President John F. Kennedy approved a mission to land a man on the Moon by the end of the decade.
Kennedy called a meeting of his advisors and asked to be briefed on his options concerning the space program. This meeting took place on 21 November 1962 – after the recent mid-term congressional elections and over a month after the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Present at the meeting were President Kennedy; NASA Administrator James Webb; and other NASA executives. LBJ was in Texas and did not attend the meeting.
The purpose of the meeting was to discuss the budget and schedule requirements for Apollo at the time, as well as whether a supplemental appropriation to NASA’s budget of over $400 million (that is, additional money in the current fiscal year) was needed. In order for such a supplemental appropriation to take place, President Kennedy had to declare that it was necessary for national security purposes.
When the transcript was released in August 2001, the press and public focused in particular on one comment by President Kennedy:
The only…. We’re not going to settle the four hundred million this morning. I want to take a look closely at what Dave Bell … But I do think we ought get it, you know, really clear that the policy ought to be that this is the top-priority program of the Agency, and one of the two things, except for defense, the top priority of the United States government. I think that that is the position we ought to take. Now, this may not change anything about that schedule, but at least we ought to be clear, otherwise we shouldn’t be spending this kind of money because 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 them and demonstrate that starting behind, as we did by a couple years, by God, we passed them.
Only a minute earlier, Kennedy had said,
And the second point is the fact that the Soviet Union has made this a test of the system. So that’s why we’re doing it.
This is the most dramatic and blunt statement of Kennedy’s motivations for sponsoring Apollo.
Unfortunately, because of the size and ambition of the Apollo goal, many people have assumed that it was primarily motivated by Kennedy’s enthusiasm for space exploration and not by political concerns.
Kennedy’s comments during this meeting were perfectly consistent with his decision to establish the lunar goal in the spring of 1961. He made that decision in response to Yuri Gagarin’s April 1961 flight around Earth and possibly – although this is less clear – in response to the humiliation he and the country suffered at the Bay of Pigs at the same time.
Apollo was a political decision to achieve a political goal, to demonstrate the technological and organizational power of the United States and thereby demonstrate that democratic capitalism was superior to Soviet-style communism as a form of societal organization.
So, ask yourselves, what was Kennedy talking about when he delivered a speech on September of 1962 to a crowd of 40,000 people at Rice Stadium in Houston, Texas:
We set sail on this new sea because there is new knowledge to be gained, and new rights to be won, and they must be won and used for the progress of all people.
We choose to go to the moon! We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.
— even though I realize that this is in some measure an act of faith and vision, for we do not now know what benefits await us.
Pure propaganda. You tell me.
Thanks for reading,
Background and Analysis by Dwayne A. Day, Ph.D
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