On Sunday July 13, 1969, the Russian space program launched a robotic craft toward the Moon called Luna 15. It was not a coincidence that this craft would be in orbit two days ahead of NASA’s first attempt at a manned lunar landing with the Apollo 11 mission. Clearly, the Russians were going to attempt scooping up a lunar soil sample and return it to the Earth ahead of the USA’s manned mission. At the least, it would keep the USSR in the conversation with its arch rival in the long running soap opera dubbed ‘The Space Race’. While the first manned landing returned 47.5 pounds of lunar material, the Luna 15 probe collected a mountain. Luna 15 orbited the Moon 52 times while the control center back on Earth searched for a safe place to land. The Soviet controllers were surprised viewing the rugged lunar surface and eventually selected a target on the Sea of Crisis, 540 miles away from the Apollo 11 landing site. The Jodrell Bank Observatory in England was monitoring the signals from both Apollo 11 and Luna 15 and reported that the Luna 15 signals had abruptly ceased. Apparently the mission planners had missed a mountain in the descent path to the robot craft’s landing site. Luna 15 did indeed collect a mountain of lunar material, but the planned ‘sample return’ flight did not happen for obvious reasons.
Fifty years after an event that many see as a defining moment in human history, we are now looking back at the Apollo 11 Moon landing of July 20, 1969 with the perspective of time. Then, the world’s focus was firmly fixed on the culmination of a decade of triumph and tragedy in the Space Race, but many of the dramatic events took place in the background or behind closed doors. As we celebrate this remarkable event, it is also interesting to examine some of the events that were not common knowledge at the time of the Apollo 11 mission. The Smithsonain magazine (June 2019 – Inside America’s Greatest Adventure by Charles Fishman taken from his upcoming book ONE GIANT LEAP: The Impossible Mission That Flew Us to the Moon (Simon & Schuster)) has done a marvelous job digging a little deeper into the story of the Apollo program.
One of the first surprising elements in this story was the impatience displayed by President John F. Kennedy as he monitored NASA’s manned space program. On May 25, 1961, Kennedy famously prodded the United States to send men to the Moon and back by the end of the 1960s: “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.” Make no mistake about it; JFK was excited about the manned space program. It provided an opportunity to give the United States a much needed kick in the pants at a time when the country needed a goal to stimulate education and industry. He also was excited about the possibilities it brought to beat the Russians at something during the Cold War without necessarily going into battle. He pushed to fully fund NASA’s efforts and as Fight Director Chris Kraft recalled, “When Kennedy asked us to do that in 1961, it was impossible. We made it possible. We, the United States, made it possible.”
Transcripts of taped meetings in the Oval Office show Kennedy’s growing frustration – the program was not moving along as fast as he would have liked (you didn’t think Richard Nixon was the only president that recorded meetings, did you?). The mounting costs and looming 1964 presidential elections put Kennedy between a rock and a hard place. Each space spectacular validated his challenge to the country, but he did not understand why it was taking NASA so long to show tangible progress. There were gaps between rocket launches as NASA solved one impossible problem after another. Kraft was correct; JFK had asked NASA to do the impossible, but the president now saw the political investment he made in the program giving slower returns than he expected. It is shocking today to read what he told NASA Administrator Jim Webb, “It’s been a couple of years and . . . right now, I don’t think the space program has much political excitement.”
As the discussion with Webb continued, Kennedy asked if the congressional committee’s proposed budget cuts would affect the time-line: “If we’re going to cut that amount . . . we slip a year? If I get re-elected, we’re not going to the Moon in our period, are we?” Webb replied, “No. No. You’re not going.” At best, Webb felt a reduced budget would allow a lunar flyby mission, but not a landing. Kennedy’s assessment in the gap between space flights was blunt: “So, I’m going into the campaign to defend this program, and we won’t have had anything for a year and a half [until the next launch]?” Even more surprising was a revelation that belied what the public perceived about Kennedy’s interest in space: “I don’t care about space. I just want to beat the Russians.” Publicly and politically, Kennedy was still an ardent supporter of the space program right until his tragic trip to Dallas in November. It would be blind speculation as to how the Apollo program would have unfolded had he lived and continued to juggle his re-election campaign while trying to get Congress to keep funding the program.
