JFK had doubts about moon landing

Questioned costs, voters’ reactions

“I predict you are not going to be sorry,’’ NASA Administrator James Webb said to JFK. “I predict you are not going to be sorry,’’ NASA Administrator James Webb said to JFK. (Abbie Rowe/ JFK Library And Museum/ File 1961)
By Carolyn Y. Johnson
Globe Staff / May 25, 2011

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Fifty years ago today, President John F. Kennedy stood before Congress and audaciously declared that before the end of the decade, the United States should land a man on the moon.

“No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space,’’ he said, delivering a confident rejoinder to the Soviet Union’s successes in the space race.

But two years later, the president struggled with doubts about the expensive program as he prepared for his reelection campaign and worried that public and congressional support was waning, according to a newly declassified tape being released today by the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston.

The recording of a frank, 46-minute White House meeting with NASA Administrator James Webb in September 1963 provides a window into Kennedy’s thinking, revealing political calculations as well as more personal reactions. At one point during the conversation, Kennedy asks, “If I get reelected, I’m not — we’re not — go[ing] to the moon in my — in our period are we?’’

Webb tells him no, and Kennedy’s voice drops with disappointment: “We’re not going . . . yeah.’’

“What I love is that you get every part of him as a person — him doubting the American public is interested in it; then he asks are we going to land in my presidency,’’ said Maura Porter, an archivist at the Kennedy Library. “This is just two months before his death and he thinks space has lost its glamour with the American public — he doesn’t see space being a political positive as he goes into the ‘64 campaign.’’

The tone of the discussion is a far cry from the decisive argument he would make in a speech in November of that year.

“This nation has tossed its cap over the wall of space, and we have no choice but to follow it,’’ Kennedy said at the dedication of the Aerospace Medical Health Center in San Antonio.

“Whatever the difficulties, they will be overcome. Whatever the hazards, they must be guarded against.’’

On the tape, Kennedy grapples with formulating the political, scientific, and national security argument to make for the program — both in the coming election and to Congress.

“Why should we spend that kind of dough to put a man on the moon? But it seems to me . . . we’ve got to wrap around in this country, a military use for what we’re doing and spending in space,’’ Kennedy says. “If we don’t, it does look like a stunt,’’ he adds.

The debate over the value of the human space program continues. The last manned mission to the moon was in 1972, just three years after the Apollo 11 landing in July 1969 fulfilled Kennedy’s bold vision.

Meanwhile, robotic missions have pushed much farther into space and now the space shuttle program is ending, casting the future of human spaceflight further in doubt.

Webb, Porter observed, was in the unusual position of bucking up the president during their 1963 meeting, reminding him that landing humans on the moon would be a tremendous achievement.

“I predict you are not going to be sorry, no sir, that you did this,’’ Webb tells Kennedy.

Ultimately, Kennedy expresses confidence in the program that would become part of his legacy.

“I think this can be an asset, this program,’’ Kennedy says.

“I think in time, it’s like a lot of things, this is mid-journey and therefore everybody says, ‘What the hell are we making this trip for,’ but at the end of the thing, they may be glad we made it.’’

Carolyn Y. Johnson can be reached at