Lost in Space - What Went Wrong with NASA?


The concept of a manned lunar mission had been germinating within NASA since 1959. At NASA’s Washington headquarters, a Steering Committee for Manned Spaceflight had met to consider what should be the next step after the simple one-man orbital flights of the pending Mercury program. Its members had looked at space stations and orbiting space laboratories but decided that they had to set their sights higher. Nothing less would do than to send men to the moon. As the committee chairman later put it, “A primary reason for this choice was the fact that it represented a true end objective which was self-justifying and did not have to be supported on the basis that it led to a subsequently more useful end.” The pursuit of the moon would call forth a host of new spacecraft and large rockets, capable of finding uses in earth orbit as well. And no such clear and well-focused goal existed short of the moon.

Among NASA’s leaders support for a moon program coalesced during 1960. Von Braun in the meantime took the first serious steps toward building big enough rockets, and aerospace firms weighed in with design concepts for lunar spacecraft. By the end of the year, NASA needed only one thing to proceed with a Moon-landing program: presidential approval.

The question came up in December 1960 at a White House meeting, and Eisenhower voiced strong opposition. NASA’s plan would cost up to $38 billion, the equivalent of more than $400 billion in today’s economy, based on GNP growth. One of the meeting participants compared such a venture to Columbus’s voyage; Eisenhower replied that he was “not about to hock his jewels” to send men to the moon. As the historian John Logsdon reports, “The general reaction of the meeting was one of almost sheer bewilderment—or certainly amusement—that anybody would consider such an undertaking. Somebody said, This won’t satisfy everybody. When they finish this, they’ll want to go to the planets.’ There was a lot of laughter at that thought.”

What changed between December and May, when Kennedy announced this astonishing turnabout of national policy? Headlines made the matter topical, for on April 12 the Soviets had launched their long-awaited first manned flight, sending Yuri Gagarin into orbit and recovering him safely. While the Red star was rising, America’s was in eclipse: the following week saw the debacle of the CIA-sponsored invasion of Cuba’s Bay of Pigs. But on May 5 the United States showed that it, too, had the right stuff, as the astronaut Alan Shepard flew a Mercury capsule on a brief flight that reached an altitude of 115 miles. “Everything’s A-OK,” Shepard repeatedly stated, popularizing a phrase.

Yet even a presidential speech does not a policy make, and in 1961 JFK was far from becoming the stuff of legend. He was, however, the leader of a Democratic party gravid with unborn programs, with policy proposals that had been gestating since the days of Harry Truman. Not since 1932 had a Democrat succeeded a Republican in the White House, and there was high hope for a new Hundred Days of legislative activity such as Franklin Roosevelt’s. The poet Robert Frost, in a poem written for the inauguration, had looked ahead to “the glory of a next Augustan age.” And Kennedy’s very name for his administration, the New Frontier, smacked strongly of space flight. A major effort in this area was virtually a foregone conclusion.

Health, Wealth, and the Moon

So the real question was not whether NASA would undertake a major expansion but how it would get big enough to reach the moon. Two powerful influences helped to assure its great growth. The first was the sweeping nature of the Cold War, which fostered a widespread and genuine conviction that we could not let the Soviets get ahead of us in any area at all. It made no difference that if the Russians wanted to emphasize space flight, they could do so only by weakening other parts of their economy. No, if the Soviets appeared to be on their way to building a moon rocket, we had to have one too, or we would fall behind.


The second influence lay in a widely shared view of new technology. We tend to see high technology today through the prism of Silicon Valley, a creation of the 1970s and 1980s, but in 1961 the general view was that new technology would arise not through the work of entrepreneurs but through major government programs. This was in line with recent experience. The wartime Manhattan Project had unlocked the power of the atom. Other federal efforts had brought forth jet propulsion and radar. Advocates of a manned moon landing could argue persuasively that such an effort now would bring forth breakthroughs of similar value.