JFK’s Deadline for Apollo

 

One of the most famous speeches given by President John Fitzgerald Kennedy was at Rice University on September 12, 1962, where he said “We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” How was such a deadline determined given the enormous complexity of such an endeavor?

For context, consider the events of the preceding year. In Kennedy’s brief time since taking office on January 20, 1961, the US suffered two Cold War defeats. On April 12, cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human to reach space, making one full orbit of Earth during a 108-minute mission. Less than a week later, CIA-trained Cuban exiles were defeated by USSR-backed Fidel Castro in three short days. The following month, Alan Shepard made a successful, sub-orbital, 15-minute-flight in a Mercury capsule and, on May 25, Kennedy told Congress that the United States faced extraordinary challenges:

If we are to win the battle that is going on around the world between freedom and tyranny, if we are to win the battle for men’s minds, the dramatic achievements in space which occurred in recent weeks should have made clear to us all, as did the Sputnik in 1957, the impact of this adventure on the minds of men everywhere who are attempting to make a determination of which road they should take… We go into space because whatever mankind must undertake, free men must fully share.

I believe this Nation should commitment itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to 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.

Originally, the deadline was to be in 1967, the 50th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution in the USSR, but even Kennedy and his advisors thought that less than six years was unrealistic. But there were many significant unknowns between May 1961 and October 1962 that required a dedicated, talented, and focused talent pool.

One of the critical early NASA management decisions was the basic method of going to the Moon:

  1. Direct Ascent needed a huge booster (bigger than Saturn V!) to send the spacecraft directly to the Moon, land a large vehicle, and send a fraction of it back to Earth.
  2. Earth-Orbit Rendezvous was first alternative to Direct Ascent. Various modules would be assembled in orbit above the Earth, refueled, and sent to the Moon, using the same large landing vehicle.
  3. Lunar-Orbit Rendezvous sent an entire lunar mission in one launch. With the main spacecraft in orbit around the moon, a separated lander was sent to the lunar surface. It was the simplest of the three methods, both in terms of development and operational costs, though it was risky.

The Lunar-Orbit Rendezvous mode was “officially” decided on November 7, 1962, almost a month after the famous Rice speech. Most of the technical and management problems were known by then, making Kennedy’s statement reasonable but still aggressive.

There were setbacks in the program that made it difficult to keep the deadline. On January 27, 1967 while testing Apollo 1 at the Kennedy Space Center, a spark ignited combustible materials in an oxygen rich atmosphere, killing Gus Grissom, Edward White, and Roger B. Chaffee. To help get the program back on schedule, the “all-up” concept tested the entire Apollo-Saturn system together on November 9, 1967. The Lunar Excursion Module (LEM) had significant weight and performance issues (built by the Grumman “Iron Works”) that delayed landing until Apollo 11 on July 20, 1969.

Could we accomplish such a mission today with the tight deadline? As discussed in a NASA Retrospective Analysis (2014):

The scientific and engineering communities within NASA, additionally, were not monolithic, and differences among them thrived. Add to these groups representatives from industry, universities, and research facilities, and competition on all levels to further their own scientific and technical areas was the result. The NASA leadership generally viewed this pluralism as a positive force within the space program, for it ensured that all sides aired their views and emphasized the honing of positions to a fine edge.

Even with access to proven hardware and an equivalent budget ($25 billion in the 1960’s is over $120 billion today), we probably couldn’t reach the Moon within eight years with our present dysfunctional culture. The media of the 1960’s was behind the effort, and various distractions from social justice warriors and political correctness were relatively unknown. Moreover, most of the NASA community had experienced World War II and/or Korea, where extraneous constraints might get you killed. And while women and minorities ccontribute to present missions, having a relatively homogeneous group with wartime experience (home and abroad) made it possible to have strong views yet agree on the common goal. It a unique time in modern USA that has passed.

There are 17 comments.

  1. RightAngles Member

    having a relatively homogeneous group with wartime experience (home and abroad) made it possible to have strong views yet agree on the common goal, making it a unique time in modern USA.

    Wish we could go back to that mindset.

    • #1
    • April 19, 2016, at 2:31 PM PDT
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  2. John Walker Contributor

    In 1962, when Kennedy announced the goal of landing on the Moon, NASA’s budget was 1.18% of the federal budget. In 1966, at the peak, NASA accounted for 4.41% of the federal budget. By 1970, this had shrunk to 1.92% and by 1975 0.98%. Since 2010, the NASA budget has been around 0.5% of the federal budget. Of course, over this time the federal budget has exploded in size, while the spending on NASA in the post-Apollo era has remained more or less constant. In 2014 constant dollar terms, NASA’s peak spending in 1966 was 2.5 times larger than in fiscal year 2014.

