Background and Analysis
Budgets, Schedules, and Priorities
Im not that interested
The Actual Schedule
Outcome of the Meeting
In spring 1961, President John F. Kennedy approved a
mission to land a man on the Moon by the end of the decade.
Project Apollo was already underway in its very early stages,
with only a circumlunar goal. At the time that Kennedy established
his lunar landing goal, the civilian space agency NASA was
only two and a half years old and the United States had only
15 minutes of human spaceflight experience.
In November 1961, NASA selected North American Aviation
to build the Command and Service Modules (CSM) for Apollo.
By the following spring, as the North American contract was
definitized, the companys cost estimate for the CSM
had increased substantially over its initial proposal. By
May 1962, NASAs program offices had identified overall
costs that were $425 million more than the budget that the
White House actually submitted to Congress for Fiscal Year
(FY) 1963, which officially began on July 1. Agency leaders
were also already developing plans for NASAs FY 1964
budget request and trying to balance their stated needs with
the lower amounts that NASA was likely to get from Congress
and the White House.
By late 1962, several events brought the status of Apollo
back to the attention of the White House. First, there was
no solid evidence that the Soviet Union was carrying out a
lunar program. Indeed, at this time, the Soviets had not yet
committed to a lunar landing goal and did not believe that
the Americans were serious about Apollo. Second, NASA had
selected the lunar orbit rendezvous (LOR) mode for reaching
the Moon. This decision was opposed by the Presidents
Science Advisor, Jerome Wiesner, and his staff, and led to
strained relations between NASA and Wiesner. Kennedy had learned
of these tensions during a September tour of NASA installations
that culminated in his dramatic 12 September speech at Rice
University. Third, as a result of the North American contract,
the LOR and Saturn rocket decisions, and other developments,
NASA revised upwards its cost estimates for reaching the Moon.
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Budgets, Schedules, and Priorities
In October 1962, the Associate Administrator for Manned
Space Flight, Brainerd Holmes, developed a Manned Space
Flight Program Launch Schedule for Apollo and Saturn Class
Vehicles and distributed it to the major Center directors
and Apollo program directors. It indicated that the first
human Apollo launch atop a Saturn C-1 rocket was scheduled
for March 1965. There would be six piloted C-1 launches, eight
piloted Saturn C-1B launches, and seven piloted Saturn C-5
launches through the middle of 1968. Six unpiloted Saturn
C-5 development launches would be required. (The designations
for these rockets were later changed slightly, to Saturn I,
Saturn IB and Saturn V, respectively.) According to this schedule,
the earliest possible piloted lunar landing attempt would
be made in the second half of 1967.
Relations between Holmes and NASA Administrator James
Webb had been strained since at least the summer of 1962.
Holmes had been labeled the Apollo czar by the
media, and this annoyed Webb. An August 1962 Time magazine
story on Apollo featured Holmes on its cover (Reaching
for the Moon, Time (10 August 1962): 5257).
This article was noticed by media-sensitive members of the
Although Holmes had publicly sought to speed up the Apollo
program, in private he was concerned that the existing schedule
would slip without more money. He approached Webb about seeking
$400+ million supplemental funding with the belief that this
money was required merely to prevent schedule slippage. This
money was apparently not the Fiscal Year 1963 budget
shortfall that NASAs program office had identified earlier
in May 1962 (that is, the money that the program managers
said that they needed but did not get in the budget). That
money was for the entire NASA budget, whereas Holmes was asking
for roughly the same amount for Apollo alone. Webb initially
rejected Holmess approach. Holmes then sought permission
to obtain the money for the Apollo program by taking it from
other programs, including the space science budget. Webb rejected
this approach as well. Holmes then began complaining to the
media and Congress, but Webb soon became aware of these complaints.
It was after these rejections that Holmes mentioned to Kennedy
directly that more money could speed up the Apollo schedule.
This undercut Webbs authority.
On 29 October 1962, Webb wrote a letter to President
Kennedy concerning the amount of money that would be necessary
to move up the first human landing by six months, and by twelve
monthsin other words, to place Apollo on a crash
basis. Both sums that Webb provided were considerable, and
both would require immediate changes to NASAs budget
and an appeal to Congress for additional money, both in the
existing budget year and in Fiscal Year 1964.
