NPR logo

President Kennedy's "Moon Speech" Turns 50

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/136717691/136717673" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
President Kennedy's "Moon Speech" Turns 50

Space

President Kennedy's "Moon Speech" Turns 50

President Kennedy's "Moon Speech" Turns 50

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/136717691/136717673" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

John M. Logsdon, author: "John F. Kennedy and The Race to The Moon" (Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), professor emeritus of Political Science and International Affairs, Elliot School of International Affairs, George Washington University, Washington, D.C.

Nicholas de Monchaux, author: "Spacesuit: Fashioning Apollo" (MIT Press, 2011), assistant professor of Architecture and Urban Design, University of California, Berkeley, Berkeley, Calif.

In 1961, President John F. Kennedy delivered a speech to Congress calling for the country to "commit itself ... to landing a man on the moon," a goal achieved by the end of the decade. Ira Flatow and guests discuss the beginning and legacy of the Apollo missions to the Moon.

IRA FLATOW, host:

You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. Up next, that famous JFK moon speech.

President JOHN F. KENNEDY: 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.

FLATOW: It was 50 years ago this week that President Kennedy presented to Congress an ambitious plan, really a challenge - he wanted to land a man safely on the moon and bring him back before the end of the decade, and you know the rest, as they say, is history.

But much of that history isn't too well-known, like for example the way that NASA and CBS collaborated to televise the first landing, or that Kennedy had doubts about the plan and that far from being a Cold War showdown, he was willing to collaborate with the Russians on the project.

Much of this hidden history can now be found in two books on Apollo, and their authors are here with me now. John Logsdon is author of "John F. Kennedy and the Race to The Moon." He is professor emeritus of political science and international affairs at George Washington University. He also founded the Space Policy Institute there, and he joins us from our NPR Studios in Washington. Welcome back to SCIENCE FRIDAY, John.

Professor JOHN LOGSDON (George Washington University): Good afternoon, Ira.

FLATOW: You're welcome. Nicholas de Monchaux is the author of "Spacesuit: Fashioning Apollo." He's the assistant professor of architecture and urban design at the University of California, Berkeley. He joins us from our studio there. Welcome back to SCIENCE FRIDAY, Dr. de Monchaux.

Professor NICHOLAS DE MONCHAUX (University of California, Berkeley): Very happy to be with you.

FLATOW: And just to fill our listeners in, when we first talked to Dr. de Monchaux a few months ago, he was talking to us about the design of the spacesuit. A good part of that book is how Playtex had designed the spacesuit that landed the astronauts on the moon.

Your books are filled with so much interesting detail that was left out about the space race. I want to get right into it. John Logsdon, for people who are not, or may not remember the history, or may be a little too young to remember, give us an idea what was going on in the world when Kennedy delivered that speech.

Prof. LOGSDON: Well, Kennedy had come into office not having thought very much about the space program and wanted to defer a decision on what the United States would do. But then on April the 12th, '61, Yuri Gagarin was launched by the Soviet Union, first human to go into orbit, and the world reaction was uniformly positive.

And I think it really convinced Kennedy that the United States, by default, could not allow the Soviet Union to do everything spectacular in space, and then a few days later, the United States sent Cuban rebels onto the shores of the Bay of Pigs, then didn't provide them air support.

And Kennedy and his new administration looked kind of weak before the world while the Soviet Union looked strong. I think that reinforced Kennedy's decision to move forward.

So it was in the context of Cold War confrontation, competition, that Kennedy said the United States had to find a way to get back and in fact win a space race.

FLATOW: So he had that idea in his mind, or did he ask his advisors to come up with something for him?

Prof. LOGSDON: Well, I think he had the very broad idea that we had to do something to put us in a leading position in space, but on April the 20th he wrote a memo to Lyndon Johnson that said: Find me a space program which promises dramatic results, in which we could win - very clear set of requirements: space, dramatic, win.

FLATOW: And he gave that to Johnson to find.

Prof. LOGSDON: He asked Johnson to conduct a review or organize a review, and over the next two weeks the vice president did do that, brought in NASA, brought in the Department of Defense, brought in Werner von Braun, almost as an individual brought in some businessmen and some leaders in the Senate and finally came to the conclusion that the moon was indeed the first target that the United States had at least a good chance of reaching before the Soviet Union.

FLATOW: Nicholas, would you agree with that assessment in general?

Prof. DE MONCHAUX: I would. I think it's - Dr. Logsdon's work is great on this subject, I think. But I would take you to 1961, where if you opened a newspaper, you might actually be likely to see a picture of John F. Kennedy himself in a spacesuit, not literally wearing one but drawn in a spacesuit, as he often was, by both cartoonists like Herblock and artists like Richard Hamilton(ph).

