JFK space race myth

It’s been half a century since a young president was cut down by a deranged communist assassin, and a little longer than that since humans first flew into space. The two events are indelibly linked in the minds of most, because the assassinated president, John F. Kennedy, is properly credited with setting the U.S. on the course that would, a little over half a decade after his untimely death, end in Americans walking on the moon.

There is a lot of mythology and alternate-history speculation on the course of history had he served out two terms. Would he have gotten as embroiled in Vietnam as his successor? Would the “Great Society” programs have been created? Would there have been follow on to Apollo that resulted in lunar bases and Mars missions in the seventies and eighties?

It was always assumed that the president had a deep and abiding interest in space, on the basis of the lofty words of his speech at Rice University in 1962 defending the moon initiative:

Man, in his quest for knowledge and progress, is determined and cannot be deterred. The exploration of space will go ahead, whether we join in it or not, and it is one of the great adventures of all time, and no nation which expects to be the leader of other nations can expect to stay behind in the race for space. Those who came before us made certain that this country rode the first waves of the industrial revolutions, the first waves of modern invention, and the first wave of nuclear power, and this generation does not intend to founder in the backwash of the coming age of space. We mean to be a part of it–we mean to lead it. For the eyes of the world now look into space, to the moon and to the planets beyond, and we have vowed that we shall not see it governed by a hostile flag of conquest, but by a banner of freedom and peace.

But ironically, his ostensible vision of sending men to the moon and back within a decade likely only survived because he himself did not. He was in reality quite ambivalent, and even apathetic about space. In the late fifties, he and his brother Robert ridiculed the vision of MIT professor and aerospace pioneer Charles Stark Draper at dinner with him.

His own science advisor, Jerome Wiesner, according to The Atlantic, said that it was the area that the president understood the least. The announcement of the lunar goal in May of 1961 was not a result of a desire to see humanity conquer the heavens so much as a political response to the Soviets being first to send a man into space, and to distract from the recent Bay of Pigs fiasco, a failed CIA operation to overthrow the Castro regime in Cuba that had been planned during the Eisenhower administration. In a meeting with his advisors in 1962 a couple of months after the Rice speech, he bluntly told them, including NASA administrator James Webb, that he “wasn’t that interested in space.” In fact, before his death in November of 1963, he had been giving serious consideration to ending the race, and negotiating with the Soviets to do a joint mission, to reduce its horrific costs (at its peak in the mid-sixties, Apollo was consuming 4% of the federal budget).

So it is quite possible, and even likely, that had Kennedy lived, what many view as one of his signature achievements, if not indeed the one — sending America to the moon — would not have happened. After his assassination, the program survived partly as a jobs program in politically important states and districts, and partly as a tribute to the fallen president. Amidst the race riots burning many cities and the rising costs of Vietnam his successor, Lyndon Johnson, actually started to end production on the program, many months before the first moon landing. Kennedy himself might have done so sooner. Apollo continued for another five years, with six moon landings, purely on the momentum of such a momentous project.

Kennedy’s legacy in space is a NASA human-spaceflight program that has been rudderless for half a century, because its purpose was never articulated in terms that would justify the massive amounts of money expended on it. Had the goal actually been to open up the high frontier to humanity, an America operating on its traditional values of individualism and entrepreneurship would have gone to work on it much sooner, and much more effectively, than the centralized state-socialist bureaucracy that we established to beat the Soviets’ state-socialist bureaucracy to the moon. With the recent success of SpaceX and others, we are in fact starting to see this happen, half a century late.

But for NASA, that drift continues, as the myths laid down so long ago continue to prevail in the Congressional committees responsible for funding NASA (unsurprisingly, such committees are largely run by people with NASA centers and contractors in their states and districts). Stuck in the Apollo mindset, they think that NASA’s job is not to open a frontier, but to build big rockets, while starving the agency of funding for the technologies and hardware needed to actually send humans beyond low earth orbit. And perhaps unironically, it’s probably not an outcome that would have upset the late president at all.