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Present at the creation: debating sending Apollo to the Moon

While President Kennedy was confident in his September 1962 speech at Rice University, the situation was different at an April 1961 meeting of his advisors that a journalist also attended.

Apollo Revisited

When high-level space policy decisions get made, it is often messy and complex and rarely straightforward. Even John F. Kennedy’s decision to send humans to the Moon in 1961 was somewhat disorderly. But it has also been better recorded and analyzed than other major space policy decisions, like George H.W. Bush’s 1989 Space Exploration Initiative, George W. Bush’s Vision for Space Exploration, or the Obama administration’s decision to cancel the Constellation program and pursue several different initiatives instead.

One of the surprising aspects of Kennedy’s decision process is that a reporter was present for some of it. Hugh Sidey was in the room on April 14, 1961, when President John F. Kennedy held a freewheeling discussion with several top government officials about how to respond to Yuri Gagarin’s recent spaceflight—and the public perception that the United States was losing the space race. Sidey wrote about this in his 1963 book President John F. Kennedy, and later recounted the meeting, with one minor addition, in essays that he wrote in 1979 and 1986. However, this meeting also formed the background for an article that Sidey wrote for Life immediately after the April 1961 meeting in which he portrayed Kennedy as agonized because of the costs of responding to a situation that had in some ways been created by his predecessor, Dwight Eisenhower. The Life magazine article provided a more positive spin on the story than Sidey’s 1963 book.

In 1971, Sidey searched his records to find his notes from that meeting so that he could give them to Robert Sherrod, who was then writing a book about the Apollo program. Sherrod never finished the book, but he conducted extensive research and donated his material to the NASA history office. Sidey could not find his original notes, but he did provide an account of the meeting in a letter to Sherrod. In the letter he reaffirmed the account from his 1963 book and added a number of details, which were not terribly flattering of either Kennedy or his advisors.

Collectively, Sidey’s several accounts of this meeting make for fascinating reading, presenting an image of a president desperately trying to cope with the perception that the United States was losing the space race to the Soviet Union.

John F. Kennedy had made the “Missile Gap” with the Soviet Union part of his campaign for the presidency in 1960—at least until the CIA briefed him on what was really happening (the Soviet Union had very few missiles) and Kennedy toned down his rhetoric. Although space occasionally came up during the campaign, he did not devote much attention to it. After becoming president, Kennedy was approached by NASA Administrator James Webb in March 1961 about adding supplemental funding to NASA to speed up both the Saturn and Apollo programs. Kennedy approved more money for Saturn, but not for Apollo, which was then planned to eventually conduct circumlunar flights, not a Moon landing. Kennedy did not show any inclination to engage in a space race with the Soviet Union before April 1961. It was not really on his agenda.

Yuri Gagarin’s April 12 flight put it there.

The CIA had evidence that the Soviets were going to launch a man into orbit before it happened. Soon after Gagarin’s rocket lifted off from its secretive launch pad in Kazakhstan, the National Security Agency intercepted transmissions from the capsule, including television images that clearly showed a human figure moving inside the spacecraft. However, at the time Kennedy had left instructions that he was not to be woken from his sleep if the launch happened, and he learned about it when he woke up the next morning.

Sidey had been assigned by Life to do a story about how the United States was lagging behind in the space race and he met with presidential aide Ted Sorensen on April 13 and discussed the subject at length with him. The next day, a Friday, Sorensen invited Sidey to the White House at the end of the day to discuss it; after they had talked for a while Sorensen suddenly said, “Why don’t you ask the President these questions?” Then Sorensen took Sidey down the hall and through the looking glass.

At 6:35 pm, Kennedy returned from a coffee hour with members of Congress and went into the Cabinet Room around the same time that Sidey was being escorted in. According to Sidey, Kennedy pulled out a chair for him at the end of the table and said, “Here, you sit at the head of the table. That’s a good place.”

In the room were a number of top officials. Sorensen was there, of course, but so was the Director of the Bureau of the Budget, David Bell; Kennedy’s science advisor, Jerome Wiesner; and NASA Administrator James Webb and Deputy Administrator Hugh Dryden. Kennedy told Sidey to ask his questions about the space program. “Tell everybody and maybe we can get some answers,” he said.

The fact that this important policy discussion took place with a journalist in the room is rather astounding, as even Sidey acknowledged later. Kennedy was at that time being pounded in the press over the Gagarin flight. Clearly Kennedy and Sorensen had an agenda—to get Sidey to portray the President as concerned about the Gagarin flight, engaged in the issue, and searching for an appropriate response. They undoubtedly had in mind Sputnik three and a half years before, when President Eisenhower had seemed unconcerned and Democrats charged that a Red Moon orbited overhead while Ike played golf. They wanted a story that showed that Kennedy was taking it seriously.