And that kind of flattening of the whole space race around Kennedy was a really - is a really kind of important illustration of how Kennedy's own individual persona, as a kind of heroic figure with this mastery of media that he had, was immediately, as soon as the space race was entered into, kind of conflated with the heroic figure of the astronaut himself.

So I think the story, as you're telling it today, which is both, of course, an epic global story but also a very personal story about Kennedy, is a really interesting way to understand this history.

FLATOW: I also understand from reading both of your books - they're both excellent books - is that this was almost from the beginning going to be the first giant television event, was it not?

Prof. LOGSDON: Well, Kennedy...

FLATOW: Go ahead, John, you can go first.

Prof. LOGSDON: Okay. I mean Kennedy got very much involved in a critical decision, which was to televise the first U.S. launch, the suborbital flight of Alan Shepard, which eventually happened on May the 5th, to televise it live despite a number of his advisors saying it's too risky; right after the Bay of Pigs we certainly don't want another disaster, and particularly one where there's a good chance an astronaut could lose his life on live television.

Kennedy took the advice of a few people who said why postpone a success and made the decision that that mission and everything that followed would be on live television.

FLATOW: Nicholas?

Prof. DE MONCHAUX: Oh, I would point out that amongst those advisors that Johnson assembled was actually Frank Stanton(ph), the head of CBS, and there was very close to the surface in the whole planning process the notion of this as a media event, and that was something that the United States could do very well that the Soviet Union couldn't do because the Soviets never, in their entire space history, announced successes until after they were sure that they had happened. They were allergic to any notion of live coverage and transparency.

So Kennedy did very much set the tone of the American space race as a public media event, as well as a technological effort.

Prof. LOGSDON: Well, after all, the point of Apollo was to demonstrate American technological and organizational competence, and the best way to demonstrate it is to let everybody see it.

FLATOW: And you go to great lengths in your book, Nicholas, to point out that it was - that because Frank Stanton was an advisor, that CBS was sort of chosen. You say a growing complicity between NASA's press office and CBS, that CBS was sort of chosen as the network, and Walter Cronkite, to convey the joys of the space race.

Prof. DE MONCHAUX: Well, I wouldn't necessarily say that CBS was anointed but rather it found itself anointed much, very broadly by the American people at the time as the central voice of news coverage.

CBS certainly spent more money than anyone else on its television coverage. It was dissatisfied with many of the visuals offered up by NASA in the planning process for the lunar broadcast, which took as long and was as expensive as various components of the space program.

And so it rehired many of the companies that had provided simulators and visual effects actually to train the astronauts for NASA to in turn produce visual effects and simulations for its own audience for the TV broadcast.

And I think the audience share for CBS during the Apollo Program hovered between 45 and 50 percent of American households. So it was very much the voice of Cronkite was the voice of the space program.

FLATOW: But CBS was also brought in post-Kennedy, in the Johnson administration, during which most of the space effort happened, to actually help the image of Lyndon Johnson. Did not CBS help design the desk that Lyndon Johnson...

Prof. DE MONCHAUX: Well, Frank Stanton personally helped design Lyndon Johnson's White House desk to make him more telegenic. Johnson was very insecure about his own image, especially relative to the Kennedys. So he felt like he needed every piece of help he could get.

FLATOW: And you also point out that the set that CBS used was referred to as the HAL-1,000.

Prof. DE MONCHAUX: Yeah, well, it was even the HAL-10,000.

FLATOW: Ten thousand, I'm sorry, I left a zero off.

Prof. DE MONCHAUX: No worries. It was, it was - well that's - the set is a beautiful object, and it's not often seen in many of the retrospective footage we see. But it was designed by Douglas Turnbull(ph), who did all the visual effects for Kubrick's "2001," and so that's why it had this name.

And it had - it was a kind of revolutionary piece of technology. It had many of the components that we associate with TV broadcast today: clip banks, green screens, overlaid displays that were as completely unusual then as they are ubiquitous now, especially because - excuse me - Bob Whistler(ph), who was the producer of the CBS broadcasts, actually went on to become the co-founder, with Ted Turner, of CNN, in which many of these techniques that were developed for these unprecedented, you know, 31-hour, 48-hour broadcasts where then combined to make much of the contemporary media landscape.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. 1-800-989-8255 is our number. John, do you think that Kennedy knew what was actually involved technically in going to the moon when he made that speech?

Prof. LOGSDON: No, very few people did to start out with. I mean, the plan at that time was to build a rocket even bigger than the Saturn V that was eventually chosen and just to fly off to the surface of the moon. The whole notion of rendezvous either in Earth orbit or in lunar orbit wasn't under consideration.

Reading the documents, listening to the tapes, I have the feeling that Kennedy didn't have much of a sense of technology, that he was not a technologically sophisticated individual. I mean, he visited the Cape six days before he was killed and was briefed on the Apollo arrangements and saw the Saturn I launcher. And NASA number three person at that time, Bob Simmon, says maybe for the first time he had a good sense of what he had approved. So I think for him this was a political, I don't think terribly visionary action, with not a good sense of the underpinning technology.

