The Challenge

In the aftermath of Gagarin's flight, President Kennedy asked Vice President Johnson to find a way to regain American technological prestige through space flight. NASA top management was in almost constant communication with the White House staff, Bureau of the Budget officials, and congressional leaders. Apollo was about to pass from planning to action. Less than a month and a half after the Russian feat, NASA's new manned space flight project was approved.

Now it is time to take longer strides - time for a great new American enterprise - time for this nation to take a clearly leading role in space achievement, which in many ways may hold the key to our future on earth.

. . . I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish.

With these words, on 25 May 1961, President Kennedy proclaimed before Congress and the world that manned lunar landing belonged in the forefront of an expanded American space program.73 And Congress obviously agreed with him. With almost no internal opposition, both the Senate and the House of Representatives responded to Kennedy's challenge by increasing funds for the agency that was to undertake this bold program. At this juncture, the Americans had chalked up 15 minutes and 22 seconds of manned space flight experience. The Russians had clocked 108 minutes.

On 5 May 1961, NASA had launched Freedom 7, the first manned U.S. spacecraft. Pilot Alan Shepard became the forerunner of a new genre of American adventurer-hero, the astronaut.* Shepard's flight, a lob shot up over the Atlantic, was a far from spectacular demonstration of this country's spacefaring capabilities when compared to Gagarin's single orbit of the earth. But, as only the third flight of a Mercury-Redstone, it was a dangerous and daring feat.74

NASA officials maintained that the agency was ready and eager to take on the lunar landing, even though it added enormously to the challenge of Apollo. Following the President's speech on 25 May, Webb, Dryden, and Seamans told newsmen that much of the additional funding Kennedy had requested would be spent on advanced launch vehicles, particularly Nova, the key to manned lunar landings. Nova was so crucial to Apollo, Webb declared, that the agency planned a parallel approach to the development of propellants for the big booster. NASA would continue its work on liquid propellants, while the Department of Defense would pursue solid-fueled-rocket development as an alternative for Nova's first stage. "As soon as the technical promise of each approach can be adequately assessed," he said, "one will be selected for final development and utilization in the manned space program."75

Dryden expanded on Webb's statement. Asked if the agency considered orbital rendezvous a serious alternative to use of Nova, he replied, "We are still studying that, but we do not believe at this time that we could rely on [it]." He stressed that Kennedy's decision had forced NASA to begin work on Nova prematurely:

This illustrates the real nature of the decision. We could make some of these decisions better two years from now than we can now, if the program had gone along at the ordinary pace. But if we are going to accelerate this we have got to do some parallel approaches, at least for a time. The solid and the liquid propellant are going to be carried forward full steam. We have a certain amount of effort on rendezvous. If it looks like this presents any opportunity, we will certainly take advantage of it.76

Both Dryden and Seamans freely admitted that NASA lacked the immediate scientific knowledge needed for lunar landings. Another use of the additional funding would be to speed up research into the unknowns. Development of hardware - boosters, spacecraft, and equipment - must be built upon this scientific and technical foundation. At this juncture, nobody had any really firm idea about how NASA was going to implement Kennedy's decision. Techniques for leaving the earth and flying to the moon - even more, landing there and returning - were open to considerable debate and much speculation.

There was a vague feeling within the agency (though with several notable exceptions) that direct ascent would eventually be the answer, but no one had worked out the tradeoffs in much detail. Subsequently, as Apollo planning progressed, the question of how to fly to the moon and back loomed ever larger. In the end, the choice of mode was perhaps the single greatest technical decision of the entire Apollo program. The selection was inextricably linked to launch vehicles, spacecraft, facilities, cost, development schedules, and the future of America's posture in space. Ultimately, the mode question shaped the whole of Apollo. Many possible methods were carefully considered, and a Pandora's box of problems was opened. At the time, however, technical thinking had not matured to that degree. The United States was just on the threshold of manned space flight, and orbital flights around the earth were in themselves mind-boggling. A program to land men on the moon, 400,000 kilometers away, and bring them safely home was nearly too stupendous for serious contemplation.

One participant charged with transforming the concepts drafted by committees and study groups to hardware later described his reactions. Acutely aware that NASA's total manned space flight experience was limited to one ballistic flight and that he was being asked to commit men to a 14-day trip to the moon and back, Robert Gilruth said he was simply aghast.77


* The first astronauts were military test pilots: from the Navy, Lieutenant Commanders Walter M. Schirra, Jr., and Alan B. Shepard, Jr., and Lieutenant M. Scott Carpenter; from the Air Force, Captains L. Gordon Cooper, Virgil I. Grissom, and Donald K. Slayton; and from the Marines. Lieutenant Colonel John H. Glenn, Jr.


73. Rosen to Webb, "Reflections on the Present American Posture in Space," 19 April 1961; Webb to Kenneth O'Donnell, The White House, no subj., 21 April 1961; John F. Kennedy to the Vice-President, no subj., 20 April 1961; L. B. Johnson to the President, "Evolution of the Space Program," 28 April 1961; DeMarquis D. Wyatt, "Research and Development," 24 May 1961, annotated "Prepared for use at press conf. 5/25/61"; White House, "John F. Kennedy, President of the United States, Special Message to Congress, May 25, 1961," news release.

74. Congress, An Act to authorize appropriations to [NASA], Public Law 87-98, 87th Cong., 1st sess., 21 July 1961; NASA with National Institutes of Health and National Academy of Sciences, (Washington, 1961); NASA, "Introduction to the Astronauts," news conference, 9 April 1959; Low to Admin., NASA, "Pilot Selection for Project Mercury," 23 April 1959.

75. NASA, "Statement by James E. Webb, Administrator," news release 61-112, 25 May 1961.

76. NASA, "Budget Briefing," news release 61-115, 25 May 1961.

77. Gilruth, interview, Houston, 21 March 1968. Cf. Charles W. Mathews to staff, Flight Ops. Div., "Formation of Apollo Working Group," 29 May 1961.


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