Mid-1963: A Time of Reappraisal

"The first and the most truly heroic phase of the space age ended in the summer of 1963," wrote Hugo Black, Brian Silcock, and Peter Dunn in Journey to Tranquility. "Two years had passed since President Kennedy's commitment to the moon. They were to the public eye, the years of the astronaut; a period when this strange new breed of man was established as something larger than ordinary life, with gallantry and nerve beyond the common experience." This vision stemmed from the novelty of the situation, the ruggedness of some of the characters among the original seven, and partly, too, from the nature of the Mercury program. "Somehow one man in a capsule, alone in the totally unfamiliar void, more easily acquires heroic status than two or three men facing the ordeal together." The last flight of the Mercury series, by Gordon Cooper in May 1963, the authors concluded, "was the last appearance of the astronaut-as-superman."36

That summer marked more than the end of Mercury, as people began to realize for the first time what the moon program really meant. Before that, Kennedy's words had mesmerized them. NASA had gone about its work in an atmosphere of public consent and mute congressional approval. It had decided how to go, where to go, and who should go. The general public accepted the basic lines of the gigantic undertaking. Now the very concept of Apollo began to be questioned. When the great debate that Kennedy had asked for two years before finally got under way, scientists began to see that the space program made distorting demands on skilled manpower, economic resources, and human determination. And they began to ask if it was really worth doing. Did we have to beat the Russians? Was this the most important scientific effort we could perform? Was NASA perhaps traveling too fast? The President himself seemed to have his doubts when he began to suggest joint space efforts with the Russians.

The President had not anticipated NASA in this. In March 1963 the Dryden-Blagonravov agreement on space communications and meteorology suggested that cooperation was feasible.37 In an address to the United Nations General Assembly on 20 September 1963, President Kennedy stated that joint U.S.-USSR efforts in space had merit, including "a joint expedition to the moon." He wondered why the two countries should duplicate research construction and expenditures. He did not propose a cooperative program, but the exploration of the possibility.38

On the next day, Congressman Albert Thomas, Chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Independent Offices, wrote the President to ask if he had changed his position on the need for a strong U.S. space program. The President replied on 23 September that the nation could cooperate in space only from a position of strength and so needed a strong space program.39

Scientists began to talk of other priorities, such as the declining water table in the West and the challenge of oceanography. Lloyd Berkner, to be sure, still took a strong stand for Apollo, chiefly concerning himself with the project as a national motivating force. He had been one of the original promoters of the launching of a satellite during the International Geophysical Year. Berkner's grand vision satisfied many on Capitol Hill. But a majority of scientists still seemed to question the entire program. They felt that the President had proposed the lunar landing in a period of panic that had stemmed from the success of Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, first man to orbit the earth, and the disaster of the Bay of Pigs just seven days later. In November 1963, Fortune magazine summarized the discussion in an article entitled, "Now It's an Agonizing Reappraisal of the Moon Race." The author, Richard Austin Smith, seconded the President's suggestion to the Soviets for international cooperation instead of the "space race," which Smith had originally advocated. Smith discussed three levels of attack on the manned lunar landing program. First, a practical view held that the investment of money and talent in Apollo was out of proportion to foreseeable benefits. Warren Weaver, Vice-President of the Arthur P. Sloan Foundation, had discussed the many alternatives for educational use of the $20 to $40 billion that the moon race was expected to cost. Second, some scientists who were enthusiastic about space exploration feared that Apollo and other man-in-space programs would swallow up the funds that could go to unmanned programs, which they saw as more efficient gatherers of scientific information. Third, a growing number of scientists had reached the conclusion that no appreciable benefits of any sort would come from the Apollo program. Philip Abelson, Director of the Carnegie Institution's Geophysical Laboratory and editor of Science, the journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, had recently conducted an informal survey and found an overwhelming number of scientists against the manned lunar project. "I think very little in the way of enduring value is going to come out of putting man on the moon - two or three television spectaculars - and that's that," Abelson stated. "If there is no military value - people admit there isn't - and no scientific value - and no economic return, it will mean we would have put in a lot of engineering talent and research and wound up being the laughing stock of the world." After discussing these three objections to the Apollo program, author Smith admitted that the most persistent justification for the moon race was the matter of prestige. He suggested continuing the space program but abandoning the "crash" timetable in favor of one that placed the moon in its perspective as one way-station in the step-by-step development of space. Apollo with a lower priority could provide benefits, while allowing periodic reappraisal.40

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