SP-4209 The Partnership: A History of the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project

The Kennedy Proposal for a Joint Moon Flight


Sir Bernard Lovell, a professor at the University of Manchester and Director of the Jodrell Bank radio telescope facility, had been active in the international astronautics community for many years. The Jodrell Bank observatory was scheduled to play a key role in the Soviet-American communications satellite experiments agreed to in Rome. During June and July 1963, Sir Bernard was the guest of the Soviet Academy of Sciences on an unprecedented tour, for a Western scientist, of the major optical and radio observatories. In a letter to Dryden dated 23 July 1963, Lovell described his visit:

During this time I was taken to the major Soviet optical and radio observatories and to the deep space tracking network, a station which has not so far been seen by Western eyes or by many Soviet scientists so I was told, I mention this at the beginning of this letter because it does seem to underline the apparently genuine desire of the Academy to extend its cooperation with the West.53

After describing the "cooperative programs" that he had negotiated with the Soviets, he reported on conversations in which his hosts had discussed the plans for future Soviet efforts in space. Included in Soviet comments was an apparent postponement of a manned program of lunar exploration. Lovell told Dryden that President Keldysh of the Soviet Academy had given three reasons for favoring automated unmanned spacecraft for exploring the lunar Surface:

  1. Soviet scientists could see no immediate solution to the problem of protecting the cosmonauts from the lethal effects of intense solar outbursts.
  2. No economically practical solution could be seen of launching sufficient material on the moon for a useful manned exercise with reasonable guarantee of safe return to earth.
  3. The Academy is convinced that the scientific problems involved in the lunar exploration can be solved more cheaply and quickly by their unmanned, instrumented lunar program.54

Sir Bernard reported that he had argued in favor of a manned lunar expedition, and Keldysh said that a Soviet program to send cosmonauts to [50] the moon might be revived if the issues raised in the three objections could be overcome. Furthermore, Keldysh was reported to have suggested:

. . . that the Academy believed that the time was now appropriate for scientists to formulate on an international basis (a) the reasons why it is desirable to engage in the manned lunar enterprise and (b) to draw up a list of scientific tasks which a man on the moon could deal with which could not be solved by instruments alone. The Academy regarded this initial step as the first and most vital in any plan for proceeding on an international basis.55

In concluding his report to Dryden, Lovell said that he had promised Keldysh to convey the substance of these discussions to the "appropriate authorities in the United Kingdom and the United States of America." Now that Lovell had discharged his promise, a major question remained. What did his conversation with President Keldysh signify?

There were various American interpretations of the Lovell letter. To some observers, this seemed to be strong, reliable data from a prominent scientist that the Soviets had dropped out of the race to the moon. Furthermore, the Soviet Union seemed willing to talk about cooperation in a joint program of lunar exploration. This would mean a dramatic shift from the concept of coordinated space ventures to integrated programs, a change that would require deeper study and extensive discussions between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. Other commentators on the Soviet space program, including Dryden, viewed the Keldysh remarks to Lovell simply as a propaganda ploy that would require the Americans to submit their lunar program to an international body for scrutiny.56 Whatever the motivation, the conversations reported by Lovell were newsworthy, and the press asked President Kennedy to address the substance of these remarks on 17 July.

"Would we still continue with our moon program" if the Soviets should drop out of the lunar race, the press asked? The President said that he knew only what he had heard or read in news reports; therefore, he had to conclude that only time would tell what the true Soviet intentions were. Kennedy did see that the Soviets were "carrying on a major [technological] campaign and diverting greatly needed resources to their space effort. With that in mind," the President thought, "we should continue" our effort to go to the moon. Betraying a sense of skepticism, he suggested that "the prediction in this morning's paper that they are not going to the moon . . . might be wrong a year from now." When pressed to defend Apollo and the moon landing should the Soviets quit the race, Kennedy touched on the strategic importance of sending an American to the moon:

The point of the matter always has been not only of our excitement of interest in being on the moon, but the capacity to dominate space, which would be demonstrated by a moon flight, I believe is essential to the United [51] States as a leading free world power. That is why I am interested in it and that is why I think we should continue, and I would be not diverted by a newspaper story.57

But two months later on 20 September, President Kennedy in a surprise address before the General Assembly of the United Nations raised the possibility of a "joint expedition to the moon."58 How are Kennedy's two positions to be reconciled? At one point, the President called for American domination of the space frontier in the 1960s, and at another time he argued that "space offers no problems of sovereignty," so "why, therefore, should man's first flight to the moon be a matter of national competition? Why should the United States and the Soviet Union, in preparing for such expeditions, become involved in immense duplications of research, construction, and expenditure?"59 The "why" of competition versus cooperation had been a matter of much discussion among the White House staff prior to Kennedy's U.N. address.

