Thursday, May 6, 2010

JFK: "I'm Not That Interested in Space"


President John F. Kennedy addresses Congress on May 25, 1961. He later told NASA Administrator James Webb that he was "not that interested in space."

It's an involuntary reflex, like when your doctor hits you below the kneecap with a rubber hammer.

Someone trying to defend the NASA Constellation program will invoke the memory of President John F. Kennedy, his Moon speech to Congress in 1961, his speech at Rice University in 1962, and swear to us that JFK's legacy will be forever tarnished if we don't spend unrestrained taxpayer dollars on another Moon rocket.

The main problem with this claim is that it's a fantasy.

The John F. Kennedy Presidential Library released a tape in August 2001 of a meeting between JFK and NASA Administrator James Webb at the White House on November 21, 1962. This was about two weeks after the Congressional elections and a little more than two months after the Rice speech.

The Space.com article reporting on the tape said that Kennedy can be heard telling Webb, "I'm not that interested in space."

On the tape, Kennedy tells Webb, "I think it's good [to explore space], I think we ought to know about it, we're ready to spend reasonable amounts of money. But we're talking about *fantastic* expenditures. We've wrecked our budget, and all the other domestic programs. And the only justification for it, in my opinion to do it [on this schedule] is because we hope to beat [the Russians], to demonstrate that starting behind, and we did, by a couple of years, by God, we passed them."

I published a blog on February 27 about the mythology surrounding Kennedy's speeches. I showed how they were by no means visionary, but political calculations.

The so-called "Moon speech" to Congress was actually a long (and, in my opinion, somewhat boring) recitation of spending programs he was proposing to confront a mild recession. Click here to read the speech. Some of the programs were defense-related, justified as needed to compete with the Russians.

The Moon mission proposal was near the end of the speech. Kennedy's sole justification for the program was that it would show the world our technology was better than the Soviet Union.

In short ... it was a publicity stunt.

The quote from the Webb recording in late November 1962 confirms that Kennedy was only interested in competing with the Soviets, not exploring the final frontier. "This is, whether we like it or not, a race. Everything we do [in space] ought to be tied into getting to the moon ahead of the Russians."

The Space Race, of course, is over, despite hot-air rhetoric from some who claim that President Obama's proposed FY 2011 NASA budget would somehow cause the United States to become a "third-rate" spacefaring nation.

The latest example is an essay by former astronaut Scott Horowitz on MarsSociety.org. Horowitz wrote:

... [The Obama] administration has been trying to come up with a plan for the last year and a half and after hearing all of the testimonies and reviewing all of the facts, it has become obvious to me (and to Congress) that the leadership team at NASA has decided that they simply do not want to do Constellation, at any cost, and are willing to cede US leadership in space. The facts show the current real program is safer, more affordable, timelier, and making better progress towards our nation’s exploration goals, than this faith-based initiative "trajectory to nowhere" the current administration is trying to sell us.

To whom we would "cede US leadership in space" is not defined.

It can't be the Russians. They're our spacefaring partners now.

As documented in U.S.-Russian Cooperation in Space published in 1995, we've had significant space relations with the Russians since the 1972 Agreement on Cooperation in the Peaceful Exploration and Use of Outer Space, which led to the Apollo-Soyuz mission. A 1992 agreement between the first President Bush and Russian President Boris Yeltsin led to Shuttle flights to Mir. In 1993, President Clinton revised President Reagan's Space Station Freedom proposal to include Russia, sharing the costs for what is known today as the International Space Station. The ISS partnership also includes the European Space Agency, Japan and Canada. Under agreements negotiated by the administration of the second President Bush, NASA uses Soyuz spacecraft for ISS crew rotations.

So who's the competition?!

The list of likely suspects would seem to be down to China, but as I've documented in previous blogs China has only a rudimentary human spacefaring program that's roughly equivalent to where we were with Gemini in the mid-1960s. They are funding a study of a possible human lunar mission many years in the future, but they're more interested in launching their own space station sometime in the early 2020s. The Obama administration is already negotiating with China to join the ISS partnership. I suspect China will accept, realizing that it's a lot cheaper to join the international group than go their own way.

Those trying to justify Constellation invoke a space "red menace" in an attempt to revive the political fear of the 1960s that led to nearly $150 billion (in current dollars) spent on a lunar publicity stunt. In an era of trillion-dollar annual federal deficits, that kind of expenditure is unsustainable.

The JFK mythology is just that — a myth. He wasn't a space visionary, he didn't want to build Starfleet, he didn't want to boldly go. He wanted to show the world our technology was better than that of the Soviet Union. That was almost fifty years ago. Let's move past the mythology and debate this nation's spacefaring future on the merits.

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