Was Kennedy Cheered When He Announced We Were Going to the Moon?

Fact & Fiction

Ms. George, author of Awaiting Armageddon: How Americans Faced the Cuban Missile Crisis, is an independent historian and a writer for the History News Service.

Direct Textbooks Textbook resource center

Editor's Note: This article was first published in February 2004.

In popular memory, President John F. Kennedy boldly declared in 1961 that Americans should race to the moon, and the nation rallied around him. Nothing like that happened when George W. Bush recently endorsed a return to the moon and a manned mission to Mars. In fact, nothing like that happened when Kennedy issued his challenge either.

Like Bush, Kennedy faced valid questions in 1961 about whether it was prudent to invest so much money in space when there were still so many pressing problems on earth. But Kennedy had an additional selling point. According to a 1962 Aviation Week poll, 56 percent of Americans thought that the lunar mission was "questionable but perhaps necessary because of the Cold War."

Congress obviously shared the belief that beating the Soviet Union to the moon was an important goal because it backed the Apollo program despite its $23 billion price tag.

The Bush administration is unlikely to find the kind of congressional backing that Kennedy received. Although many Americans find space exploration more appealing than some of Bush's other programs, policymakers -- other than those in the Bush administration -- could find better uses for that money on earth.

Even with overwhelming congressional backing, Kennedy had second thoughts about the expense of the lunar project. He twice attempted to escape the tremendous financial commitment by promoting a joint lunar trip by the United States and the Soviet Union. That idea was never realized, in part because most Americans opposed sharing technology or glory with the Communist giant.

Without the threat of a hulking enemy outpacing the United States in space, Bush faces a tough battle. When his father similarly recommended a return to the moon and a voyage to Mars in 1989, the proposal was basically dead on arrival in Congress. A recent Associated Press poll showed that 48 percent of Americans back the new proposal for Mars exploration, while an equal number oppose it.

Given the public's sharp division and the costs of the ongoing war on terrorism, Congress is squeamish about NASA's failure to attach an overall price to Bush's proposal, especially when outside estimates run as high as $600 billion.

Projections long have been problematic for the space agency. In selling the idea of a reusable space shuttle during the 1970s, NASA predicted that the shuttle could pay for itself by achieving 25 to 30 missions a year, and could fly as many as 48 times a year.

In reality, the shuttle never became cost-efficient. It has never flown more than nine times in a single year. Two of the five shuttles have been destroyed, with their crews, in apparently preventable accidents.

With the possibility of spiraling costs and unforeseeable technological problems, especially given the 14-month round trip that would be required to get human beings to and from Mars, Bush's proposal will be difficult to sell.

Some political leaders would prefer to see those funds used to balance the budget. Others favor addressing urgent social needs: poverty, health-care costs, environmental protection and the research wars against AIDS, Alzheimer's disease and cancer. Even those of us who are space enthusiasts must admit that the United States faces real problems that demand prompt action.

Based on this administration's record, it's unlikely that money saved by delaying further space initiatives would be invested in such causes. Kennedy robbed a strong domestic agenda to fuel the space race. If Bush's space proposals are not approved, his administration is more likely to promote additional tax cuts for the wealthy or expensive investments in defense programs.

Given that likelihood, it's not unreasonable to argue that research on the moon would be the most meaningful extension of Kennedy's vision and far more worthwhile than lining the pockets of the wealthy. A return to the moon could offer valuable opportunities for astronomical research, practical experience that would prepare us for later planetary expeditions and the prospect of mining rich lunar resources.

Since there's a chance that a different president will control the White House a year from today and since a new president definitely will be in power long before Bush's Mars time line would place astronauts on the red planet, it seems unwise to dive into a major space project while so many other needs are pressing. A new leader might urge Congress to invest in solving more down-to-earth problems now so that a better United States will have the opportunity for exploration later.

Kennedy's moon pledge was fulfilled after his death primarily because Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, and the Congresses of that era shared his belief that going to the moon achieved an important Cold War objective. Bush's proposals may fire the imaginations of some, but without a better rationale for such huge investments, his space program is unlikely to generate a supportive consensus.

This piece was distributed for non-exclusive use by the History News Service, an informal syndicate of professional historians who seek to improve the public's understanding of current events by setting these events in their historical contexts. The article may be republished as long as both the author and the History News Service are clearly credited.

comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:

Irfan Khawaja - 8/4/2006

As a purely historical document (regardless of what one thinks of her views), it's worth reading Ayn Rand's contemporaneous essays on NASA and Apollo 11 in her posthumous essay collection, The Voice of Reason. They capture some of the then-contemporary mood.

Frederick Thomas - 8/8/2005

A number of unsupported assertions in this article are troubling, to wit:

"Even with overwhelming congressional backing, Kennedy had second thoughts about the expense of the lunar project," and "Kennedy robbed a strong domestic agenda to fuel the space race."

As I recall, Kennedy's domestic agenda and his space initiative were DOA until he was so rudely brushed out of the way, and LBJ took over. LBJ, the armtwister, took care of pushing these initiatives into actual law, together with all of the Great Society stuff. The "New Frontier," by contrast, is barely associated with JFK, perhaps because it generated no legislative success.

"The Bush administration is unlikely to find the kind of congressional backing that Kennedy received."

Actually, Bush II achieved the great majority of his legislative objectives, a record more like LBJ's, while Kennedy surely did not.

It seems that Ms. George hesitates to give credit to LBJ but gives JFK credit for many things he never did. I have never understood the attraction (other than tonsorial) which the Kennedy administration has for some academics, perhaps at some cost to their reputations.

Jesse David Lamovsky - 2/3/2004

Ms. George just accepts as a matter of course that the government must have the final say over what happens to the tax revenue the Bush Administration intends to earmark for space exploration. The government should "balance the budget", or "address urgent social needs", whatever the hell that means (usually it means any issue that is near and dear to the heart of any one of the numerous interest groups pandered to by the Democratic Party). The fact that this money does not belong to the government by right, that it is, and will be, money that is stolen at gunpoint from productive people, just never seems to register with her. It never occurs to her that the rightful place for this money is in the hands of the people who worked for it, and not bureaucrats or parasites who "need" government handouts.

Ms. George even has the temerity to suggest that it would be wiser for the government to throw money down the rathole of space exploration than to allow "the wealthy" to "line their pockets" with money they earn by their own labor and investment. She's not too sure as to how these expenditures would help "us", but she is sure that it would be more "worthwhile". In other words, we shouldn't let the most productive people in our society keep what is theirs by right, just... because. Doesn't matter how "we" spend the swag, just as long as we keep stealing it from those greedy capitalist fat cats. Heck, we could pile all the stolen booty on the Capital lawn and burn it- anything to keep those awful rich people from "lining their pockets" with the fruits of their own toil. I may be exaggerating, but this is the impression I get from Ms. George's screed.

In fact, the "tax cuts for the rich" stuff we hear from progressive academics and politicians is nothing more than an appeal to the worst human characteristics- envy, resentment, greed. Envy of the good fortune of the wealthy; resentment of their place in society; greed for their money. Frankly, it's loathsome.