Would Apollo Have Been Successful had Kennedy Served Two Terms as President?


Khruschev and Kennedy meet at Geneva in June 1961.

The assassination of John F. Kennedy looms large in the history of the United States during the middle part of the twentieth century, no doubt, but what role did it play in the unfolding of the history of spaceflight? If Kennedy had not been assassinated, would anything relative to Apollo have changed?

Few refer to this event as something of significance in the history of Apollo, and spaceflight more generally, but it may well be that his death solidified support for the Moon landings. Despite public support for Apollo, we know that Kennedy had expressed concerns about the program and the funds that it sucked out of the treasury. As early as late May 1961 his budget director had warned JFK of the large price tag of Apollo, and when he met Nikita Khrushchev in Geneva the next month Kennedy suggested that the U.S. and Soviet Union explore the Moon as a joint project. The Soviet leader reportedly first said no, then replied “why not?” and then changed his mind again, saying that disarmament was a prerequisite for U.S.-U.S.S.R. cooperation in space.

Kennedy addressing the U.N. General Assembly.

In the fall of 1963, in what might be considered an American version of “glasnost” more than twenty years before the term became famous, JFK aggressively pursued a venture to turn the Apollo program into a joint effort. He privately met with NASA Administrator James Webb on September 18 and told him to prepare for a joint program. As Webb recalled, “He didn’t ask me if he should do it; he told me he thought he should do it and wanted to do it and that he wanted some assurance from me as to whether he would be undercut at NASA.” On September 20, 1963, Kennedy made a well-known speech before the United Nations, in which he again proposed a joint human mission to the Moon. He closed by urging, “Let us do the big things together.”

In public the Soviet Union was noncommittal. Pravda, for example, dismissed the 1963 proposal as premature. Some have suggested that Khrushchev viewed the American offer as a ploy to open up Soviet society and compromise Soviet technology. Kennedy was assassinated in November 1963 and Khrushchev deposed the next year and nothing came of the offer.

Thereafter President Lyndon B. Johnson, as well as NASA administrator James E. Webb, constantly defended the Apollo program as the dying wish of this slain president. That was a very powerful argument to be made in the political arena and they achieved success in protecting the program, even as everything else at NASA began to suffer budget cuts from the mid-1960s on.

Had Kennedy served two full terms, it is quite easy to envision a point in the mid-1960s, probably near the time that Project Gemini was successfully underway, in which he might have decided that the international crisis that sparked the announcement of a lunar landing by the “end of the decade” had passed and he could have safely turned off the landing clock. Had he done so, Apollo might have stretched out many more years, and perhaps have ultimately been successful; but just as likely it could have become something akin to the current, open-ended space station program without clear objectives and no time frame for completion.

In such a context, therefore, JFK’s assassination could be interpreted as a critical event in the history of spaceflight not usually accepted as such. I would welcome the thoughts of others on this issue.

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9 Responses to Would Apollo Have Been Successful had Kennedy Served Two Terms as President?

  1. Prof Mike Sheehan says:

    An interesting speculation Roger. It is notable that neither RFK or Ted Kennedy were fans of the space programme because of the public funding it ate up. A lot would have depended on other contextual factors. If JFK had avoided getting sucked into the morass of Vietnam, the budgetary issues would have been less prominent. Given the crises in NATO and the EEC in the mid-1960′s, the Brezhnev fears of liberalisation in Czechoslovakia and the ‘we choose to go to the Moon and do the other things not because they are easy, but because they are hard’ rhetoric, I think the need for visible US political and technological leadership would still have been a powerful driver and the desire as the second term unfolded to leave a historic legacy would have been strong. Prior to the Apollo 1 setback, I suspect JFK would have been pushing for a Moon landing before November 1968!

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    • launiusr says:

      Great comment, thanks for providing it. There are many factors at play, of course, and we shall never know what might have been. It’s interesting to speculate about it. Other thoughts?

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  2. Dan Lester says:

    That’s a thoughtful essay, Roger. The key to it is understanding the success criteria for Apollo. Many would say that Apollo was unsuccessful because it didn’t leave a legacy of lunar exploration. But I suspect that Kennedy wasn’t after a legacy of lunar exploration. Rather an opportunity to conspicuously beat the Soviets technologically and operationally. In that, Apollo succeeded admirably. To the extent that “exploration” needs to be an ongoing enterprise, it really isn’t clear that Kennedy bought into it. We needed to prove that we could “explore” better than the other guys could and, in the course of six missions, did that handily.

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    • launiusr says:

      Thanks Dan. I certainly agree with you that JFK was not a booster of space exploration beyond what he thought was necessary in the Cold War.

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  3. John Charles says:

    Roger, I happen to agree with you 100%. JFK has been revealed to have been “not that interested” in space exploration, unlike LBJ who shrewdly marketed it as a tribute to JFK. The only open question, in my mind, is whether JFK would have tolerated an on-going program without more formal cooperation with the USSR, or whether he would have found a good excuse to reduce it.