These events and Webbs letter prompted Kennedy
to ask for an especially critically review of
the total national space effort. The Bureau of the Budget
produced a 14 November draft report that listed the projected
costs of the various space programs of the U.S. government
through 1967. This report concluded that Apollo would cost
$16.4 billion through 1967. It also addressed the question
of accelerating the Apollo schedule and how this could be
done, and at what cost, presenting four alternatives.
In November 1962, Time magazine ran another article
on the Apollo schedule detailing Holmess complaints
(Space in Earthly Trouble, Time (23 November
1962): 15). The article was dated 23 November but appeared
on the newsstands on 19 November. Webbs staff managed
to obtain an advance copy of the story including a Holmes
quote that Times editors deleted from the printed
version: The major stumbling block of getting to the
[M]oon is James E. Webb. He wont fight for our program.
The editors had determined that Holmes had let the earlier
August cover story go to his head. Furthermore,
they felt that he was out to get Webb.
One particularly interesting comment during the 21 November
meeting is Holmess apology to Kennedy. Holmes was probably
referring to the Time magazine article that had appeared
earlier in the week.
Following the report from the Bureau of the Budget, and
probably prompted by the Time magazine article earlier
in the week, President Kennedy called a meeting of his advisors
and asked to be briefed on his options concerning the space
program. This meeting took place on 21 November 1962after
the recent mid-term congressional elections and over a month
after the Cuban Missile Crisis. Present at the meeting were
President Kennedy; NASA Administrator James Webb; Science
Advisor Dr. Jerome Wiesner; Executive Secretary of the National
Aeronautics and Space Council Edward Welsh; Director of the
Bureau of the Budget David Bell; NASA Deputy Administrator
Dr. Hugh Dryden; NASA Associate Administrator Dr. Robert Seamans;
NASA Associate Administrator for Manned Space Flight Dr. Brainerd
Holmes; Deputy Director, Bureau of the Budget Elmer Staats;
and Deputy Division Chief, Military Division, Bureau of the
Budget Willis H. Shapley. Vice President Lyndon Johnson was
scheduled to attend but was in Texas during the meeting and
therefore was not present. Associate Administrator Seamans
gave a 15-minute presentation to Kennedy that was interrupted
by a call from the Speaker of the House.
The purpose of the meeting was to discuss the budget
and schedule requirements for Apollo at the time, as well
as whether a supplemental appropriation to NASAs budget
of over $400 million (that is, additional money in the current
fiscal year) was needed. In order for such a supplemental
appropriation to take place, President Kennedy had to declare
that it was necessary for national security purposes.
According to NASA Associate Administrator Robert Seamans,
he originally prepared a 30-minute briefing for Kennedy but
was told to cut it to 15 minutes. Apparently, the audio tape
recorder was turned on by Kennedy only after this briefing.
The recorded portion of the meeting essentially had three
parts. During the first part, the attendees discussed the
time and schedule for the Gemini and Apollo programs and whether
a supplemental appropriation to the NASA budget would speed
up the schedule. During the second part, Kennedy and Webb
discussed whether Apollo was the top priority of the space
program or was part of a broader effort to establish preeminence
in space. During the third part, after Kennedy had left, Webb
discussed the political problems of approaching Congress to
seek a supplemental budget appropriation.
In April 1962, Apollo had received a DX or Brickbat
priority within the U.S. government. This was a national security
designation that indicated that the program was first in line
for attention and material. Only a few other space and missile
programs had a similar designation. Mercury had already had
its DX priority revoked by the time the DX priority was applied
to Apollo, in part to preserve the importance of the designation.
Ensuring that a program had a high priority but did not adversely
affect other programs was always a delicate balancing act,
and Apollo program managers had been warned about this when
the DX rating was first applied to Apollo. This debate had
existed virtually since the beginning of the missile age.
For instance, President Eisenhowers advisors had created
the first civilian satellite program with a directive that
work on the civilian rocket should not affect work on military
ballistic missile development.
