6
$\begingroup$

In September 1962 a nice young man ordered the United States to commit to landing on the moon in eight years. Even though none of the technologies, methods, or materials for doing so existed at the time.

On what basis did Kennedy think that this was possible? Did he have any knowledge of the challenge involved, or was he naive to the issues? How off were his estimates of budget for the program at the time of declaration of the goal? Who were his consultants on the matter, and what were their positions?

This question is not intended to spark discussion of the budget overruns or opposition that the program would encounter during the 1960's. Rather, this question only addresses the information known to Kennedy and other people involved with the decision to commit to the moon landing, in the timeframe leading up to the speech at Rice university. The Wikipedia article for that speech mentions with whom the president had spoken, without providing information on the information (supporting or opposing the landing) that each provided.

$\endgroup$
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ It is not true that "none of the technologies, methods, or materials for doing so existed at the time." All this existed. And certainly Kennedy consulted with the experts in NASA who endorsed his plan. $\endgroup$ – Alexandre Eremenko Oct 28 '18 at 14:52
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ @AlexandreEremenko while Tang existed, several critical technologies did not. Just for example, there was nothing like the computers that made the precise navigation to lunar orbit and landing and yet light weight enough to be taken there, nor the software that could to that and yet fit into a tiny bit of memory. So let's say neither "all" none "none" is true. youtu.be/9YA7X5we8ng?t=1283 and also youtu.be/YIBhPsyYCiM?t=273 (from comments here). $\endgroup$ – uhoh Oct 28 '18 at 18:11
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Minor correction: The decision was announced in 1961 rather than 1962. Specifically, May 25, 1961, only six weeks after Yuri Gagarin became the first human to orbit the Earth. $\endgroup$ – David Hammen Oct 28 '18 at 18:28
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ @uhoh -- the basic computer technology did exist, and it's a bit silly to object because the software hadn't been written yet. the concept of digital computer programming was well-established, as were the mathematics of orbital dynamics, rocket thrust profiles for launch and soft landing, etc. $\endgroup$ – Carl Witthoft Oct 29 '18 at 12:37
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @CarlWitthoft I am sorry, but that's just not right. Things may look like "the basic technology" as long as you aren't really familliar with the subject, but for those that are and were, the challenges were huge! Also, I'd said "...computers that made the precise navigation to lunar orbit and landing and yet light weight enough to be taken there..." It was a really serious undertaking to shrink computers a factor of a hundred or even more in mass back in the mid 1960's. Also, there was absolutely no software capable of running on these tiny computers in their tiny memory. $\endgroup$ – uhoh Oct 29 '18 at 12:59
10
$\begingroup$

The decision to go to the Moon was made much sooner than September 1962. In his Special Message to the Congress on Urgent National Needs made on 25 May 1961, President Kennedy announced that

I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish.


This decision was not made in a vacuum. It was made in light of Yuri Gagarin's orbital flight around the Earth on 12 April 1961 and in light of analysis by the National Aeronautics and Space Council, headed by then Vice President Lyndon Johnson. President Kennedy had seen how much Gagarin's flight electrified the world, much more so than did Sputnik 1 four years earlier. On the day after Gagarin's flight, Kennedy said (emphasis mine)

We are, I hope, going to go in other areas where we can be first and which will bring perhaps more long-range benefits to mankind. But here we are behind.

Kennedy's election claim of Soviet dominance in nuclear missiles was false. The Bay of Pigs invasion that he inherited from the previous administration failed less than a week after Gagarin's flight. Kennedy wanted something, anything, first done in space by the US that would electrify the world even more than did Gagarin's flight.

To this end, Kennedy directed Vice President Johnson as head of the National Aeronautics and Space Council to investigate various options via which the US could best the Soviet Union. The options to be investigated and NASA's evaluation included

  • Building a manned1 laboratory in space. NASA deemed this option as unwinnable.

  • Landing an unmanned probe on the Moon. NASA deemed this as not particularly exceptional and likely not winnable.

  • Sending a man around the Moon and back. NASA deemed this as not particularly exceptional and possibly not winnable.
  • Landing a man on the Moon and returning him to Earth. NASA deemed this as the one endeavor in which they had a good chance of beating the Soviet Union and that the world would view as exceptional.

The reply by NASA came on 8 May 1961, three days after Alan Shepard became the first American to travel into space. It was a bit more than two weeks later that Kennedy made his address to Congress.


1 I wrote "manned" intentionally. The same applies to the concept of sending a man to the Moon. 1961 was a man's world.

$\endgroup$
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ Citing a reference for the four NASA options outlined above would improve this answer. $\endgroup$ – njuffa Oct 28 '18 at 20:34
  • $\begingroup$ Thank you David. Did NASA give a timeframe for landing a man on the Moon and returning him to Earth? Where did the idea that it could be accomplished in nine years come from? That is the crux of the question, as seen in the title. Other than that missing bit, this is a terrific answer. $\endgroup$ – dotancohen Oct 29 '18 at 8:26
  • $\begingroup$ I don't think there was any special information for making that prediction. Nine years is a decent amount of time and Kennedy was a politician; many of them make announcements about programs to achieve some big goal in 10 years (or less): eradicate a disease ("cure cancer"), land a person on Mars, and so on. Often these don't succeed and are quietly forgotten. I'd say Kennedy was a bit lucky that this forecast of his actually worked out on time. $\endgroup$ – KCd Oct 31 '18 at 13:32

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.