Two days before Kennedy's speech, McGeorge Bundy, a Presidential assistant, addressed the question of cooperation and competition in a "Memorandum for the President." NASA Administrator Webb had reported to Bundy that the agency anticipated continued suggestions from the Soviets that the two nations cooperate in space. Indeed, the subject of the Lovell letter and the idea of cooperative lunar exploration had been discussed by Blagonravov and Dryden in a New York luncheon meeting.60 The dramatic newspaper reports of the meeting raised questions that Bundy passed along to Kennedy.61 "The obvious choice was whether to press for cooperation or to continue to use the Soviet space effort as a spur to our own." In this same memorandum, which was prepared as background for the President's meeting that same morning with Administrator Webb, Bundy indicated that there was some "low-level disagreement" on this topic within NASA.#explanation1``* He argued that in his own "hasty judgment" a decision was called for on competition or cooperation. If competition was favored, then the U.S. should make every effort to meet the goal of a lunar landing before the end of the 1960s. "If we cooperate, the pressure comes off, and we can easily argue that it was our crash effort [in] '61 and '62 which made the Soviets ready to cooperate."62

Later on the morning of 18 September, the President met briefly with James Webb. Kennedy told him that he was thinking of pursuing the topic of cooperation with the Soviets as part of a broader effort to bring the two [52] countries closer together. He asked Webb, "Are you sufficiently in control to prevent my being undercut in NASA if I do that?" As Webb remembered that meeting, "So in a sense he didn't ask me if he should do it; he told me he thought he should do it and wanted to do it. . . ." What he sought from Webb was the assurance that there would be no further unsolicited comments from within the space agency. Webb told the President that he could keep things under control.63

Late on the following day, Bundy called Webb to tell him that the President had decided to include a statement about space cooperation with the Soviets in his U.N. address. Bundy informed Webb that Kennedy wanted "to be sure that you know about it."64 The new paragraph, drafted by Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., another Kennedy aide, had not been included in the earlier drafts of the speech circulated at NASA.65 Upon receiving the President's message, Webb immediately telephoned directions to the various NASA centers "to make no comment of any kind or description on this matter."66

The President's proposal for a joint expedition to the moon was intended to be a step toward improved Soviet-American relations. The impact of the speech was quite the reverse. Moscow and the Soviet press virtually ignored the U.N. address.** 67 Officially, the Soviet government did not comment.68 In the U.S., the public remarks either strongly supported the idea of a joint flight or equally forcefully opposed it.69

Reaction within NASA itself was varied. During a news conference in Houston on the day of the President's address, Associate Administrator Robert C. Seamans, Jr., stated that Kennedy's proposals came as no great surprise. He said that many "large areas" for cooperation existed, such as exchanges of scientific information and space tracking data, but he emphasized that there were no plans for cosmonauts to fly aboard an Apollo spacecraft. Deputy Associate Administrator for Manned Space Flight George E. Mueller shared Seamans's view. He compared future U.S.-U.S.S.R. cooperation in space to joint explorations in Antarctica. Scientists from both nations worked in the same region, but "they got there in different ships." Robert Gilruth, Director of MSC, expressed the concerns of technical Specialists about an integrated mission.70

Speaking before the National Rocket Club three days before the Kennedy address to the U.N., Gilruth had said that he "would welcome the opportunity to go behind the scenes in the Soviet Union and see what [53] they're doing, what they have learned." But then he added that a joint space flight involving the melding of equipment would pose difficulties. "I tremble at the thought of the integration problems." Gilruth emphasized that he was speaking as a working engineer and not as "an international politician." He said that American space engineers had enough difficulties mating the hundreds of electrical, mechanical, and pyrotechnic connections between American launch vehicles and spacecraft. Noting "how difficult these integration problems are" from a technical standpoint within a single agency, he said that the engineering problems inherent in combining the hardware of two nations would be "hard to do in a practical sort of way." At the 20 September MSC news conference, he added that such problems "are very difficult even when [the hardware components] are built by American contractors."71 Gilruth's fears were unfounded for the time being; there would be no joint missions in the foreseeable future.

Thus the optimism generated by the Lovell report regarding joint flight ventures turned into disillusionment.*** 72 The political climate - domestic and international - would not support bold proposals for cooperation. Most Americans believed that the U.S. was firmly committed to be the first nation on the moon; an executive or scientific wish to cooperate should not deter the country from obtaining that goal. The clearest statement of the national


Drawing of the space shuttle heading towards the moon

Copyright © 1963 Chicago Sun-Times and reproduced by courtesy of Wil-Jo Associates, Inc., and Bill Mauldin.


Suggestions for Americans and Soviets going to the moon together

Thomas Turner of the Republican Aviation Corporation teamed up with Mel Hunter to suggest a way that the Americans and the Soviets could go to the moon together. Drawings for Life by Mel Hunter (© 1963 Time Inc.)


