The Political Drama That Almost Grounded Project Apollo
"We don’t know a damn thing about the surface of the Moon."
During his September II–I2 visit to the three NASA installations most involved in Project Apollo, there were suggestions made to President Kennedy (apparently by manned spaceflight head D. Brainerd Holmes) that the first lunar landing, at that point tentatively scheduled for late I967, might actually be accomplished up to a year earlier if additional funds were provided to the Apollo program. Holmes and NASA administrator James Webb had disagreed on the wisdom of seeking additional funds for Apollo from Congress. Tensions between Holmes and Webb had been festering since at least August I962, when Holmes was featured on the cover of Time magazine and labeled “Apollo czar.” Another Time story appeared on November I9, this time suggesting that Webb was not fully supporting the president’s lunar landing goal and that the program was in trouble and badly needed the extra funds. Holmes was the apparent source of the story.
The White House called a November 2I meeting in the Cabinet Room to try to understand exactly what was going on at NASA. A transcript of this secretly recorded meeting provides a rare insight into the interactions between Kennedy and Webb. During the meeting, Kennedy made an often-quoted statement that “I am not that interested in space.” This transcript shows the context for that statement; Kennedy was referring primarily to the results of the space science program, not to the importance of the space program overall.
Transcript of Presidential Meeting in the Cabinet Room of the White House, November 2I, I962
President Kennedy: Now, let me just get back to this, what is your . . . your view is we ought to spend this four hundred forty million?
Brainerd Holmes: My view is that . . . it would accelerate the Apollo schedule, yes, sir. Let me say I was very . . . I ought to add that I’m very sorry about this . . . I have no disagreement with Mr. Webb . . . I think my job is to say how fast I think we can go for what dollars.
James Webb: Well, I think it’s fair to say one other thing, Mr. President, that after your visit when you were saying how close this was, the speech you made. I think Brainerd and Wernher von Braun and Gilruth all felt, “We’ve got to find out how fast we can move here. The President wants to move.” So they went to the contractors and said, “How fast can you move, boys, if money were not a limit?” Now, this sort of got cranked up into a feeling that this money was going to be made available, that a policy decision had already been made to ask for the supplemental. And I think, to a certain extent, then, the magazines like Time, they picked this up in order to make a controversy.
James Webb: Well, let me make a statement on that I have made to the Budget Director. You remember when I first talked to you about this program, the first statement I made to Congress was that the lunar program would cost between twenty and forty billion dollars. Now I am able to say right now it’s going to be under the 20 billion, under the lower limit that we used. The question is how rapidly do you spend the money and . . . and how efficiently you manage this so as to get the most possible for the money. This can be speeded up at the expense of . . . of certain things which I outlined in this letter to you. It can be slowed up if, a year from now, we find that we don’t have to proceed at this basis. But this is a good, sound, solid program that would keep all of the governmental agencies and the contractors and the rest moving ahead. But we’re prepared to move if you really want to put it on a crash basis.
President Kennedy: Do you think this program is the top-priority of the Agency?
James Webb: No, sir, I do not. I think it is one of the top-priority programs, but I think it’s very important to recognize here . . . and that you have found what you could do with a rocket as you could find how you could get out beyond the Earth’s atmosphere and into space and make measurements. Several scientific disciplines that are the very powerful and beginning to converge on this area.
President Kennedy: Jim, I think it is the top priority. I think we ought to have that very clear. Some of these other programs can slip six months, or nine months, and nothing strategic is going to happen . . . But this is important for political reasons, international political reasons. This is, whether we like it or not, in a sense a race. If we get second to the Moon, it’s nice, but it’s like being second any time. So that if we’re second by six months, because we didn’t give it the kind of priority, then of course that would be very serious. So I think we have to take the view that this is the top priority with us.
James Webb: But the environment of space is where you are going to operate Apollo and where you are going to do the landing.
President Kennedy: Look, I know all these other things and the satellite and the communications and weather and all, they’re all desirable, but they can wait.
James Webb: I’m not putting those . . . I am talking now about the scientific program to understand the space environment within which you’ve got to fly Apollo and make a landing on the Moon.
President Kennedy: Wait a minute—is that saying that the lunar program to land the man on the Moon is the top priority of the Agency, is it?
Unknown speaker: And the science that goes with it.
Robert Seamans: Well, yes, if you add that, the science that is necessary.
President Kennedy: The science . . . Going to the Moon is the top-priority project. Now, there are a lot of related scientific information and developments that will come from that which are important. But the whole thrust of the Agency, in my opinion, is the lunar program. The rest of it can wait six or nine months.
