When most Americans think of the moon landing (50 years ago this July), they think of a romantic triumph of human spirit and ingenuity that resulted from a President’s dream and the country’s full unity of purpose.
The true story is significantly more complicated.
In fact, quite contrary to what most may think, it’s likely that if Kennedy had not been assassinated, Americans may not have landed on the moon at all.
Kennedy was the president to declare, during the heart of the Cold War in 1961, that Americans would be the first to put men on the moon. In 1963, following the Cuban Missile Crisis, he in fact delivered one of the most inspiring presidential speeches of all time, in which he characterized the moon landing as a top priority, to be achieved at any cost.
“We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do other things,” he said, “not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.”1
The speech and the effort, however, were rooted in the needs of politics and PR. Space exploration was yet another frontier for Americans to dominate the Soviets, hence the attachment and conviction, but following the arms treaty Kennedy signed with Krushchev in 1963, that sense of purpose behind what was proving to be an incredibly expensive and long-range endeavor began to slip away.
Tapes of Kennedy’s private conversations with James Webb, then the head of NASA, testify to the president’s impatience and worry about sustaining support for the mission from Congress and from the public. The real bombshell was when Webb told Kennedy that NASA would be unlikely to reach the moon until 1969 – after the end of Kennedy’s potential second term.
A moment afterward, Kennedy asked Webb, “Do you think the manned landing on the moon’s a good idea?”2
Webb talked him off that ledge, but his public support for the mission, after that point, waned. He seemed determined to let the fate of the moon mission rest in the hands of Congress, who were unlikely to direct NASA the massive amount of funds needed to make the mission a success.
Eight weeks after Kennedy’s November 1963 assassination, new president Lyndon B. Johnson had to submit the national budget to Congress. He cut funding to defense and agriculture, but was able to rally a grieving nation to direct more funds to NASA – primarily as a tribute to Kennedy’s memory and the former president’s dream.
“There is no second-class ticket to space,” he said.3 Even One Giant Leap for Mankind was not immune to political considerations.
Fishman, Charles. “If President Kennedy Hadn’t Been Killed, Would We Have Landed on the Moon on July 20, 1969? It Seems Unlikely.” Fast Company, Fast Company, 17 July 2019, www.fastcompany.com/90376962/if-president-kennedy-hadnt-been-killed-would-we-have-landed-on-the-moon-on-july-20-1969-it-seems-unlikely.