10 thoughts on “Dear NASA”

  1. The MEM, that JFK wasn’t interested in space, is wrong. It is based on a misinterpreted quote.

    I have long expressed the opinion that Kennedy’s quote, “I am not that interested in space,” could be taken to mean completely different things depending on the context, and more importantly, the emphasis on the words which are not conveyed in a written quote.

    Because the crux of my argument is how the word “that” is emphasized, let me provide an example:
    Example 1:
    Waiter: “Would you like Lobster?”
    Me: “No thank you, I am not that interested in Lobster.”

    Example 2:
    Waiter: “Would you like Lobster?”
    Me: “How much is it?”
    Waiter: “$100 a pound”
    Me: “I love Lobster, but I am not THAT interested in Lobster.”

    Do you hear the difference?

    Everyone, it seems, has chosen to interpret Kennedy’s quote with the emphasis of example 1–that he really didn’t care that much about space. But I maintain that he said it with the emphasis of example 2. So after some research, today I found the actual audio recording of the meeting and I am vindicated:


    What you will hear is the president clearly setting the goal of a Moon landing and having to push back, time-and-again, against those who are not just mired in the details of accomplishing that, but trying to divert from the Moon landing and making the details of space exploration themselves the goal! Kennedy is frustrated and finally makes the point that going to the Moon landing must be the goal if they are going to spend that kind of money, because everything else can come in due time.

    The following is Kennedy’s comments (as best as I could transcribe them) after being told over and over by James Webb, the NASA administrator, that “space research” is what was important (starting at 7:00 (listen to the entire recording):

    “We ought to get it really clear that the policy ought to be that this (the Moon landing) is THEE top priority program of the Agency and one of the two, except for defense, the top priority of the United States Government. That’s the position we ought to take. Now this may not change anything about that schedule. But at least we ought to be clear, otherwise we shouldn’t be spending this kind of money because I am not THAT interested in ‘space.’ I think it is good, that we ought to know about it, we’re ready to spend reasonable amounts of money. But we’re talking about FANTASTIC expenditures which wreck our budget and all these other domestic programs and the only justification for it, in my opinion, to do it in this [unintelligible] fashion is, because we hope to beat them, to demonstrate by starting from behind as we did by a couple of years by god we passed them.”

    Note that Kennedy is arguing emphatically that the Moon landing must be the priority and in this context he necessarily downplays the “space exploration” that Webb was pushing. But even with that, he qualifies his statement about space by stating: “I think it is good, that we ought to know about it, [and] we’re ready to spend reasonable amounts of money [on it].”

    Please set the record straight. Kennedy WAS indeed interested in space. But for the amount of money that was being asked to be spent, he demanded a Moon landing.

    1. The MEM, that JFK wasn’t interested in space, is wrong. It is based on a misinterpreted quote.

      JFK was not interested in space per se. He was interested in beating the Soviets in the Cold War and saw space as one of the primary ways to do that. That is why he focused on the moon instead of other areas of space exploration. It was the only plausible goal big enough and far enough out that the United States could catch up to and surpass the Soviet Union and win.

      Howard McCurdy, a space historian, has published books about this. In Space Station Decision he describes the meeting between JFK and NASA’s top executives:

      “If the United States could not beat the Soviets in establishing a laboratory in space, Kennedy asked, could it beat them by soft-landing a robot on the moon or sending astronauts on a flight around the moon, two other elements in NASA’s long-range plan? What about “a rocket to go to the moon and back with a man?” he asked. “Is there any other space program which promises dramatic results in which we could win?”

      In seeking an American response to the Soviet triumph, Kennedy was prepared to make what many characterize as a comprehensive decision. He identified his principal objective: a “space program which promises dramatic results in which we could win.” He asked his advisers to analyze the leading alternatives for achieving that goal. Once he had selected tbe best alternative, he was prepared to delegate to NASA the necessary authority to carry it out — the funds, the people, and the technical discretion to make the decisions that would determine how it would be done.”

      Apollo was just another battle in the Cold War. Fortunately, we won the battle and the war. But it was never about exploration or opening a frontier.

  2. Bill (and John Logdson who after all wrote about Kennedy’s decision to go to the moon) has dealt effectively with Rand’s trashing of JFK’s space legacy. One can only add that he attempts to create a myth of his own, that of the coming golden age of commercial space exploration. The sad fact is that commercial space travel is largely dependent on heavy government subsidies. Indeed just the other day Dennis Tito admitted he needs lots of NASA dollars and that big rocket Rand likes to sneer at to make Inspiration Mars work.

  3. @Bill.S
    I still don’t see how that changes the point. JFK was “not that interested in space” really becomes “not interested in space” PERIOD. Rand’s point overall is that NO President is that interested in space. Not until Space Alien’s start hopping the border and registering to vote.

  4. So Bill claims that space was Kennedy’s #2 priority? That seems pretty high. I don’t think it makes the top 100 priorities for most Presidents.

  5. A baffling argument by Bill.. yes, this is exactly what Rand is arguing. What did you imagine Rand was arguing differently?

    To summarize: Rand says Kennedy wasn’t interested in exploring space for it’s own sake, he was interested in beating the communists to the Moon. If beating the communists wasn’t the goal, the amount of money being spent on space would be much lower.

    You seem to be in violent agreement.

    .. and Mark, as usual, seems to be in his own world altogether.

  6. Fascinating read and I completely agree that for, well, many reasons, the private commercial space sector is about half a century behind where it should be. However, I think Nasa was just underfunded from the go tbh. The amount spent on Apollo at its peak is utterly and completely dwarfed by the US defense budget as a whole during the 60’s. That’s no surprise of course but Vietnam and the whole of the cold war right up until the demise of the USSR in the early 90’s in general squandered trillions of dollars that could have been spent creating a new vision for Nasa.

    They say it would cost $50-100bn to send men t the moon? Well the cold war is the reason it hasn’t happened yet. You only have to look on Google Earth and see the vast swathes of desert occupied by billions of dollars of warplanes rusting away – many part of the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks and have just been sitting there for decades, yet costs the US tax payer untold billions to make. Last century was an utter mess and it’s a miracle we landed on the moon at all. The only saving grace was that it was partly down to a tribute to JFK, because, sadly, ushering in a new age of exploration and cooperation for humanity it wasn’t, and that’s still something that’s only enjoyed in the space industry by a select few, even today. Maybe if we can have a couple of decades without dollar-draining wars and financial crises Nasa may have a second chance but now the commercial sector is hotting up, I can’t see anything significant happening.

    1. Yeah, I mean, obviously the cold war was just mass hysteria. It’s not like there was millions of people being wantonly killed by a government run by a mad minority doggedly blinded by their own twisted worldview, with intentions to export their insanity by force to the rest of the world.

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