[56] attitude toward the Kennedy proposal of a joint moon venture came in December, when Congress passed an appropriations bill carrying the following stipulation:

No part of any appropriation made available to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration by this Act shall be used for expenses of participating in a manned lunar landing to be carried out jointly by the United States and any other country without consent of the Congress.73

This basic provision was repeated in the NASA appropriations acts for fiscal years 1964-1966. President Lyndon Johnson called this clause an "unnecessary and undesirable restriction."74


Johnson attempted throughout the winter of 1963 to keep the door to cooperation open. On 2 December, Ambassador Adlai E. Stevenson told the Political Committee of the U.N. that the President had instructed him to reaffirm the Kennedy proposal for a joint Soviet-American expedition to the moon. Without referring to the political storm in Congress over the idea of any proposals for joint flight ventures, Stevenson said, "If giant steps cannot be taken at once, we hope that shorter steps can. We believe there are areas of work, short of integrating the two national programs, from which all could benefit." Therefore, he suggested that "we should explore the opportunities for practical cooperation. . . ."75 The task of negotiating these "small steps" fell once more upon the shoulders of Hugh L. Dryden and Anatoliy Arkadyevich Blagonravov.


* The "low-level disagreement" Bundy mentions refers to press accounts of a 17 Sept. 1963 speech in which Manned Spacecraft Center Director Robert Gilruth had told the National Rocket Club that a joint American-Russian space flight - especially one to the moon - would present almost insuperable technological difficulties.

** The paper Za Rubezhom saw the Kennedy proposal as a propaganda stunt. A Walter Lippman column reprinted by Pravda saw the primary value of Kennedy's speech to be the opportunity it offered the U.S. to escape a unilateral visit to the moon.

*** The Lovell letter was disavowed by the Soviets in the winter of 1963. Keldysh repudiated the letter in a radio broadcast on 14 Oct., while Khrushchev indicated that the U.S.S.R. was still part of the race to the moon.

53. Sir Bernard Lovell to Dryden, 23 July 1963. This letter and the response from Webb are reprinted in full by Frutkin, International Cooperation in Space, pp. 127-131.

54. Frutkin, International Cooperation in Space, p. 129.

55. Ibid.

56. During congressional testimony, Dryden said, "the Russians are proposing an international forum of scientists to discuss our program not theirs," U.S. Congress, House of Representatives, Committee on Appropriations, Subcommittee on Independent Offices, Independent Offices Appropriations for 1964: Hearings, Pt. 3, 88th Cong., 1st sess., 1963, p. 105.

57. Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States, John F. Kennedy, 1963 (Washington, 1964), pp. 567-568. Expanded discussion of the Lovell letter and its impact is provided by Frutkin, International Cooperation in Space, pp. 105-111, and Harvey and Ciccoritti, U.S.-Soviet Cooperation in Space, pp. 112-119.

58. Public Papers of John F. Kennedy, 1963, pp. 695-696.

59. Ibid; and Julian Scheer, memo for record, 29 Oct. 1963, with distributed attachments designed to guide discussion on the value of Project Apollo: Attachment A - NASA response to UPI story that Russia had "withdrawn" from the "moon race," 26 Oct. 1963; Attachment B - NASA subsequent response to queries from news media; Attachment C - Presidential State of the Union speech, 25 May 1961; Attachment D - Webb speech excerpt; Attachment E - List of reasons why the U.S. has mounted broad-based program as outlined in recent presentation.

60. Dryden, memo for record, 17 Sept. 1963, reprinted in part by Harvey and Ciccoritti, U.S.-Soviet Cooperation in Space, pp. 118-119.

61. John W. Finney, "U.S. Aide Rebuffs Soviets Moon Bid," New York Times, 18 Sept. 1963; and Howard Simons, "Soviet Interest in U.S. Space Ties Seen Growing," Washington Post, 18 Sept. 1963.

62. Bundy to Kennedy, memo, "Your 11 a.m. Appointment with Jim Webb," 18 Sept. 1963.

63. Interview, James E. Webb, 19 Sept. 1972, as cited in Harvey and Ciccoritti, U.S.-Soviet Cooperation in Space, p. 122; and Webb, "Leadership Evaluation in Large Scale Efforts," paper presented to the General Accounting Office Fifty Year Anniversary Meeting [n.d.], pp. 14-15.

64. Interview, Webb, 19 Sept. 1972; and Webb to Ezell, [May 1975].

65. Interview, Dryden-Frutkin, Sohier, and Emme, 26 Mar. 1964, p. 25. Schlesinger's role is related in A. M. Schlesinger, Jr., A Thousand Days: John F. Kennedy in the White House (Boston and Cambridge, Mass., 1965), pp. 918-921.