Although they were trying to spin Sidey, it is also clear that Kennedy’s advisors were grasping for answers and that some of the answers were unpleasant. Kennedy and his top advisors did a lot of thinking aloud during that meeting. Equally important, when a journalist watches the decision-making process at work, there is no guarantee that he will observe, and write, what the leadership wants. Sorensen and Kennedy apparently viewed Sidey as a sympathetic journalist, and they did get a story from Sidey that apparently suited their purposes, but some of Sidey’s later observations of the meeting did not cast them in a positive light.

Although Sidey’s initial meeting with Sorensen was supposed to be “not for attribution,” this meeting was not off the record; it is not listed as such in the official White House log of the president’s activities that day. What Sidey did not know at the time was that Sorensen, Bell, Wiesner, Webb, and Dryden had all met shortly before Sidey showed up for his interview with Sorensen. What they discussed is unclear, but they probably spent at least some time talking about how to present their views to Sidey.

Sidey later wrote an article for Life that asserted that Kennedy was “gravely concerned” and realized that “it was more urgent than ever to define U.S. space aims.” The message, which served the administration’s purposes, was that Kennedy was working to fix a situation that was the result of Eisenhower making a conscious decision to not race the Soviets in space. But if Kennedy, Sorensen, and the other men were trying to portray a concerned and competent administration, they came across much more as freewheeling, almost flailing in their deliberations, and they appear to have gotten incredibly lucky that Hugh Sidey did not write his full account of the meeting until years later.

After Kennedy told Sidey to ask his questions, Sidey recalled: “I then went through the usual series of questions about just where did we stand and what did we plan to do. It appeared that we had fallen behind and had no incentive to catch up and that Russia would indeed dominate space, and get to the Moon before we did. Then, Kennedy took over the meeting and went around the table, asking each of the men—Webb, Dryden, Bell, Wiesner—their thoughts.”

“It was a pretty nebulous report,” Sidey remembered in 1971. “The main thing everybody was hung up on was the projected cost that might be at the outside as much as forty billion dollars. Dryden could not give any firm scientific assurance that we could even get to the Moon after spending all that money. Dave Bell, Budget Director, was the most pessimistic. I guess that was because he had the job of juggling the books. I recall his kind of muted horror at the thought of launching a project that was so ravenous and so vague in promised results. Webb, as I reported in the book, launched into kind of a bureaucratic paean but then got down to the fact he thought it could be done and we could try it. Wiesner, who was slumped down in his chair so far that his head seemed to be at table level, didn’t even take a position. My impression was that he was somewhat negative about the whole idea, but I couldn’t be sure of that. That might have been just his manner. Kennedy seemed preoccupied with the size of the engines we were developing and the fact that the Russians had bigger ones.”

“In the meeting, Kennedy complained throughout about the failure of scientists to give him hard answers. Also, about their failure to live up to their promises once they were given. Kennedy was very anguished during this meeting. He, too, slumped down in his chair. At one point, he had his feet at the edge of the Cabinet table and he was pushed back on the hind legs of his chair and teetering there. He kept running his hands through his hair, tapping his front teeth with his fingernails, a familiar nervous gesture. At one point, he examined his shoes thoroughly, which were on the edge of the table, and he tore off a piece of rubber sole that was loose. I got the feeling then that Kennedy’s mind was always ahead of those men who were testifying. There was an aura of impatience, like he’d heard this all before and he was hoping that maybe some place there would be something new that he could grasp.”

Sidey added that “At the end of that meeting, Kennedy turned to me again and asked if all my questions had been answered and I said something to the effect that they had been answered but, yet, there was no answer to the big question about going to the Moon. Kennedy replied that I could see how difficult it was to get answers to these questions, and the real problem was whether we wanted to spend that immense amount of money for space when we had so many other pressing needs at home.”

In his book, published two years later (and which he reportedly allowed Kennedy to review prior to publication to make sure he had “gotten his quotes right”), Sidey recounted that the costs of landing a man on the Moon then being discussed could have been as high as $40 billion. In fact, most of the early estimates were between twenty and forty billion dollars. The final cost of Apollo was actually around $23 billion, or over $150 billion in today’s money. (It is also worth noting that this discussion sheds light on the popular anecdote about how James Webb took a ten-billion-dollar cost estimate and doubled it before testifying in front of Congress—if anything, Webb was being optimistic.)

“The cost,” Sidey quoted Kennedy as saying during the meeting, “That’s what gets me.” Wiesner told Kennedy that they were currently undertaking a review of the booster program. “When can you have it finished?” asked Kennedy. “Now is not the time to make mistakes,” cautioned Wiesner, who asked for three more months.

Then Kennedy said something that he should not have said with a reporter in the room. “When we know more, I can decide if it’s worth it or not. If somebody can just tell me how to catch up. Let’s find somebody—anybody. I don’t care if it’s the janitor over there, if he knows how.” Sidey then wrote: “Kennedy stopped again a moment and glanced from face to face. Then he said quietly, ‘There’s nothing more important.’”

