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Kennedy Struggled With Selling Public On Space Program

May 25, 2011

Video: Buzz Aldrin highlights the successes of the Apollo mission and makes a point to not repeat inefficient strategies in the future of space exploration.

According to a newly released White House tape, President John F. Kennedy struggled with how to sell the public on a costly space program he worried had “lost its glamour” and had little political benefits.

Kennedy and NASA Administrator James Webb hashed out how to strengthen public backing for the mission, like highlighting its technological benefits and military uses.

According to the tape recorded two months before Kennedy was assassinated, the two worried about preserving funding during what Webb called a “driving desire to cut the budget.”

“It’s become a political struggle now,” Kennedy says, near the end of the 46-minute tape. “We’ve got to hold this thing, goddamn it.”

The September 18, 1963 conversation is among 260 hours of White House recordings that archivists at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum have been reviewing in chronological order.

The newly released tape comes out on the 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s May 25, 1961 speech he made, which was famous for his call to reach the moon by decade’s end. 

“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 Earth,” Kennedy said during this speech.

Kennedy and Web are heard dealing with that reality in the tape.  Kennedy frets above a massive program that is not making obvious advances while the 1963 election was approaching.

“I don’t think the space program has much political positives,” Kennedy tells Webb in the tape.

“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.

Webb repeatedly pushes the space programs strong points, including technological advances he says will vastly expand the country’s economic might.

“I think it’s going to generate the technology that’s going to make a difference for this country far beyond space,” Webb says.

Kennedy then challenged Webb to answer, “Do you think the lunar, manned landing on the moon is a good idea?”

The two agreed it was crucial to emphasize the space program’s importance to the military and national security, or risk it being considered wasteful.

“The heat’s going to go on unless we can say this has got some military justification and not just prestige,” Kennedy says.

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

Maura Porter, a John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum archivists, said the newly released tape offers a glimpse at the pragmatism behind Kennedy’s vision for the future of the space program.

“He loved the idea of being adventurers and being explorers,” Porter said in a statement.

She said some historians speculated Kennedy would have backed away from the space program if he won a second term.  However, the tape indicates he was hoping to be in office when America reached the moon.

Kennedy asks Webb if there is any chance the lunar landing will take place during a second term.

“It’s just going to take longer than that,” Webb says. “This is a tough job, a real tough job.”

NASA eventually fulfilled Kennedy’s goal on July 20, 1969, when Apollo 11′s lunar module Eagle touched down in the Sea of Tranquility, with Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin aboard.

A dozen men have walked on the moon since then, and now “NASA planners and engineers are already working new capabilities to take us farther into the solar system and help us learn even more about our place in it,” NASA said in a statement.

Image Caption: President Kennedy speaks to Congress on May 25, 1961. Photo Credit: NASA

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