66. Interview, Webb, 19 Sept. 1972.

67. Za Rubezhom [Abroad], 28 Sept. 1963, as cited in "Russian Says Moon Shot Idea of President Is Premature," Washington Post, 29 Sept. 1963. The Walter Lippman column, "Today and Tomorrow: Purifying the Moon Project," had been published in the American papers on 24 Sept. 1963 and was reprinted in Moscow as "Trezvii podkhod" [Sober approach], Pravda, 2 Oct. 1963.

68. Harvey and Ciccoritti, U.S.-Soviet Cooperation in Space, pp. 124-126.

69. A sample of the responses is as follows: Howard Simons, "Opinion Divided Here on Joint Moon Shot Plan"; "Russian News Reports Delete Moon Trip Plan"; "Goldwater Criticizes Moon Plan"; "A Lofty Appeal," editorial, Washington Post, 21 Sept. 1963; Thomas J. Hamilton,"Kennedy Asks Joint Moon Flight by U.S. and Soviets as Peace Step; Urges New Accords in U.N. Speech"; and John W. Finney, "Washington Surprised at Retreat from Insistence That U.S. Reach Moon First," New York Times, 21 Sept. 1963. A quick analysis of the Kennedy proposal was prepared for the RAND corporation by Alton Frye, The Proposal for a Joint Lunar Expedition: Background and Prospects, report no. P-2808 (Santa Monica, 1964).

70. Warren Burkett, "J. F. K. Offer to Cooperate No Surprise, " Houston Chronicle, 21 Sept. 1963.

71. "Combined U.S.-Russian Space Problems Feared," Houston Chronicle, 19 Sept. 1963; and Burkett, "J. F. K. Offer." Gilruth was speaking at the Goddard Memorial Dinner where he was being honored with the Dr. Robert H. Goddard Memorial Trophy.

72. Space Business Daily, 7 Nov. 1963, p. 217 summarizes Khrushchev's reported position and commented editorially on its significance:

Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev has made it emphatically clear that the USSR has neither "deferred," postponed, or "withdrawn" its competitive lunar landing program. Rather, he says his country will launch a man to the Moon when all preparations have been completed that will ensure his safety.

In making the announcement he chided United States speculation that the Soviet Union has changed its lunar landing plans for economic reasons. "In regard to the question of whether we have given up our lunar project. You're the ones who said that."

Khrushchev's remarks, hopefully, coming at a time when the memories are still fresh, will be a warning to members of the general press and many members of our national leadership that inaccurate translation, quotation and interpretation or analysis of the antagonists proclamations on the still very technical and complex arena of space can afford a very embarrassing psychological victory to those antagonists. If members of the general press had resorted to the expediency of consulting with our own national space leadership, for instance, Dr. Edward Welsh of the National Space Council (a technical advisor more than a political appointment), it would not have appeared that our entire national space program was a tail wagged by Premier Khrushchev.

This past year has seen an excess of spur-of-the-moment interpretations reflected in assaults upon the whole concept of the national space program and the age-old philosophy of national competition to a point where there has been a weakening of our nations determination at a time when the antagonist is demonstrating a continuing space technology leadership. At the risk of being repetitive, it should be recorded that many of our general press have a history of placing our space leaders on trial by the proclamations from an audience either completely ignorant of the technology of space and its implications, or from foreign or antagonistic onlookers.

73. Public Law 88-215, An act making appropriations. . . for the fiscal year ending June 30, 1964, . . . , 88th Cong., 1st sess., 1963, p. 16. The rumor that the Soviets had withdrawn from the "moon race" had led to substantial cuts in the NASA budget. Kennedy Administration efforts to restore part or all of the 600 million were unsuccessful.

74. Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States, Lyndon B. Johnson, 1963-1964 I (Washington, 1964), pp. 72-73. Kennedy had begun to publicly back away from his proposal; see Kennedy to Albert Thomas, 23 Sept. 1963, in which he said, "In my judgment, therefore, our renewed and extended purpose of cooperation, so far from offering any excuse for slackening or weakness in our space effort, is one reason the more for moving ahead with the great program to which we have been committed as a country for more than two years."

75. Louis B. Fleming, "Adlai Renews Proposal for Joint Trip to Moon," Washington Post, 3 Dec. 1963; and Kathleen Teltsch, "U.S. Renews Call to Soviet to Join in Moon Venture," New York Times, 3 Dec. 1963. NASA and the White House continued to study the topic of cooperation internally. See Kennedy to Webb, "Cooperation with the USSR on Outer Space Matters," National Security Action Memorandum No. 271, 12 Nov. 1963; and Webb to U. Alexis Johnson, 18 Dec. 1963, which included a NASA position paper, "US-USSR Cooperation in Space Research Programs," which had been developed by Frutkins office in response to the Presidents memo of 12 Nov.