In summary, Apollo already had the top priority rating
that any government program could havethe DX priority.
But the program was not on a crash basis. What
the men were therefore discussing during the White House meeting
was increasing the budget, the timeline, and the rhetoric
(that is, a clear presidential statement on the importance
of Apollo). This would place Apollo on a crash basis but would
inevitably affect other programs, particularly at NASA. NASA
Administrator James Webb was concerned that doing this could
ironically decrease the chances for success by damaging
projects that were necessary for the success of the lunar
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Dr. Robert Seamans, the third-ranking official at NASA
at the time of this meeting and one of the attendees, has
stated that he still remembers the meeting as an unusually
freewheeling exchange of views. This is evident from both
the recording and the transcript. President Kennedy and NASA
Administrator James Webb engaged in a lively discussion. Although
at first glance it appears as if they are disagreeing with
each other, a closer reading indicates that they shared some
of the same views and their discussion never reached the status
of what could be considered an argument. Webb was having some
difficulty communicating his concerns to Kennedy and Kennedy
was trying to make his priorities clear to the NASA Administrator.
Webb had two primary concerns. First, he was worried
that key programs both technically and scientifically necessary
to achieving the lunar goal, such as the Centaur upper stage
and the Surveyor landing craft, would be delayed if all attention
was given to the human portions of the lunar effort. Second,
he was concerned that a clear presidential statement on the
overriding importance of Apollo would undercut his negotiating
position with contractors and the Congress with respect to
both management control and other NASA programs.
Webb argued that certain programs that were not formally
part of the Apollo program were nevertheless important to
its success. One of these was the Centaur, a powerful upper-stage
rocket that utilized liquid hydrogen as a propulsion fuel.
Liquid hydrogen was a difficult fuel to work with, and NASA
had no experience with it. Although Centaur was intended to
launch robotic probes to the Moon and outer planets, Webb
argued that NASA would also gain vital experience with liquid
hydrogen by building Centaur and would be able to apply this
experience toward Apollo. He was correct in this claim, as
both the second and third stages of the Saturn V rocketwhich
was still in the early design phase at the time of this meetingutilized
liquid hydrogen. The development of these stages ultimately
did benefit from the development of Centaur.
During the meeting, Webb referred to a dispute over Centaur
concerning Wernher von Braun, who was then Director of the
Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville. Marshall was initially
responsible for the development of the Centaur, but von Braun
showed only limited interest in it and had informed Congress
that he did not think that the program was worth continuing.
Webb was angered by both von Brauns comments and his
perceived undercutting of Headquarters. In what many people
viewed as a rebuke of von Braun and an assertion of NASA Headquarterss
authority for rocket development decisions, Webb transferred
management of Centaur to the Lewis Research Center in Ohio.
During the meeting, Webb also mentioned Abe Silverstein, who
was then the Director of Lewis and who took over the program.
In addition to the technology programs, Webb felt that
certain scientific programs were also necessary for the success
of Apollo. For instance, Ranger and Surveyor (and later Lunar
Orbiter) were important for characterizing the lunar environment
to enable the design of the manned Lunar Module, and for selecting
a landing site. Webb did not want to see these programs canceled
for being unnecessary for Apollo, even though they were not
technically part of the lunar landing program.
Webb resisted having Kennedy clearly state that Apollo
was the highest priority space program because he felt that
the heads of various contractors, like McDonnell, would immediately
use that against him in budget negotiations. They could tell
the Congress and the press that they had extra engineers to
put on a program and that Webbs refusal to allow them
to do so was obstructing maximum progress on Apollo. Early
in the meeting, Webb in particular referred to McDonnells
desire to maintain a large engineering force rather than lay
off engineers that it no longer needed. McDonnell had expanded
its engineering force to design the Navys F-4 Phantom
interceptor aircraft in the 1950s. If McDonnell dismissed
these employees, it would hinder the companys ability
to compete on other near-term contracts, such as redesigning
the Gemini spacecraft for Air Force missions. Similarly, Webb
mentioned Boeings overcapacity and the company presidents
desire to dramatically increase the number of people building
Although the last part of the meeting, after Kennedy
had left the room, is of lesser historical interest, it does
demonstrate Webbs detailed knowledge of Washington politics.
