Miller Center

JFK and the Space Race

by Marc Selverstone

"[G]oing to the moon is the top-priority project. . . . I do think we ought to get it, you know, really clear, that the policy ought to be that this is the top-priority program of the agency and one of the two—except for defense—the top priority of the United States Government."

"[W]e’ve spent half the expenditures, we’ve wrecked our budget on all these other domestic programs, and the only justification for it, in my opinion, to do it in the pell-mell fashion is because we hope to beat them [the Soviets] and demonstrate that starting behind it [them], as we did by a couple of years, by God, we passed them. I think it would be a helluva thing for us."

John F. Kennedy, November 21, 1962

On November 21, 1962, the White House Cabinet Room became the setting for a pivotal and highly volatile meeting on the course of the U.S. space program.[1] The main participants in that meeting were President John F. Kennedy and James Webb, head of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. At issue was the very focus of NASA and its Apollo program, the project that sought to land a man on the moon before the end of the decade. Within the NASA community, Webb had maintained that the agency should not limit its objectives to the moon landing; rather, it should strive for “preeminence in space” across a range of technological capabilities. Webb’s reluctance to treat the lunar program as NASA’s top priority ran counter to the views of his deputy for manned space flight, Brainerd Holmes. It would also challenge the president’s position, for Kennedy, too, regarded the lunar landing as the agency’s primary objective.

The White House meeting took place following published reports of the Webb-Holmes rift. According to Robert Seamans, Jr., Webb’s deputy at NASA, Brainerd Holmes had a contact at Time magazine to whom he was leaking news of the quarrel. As Time would describe it, the clash between the two was of such magnitude that the whole effort of putting a man on the moon was “in danger of bogging down.”[2] Kennedy thus called the November 21 meeting to convey his desire that the lunar landing assume top priority within the agency. Attending the session were Webb, Holmes, Seamans, and David Bell, budget director for the Kennedy administration.

Portions of the Kennedy-Webb exchange are printed below. As Seamans remembers it, the meeting was one of the most dramatic he had ever attended.[3]

NOTES:

 An earlier version of this article was published as: Marc Selverstone, “Politics and the Space Program: John F. Kennedy and James Webb Discuss NASA Priorities and the Apollo Program.” Miller Center Report 18, 1 (Winter 2002): 29-35.Photograph: NASA deputy administrator Robert Seamans, Dr. Werner von Braun, and President Kennedy at Cape Canaveral
November 1963. Photograph courtesy of NASA.

[1] This excerpt is a draft transcript. The final version will be published in The Presidential Recordings: John F. Kennedy, Volume 5.

[2] Time, 23 November 1962, p. 15.

[3] Author's interview with Robert Seamans, 19 February, 2002.