This is the 47th in an exclusive series of 50 articles, one published each day until July 20, exploring the 50th anniversary of the first-ever Moon landing. You can check out 50 Days to the Moon here every day.
In the weeks before he was assassinated, John F. Kennedy was getting cold feet about the race to the Moon.
It was the fall of 1963, and a lot had changed for him—and the world—in the two-and-a-half years since his rallying call, in May 1961, for America to go to the Moon.
Kennedy had faced down the Soviet Union during the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962. Kennedy had given a dramatic speech—the 1963 commencement at American University—calling for a complete upending of the Cold War. The U.S. and the U.S.S.R. had amassed such vast stocks of weapons, and operated in a state of constant edginess, that in the event of war—even in the event of miscalculation—”All we have built, all we have worked for, would be destroyed in the first 24 hours.”
Two months later, in the summer of 1963, Kennedy and Khrushchev signed the first-ever treaty limiting nuclear weapons.
Publicly, Kennedy had become the nation’s poet laureate of space. The previous year, in September 1962, during a tour of the nation’s major space facilities, he gave a soaring speech at Rice University in Houston about the power and importance of space travel. Kennedy told Americans and the world that space was a kind of manifest destiny, and that its challenges perfectly matched the American character.
“The United States was not built by those who waited and rested and wished to look behind them,” Kennedy said. “This country was conquered by those who moved forward, and so will space (be) . . . . No nation which expects to be the leader of other nations can expect to stay behind in this race for space.”
Speaking near the site of what would become the Manned Spacecraft Center, and Mission Control, Kennedy predicted that Houston would become the headquarters of a “new frontier of science and space.”
“We choose to go to the Moon,” Kennedy said. “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.”
Kennedy’s speech at Rice University that morning is considered not just the best speech ever given by a U.S. president about space, but one of the best presidential speeches of any kind. It was sincere, but it was also politics.
If America was going to the Moon—and in the fall of 1962, Apollo was a pillar of Kennedy’s efforts—the president needed not only Congressional backing but also popular support.
In private, though, Kennedy viewed going to the Moon not as a natural expression of the American spirit, but in pragmatic political terms. He had picked the Moon as the goal in order to beat the Soviets in space. For Kennedy, Apollo was a Cold War mission: to re-establish American pre-eminence in science, technology, and engineering.
We know this because President Kennedy had a secret taping system installed in the White House, with microphones to record his meetings and phone calls in the Oval Office, and in the Cabinet Room. Unlike Richard Nixon’s system, which was voice-activated, Kennedy picked which meetings and calls he wanted to record. He pressed a button in the Oval Office or on the Cabinet Room table, which lit a light on his secretary Evelyn Lincoln’s desk, and she then started the recording equipment.
JFK’s creeping doubt
On November 21, 1962, Kennedy met with nine senior NASA and administration officials to talk about the agency’s progress—and also about the budget. It was a bit of a fractious meeting. Kennedy himself was already impatient with NASA’s progress. He pushed for a Moon landing in 1967, something none of the senior NASA officials thought possible.
Kennedy also pushed for NASA to set aside what he thought of as “space science” in favor of focusing all energy on beating the Russians to the Moon.
“The whole thrust of the Agency, in my opinion, is the lunar program,” Kennedy said. “The rest of it can wait six or nine months . . . . Everything we do ought to be really tied into getting onto the Moon ahead of the Russians.”
A moment later, in a burst of frustration and to underscore his point, Kennedy said, “By God, we’ve been telling everybody we’re preeminent in space for five years, and nobody believes it.”
That is why he wanted to go to the Moon. To prove it.
The Moon landing, Kennedy said to those in the Cabinet Room, “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.
“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.”
The meeting is so frank and so remarkable, you might not credit it if you couldn’t listen to it on tape.
“A tough job. A real tough job.”
A year later, two dramatic things happened, one in private, one in public.
In private, we have another tape-recorded meeting, this one in the Oval Office, with just Kennedy and the head of NASA, James Webb.
It was September 18, 1963, and the meeting was again about money, but also about the politics of sustaining support for going to the Moon through 1964—a presidential election year.
But first, Webb had bad news—or at least deeply disappointing news—for his boss. It was at this moment that Webb told Kennedy that the U.S. wouldn’t land on the Moon while he was President, even if he was re-elected in 1964, as expected.
The Moon landing, Webb said, wouldn’t happen until 1969.
It’s a startling moment, and in the tape recording you can hear Kennedy’s surprise and disappointment.
“If I get re-elected, we’re not going to the Moon in our period, are we?” said Kennedy.
“No. No. You’re not going,” said Webb. ”We’re not going . . . . It’s just going to take longer than that. This is a tough job. A real tough job.”
