Philosophical Society of Washington

Minutes of the 2303rd Meeting

President John Ingersoll called the 2,303rd meeting to order at 8:19 pm September 7, 2012 in the Powell Auditorium of the Cosmos Club. Mr. Ingersoll announced the order of business and introduced twelve new members of the Society, including the speaker of the evening.

The minutes of the 2,302nd meeting were read and approved.

Mr. Ingersoll then introduced the speaker, Mr. John Logsdon of the George Washington University. Mr. Logsdon spoke on "John F. Kennedy and the Race to the Moon."

Mr. Logsdon began by noting that, as a senator, John F. Kennedy showed little interest in Sputnik or space issues, delegating those subject responsibilities to Lyndon Johnson after the election. In March, 1961 NASA Administrator James Webb suggested additional funding and goals for the Apollo project proposal and Kennedy deferred the decision on the future of a human spaceflight program. The following month Yuri Gagarin made his historic flight, which was interpreted as a great victory for the Soviet Union and convinced Kennedy that nothing was more important than regaining superiority in this context.

Kennedy requested a detailed review of United States space program status, focused on political motivations and possibilities more than scientific value. The first suggested undertaking that promised dramatic results with probable success was a manned mission to the surface of the moon. Wernher von Braun correctly predicted that both the US and USSR would need a larger rocket than currently available for a successful manned moon mission, but asserted that the US could win the rocket building race and therefore achieve a moon landing first.

Mr. Logsdon explained that skepticism was rampant until the successful flight of Alan Shepard, which had been originally scheduled before Gregarin's. Shepard's flight had been delayed for further tests amidst fears of possible public failure, but history could have been very different if Shepard had not been delayed. After this necessary success and extensive discussion with NASA and his advisors, Kennedy made the declaration that Americans should reach the Moon "before this decade is out."

The following 30 months were spent implementing this decision in a war-like but peaceful mobilization of resources, including a near doubling of NASA's budget every year and a a massive investment in facilities and personnel. Mr. Logsdon estimates that the Apollo program, in 2011 US Dollars, cost about $155 billion and was a remarkably focused investment that is unreasonable to expect again.

With funding secured, 1962 brought debate over developing plans for how to actually get to the moon. Mr. Logsdon stated that NASA preferred a lunar orbit rendezvous and Kennedy's science advisor preferred an earth orbit rendezvous. After months of dispute, Kennedy reluctantly sided with NASA's suggestion with the understanding that a failure as a result of this approach would be entirely their responsibility.

There's a common belief that the Apollo program proceeded smoothly and without political roadblocks after being announced. But even as Kennedy's most famous speech in support of the program was being given in September 1962, NASA was internally debating how much money to spend on Apollo and experiencing management and budget issues. Kennedy and Webb met to discuss the motivations for the program and, in 1963, NASA's budget was nearly cut by Congress in response to growing unease regarding Apollo's chances for success.

Kennedy also considered turning Apollo a cooperative undertaking with the Russians and worked on cooperative proposals, inquiring at least twice during meetings with the USSR if they were interested. Kennedy even publicly proposed cooperation during a speech to the General Assembly of the United Nations. Mr. Logsdon believes that the USSR might have undertaken a collaboration if Kennedy had not been assassinated shortly afterward. With historical hindsight, we now know that the Soviet Union did not approve their manned lunar program until 1964, so while Kennedy was alive we were effectively only racing ourselves.

It is unknown exactly how Kennedy would have proceeded with the space program had he lived, his original decisions were based on Kennedy's assumptions of American exceptionalism and that space capabilities were critical to both hard and soft power. Apollo's eventual success capped a terrible decade in United States history, bringing a sense of prestige and achievement that encouraged optimism for future programs. Howerver, Mr. Logsdon believes that the conditions for Apollo's success would be difficult to reproduce and that the Apollo program experience was perhaps unique.

With that, he closed his talk and Mr. Ingersoll invited questions.

Someone wondered how did "end of the decade" mean? The original draft said 1967 and there is still controversy over who suggested the extension. Doesn't believe they defined it exactly.

Someone asked about Kennedy's priorities in peace or warlike usage of space. Kennedy believed in controlling the growth of armaments into space and focused on peaceful applications of space programs such as weather and communications satellites.

After the question and answer period, Mr. Ingersoll thanked the speaker, made the usual housekeeping announcements, and invited guests to apply for membership. At 9:59 pm, President John Ingersoll adjourned the 2,303rd meeting to the social hour.

Attendance: 72
The weather: Cloudy
The temperature: 28°C

Respectfully submitted,

Justin Stimatze,
Recording secretary

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