With new documents now available, a space historian and founder of George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute revisits a scholarly topic he pioneered: John F. Kennedy’s decision to go to the moon.
It has been a half-century since JFK announced before a televised joint session of Congress, “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 earth.” In scope and difficulty history’s most astonishing engineering feat, Project Apollo’s success also depended on political will. Logsdon (The Decision to Go to the Moon: Project Apollo and the National Interest, 1970) rightly characterizes the moon shot not as a single decision, but rather a series of pragmatic judgments that kept pushing the program forward. Rejecting the notion of JFK as a space visionary, the author views the president as a practical politician who, in the crucial context of the Cold War, acted to secure the nation’s defense, prestige and progress. Although the challenge and risk of manned space flight—something for which Eisenhower had little enthusiasm—particularly appealed to this youthful, competitive man, Kennedy continually revised his thinking, questioning NASA about its priorities and performance, prodding his White House staff for alternative views and more information and orchestrating a defense against political critics and members of the scientific community unconvinced of manned space flight’s utility. Logsdon charts the evolution of JFK’s thinking about space—including repeated offers as president to cooperate with the Soviets—from his senatorial career up until the assassination. He chronicles the intragovernmental struggle for consensus and highlights the policymaking contributions of presidential aide Ted Sorensen, science advisor Jerome Wiesner, Vice President Lyndon Johnson and NASA administrator James Webb.
Essential to understanding JFK’s sponsorship of an historic enterprise linking him to the future.