FLATOW: Hmm. Talking to John Logsdon, author of "John F. Kennedy and the Race to the Moon," and Nicholas de Monchaux, author of "Spacesuit: Fashioning Apollo."

Did the president think - you know, there was this giant race with the Soviets, and you talk about in your book that at one point he actually approached Nikita Khrushchev and asked him if they wanted to collaborate.

Prof. LOGSDON: Well, he approached him twice.

FLATOW: Twice.

Prof. LOGSDON: I mean, for the first thing, we didn't know what the Soviet Union was doing. It turns out that they didn't have a lunar program while Kennedy was alive, and we were racing only ourselves. But we didn't know that.

Kennedy came into the White House having thought of space as maybe an area of cooperation to reduce tensions. In his inaugural address he said to the Soviet Union, let us explore the stars together. Gagarin and the decision to compete put that aside but not very long. Ten days later, after announcing the lunar landing decision, he met Khrushchev in Vienna, their only face-to-face meeting, and at both lunches suggested, why don't we do this together? And Khrushchev said no. It's too close to our military technology, our military secrets. We don't want to do it.

And then, two months before he was killed, Kennedy came back to this idea in the most public possible setting, the General Assembly of the United Nations, proposed a joint expedition to the moon. Ted Sorensen says Kennedy, all through this, would have rather cooperated than competed. But competition turned out to be the option that was more politically relevant and viable.

FLATOW: This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow talking with John Logsdon and Nicholas de Monchaux.

50 years later, what do you think the legacy, I'll ask both of you, John, first of the Apollo program is and the race to the moon?

Prof. LOGSDON: Well, I think the legacy of images, of the fact that we've done it, did it, is something that is part of the American patrimony, something that we continue to point at when we want to be proud about country. It did have a strong positive influence on the American image around the world. It gave rise to a clich´┐Ż - if we can go to the moon, why can't we, that I think is basically empty of meaning. I think Apollo and the circumstances that made it possible were unique and not a model for other large-scale enterprises.

And I think it had a rather unfortunate effect on the long-term U.S. space program by casting the program as a race. Once you won that race, as we did with Apollo 11, then there was no answer to what next. And I think we've been kind of drifting for 40 years since.

FLATOW: And Nicholas?

Prof. DE MONCHAUX: Well, I - one of the things that I tried to do in my book is make sure to cast the story of Apollo not so much as a kind of ascendant technological narrative, that's very clear, but rather as very much a product of the culture and a kind of soft landscape of its time.

I would say that the - as we look back on it, we should also be very careful not to see it simply as a kind of vast national achievement. That's certainly what all the various media outlets were telling us at the time. But also very much a kind of illustration of the intense forces that were crushing in on American culture and on the leaders like Kennedy, who were trying to make decisions about how to negotiate this unusual, outlandish landscape of the 1960s in which we could all die tomorrow by nuclear attack and which we didn't know which way it was up. And so it was an attempt to make sense of that era and to give a kind of feature to a public face, to something that was enormously complicated and enormously subtle.

And I think we should, in many ways, also be very grateful that we don't live in a time that was quite so confusing. Our own time is, of course, very confusing as well but not quite in such apocalyptic terms.

FLATOW: John, what would the equivalent 2012 dollars be in...

Prof. LOGSDON: Well, I know the 2010 dollars for Apollo.

FLATOW: Okay. Give us...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. LOGSDON: That's $151 billion in 2010 equivalents. Just by comparison, the shuttle has cost us almost 209. The shuttle has cost us more than Apollo did.

FLATOW: Wow. That puts it in perspective a bit more, I think.

Prof. DE MONCHAUX: But the Apollo program was only - you know, from its conception to the moment when we landed on the moon, it would be as if we had decided with none of the technology to land on the moon in, you know, 2001 and had done so three years ago. It was an enormously -that's why I say it was this kind of diamond of an achievement that was compressed by the temporal and political forces at the time, whereas the shuttle program is a kind of decades-long, very different kind of venture.

Prof. LOGSDON: Yeah, that's fair enough. I mean, maybe the better comparison is something like the Manhattan Project, which cost, same measure of dollars, $28 billion, or the Panama Canal, which was eight billion, compared to Apollo's 151.

FLATOW: Wow. All right. We're going to take a short break and take your - we're going to take your questions and phone calls. Our number: 1-800-989-8255. Talking with John Logsdon, author of "John F. Kennedy and The Race to the Moon," and Nicholas de Monchaux, who's author of "Spacesuit: Fashioning Apollo."