    But, as you note, even if we double NASA’s budget, they still wouldn’t accomplish much, because NASA is largely a jobs program for the districts and states of the legislators who support it. That’s why they’re spending billions to build a giant rocket for which there is no mission nor need, and which will be so expensive it will only fly every two years, if at all.

    No bureaucracy (and that is what NASA has become) is immune to sclerosis. Most companies re-organise every five years or so just to shake things up and get rid of dead weight. Government never really does this. As Aviation Week & Space Technology wrote in an editorial on February 2nd, 1987, “NASA should not be allowed to operate in a vacuum”.

    • #2
    • April 19, 2016, at 2:40 PM PDT
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  3. Tuck Inactive

    John Walker: “NASA should not be allowed to operate in a vacuum.”

    LOL.

    • #3
    • April 19, 2016, at 2:54 PM PDT
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  4. Seawriter Member

    Thanks for doing this. It brings back memories.

    I was a kid when this was going on. My ambition in junior high was to navigate jets. By the time I was in high school I thought the neatest job ever would be to design spacecraft in some building where I could watch high performance jets take off and land.

    I ended up in Houston navigating Space Shuttles in the 1980s. By the early 1990s I had an office at McDonnell Douglas’s Tower II on the south side of Ellington Fields – facing the airfield. Watching the jets take off and land. Helping design the avionics on Space Station Freedom.

    It proved you had to be careful what you wished for. Pretty soon Freedom was another name for nothing left to lose. It got cancelled. I left the space program for eight years and only came back because I needed a job and they needed people with Shuttle experience. Sigh.

    Seawriter

    • #4
    • April 19, 2016, at 3:09 PM PDT
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  5. Seawriter Member

    By the way, we are recruiting for the May group writing project. In May our theme is Firearms. If you have not signed up yet, best hurry. There are ten shots left. Click the link for more information.

    Seawriter

    • #5
    • April 19, 2016, at 3:12 PM PDT
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  6. GLDIII Temporarily Essential Thatcher

    Could We Do Apollo Today?

    Nope

    • #6
    • April 20, 2016, at 9:59 AM PDT
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  7. Seawriter Member

    GLDIII:

    Could We Do Apollo Today?

    Nope

    But NASA could do some really knockout concept PowerPoints and virtual reality simulations before cancelling the program because “failure is not an option.” (After all, if you do not try, you do not fail.)

    Seawriter

    • #7
    • April 20, 2016, at 10:42 AM PDT
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  8. GLDIII Temporarily Essential Thatcher

    Seawriter:

    GLDIII:

    Could We Do Apollo Today?

    Nope

    But NASA could do some really knockout concept PowerPoints and virtual reality simulations before cancelling the program because “failure is not an option.” (After all, if you do not try, you do not fail.)

    Seawriter

    Sea

    I am somewhat fortunate that I operate in the “unmanned” side of the house which has no where near the politics, nor the money sloshing around the “manned” side does. There is still a competitive process for deciding what science to fund and fly but we still have our expensive boondoggles due to prior success.

    This below the radar approach sucks the wind out of a lot of the not quite as sexy science, but our side of the house is budget capped. We currently have a planning dearth for new stuff, so even it the next administration find space a useful propagation tool it will take years to spool up since nothing has been scoped out in the pre phase A stages of planning.

    • #8
    • April 20, 2016, at 11:06 AM PDT
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  9. Basil Fawlty Member

    I just finishd re-reading Wolfe’s The Right Stuff, a fascinating look at the period.

    • #9
    • April 21, 2016, at 7:38 AM PDT
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  10. Bartholomew Xerxes Ogilvie, Jr. Coolidge

    There are a lot of similarities between the Apollo program and the Manhattan Project two decades earlier. Both were huge scientific and engineering projects essentially given a blank check from the government, which obviously helped. (Fast, good, cheap: you can have two of the three.)

    But more important, I think, was the fact that both were wartime projects. That’s obviously true for the Manhattan Project, but it’s also true for Apollo: it was a front in the Cold War. And it worked: not only did we win the PR contest, but the USSR’s unsuccessful attempts to keep up were expenses it could not afford. The space race, like Reagan’s military buildup, helped to bankrupt the Soviet Union.

