Tapes Reveal President Kennedy’s Private Concerns Over Space Race

May 25, 2011 3:17pm

ABC News’ Devin Dwyer reports:  Newly declassified White House tapes reveal surprising private misgivings by President John F. Kennedy about public support for the nascent U.S. space program, two years after he famously pushed to make landing on the moon a national priority. 

In a conversation with NASA Administrator James Webb on Sept. 18, 1963, Kennedy worried aloud that Americans might sour on the program given its burgeoning cost and anticipated lengthy delay in fulfilling the goal. 

“I mean if the Russians do some tremendous feat, then it would stimulate interest again, but right now space has lost a lot of its glamour,” Kennedy said.   

“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,” he added later. “If we don’t, it does look like a stunt.”  

“I think it’s the only way we’re going to be able to defend it before the public in the next 12 months,” he said. “I want to get the military shield over this thing.” 

Kennedy told Webb he also feared the program was a ripe political target and one that Congress could raid for budget savings, a concern that has reverberations today.  

“This looks like a hell of a lot of dough,” Kennedy said of the space program.

He asked Webb whether space exploration could be done without the added expense of putting humans there. 

“Could you do the same with instruments much cheaper?” he questioned. 

“No sir,” replied Webb. “While you’re President, this is going to come true in this country.  So you’re going to have both science and technology appreciating your leadership in this field.  Without a doubt in my mind.  And the young of course see this much better than in my generation.”

Two months later, Kennedy delivered a speech to dedicate the Aerospace Medical Health Center in San Antonio, Texas, voicing renewed public confidence in the bid he launched to put an American on the moon.

“This Nation has tossed its cap over the wall of space, and we have no choice but to follow it. Whatever the difficulties, they will be overcome,” he said. “Whatever the hazards, they must be guarded against.”

The newly unveiled comments were included on a 46-minute tape released today by the Kennedy Library on the 50th anniversary of President Kennedy’s speech that first set a goal of an American lunar landing. 

“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,” Kennedy said on May 25, 1961.  “No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish.”

American astronaut Neil Armstrong made the “one small step… one giant leap” on July 20, 1969. 


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