James Webb: . . . Let me say one thing . . . the thing that troubles me here about making such a flat statement as that is, number one, there are real unknowns as to whether man can live under the weightless condition and you’ll ever make the lunar landing. This is one kind of political vulnerability I’d like to avoid such a flat commitment to. If you say you failed on your number-one priority, this is something to think about. Now, the second point is that as we can go out and make measurements in space by being physically able to get there, the scientific work feeds the technology and the engineers begin to make better spacecraft. That gives you better instruments and a better chance to go out to learn more. Now right all through our universities some of the brilliant able scientists are recognizing this and beginning to get into this area and you are generating here on a national basis an intellectual effort of the highest order of magnitude that I’ve seen develop in this country in the years I’ve been fooling around with national policy. Now, to them, there is a real question. The people that are going to furnish the brainwork, the real brainwork, on which the future space power of this nation for 25 or 100 years are going be to made, have got some doubts about it . . .“There are real unknowns as to whether man can live under the weightless condition and you’ll ever make the lunar landing.”
President Kennedy: Doubts about what, with this program?
James Webb: As to whether the actual landing on the Moon is what you call the highest priority.
President Kennedy: What do they think is the highest priority?
James Webb: They think the highest priority is to understand the environment and . . . and the areas of the laws of nature that operate out there as they apply backwards into space. You can say it this way. I think Jerry [Wiesner] ought to talk on this rather than me, but the scientists in the nuclear field have penetrated right into the most minute areas of the nucleus and the subparticles of the nucleus. Now here, out in the universe, you’ve got the same general kind of a structure, but you can do it on a massive universal scale.
President Kennedy: I agree that we’re interested in this, but we can wait six months on all of it.
James Webb: But you have to use that information to . . .
President Kennedy: Yes, but only as that information directly applies to the program. Jim, I think we’ve got to have that . . .
Jerome Wiesner: Mr. President, I don’t think Jim understands some of the scientific problems that are associated with landing on the Moon and this is what Dave Bell was trying to say and what I’m trying to say. We don’t know a damn thing about the surface of the Moon. And we’re making the wildest guesses about how we’re going to land on the Moon and we could get a terrible disaster from putting something down on the surface of the Moon that’s very different than we think it is. And the scientific programs that find us that information have to have the highest priority. But they are associated with the lunar program. The scientific programs that aren’t associated with the lunar program can have any priority we please to give them.
Unknown speaker: That’s consistent with what the President was saying.
Robert Seamans: Could I just say that I agree with what you say, Jerry, that we must gather a wide variety of scientific data in order to carry out the lunar mission. For example, we must know what conditions we’ll find on the lunar surface. That’s the reason that we are proceeding with Centaur in order to get the Surveyor unmanned spacecraft to the Moon in time that it could affect the design of the Apollo.
President Kennedy: The other thing is I would certainly not favor spending six or seven billion dollars to find out about space no matter how on the schedule we’re doing. I would spread it out over a five- or ten-year period . . . Why are we spending seven million dollars on getting fresh water from saltwater, when we’re spending seven billion dollars to find out about space? Obviously, you wouldn’t put it on that priority except for the defense implications. 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. So I think we’ve got to take the view that this is the key program. The rest of this . . . we can find out all about it, but there’s a lot of things we can find out about; we need to find out about cancer and everything else . . . Everything that we do ought to really be tied into getting onto the Moon ahead of the Russians.
James Webb: Why can’t it be tied to preeminence in space . . .
President Kennedy: Because, by God, we keep, we’ve been telling everybody we’re preeminent in space for five years and nobody believes it because they have the booster and the satellite. We know all about the number of satellites we put up, two or three times the number of the Soviet Union . . . We’re ahead scientifically. It’s like that instrument you got up at Stanford which is costing us 125 million dollars and everybody tells me that we’re the number one in the world. And what is it? I can’t think what it is.
Interruption from multiple unknown speakers: The linear accelerator.
President Kennedy: I’m sorry, that’s wonderful, but nobody knows anything about it!
James Webb: Let me say it slightly different. The advanced Saturn is 85 times as powerful as the Atlas. Now we are building a tremendous giant rocket with an index number of 85 if you give Atlas one. Now, the Russians have had a booster that will lift 14,000 pounds into orbit. They’ve been very efficient and capable with it. The kinds of things I’m talking about that give you preeminence in space are what permit you to make either that Russian booster or the advanced Saturn better than any other. A range of progress is possible . . .
President Kennedy: . . . We’re not going to settle the 400 million this morning. I want to take a look closely at what Dave Bell . . . But I do think we ought [to] 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.
James Webb: I’d like to have more time to talk about that because there is a wide public sentiment coming along in this country for preeminence in space.
President Kennedy: If you’re trying to prove preeminence, this is the way to prove your preeminence . . . We do have to talk about this. Because I think if this affects in any way our sort of allocation of resources and all the rest, then it is a substantive question and I think we’ve got to get it clarified. I’d like to have you tell me in a brief . . . You write me a letter, your views. I’m not sure that we’re far apart. I think all these programs which contribute to the lunar program are . . . come within, or contribute significantly or really in a sense . . . Let’s put it this way, are essential, put it that way . . . are essential to the success of the lunar program, are justified. Those that are not essential to the lunar program, that help contribute over a broad spectrum to our preeminence in space, are secondary. That’s my feeling.
From The Penguin Book of Outer Space Exploration, edited by John Logsdon, published by Penguin Classics, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Introduction, notes, and selection copyright © 2018 by John Logsdon.