Shooting The Moon

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Gazing up at the Texas night sky from his ranch, Senator Lyndon B. Johnson did not know what to make of Sputnik I, the first artificial Earth satellite launched into orbit by a Soviet missile on October 4, 1957. But an aide’s memorandum stoked his political juices. “The issue is one which, if properly handled, would blast the Republicans out of the water, unify the Democratic party, and elect you President.” Back in Washington Johnson chaired blue-ribbon hearings to determine how the United States had fallen behind in “the race to control the universe.” Whether or not Sputniks were a threat, they were a “technological Pearl Harbor” and a terrible blow to U.S. prestige because “in the eyes of the world first in space means first, period; second in space is second in everything.”

In fact Sputnik was no surprise to the Eisenhower administration, which had monitored Soviet rocket tests and expected satellite launches during the International Geophysical Year. But Dwight D. Eisenhower’s top priority was to establish the legality of satellite overflight in anticipation of the American spy satellites needed to verify arms control treaties with the secretive Soviets. Thus, the U.S. satellite mission was given to a new civilian program rather than to the Army’s existing Redstone rocket group.

Just four months later, Eisenhower’s patient, building-blocks plan was dead, but not because the Kennedy administration had new ideas. The new president’s science adviser, Jerome Wiesner, advised against crash programs, and Kennedy himself (fearing dead astronauts on his watch) put safety above prestige. But Vice President Johnson had expansive ideas, which he impressed upon his personal choice for NASA’s new boss, James Webb. As early as March 20 Webb regaled Kennedy with talk of “pioneering on a new frontier” to boost U.S. prestige. The president agreed to buy time by accelerating the Saturn.

Time ran out on April 12, when Yuri Gagarin’s capsule orbited the Earth and safely reentered the atmosphere. Newspapers and members of Congress called it another “psychological victory of the first magnitude” that would persuade neutral nations “the wave of the future is Russian.” Kennedy’s response was a staged brainstorming session in the Oval Office: “Can we put a man on the Moon before them? . . . If somebody can just tell me how to catch up. . . . There’s nothing more important.”

Important for what? Boosting public morale and the president’s ratings, appeasing Congress, stimulating the aerospace industry, promoting science in schools, reassuring NATO allies, or competing for hearts and minds in the Third World? Many motives pushed the young president in the same direction, especially after April 17, when the CIA’s botched invasion of Cuba made the Bay of Pigs a byword. Two days later Kennedy asked Johnson to recommend a Moon landing or “any other space program which promises dramatic results.”

Eminently aware of what to do with such carte blanche, Johnson lobbied, leveraged, and lubricated leaders in Congress, the military, and the business community until all understood how a big civilian space program could serve them as well as the country. The last holdout was Webb himself. Rather than expose NASA by lobbying for Apollo, he insisted that the agency be given the task by an anxious nation.

The whole business could have blown up on the morning of May 5, when a Redstone rocket lifted off at Cape Canaveral with Alan Shepard inside the Mercury capsule. Its suborbital flight to an altitude of 116.5 miles was nowhere near as impressive as Gagarin’s orbits. But the thrill of praying and yelling “Go! Go!” at their televisions put relieved Americans in the perfect mood to answer a clarion call. On May 24 Johnson received a letter from Webb that said: “The President has approved the program you submitted, with very few changes, and the message will go up on Wednesday.”

The message was part of an extraordinary address to a joint session of Congress on May 25, 1961. Kennedy listed the initiatives by which he would wage the Cold War with renewed vigor. Last but not least came this: “Finally, if we are to win the battle that is now going on around the world between freedom and tyranny. . . . 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.”

Because Congress did commit to that goal and NASA did meet that goal, Kennedy’s place in history is partly defined by it. Apollo was a rhapsody of engineering and the human spirit, a truly giant leap for humankind. But it was also a melancholy achievement, because what scholars call “the Kennedy effect” turned out to be a drag on progress in space. To make a given technological achievement the measure of all things (“second in space means second in everything”) can only skew progress for a season and then kill it altogether once the race is over and won. Only now, four decades after Apollo 11, has NASA even been invited to think about returning to the Moon, just as a fiscal crisis ensures it won’t happen. Indeed, the origins, execution, and effects of the original decision to go to the Moon can teach us Americans a great deal about ourselves.