Newly released tapes show Kennedy demanding top priority for moon landing
BOSTON (AP) – President Kennedy went toe-to-toe with the chief of NASA to try to convince him that beating the Russians to the moon should be the agency’s top priority, according to newly released White House tapes.
Kennedy and NASA Administrator James Webb had a long and sometimes abrupt exchange in a November 1962 meeting in which Kennedy stressed the Cold War political importance of winning the space race.
”We hope to beat them to demonstrate that, starting behind, as we did by a couple of years, by God we passed them,” Kennedy said in the 73-minute tape released on Wednesday by the John F. Kennedy Library.
The conversation breaks no new historical ground but is rare and fascinating for its candor, said Maura Porter, an archivist at the library.
”You don’t get someone like James Webb who was willing to make an argument (with the president) in a pointed way,” Porter said.
Former NASA Deputy Administrator Robert Seamans, who was at the meeting, recalled that Webb was committed to shielding NASA’s scientific goals from politics.
”This is the number one example of James Webb putting an umbrella over the program so it wouldn’t be tampered with,” he said.
The meeting came 18 months after Kennedy’s famous challenge to the nation to put a man on the moon. In a May 25, 1961, speech to Congress, he declared: ”I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth.”
Vice President Lyndon Johnson and several NASA officials were also at the Nov. 21 meeting in the Cabinet Room, which was called to discuss additional funding for NASA and how it would speed up the space program.
The president asked Webb if he considered the moon landing NASA’s top priority.
”No sir, I do not,” Webb replied. ”I think it is one of the top priority programs.”
Kennedy responded that it should be the top priority.
”This is important for political reasons, international political reasons,” the president said. ”This is, whether we like it or not, an intensive race.”
Webb cited unknowns about whether men could even survive weightlessness, and argued that further scientific study should be broadly focused on gaining ”pre-eminence in space,” not just a moon landing.
Kennedy dismissed Webb’s argument, saying that NASA’s technology may be superior to the Russians’ but that it is more important to the public to get to the moon.
Kennedy also referred to the ”fantastic” amounts of money spent on the space program, and said a commitment to the first moon landing is needed.
”Otherwise, we shouldn’t be spending this kind of money because I’m not that interested in space,” he said.
Porter noted the meeting was held just weeks after the Cuban Missile Crisis. The exchange showed that, following the crisis, Kennedy was more interested in the space race as a tool in the Cold War than as a means for scientific discovery, she said.
Kennedy eventually adopted Webb’s opinion, pushing for broad research goals, said John Logsdon, director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University.
In a September 1963 speech to the United Nations, Kennedy even proposed teaming with the Russians on a moon landing, Logsdon said.
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