Term Paper: Apollo Program and President John F. Kennedy

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John F. Kennedy and the Apollo Program

Among other things, the 1960's will probably be remembered most prominently for its culmination in the moon landing, successfully achieved by the United States of America. Often hidden from public view is the political intrigue and innuendo accompanying such large, prestigious projects. President John F. Kennedy, the American president at the time, played the main deciding role in the launch and success of the Apollo program. Interestingly, his interest was not so much focused on space exploration itself, but rather on the political ends to be gained from the success of such a publicly popular endeavor. While President Kennedy announced the goal of an American moon landing before the end of the decade on 25 May 1961, there was a large amount of uncertainty regarding the launch and sponsorship of the program. The final deciding factor, and the driving force behind the eventual success, was motivated by President Kennedy's political goals. According to Dick (Oct 22), only the Panama Canal compared with the Apollo program in size of a non-military endeavor.

Political Motivations

President John F. Kennedy was elected as president of the United States in 1960. As such, his focus was upon power structures and American/Soviet relations rather than romantic visions of conquering the last frontier of space (Dick, Oct 22). He therefore had little direct interest in the space program itself. What was mainly important for him was maintaining the balance of power and influence, especially as these relate to Russia.

When the Soviet Union however began to make significant non-military progress in space, this forced Kennedy to pay more attention to the space program in his own country. From the beginning, his interest was politically motivated, although the space program itself was built upon American pioneerism. For Kennedy, the space program became a competition, or the "space race," as it became known.

To prove that the United States was as capable as Russia in their space endeavors, Kennedy was obliged to commit government time and resources to NASA's civil space program. The Cold War therefore served as a basis from which NASA could expand its program to culminate in Project Apollo. For Kennedy, however, this was not of primary importance. Instead, the civil space program was to serve as a concomitant research endeavor with the military space program in terms of such developments as ICBMs and satellite reconnaissance systems.

With this in mind, Kennedy was nonetheless not prepared to launch the civil space program without an advisory committee. This entity was headed by Jerome B. Wiesner of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Wiesner's 12 January report in 1961 focused largely upon the importance of space exploration in the minds of civilians. He emphasized to Kennedy the importance of gaining civilian popularity by these means, and warned against letting Russia take precedence over the United States in this area:

Space exploration and exploits have captured the imagination of the peoples of the world. During the next few years the prestige of the United States will in part be determined by the leadership we demonstrate in space activities." (Dick, Oct. 22)

While Wiesner emphasized the importance of several space technology applications, including non-military and national security applications, he considered human spaceflight less important. The reason for this was the status of the American launch vehicle technology at the time. It was not developed sufficiently to safely place an astronaut in space without significant risk and a concomitant low chance of success. Furthermore, the scientific value of such an endeavor was low, while other more established space technologies yielded better results. Wiesner therefore recommended developing the programs that were already strong and use these to establish the United States' position in space technology. Kennedy however disagreed with Wiesner's assessment (Dick, Oct. 22).

Kennedy was in fact more motivated to pay attention to human space flight. Again, this is motivated by politics and public support. The public was much more entranced by the prospect of putting human beings in space than the other, more "useful" applications mentioned above. Kennedy was therefore motivated not as much by scientific use as by public support for his administration. The president did however recognize that the risks to the astronauts themselves were minimized, while also minimizing Russia's chances of preceding the U.S. manned space flight effort. He therefore addressed these risks by a clever political innuendo.

President Kennedy offered to cooperate with the Soviet Union to explore space. He spoke directly to the Soviet Premier, Nikita Khrushchev, in January 1961, asked the Soviet Union publicly for their cooperation, and called for a limitation on war during the exploration of space. Consequently, Kennedy accomplished a number of political goals. It is interesting to note that Kennedy knew that the Soviet Union would be unlikely to accept his offer of friendly cooperation (Dick, March 24). Nevertheless, in the eyes of the public, his diplomatic role as statesman was established by seeing friendly cooperation instead of competition. By refusing, Russia would contrast with the apparently friendly Americans, by attempting to monopolize space for their own benefit. This in turn minimized the prestige of the Soviet Union regarding their own space accomplishments as opposed to those of the United States. Even if Russia did accept the agreement, this would still provide a favorable picture of the United States as recognized equal in terms of their space technology as compared with that of the Soviet Union (Garber, 2002).

Interestingly, the Moon program itself was not as much a priority as manned spaceflight in terms of an orbiting astronaut. However, specific radical advancements by Russia during 1961 decided the issue of the moon landing, despite Kennedy's marked unwillingness to commit to a space program that was significantly aggressive. This unwillingness was evident in Kennedy's reluctance to provide the expanded budget for the program requested by James E. Webb, NASA Administrator, in March 1961. The lunar landing program was already in existence as a long-term goal during the Eisenhower administration. Webb, however, wished to accelerate this goal. Once again, Kennedy's unwillingness was motivated by his public image. He was unwilling to raise the necessary taxes to allow for the large increase. On the advice of his budget advisor, therefore, he provided NASA only with a modest increase (Garber, 2002).

Kennedy's unwillingness changed radically as a result of two significant events during this time. The first and most important was the successful effort by the Soviet Union to send the first human being into space. This occurred on 12 April 1961, when Yuri Gagarin entered space in a one-orbit mission in the craft, Vostok 1. This momentous event almost immediately placed the Soviet Union most prominently in the public eye. This was greatly assisted by Gagarin's outgoing personality, which made him an effective spokesman for the Soviet Union.

Not only had the chance to place the first person in space therefore been lost for the United States, but they have also faded to the background of the public consciousness. The country's effort to send a man of its own, Alan Shepard, into orbit, was dismally bleak when compared to the Russian accomplishment in more than one respect (Garber, 2002).

Most importantly, the United States appeared to attempt an imitation of the Russian effort, which in itself is not a very prestigious accomplishment. While Shepard was the first American in space, his suborbital flight lasted only 15 minutes, with 5 minutes of weightlessness, while Gagarin spent 89 minutes in weightlessness. Gagarin's spacecraft was much bigger at 10,428 pounds than Shepard's, which weighed 2,100 pounds (Dick, Oct 22). According to the media, the United States still led the way in terms of military and technological space research, the Russian effort was by far more spectacular, and therefore more prominent in the public view. For the public therefore, the United States had fallen behind in the space race. Again, this had important implications for the Cold War, because the United States apparently lagged technologically behind the Soviet Union. President Kennedy therefore faced the desperate necessity of needing to demonstrate his nation's technological leadership in the eyes of the world (Garber, 2002).

Another motivation for reconsidering the importance of the Moon program was an important event in the Cold War. The Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba occurred in April of 1961, with the purpose of overthrowing Castro. Because the attack was conducted by Cuban refugees, it was assumed that they would be welcomed by their compatriots. This was however not the case, and the mission was a failure. President Kennedy's and the American reputation was badly damaged by this disaster.

Combined with the Soviet space situation, the Bay of Pigs invasion served as part of the motive to accelerate the Moon program. According to Dick (Oct 22), Kennedy made his commitment to Project Apollo public on 25 May 1961. This announcement speech was filled with references to the contrast between the "free" world and that of "tyranny."

Kennedy used the space effort as a symbol of winning "the battle… [END OF PREVIEW]

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