Webb was widely admired for his political connections and
understanding of how Washington worked, and his comments about
how committee chairmanships in the houses of Congress would
shift as a result of the recent election demonstrates this.
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Im not that
interested in space.
When this transcript was released in August 2001, the
press and public focused in particular on one comment by President
Kennedy: Now, this may not change anything about that
schedule but at least we ought to be clear, otherwise we shouldnt
be spending this kind of money because Im not that
interested in space (emphasis added).
Only a minute earlier, Kennedy had said, And the
second point is the fact that the Soviet Union has made this
a test of the system. So thats why were doing
This is the most dramatic and blunt statement of Kennedys
motivations for sponsoring Apollo. Because of his untimely
death and the protectiveness of his advisors, little information
has emerged about what Kennedy actually thought about the
expensive project that he had initiated, thus requiring that
observers divine his motivations largely from his actions
and his public speeches. Unfortunately, because of the size
and ambition of the Apollo goal, over time many people have
assumed that it was primarily motivated by Kennedys
enthusiasm for space exploration and not by political concerns.
Kennedys comments during this meeting were perfectly
consistent with his decision to establish the lunar goal in
the spring of 1961. He made that decision in response to Yuri
Gagarins April 1961 flight around Earth and possiblyalthough
this is less clearin response to the humiliation he
and the country suffered at the Bay of Pigs at the same time.
Apollo was a political decision to achieve a political goal,
to demonstrate the technological and organizational power
of the United States and thereby demonstrate that democratic
capitalism was superior to Soviet-style communism as a form
of societal organization.
There are other examples during this meeting of Kennedys
view of space as a demonstration of power in the Cold War.
During the 21 November meeting, Webb told Kennedy, And
I have some feeling that you might not have been as successful
on Cuba if we hadnt flown John Glenn and demonstrated
we had a real overall technical capability here. Webb
was referring to the recent Cuban Missile Crisis, during which
the United States and the Soviet Union had reached the brink
of war. The Soviets agreed to withdraw their nuclear-tipped
missiles from Cuba in an action that many people perceived
as a humiliating defeat and that ultimately led to the downfall
of Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev.
Kennedy replied, We agree. Thats why we wanna
put this program
. Thats the dramatic evidence
that were preeminent in space.
Kennedy was not inherently enthusiastic about space exploration.
Although he had disagreed about space spending with his opponent,
Vice President Richard Nixon, during the presidential campaign,
this was because Kennedy and his advisors felt that Nixon
was vulnerable on this issue because of his association with
the Eisenhower administration record before and after Sputnik.
When he had first entered office, Kennedy was immediately
presented with a request from NASA for supplemental fundingthat
is, money in addition to its existing budget. He approved
some of this additional funding for the Saturn I rocket in
order to redress a perceived American weakness in large rocket
launch capability. But Kennedy notably did not approve
significant additional funding for the Apollo program at that
time. In other words, he showed no initial inclination to
increase human space exploration much beyond existing plans.
Kennedy was interested in space as a symbol of political power,
but it was only after the Soviet Union increased the political
stakes that Kennedy approved the lunar landing program.
Kennedy was also interested in cooperation with the Soviet
Union before Yuri Gagarins flight. The Eisenhower administration
had begun exploring the issue of U.S.-Soviet space cooperation,
and Kennedy had continued these studies. Such projects were
viewed as potential confidence-building efforts
that could lead to greater stability during the Cold War.
Similarly, after Kennedy announced the lunar landing program,
he quietly began looking for ways of backing out of his commitment.
He discussed a cooperative mission with Nikita Khrushchev
10 days after announcing the lunar commitment, at the only
face-to-face meeting between the two leaders in Vienna, Austria,
on 34 June 1961. Khrushchev was uninterested in the
proposal, and it became dormant for several years.
