Kennedy’s Vision (4) The Race to the Moon

Did you ever wonder why Kennedy proposed a race to the moon?

Oh, we wanted to win what was called “the space race.” There was worry about the relative prestige of the communist and non-communist worlds. Communist societies had been thought to be hopelessly backward – until the Sputnik satellites of October and November, 1957, and until Lunik became the first vehicle to reach the moon two years later. Did this mean that communism really might be the wave of the future?

But already, by 1962, America’s scientific and technical, industrial and economic resources, had put it far in the lead in terms of missions of scientific value. Yuri Gagarin circled the earth in 1961, nearly a year before John Glenn made his historic three orbits in February, 1962. But we were clearly catching up.

Putting men on the moon by the end of the decade of the 1960s was going to cost a fortune, and the benefits to be gotten from it were speculative. Yet Kennedy made a strategic decision to commit the country to do just that, and he got the Congress to vote the money, back when $5 billion a year was real money.


He gave several reasons in an 18-minute address at Rice University In September, 1962. (You can see it and listen to it here:

  •  “We choose to go to the moon in this decade … because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills.”
  • Technical institutions, such as Rice, “will be enriched by new knowledge of our universe and environment, by new techniques of learning and mapping and observation, by new tools and computers for industry, medicine, the home as well as the school.”
  • The nation which expects to lead other nations can’t stay behind in the race for space. “In short, our leadership in science and in industry, our hopes for peace and security, our obligations to ourselves as well as others, all require us to make this effort, to solve these mysteries, to solve them for the good of all men, and to become the world’s leading space-faring nation.”
  • “And finally, the space effort itself, while still in its infancy, has already created a great number of new companies, and tens of thousands of new jobs.”

It seems to me that there was another reason, not quite spoken, behind the reasons advanced. I think it was part of his attempted strategy of peace.

Kennedy was later described by his widow as “an idealist without illusions.” He knew how to count and he knew what counted. The military-industrial complex that his predecessor had warned the country against (on his next to last day in office!) was alive and well. How could it be replaced by another complex rooted in peaceful pursuits? Well, one way would be to launch a massive government effort that would spread jobs (and prosperity) across the country. This would automatically create its own vast constituency.

Read, or listen to, his speech and notice certain points that wouldn’t naturally and automatically come to mind, such as that “space science, like nuclear science and all technology, has no conscience of its own. Whether it will become a force for good or ill depends on man, and only if the United States occupies a position of pre-eminence can we help decide whether this new ocean will be a sea of peace or a new terrifying theater of war.”

Read these two paragraphs:

“Space and related industries are generating new demands in investment and skilled personnel, and this city and this State, and this region, will share greatly in this growth. What was once the furthest outpost on the old frontier of the West will be the furthest outpost on the new frontier of science and space. Houston, your City of Houston, with its Manned Spacecraft Center, will become the heart of a large scientific and engineering community. During the next 5 years the National Aeronautics and Space Administration expects to double the number of scientists and engineers in this area, to increase its outlays for salaries and expenses to $60 million a year; to invest some $200 million in plant and laboratory facilities; and to direct or contract for new space efforts over $1 billion from this Center in this City.

“To be sure, all this costs us all a good deal of money. This year’s space budget is three times what it was in January 1961, and it is greater than the space budget of the previous eight years combined. That budget now stands at $5,400 million a year–a staggering sum, though somewhat less than we pay for cigarettes and cigars every year. Space expenditures will soon rise some more, from 40 cents per person per week to more than 50 cents a week for every man, woman and child in the United Stated, for we have given this program a high national priority–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.”

Well, we did get to the moon, but if it was Kennedy’s hope that the space exploration would reduce pressure for military expenditures, such hopes were dashed by Lyndon Johnson’s disastrous Vietnam adventure. Between that war’s expense, and the tax money that was squandered on various Great Society programs that produced nothing, soon there was no political will for further funding of research and development.

Am I right in inferring Kennedy’s strategy in sending men to the moon? No way to know; our timeline took a different course. But I think that the redirection of the military/industrial complex into peaceful paths is one more road not taken, one more cost of our not being allowed to follow Kennedy’s vision.


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