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The Story Behind JFK’s Epic Moon Decision

I’m posting a number of old news clips in memory of Neil Armstrong, who died today at the age of 82, having achieved one of mankind’s highest aspirations: To be the first human ever to set foot on the moon.

This one comes from the Boston Herald Traveler, Thursday July 17 1969.

The Story Behind JFK’s Epic Moon Decision

Sorensen was special counsel to President Kennedy. He is now a partner in the law firm of Paul, Weiss, Goldberg, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison.

By Theodore C. Sorensen

The decision to go to the moon was not made by the cabinet, the National Security Council or even the National Space Council. Nor was it made merely to compete in the cold war or to recoup lost prestige.

It was made after intensive study and for a variety of complex reasons by one man, John F. Kennedy, 35th president of the United States.

As was true of most of President Kennedy’s decisions, there was no one day when the final choice was made. Months, indeed years, of discussion and deliberation were reflected in his conclusion. Expert analyses and wise counsel were sought from many. A tentative premise grew into a firm conclusion only after it had been carefully studied, the costs calculated, the responsibilities allocated and the Congress consulted and convinced.

If there was one day that was more crucial than all the others, it may well have been April 13, 1961. On the preceding day the Soviet Union had awed the world by becoming the first nation to place a man in orbit.

The wondrous round-the-world flight of Yuri Gagarin dramatized as nothing else could the Soviet Union’s superiority in rocket thrust and manned space exploration.

Kennedy had wired congratulations to Kruschev on April 12 and accelerated his own thinking on the subject. On the following morning, Thursday April 13, he asked me to conduct a brief review of America’s options in the space race and report to him that evening just prior to his discussing the subject with a Time magazine correspondent.

Joined by budget director David Bell, I called to my office White House Science Advisor Jerome Wiesner and Deputy Space Administrator Hugh Dryden, the two foremost experts in government on this nation’s prospects in space and with somewhat differing points of view.

After several hours of probing and prodding, we briefed the President on our tentative conclusions: If the United States, in order to demonstrate convincingly to all the world the leadership and superiority of our science and strength, felt compelled to compete with the Soviet Union in dramatic manned space achievements, the latter’s early lead in big-booster development made it unlikely that the U.S., no matter how much it accelerated its effort, could score a “first” in reaching any of the immediate rungs on the ladder of manned space exploration — astronaut orbiting several days, then two or three men in an orbiting space craft, then possibly a space laboratory, perhaps a fixed space waystation, and eventually circumnavigation of the moon without landing.

If the Soviets still disdained to cooperate with our comparatively infant effort, we in all likelihood would lag behind on all of those steps, which nevertheless had to be taken. We had little or no chance to be “first” until the most dramatic step of all was to be taken: landing space explorers on the moon and returning them safely to earth.

A highly concentrated effort might — and it was no more than a “might” — enable the U.S. to achieve that powerful victory for peace, if it started pointing in that direction immediately.

The president listened, questioned, and deliberated.

He would not make a final commitment to us or to the Time correspondent that evening. But it was clear to me from his questions and reactions that in his heart a decision was taking shape: If the Soviets still refused to join in a cooperative space effort, thereby assuring all the world that neither superpower would seek to dominate this new ocean through national, military or other hostile means, the U.S. would focus its space effort on being the first to the moon.

Six weeks later he stood before Congress announcing his decision.

He sensed as he spoke an air of skepticism in the House chamber. For the first and only time in his four addresses to the Congress, he temporarily set his text aside and launched into an urgent if somewhat uneven effort to make certain all present understood the magnitude of the task.

A few weeks earlier the first launching of an American astronaut into space had won acclaim for the program on Capital Hill. But “unless we are prepared to do the work and bear the burdens to make it successful,” President Kennedy pleaded, an undertaking of this size and risk should not be started.

Congress overwhelmingly voted to “set sail on this new sea.”

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