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.
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.