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  4. The amazing aspect about JFK for me is in seeing how he evolved quickly in his thinking when he received new information or when a situation changed. He started his time in office with very little interest in the manned space program. In seeking to ‘combat’ the Soviets on the world stage during the tense Cold War Kennedy turned to NASA to make the ambitious goal to land Americans on the moon by the end of the decade. I think Kennedy’s attitude shifted to a much more positive feeling about the space program as he toured NASA facilities and spoke to the energetic advocates for the Apollo effort like Marshall chief Wernher von Braun. His famous Rice speech in September of 1962 shows this evolution as JFK laid out his “vision” of why he felt the United States had to shoot for the moon. The Boston Herald has recordings of JFK’s private feelings in September of 1963 about Apollo including the cost, the risk and the political calculations. (http://www.boston.com/news/science/articles/2011/05/25/kennedy_space_audio/) In private you hear JFK express his doubts but he seems to be willing to stick to the plan. “Webb, Porter observed, was in the unusual position of bucking up the president during their 1963 meeting, reminding him that landing humans on the moon would be a tremendous achievement. “I predict you are not going to be sorry, no sir, that you did this,’’ Webb tells Kennedy. Ultimately, Kennedy expresses confidence in the program that would become part of his legacy. “I think this can be an asset, this program,’’ Kennedy says. “I think in time, it’s like a lot of things, this is mid-journey and therefore everybody says, ‘What the hell are we making this trip for,’ but at the end of the thing, they may be glad we made it.’’ (from http://www.boston.com/news/local/massachusetts/articles/2011/05/25/jfk_had_doubts_about_moon_landing/) At the time of this recording (shortly before that tragic day in Dallas) the Mercury Program had just finished and NASA was busy getting ready for the Gemini Program. We forget just how much was still unknown about our ability to actually get to the moon by the end of the decade and what the actual cost was going to be in the final tally from JFK’s vantage point. In hindsight, the Gemini flights and the Apollo I fire were the foundation for the successful Apollo flights of 1968 and 1969 culminating with the July 1969 Apollo 11 mission. It is difficult to predict what JFK would have done in a timeline where he was not assassinated. I have Crohn’s Disease (JFK had several health issues including colitis which is very similar to Crohn’s) and I am amazed at Kennedy’s ability to function in such a high stress environment as he did for those 1000 days. Would his health in a second term have impacted his ability to reach a detente with Brezhnev and the Soviets? Would the Soviets have been willing to pool their space program resources with NASA for joint missions? With the death of Korolev and the spectacular failure of the N-1 rocket I doubt the Soviets would have wanted us to know about such setbacks to their space program. Kennedy had been greatly sobered by the Cuban Missile Crisis and I believe he would have worked hard to find ways to ease tensions to work with the Soviets when and where possible but the Soviets would have remained distrustful and paranoid. Then (as Prof Mike pointed out) you have the sticky wicket of Vietnam. Some have argued JFK would have started withdrawing US forces after his 1964 re-election when he felt it would have been politically safe to do so. He was getting feedback and intel on just how poorly run the South Vietnamese government and military was and how tenuous their position was against the very determined North Vietnamese Communist forces. If he could have successfully extricated us from Vietnam and avoided the human, financial and political cost of that conflict… then who knows what he would have been able to accomplish including drawing out the Apollo and Apollo applications programs rather than ending them prematurely like Nixon did after the triumph of Apollo 11. BUT… there are those who say that JFK would have felt compelled to go “all in” on Vietnam because he (like LBJ) did not want the Democrats blamed for ‘losing Vietnam’ just 15 years after the Republicans accused Truman and the Democrats of ‘losing China’ to the Communists. Also, in 1964, the vast majority of the American public supported US intervention in Southeast Asia to contain Communism. It wasn’t until LBJ escalated the war with a surge of troops and the active air campaign that public opinion started turning negative. So in 1964 Kennedy could have gone either way depending on the margin of his victory over Goldwater (I am assuming here for this discussion that JFK would have won in 1964) and how seriously he took the deteriorating situation in South Vietnam versus the pressure to ante up as to not lose Vietnam and risk the much discussed ‘domino effect’ where Communism sweeps Southeast Asia. Actually history is tough enough to try to keep straight so I rarely venture into the “what if” territory even though many find this area of discussion to be quite enjoyable. So that is my 2 cents… for what it’s worth.

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  5. Jonathan Waggoner says:

    This is a great what if, but the hard liners in the Kremlin would never have allowed it, which is probably why Khruschev reneged after saying why not, after October 1962 Brezhnev and his hardliner friends in the Politburo saw the back down from Cuba as a blow to the prestiege of the USSR. This would be an interesting question for his associates that are still alive to answer? Was Sergei Korolev’s team ever asked about a joint project? Seems like Apollo-Soyuz was hard enough to pull off in 1975 after 3 years of planning, not to mention the “difficulties” still encountered today with our Russian compatriots. But it would be interesting to see from the Russian side what they think, anyone know Alexei Leonov? call him up, maybe he could find out.

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  6. I think that the idea that JFK’s assassination “saved” Apollo by elevating LBJ, with his web of hungry southern allies, is not a new one. Oliver Stone believed it. But seriously, I’ve thought that this was a common idea for quite a long time. Or maybe I’ve just assumed everyone assumed this?

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  7. My guess is that, if JFK had survived, he would have perceived the space program as having added value precisely because it could be the vehicle of international cooperation. From JFK’s POV, _anything_ that got the USA and USSR interacting positively and productively was desirable; the fact that the space program furthered the human endeavor only sweetened the pot, as it were.

    One wonders whether, if the USA and USSR had been engaged in such international cooperation, in this and other projects, perhaps Khruschev would have clung to power over the political rivals who, in our timeline, deposed him. That would have been a very different USSR than Brezhnev’s.

    Apollo was nothing compared to the budget-killer that Vietnam was. Harris Wofford, JFK’s special assistant for civil rights, gave it as his public opinion that JFK would have wound down American involvement Vietnam in 1963-4, which would have avoided almost all of the many catastrophic effects of the war–including the budget deficits it incurred. Without the war, America would have had more money available for a variety of productive projects (education, solutions for poverty, the space program).

    Of all the “what ifs” of American history, the “what if JFK survived?” is perhaps the most powerful.

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