It’s hard to listen to the conversation knowing what will happen just 10 weeks later, and also challenging to set that aside and assess the situation from Kennedy’s perspective as he looked over the next five years.
At that moment, in the fall of 1963, the U.S. space program had started to mature dramatically. It was catching up, and the Soviets were, for the moment, out of “space spectaculars,” as Kennedy called them. Relations with the Soviets had warmed. Kennedy himself, in his own words, wasn’t that interested in space. And the budget was a problem: That was the reason the Moon landing had slipped from 1968 to 1969.
So why should Kennedy continue to push hard for something he wouldn’t be in office to enjoy and get credit for? Something that he wasn’t, quietly, that enthusiastic about? Something that was becoming less necessary in geopolitical terms?
A moment later Kennedy says to Webb, “Do you think the manned landing on the Moon’s a good idea?”
What a remarkable question from the President whose idea it was to go in the first place.
Throughout the rest of the meeting, Webb reassured Kennedy again and again about Apollo’s value. Right at the end, Webb said, “I predict you’re not going to be sorry—ever—that you did this.”
An abrupt reversal
Two days later, Kennedy gave a stunning speech at the United Nations, where he proposed, publicly, that instead of racing the Soviet Union to the Moon, the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. should do the Moon landing together.
“Why . . . should man’s first flight to the Moon be a matter of national competition?” he asked, before the General Assembly.
The president who had spent more than two years explaining why the race to the Moon had to be a matter of national skill and pre-eminence, a contest between democracy and totalitarianism, was now proposing exactly the opposite.
The idea stunned Congress—and NASA. The front page story in the next day’s New York Times was headlined, with admirable directness: “Washington Is Surprised by President’s Proposal.” Texas Congressman Olin Teague, a senior member of the House Science Committee, said of going to the Moon with the Russians, “I’d just as soon cooperate with any rattlesnake in Texas.”
NASA told the Kennedy Administration the idea simply wasn’t practical. NASA was having enough trouble mating parts from different U.S. companies, working together, on the same project.
In San Antonio a couple months later, on the trip during which he would be killed, Kennedy dedicated a center devoted to space medicine research. In doing so, he said he was so pleased to see how the U.S. was catching up with the Soviets in space and would soon pass them in some important areas. In the speech he never got to give—the speech he was driving to deliver when he was killed—Kennedy planned to tell the crowd of Democrats in Dallas that because of his administration’s energetic space program, “There is no longer any doubt about the strength and skill of American science, American industry, American education, and the American free enterprise system.”
Space, he would have said, was a source of “national strength.”
It all had the air of a president who was starting to maneuver, gradually, to letting Congress set the pace of the Moon mission, proffering whatever money they decided Apollo deserved. Kennedy could advocate for NASA and the race to the Moon, and also shrug and claim that he couldn’t make Congress give it more money than they were.
A dream deferred
Once the U.S. wasn’t going to make it to the Moon in his own presidency, once Kennedy could point to U.S. excellence in space well short of the Moon, it’s easy to see how he might have thought that another year or two’s delay—especially if he could fund other things he was committed to—wasn’t that big a deal.
That’s why, in fact, it’s hard to imagine that if Kennedy had been president in 1964 and then re-elected for a second term, that we would be celebrating the 50th anniversary of a Moon landing this week.
Going to the Moon was so difficult, and required so much political determination, that if Kennedy himself wasn’t 100% behind it, Apollo might well have lost momentum.
A Moon program without momentum isn’t going to make it to the Moon.
All of that is speculation, but it’s worthwhile in part for understanding what happened next.
Lyndon Johnson was an authentic fan of space travel and of going to the Moon. He would make Apollo a tribute to the martyred president, but also a priority of his own administration. Johnson had to submit a budget to Congress just eight weeks after Kennedy’s assassination, and while he proposed cuts in defense and agriculture and even the post office, he asked for more money for NASA.
“No matter how brilliant our scientists and engineers, how farsighted our planners and managers, or how frugal our administrators and contracting personnel,” Johnson said then, “we cannot reach this goal without adequate funds. There is no second-class ticket to space.”
Charles Fishman, who has written for Fast Company since its inception, has spent the past four years researching and writing One Giant Leap, his New York Times best-selling book about how it took 400,000 people, 20,000 companies, and one federal government to get 27 people to the Moon. (You can order it here.)
For each of the next 50 days, we’ll be posting a new story from Fishman—one you’ve likely never heard before—about the first effort to get to the Moon that illuminates both the historical effort and the current ones. New posts will appear here daily as well as be distributed via Fast Company’s social media. (Follow along at #50DaysToTheMoon).