In September 1963, during a speech before the United
Nations, Kennedy again proposed a joint lunar program to the
Soviet Union. The proposal was not enthusiastically received
by Khrushchev. Kennedys death only a little more than
a month later essentially made the proposal irrelevant. Discussion
of a joint Moon mission with the Soviet Union died out in
the early months of the Johnson administration. However, Kennedys
actions throughout his presidency were consistent. As President,
he viewed space as merely an extension of political competitionand
potentially cooperationbetween the superpowers.
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The Actual Schedule
In retrospect, it seems unlikely that an increase in
Apollo funding or an acceleration of the Apollo schedule would
have resulted in any significant changes to the actual outcome.
The existing schedule was already unrealistic for achieving
the end of the decade goal, as NASA officials soon determined
in later 1963.
In June 1963, after a continued dispute with Webb, Holmes
resigned. The media reported that Apollo was in disarray.
Associate Administrator Seamans felt that the media coverage
was overblown, but Webb clearly needed a replacement for Holmes.
He soon asked George E. Mueller (pronounced Miller),
vice president of Space Technology Laboratories, to take over,
and Mueller agreed. Mueller immediately ordered a review of
the status of the program and determined that Holmes had been
correct in saying that the schedule was slipping. The first
piloted Apollo launch had already slipped from the second
quarter of 1965 to the last quarter, and it soon slipped into
1966. He calculated that at its pace in September 1963, the
first landing might not take place until 1971. But whereas
Holmes had determined that more money was needed to accelerate
the schedule, Mueller determined that a different flight testing
approach was required instead.
Mueller dramatically compressed the Saturn development
schedule, eliminating a large number of unpiloted development
flights. For instance, instead of six unpiloted Saturn V flights,
Mueller reduced the number to three, and NASA ultimately launched
only two. In a major change, the piloted Saturn I flights
were deleted entirely. This change is commonly referred to
as the all-up decision, whereby all rocket components
were tested simultaneously during a single flight rather than
individually over multiple flights.
Mueller and his assistants had to significantly cut the
number of Saturn test flights in order to maintain the end-of-the-decade
goal, ultimately making the discussions during the November
1962 White House meeting about a late 1966 launch seem highly
dubious. The first human Apollo launch slipped from mid-1965
to early 1967. The first landing slipped from late 1967 or
early 1968 to late 1968. The Apollo 1 launch pad fire in January
1967 caused the overall schedule to slip by more than a year.
But despite all of these changes, the ultimate pacing
item for the Moon landing was not the Saturn or the Apollo
spacecraft, but the Lunar Module (LM). A Lunar Module capable
of landing on the Moons surface was not available until
summer 1969, and it is unlikely that any increase in funding,
either in late 1962 or at any other time, would have changed
this fact. The Lunar Module took as long as it did to build
not because of manpower shortages, but because its designers
needed to overcome certain basic technical hurdlesand
money was not capable of changing this fact.
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Outcome of the Meeting
During Kennedy and Webbs lively discussion of program
priorities, Kennedy told Webb several times to write him a
letter summarizing his argument. Kennedy stated during the
meeting that he did not think that he and Webb were necessarily
in disagreement on the subject, but he wanted Webb to put
his views in writing to clarify his arguments. Webb wrote
this letter and sent it to Kennedy on 30 November 1962. In
this letter, jointly prepared by Webb, Deputy Administrator
Hugh Dryden, and Seamans, Webb restated his position:
The objective of our national space program is to become
preeminent in all important aspects of this endeavor and
to conduct the program in such a manner that our emerging
scientific, technological, and operational competence in
space is clearly evident
Consequently, the manned lunar program provides currently
a national focus for the development of national capability
in space, and, in addition, will provide a clear demonstration
to the world of our accomplishment in space. The program
is the largest single effort within NASA, constituting three-fourths
of our budget, and is being executed with extreme urgency.
All major activities of NASA, both in Headquarters and in
the field, are involved in this effort, either partially
or full time.
Ultimately, Kennedy agreed with Webb on all of his major
points. He did not add more money to the NASA budget or order
the acceleration of the schedule. By the summer of 1963, he
also publicly agreed that America sought to become preeminent
in all important aspects of the space program.
Dwayne A. Day, Ph.D.
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