The space program is one of President John F. Kennedy's great legacies but he privately fretted that putting a man on the moon was not much more than a "stunt," according to a secretly-recorded Oval Office conversation finally going public Wednesday.
"But this looks like a hell of a lot of dough to go to the moon when you can go -- you can learn most of that you want scientifically through instruments and putting a man on the moon really is a stunt and it isn't worth that many billions," Kennedy told James Webb, the head of NASA, on Sept. 18, 1963, just over two months before the president was assassinated in Dallas.
The tape is being released on Wednesday's 50th anniversary of Kennedy's speech to Congress in which he set out a moon landing as a goal to be achieved within the decade. The May 25, 1961 address came soon after Alan Shepard Jr. became the first American launched into space on May 5, 1961, following a similar Soviet feat on April 12, 1961.
But much of the patriotic fervor about space, fueled by Cold War competition with the Soviet Union, had dissipated by late 1963, at least in the mind of Kennedy, who was seeing huge expenditures as a political negative. The tape of his conversation with Webb is being released by the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum on their website.
Some historians have argued that Kennedy was trying to find a way out, especially as he prepared for a 1964 reelection campaign where cost, and the lack of significant progress, could become an issue. The conversation underscores his qualms but also his ultimate attempt to stay with the program while casting it in a different light, perhaps as function of defense or national security needs, not solely the prestige of feats in space.
Webb, whose comments prove prescient, makes a thoughtful case for persisting and for the ultimate scientific and intellectual benefits. But he makes clear that, even if Kennedy wins reelection, we would not be landing on the moon before a second term ended, seemingly disappointing Kennedy, whose voice drops at Webb's cautionary note. Ultimately, Neil Armstrong became the first to set foot there on July 20, 1969.
Kennedy grouses that he will be forced to defend the program during the upcoming campaign when "we won't have had anything for a year and a half." And he's clearly disappointed when Webb tells him that we may "fly by" the moon during a second Kennedy term but not land.
Webb diplomatically challenges the president's assumption of sharply diminished public interest. And as the conversation goes on, Kennedy turns pragmatic and wonders less about the program's utility than he does how he might repackage selling it.
"But it seems to me what we've got to try and do is for the reasons you suggested: we've got to wrap around in this country a military use for what we're doing and spending in space. If we don't, it does look like a stunt and too much money," Kennedy declares.
"If we can show that that's true but there's also a very significant military use. Now how are we going to do that?"
Near the end Kennedy concedes, "I think this can be an asset, this program. 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." Through the chat, Webb makes the case for staying the course and assured, "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."
"And I predict you are not going to be sorry, no sir, that you did this."