More Than a Historic Decision: John F. Kennedy and the Race to the Moon, by John M. Logsdon

More Than a Historic Decision: John F. Kennedy and the Race to the Moon, by John M. Logsdon

It seemed only fitting that at last Friday’s presentation of a book dedicated to all of his students – past and present – it would be a former student, NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver, who would set the stage for Dr. John Logsdon’s latest publication: John F. Kennedy and the Race to the Moon. Garver, who was Logsdon’s student at the George Washington University before he founded the Space Policy Institute in 1987, said it was that experience that really started her career in space and without it “I would not be in the position I am now.”

She recalled the discussion back in 1998 that led the NASA History Office, with her backing as the Associate Administrator for Policy and Plans and that of NASA Administrator Dan Goldin, to provide the initial support for what became the book presented Friday night. “NASA rewrites textbooks,” she said, and the continuation of Logsdon’s research – which began in 1970 with publication of his seminal book on the birth of the Apollo Program, The Decision to go to the Moon – was an opportunity to do just that.

Dr. Logsdon’s new book addresses three questions: why did the United States decide to go to the Moon, what did President John F. Kennedy do to make it happen, and what was the relevance of the event to today’s situation. The first of these was the focus of the 1970 book, but as the preface to the new book recounts, Logsdon later realized that there was something missing. His desire to complete a more comprehensive study of President Kennedy and the space program was born out of the realization that he had not included the importance of Kennedy’s leadership through his assassination in 1963 “that generated the political will needed to mobilize the financial and human resources which made the lunar landing program possible.” Logsdon wanted the opportunity to showcase how the decision to go to the Moon was much more than just a decision.

“Presidents have to make decisions and stick with them,” Logsdon said, and exposed the audience to several occasions when Kennedy worded the importance of keeping that commitment to a program that was much more difficult and expensive than is often remembered. When compared to the 1961 NASA budget, the 1962 budget saw an 89% increase, and the 1963 budget increased 101% over that. To put that in context, the Apollo program would cost $151 billion in 2010 dollars, compared to the $8.1 billion that took to build the Panama Canal or the $128 billion involved in building the Interstate Highway System. It was “the largest peacetime mobilization of resources” in the history of the country, Logsdon said, and it is a mistaken assumption to think that back then maintaining that level of support was any easier than today. Even during the 1961 speech, in the sections that are often overlooked, Kennedy spoke with conviction about the magnitude of the effort required. “Presidents don’t talk that way very much anymore,” commented Logsdon.

As Garver said, Logsdon’s account will, in a sense, rewrite textbooks. In it he illuminates another interesting fact that is often overlooked (or forgotten) by those involved in space activities when remembering the events — that for President Kennedy competition with the Soviet Union was the second option. During his January 1961 inaugural address, as Kennedy spoke about nations “who would make themselves our adversary,” he said “together, let us explore the stars,” one of the tell-tale signs of Kennedy’s interest in space cooperation. Logsdon recounted how Kennedy raised the possibility of space cooperation with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev in their one and only meeting in June 1961. Khrushchev declined, but Kennedy made the offer again during a speech at the United Nations just two months before his assassination.

What would have happened if Kennedy had lived and Khrushchev agreed to cooperate, Logsdon wonders. “But [you] can’t rerun history or run it differently,” he said. At the very least Logsdon’s new book will enable readers to put the Apollo program and Kennedy’s role in its beginnings in context, and perhaps understand that history better.

John F. Kennedy and the Race to the Moon is published by Palgrave Macmillan and is part of the Palgrave Studies in the History of Science and Technology.

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