As I say, our number: 1-800-989-8255. And tweet us, @scifri, S-C-I-F-R-I. Leave a conversation - or join a conversation. Start one on Facebook at sciencefriday/ - Facebook/scifri. And also on our website at sciencefriday.com. We'll be back after this short break, talking about the legacy of John F. Kennedy's speech 50 years ago this week. Stay with us.

(Soundbite of music)

President KENNEDY: We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy but because they are hard.

FLATOW: That's President Kennedy speaking at Rice University, September of 1962. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. We're talking about the - another speech the president gave a year before to Congress, in 1961, talking about the need to - the challenge of going to the moon before the decade was out.

My guests, John Logsdon, author of "John F. Kennedy and The Race to the Moon," and Nicholas de Monchaux, author of "Spacesuit: Fashioning Apollo."

John, did the president waiver any time in his thinking or have second thoughts after he made that first speech or the second one?

Prof. LOGSDON: Oh, I think so. He was not a space visionary. He wasn't committed to space. He kept saying, is it really worth the money? This is a lot of money, got to make sure that we're not wasting it. And then there was a lot of criticism in 1963, and Kennedy took a fair amount of that criticism to heart.

The Kennedy Library on Wednesday, on the anniversary of the speech, released a recording of the meeting between NASA administrator Jim Webb and the president. And the excerpts from that meeting sound like Kennedy was wavering. I think they're taken a bit out of context. He was worried about maintaining political support for the program when neither the United States or the Soviet Union was doing much in space for a couple of years. And he was worried about it becoming a vulnerability as he campaigned for reelection in 1964.

FLATOW: Did President Johnson, who took over - I mean, he could have said, well, this was JFK's thing, not mine. But he did...

Prof. LOGSDON: Well, he did say - I'm sorry.

FLATOW: Go ahead.

Prof. LOGSDON: He did say it was JFK's thing. And because it was, we're going to go forward. It became a memorial to a fallen president.

FLATOW: Yeah. I was going to say, that could have given him an opportunity if he didn't want to go, to say it was JFK's, but he took it and ran with it.

Prof. LOGSDON: Well, after all, it was...

FLATOW: Yeah.

Prof. LOGSDON: ...Lyndon Johnson that recommended the program to Kennedy in the first place.

FLATOW: And the space center is in Houston, let's not forget.

Prof. LOGSDON: By accident.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. LOGSDON: Well, not by accident, but not because of Lyndon Johnson.

FLATOW: No?

Prof. LOGSDON: It was a Texas congressman named Albert Thomas who controlled NASA's appropriations, who was the immediate cause. He told Jim Webb, he told John Kennedy, if you want the money you're asking for it to get Apollo started, the installation for that program had better be in my district in Houston.

FLATOW: And your reaction to all this, Nicholas?

Prof. DE MONCHAUX: Well, you know, I think that it's really - Kennedy is such an interesting figure and in some ways a bit like the space program. He's - the heroic quality he's been given by history helps -sometimes blinds us to the kind of wonderful pragmatism that was actually in operation. I mean, Kennedy was someone who's - whether it was an image like the monk, Thich Quang Duc, being - setting himself on fire in June 1962 in Vietnam, or protesters being attacked by police dogs in Birmingham in May 1963 - he was someone who felt buffeted by the television images of the time and who felt always responding to these particular singular images. And so the space program was really an attempt to push back and sort of control the narrative through - at a truly global scale.

You know, Harold Macmillan, the prime minister of Great Britain, wrote in his diary after meeting Kennedy for the first time that he really didn't think much of him as a kind of big strategic thinker, but that he thought he was the best person he had ever met making decisions under pressure.

And so I think what's so interesting about the decision to go to the moon, which we have - with the lens of history we see as this grand, heroic, kind of thoughtful decision, was actually something made only in a few weeks, in April of 1961, and only under enormous pressure after the launch of Gagarin and the Bay of Pigs and the larger political climate of the time, as Professor Logsdon points out. So you know, in some ways, it was a really good decision, but it was really astonishing...

FLATOW: Are we ready? I'm sorry. Go ahead.

Prof. DE MONCHAUX: No, it was a great decision, but it was a decision made under pressure, not necessarily with a sense of history.

FLATOW: All right. I want to thank you gentlemen for taking time to be with us today.

Prof. LOGSDON: We enjoyed it.

FLATOW: Fascinating books, really fascinating books on his 50th anniversary. John Logsdon, author of "John F. Kennedy and The Race to the Moon." He's professor emeritus of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, and also he founded the Space Policy Institute there. Nicholas de Monchaux, author of "Spacesuit: Fashioning Apollo." And he is assistant professor of architecture and urban design at the University of California at Berkeley. Thank you both for joining us today.

Prof. DE MONCHAUX: Thank you.

Prof. LOGSDON: Our pleasure.

Copyright © 2011 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

We no longer support commenting on NPR.org stories, but you can find us every day on Facebook, Twitter, email, and many other platforms. Learn more or contact us.