The president wasn’t the only one who questioned the increasingly expensive program. Early in 1964, only 26 percent of Americans polled responded ‘yes’ to the question, “Should America go all out to beat the Russians in a manned flight to the Moon.” Norbert Wiener, the legendary professor and mathematician from MIT, began referring to the whole program as a ‘moondoggle’ and the derogatory term began appearing in print frequently. Even polls conducted by the American Astronomical Society revealed only 36 percent of their respondents saw ‘great scientific value’ in manned Moon landings versus 66 percent favoring robotic missions. The editor of the journal Science, Philip Abelsen, spoke critically about the resources being directed into a project more for the propaganda value than the scientific returns: “The diversion of talent to the space program is having and will have direct and indirect damaging effects on almost every area of science, technology, and medicine.” Former President Eisenhower told Republican members of Congress that, “Anybody who would spend $40 billion in a race to the Moon for national prestige is nuts.” The media grabbed the story but shortened the statement into a more concise headline: “Ike Calls Moon Race Nuts.”
Eisenhower overshot the mark using a figure that fell on the extreme side of the estimated cost of the program – the entire Apollo program did not come anywhere near that amount. Even after the Apollo 8 mission successfully circumnavigated the Moon in December of 1968 (FTV: Apollo 8 – Part I (12-12-18) & II (12-19-18)), only 39 percent of Americans polled favored a manned Moon landing. Asked in another 1968 poll, ‘Is the space program worth the $4 billion a year?’, 55 percent said ‘no’. By contrast, the cost to conduct the War in Vietnam was $19.3 billion for 1968 alone, more than the total cost of the entire Apollo program. I would often remind my students that every billion dollars spent on the space program generated ten times that amount in industrial and technological innovation in the United States. Computer technology, for example, would have eventually progressed in the private sector, but the rapid fire development needed for the space program put us on the track to enjoy the level of digital technology we enjoy today (and at a much lower price for consumers than the ‘private sector’ route). The educational push that the space program provided proved equally important in preparing the United States to compete on the world stage.
Again, the effect of Kennedy’s death on the Apollo program is an unknown. The speech that he never got to deliver in Dallas was to be about the ‘pride and reinvigoration’ that the space program had given the country. The program was, “making it clear to all that the United States of American has no intention of finishing second in space.” As proof that Kennedy felt, “Space is a source of national strength,” he could have pointed out that the space program was now spending as much per year as the entire program had expended in the 1950s. During his administration, the United States had launched 130 spacecraft including weather and communications satellites, all cornerstones of our modern technological age. He had no plan to mention the Moon race in this speech. None of this made the public record when Kennedy fell to an assassin on November 22, 1963, but it was clear that he wasn’t going to let wrangling with Congress over the cost of the program become an issue in the next election cycle.
Meeting the 1960s deadline in the wake of eroding public and Congressional support was going to be a problem until the succession of Vice-president Lyndon B. Johnson to the Presidency. As the VP, Johnson served as the White House representative on the important Space Committee and he was a bigger space geek than JFK. Utilizing his capacity as a policy maker on the Space Committee, it was no accident that Houston became home base for NASA’s Manned Space Center.
One of LBJ’s first Presidential acts was to rename the Cape Canaveral space center the John F. Kennedy Space Center and the name of the Cape itself was changed to Cape Kennedy (at the request of JFK’s widow, Jacqueline). In January of 1964, Johnson submitted a budget that trimmed $500 million from JFK’s last budget proposal, but with a twist: he raised NASA’s budget to $5.3 billion and returned an additional $141 million that had been trimmed the previous year. LBJ recommitted the country to reach Kennedy’s deadline, saying, “No matter how brilliant our scientists and engineers, how farsighted our planners and managers, or how frugal our administrators and contracting personnel, we can not reach this goal without adequate funds. There is no second-class ticket to space.”
Four presidents played a role in America’s space program. Eisenhower got the ball rolling when he established NASA in 1958. Kennedy, of course, pushed the fledgling NASA Manned Space Program out of the nest by setting the goal of reaching the Moon. Nixon just happened to be the man in the chair who got to make the historic phone call to Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin as they stood on the Moon. The president who should get the most credit for human’s walking on the Moon by Kennedy’s deadline is Lyndon B. Johnson.
Incidentally, Luna 15 did manage to collect something positive for both the US and Russian space programs. When NASA contacted their counterparts in the Roscosmos program with concerns about the two craft orbiting the Moon at the same time, the Russians supplied all of the orbital data NASA needed to make sure that neither craft would interfere with the other. We may have been racing the Russians to the Moon, but in the end, the program opened a new era of cooperation – a more positive outcome than one could have predicted after a decade of competition to land the first men on the Moon. In Part II of Apollo 50 Years On, we will look at some of the impossible problems NASA had to tackle to place men on the Moon.
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