Luckily for Kennedy, Sidey did not include the reference to the janitor in his Life magazine article. Instead, he held that gem for his book.

In his April 1961 Life magazine article, his 1963 book on Kennedy, and his 1971 letter to Robert Sherrod, Hugh Sidey was clear that in that extraordinary April 14, 1961, meeting John F. Kennedy not only had not made up his mind about sending Americans to the Moon, but was desperate for a solution. Later, Sidey spun the tale a little differently. In a piece in the Washington Star to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing, Sidey said that after the meeting he watched Sorensen go back and meet with Kennedy and emerge moments later and say “We are going to the Moon.” Sidey repeated this story in February 1986 in Time magazine, which had devoted much of its issue to the Challenger accident only days before. But even if Sorensen had said this at the time, it was essentially irrelevant—probably no more than Sorensen’s opinion—because Kennedy had given his advisors the task of answering the question of what the United States could do to catch up in the space race, not a directive to do it.

On April 20, Kennedy wrote a letter to Vice President Lyndon Johnson directing him to conduct an evaluation of their options. The letter to Johnson echoed Sidey’s account of the April 14 meeting, even the whiff of presidential desperation. That presidential directive resulted in Johnson meeting with multiple people to evaluate the options and culminated in Johnson recommending the lunar goal, which Kennedy accepted and then publicly endorsed in an address before a joint session of Congress in late May.

But something else happened between the April 14 meeting and Kennedy’s final decision, and it may have helped him make his decision. On Monday, April 17, a group of Cuban refugees stormed ashore at the Bay of Pigs. Kennedy failed to provide the US military support that he had promised them and the invasion quickly fell apart. It was a second major embarrassment for the administration in a week. Kennedy’s mythmakers preferred to spin the Apollo tale so that JFK embraced the lunar goal before the Bay of Pigs, and certainly not because of it. But the evidence does not support that interpretation. Kennedy clearly had not made up his mind before the Bay of Pigs.

According to numerous accounts, Sidey was considered sympathetic to several presidents, particularly Kennedy and Ronald Reagan (a fact that Sidey himself later conceded.) The Kennedy people did not expect him to write an embarrassing article about the administration, and he did not do so. Journalists always have to balance their self-interests against the stories they write, and if Sidey had reported all of his observations in that meeting soon after the fact, he would have lost his access to the White House. Instead, he held the juiciest information for his book, and kept his harsher observations for nearly a decade until disclosing them to Robert Sherrod.

Sidey’s observations of Kennedy and his advisors are not glowing: the president’s science advisor slumping in his chair and failing to take a position on such an important topic; the skeptical budget director warning of massive costs; an “anxious” President in danger of falling out of his chair “running his hands through his hair” and nervously “tapping his front teeth with his finger nails.” And imagine the embarrassing headline: “Desperate JFK, looks to janitor for advice.” Sidey could have written a far harsher contemporaneous account than he did: “The president seemed anxious and asked a lot of questions that his advisors couldn’t answer… He seemed desperate for a solution to a problem that has placed his presidency in crisis… His science advisor slouched in his seat, his budget director warned of the immense costs of competing with the Russians, and the head of NASA is little more than a toady…” An editor with a sense of irony and recent history could have given it the title “Kennedy Sleeps While Red Pilot Flies Overhead.”

In fact, even without such spin, that is essentially how several British writers read Sidey’s later account in his book. Writing in their own book, Journey to Tranquility, Hugo Young, Bryan Silcock, and Peter Dunn stated that Kennedy’s relentless questions at the meeting proved “the President manifested an almost bottomless ignorance of the matter.” They added: “What this meeting disclosed more than anything was the sight of a man obsessed with failure. Gagarin’s triumph mocked the image of dynamism which Kennedy had offered the American people. It had, one senses, to be avenged almost as much for his own sake as for the nation’s.” Young, Silcock, and Dunn demonstrate a typical world-weary European disdain for American politics, American dynamism, and American optimism, which is also a refreshing twist on Apollo mythology. But they also make it clear that this meeting that Sidey so well documented was hardly a universal success for Kennedy.

Kennedy and his advisors had a different agreement with members of the press than exists today. They counted on the press keeping quiet his extramarital affairs and, in certain cases, his political embarrassments. However, if they were trying to perform for Sidey, it was a poor performance and only partially successful. And even if Sidey was at least partially “in the tank,” his recording this meeting has been valuable for historians of Apollo.

Hugh Sidey died on November 21, 2005, at the age of 78. In his long journalism career, he had been Time magazine’s primary chronicler of the presidency and had written or contributed to seven books. Sidey left a long legacy, and made a contribution to the study of space history.


A 1.5-megabyte PDF file containing the President’s schedule for April 14, 1961, Sidey’s cover letter to Robert Sherrod, and the initial draft and corrections of Sidey’s Life magazine article, can be downloaded here. Many thanks to John Hargenreder formerly of the NASA History Office for his help.

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