    The high stakes meant that everybody involved cared enough to give it their very best, setting aside other considerations, including bureaucratic caution. (One example: the first successful flight of the Saturn V booster was Apollo 8, which had humans on board. The booster had only flown once before and had experienced severe oscillations in flight.) (Edit: the preceding sentence is in error, as pointed out by John Walker below. The Saturn V booster had had one previous successful flight.)

    I think something like Apollo or the Manhattan Project could happen again, but only under similar circumstances: a clearly defined goal, difficult but achievable, with high stakes that outweigh all other considerations. It’s hard to imagine anything that would satisfy those conditions other than an existential threat.

    • #10
    • April 21, 2016, at 9:26 AM PDT
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  11. Randal H Member

    JFK was lucky he wasn’t followed by a petulant partisan like Obama, who would have cancelled the moon landing project because it wasn’t his idea. Nixon, for all his flaws, was at least somewhat capable of putting the country’s interests above his own.

    • #11
    • April 21, 2016, at 10:20 AM PDT
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  12. John Walker Contributor

    Bartholomew Xerxes Ogilvie, Jr.: (One example: the first successful flight of the Saturn V booster was Apollo 8, which had humans on board. The booster had only flown once before and had experienced severe oscillations in flight.)

    One quibble: Apollo 8 was the third flight of the Saturn V. The first flight was Apollo 4, a textbook mission: the Saturn V and Apollo Command and Service modules performed to specifications. Apollo 6, the second flight of the Saturn V, encountered serious problems. Due to pogo oscillations, one of the engines in the second stage shut down early, and then, due to an error in connecting the wiring harness, a second engine shut down. The remaining engines and third stage burned longer to compensate for the lost engines. Once in orbit, the third stage failed to restart to perform the simulated lunar injection burn. This was found to be a problem with liquid air fouling the propulsion pipes of the third stage, a problem which would only appear in the vacuum of space, and was not detected in ground testing.

    When Apollo 8 was launched, both problems discovered on Apollo 6 were considered as found and fixed, and the successful flight of Apollo 4 provided confidence it was safe to launch men on the mission.

    (For those curious about the mission numbers, Apollo 5 was an unmanned test of the lunar module in Earth orbit and Apollo 7 was the first manned flight of the command and service modules in Earth orbit. Both were launched on Saturn IB boosters.)

    • #12
    • April 21, 2016, at 10:32 AM PDT
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  13. Bartholomew Xerxes Ogilvie, Jr. Coolidge

    John Walker:

    One quibble: Apollo 8 was the third flight of the Saturn V.

    Argh. That’s what I get for trusting my memory. It’s been too long since I read Charles Murray’s excellent Apollo, and in my mind “only one previous successful flight” became “only one previous flight.” Oh, well, my point stands, even if my example was bogus.

    Actually, I think the Apollo 8 was a great example of that kind of fearlessness in a lot of ways. Not just putting people on top of a Saturn V for the first time, but also the decision to make 8 a circumlunar mission on (relatively) short notice, mainly because the LM wasn’t ready to test. It’s always been my favorite Apollo mission, and in my view it’s the one that really won the space race.

    • #13
    • April 21, 2016, at 8:41 PM PDT
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  14. Seawriter Member

    Bartholomew Xerxes Ogilvie, Jr.: It’s always been my favorite Apollo mission, and in my view it’s the one that really won the space race.

    The Soviets were planning a one-man Zond mission to fly past the Moon in late 1968. They missed the November and December launch windows, and rescheduled the mission for January. After Apollo 8 they cancelled the mission.

    They had no hope of landing a man on the moon first, so they dismantled their Moon program and for many years thereafter pretended it had never existed.

    I built a model of the Zond-Proton in 1:72 about ten years back. The kit is cardstock, and can be found here. (Get the Proton model and the Block-D Zond top.) It is a challenging build.

    Seawriter

    • #14
    • April 22, 2016, at 3:55 AM PDT
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  15. Trink Coolidge

    Vectorman: , we probably couldn’t reach the Moon within eight years with our present dysfunctional culture. The media of the 1960’s was behind the effort, and various distractions from social justice warriors and political correctness were relatively unknown. Moreover, most of the NASA community had experienced World War II and/or Korea, where extraneous constraints might get you killed. And while women and minorities contribute to present missions, having a relatively homogeneous group with wartime experience (home and abroad) made it possible to have strong views yet agree on the common goal. It a unique time in modern USA that has passed.

    Oh how I wish I didn’t agree with your last statement. I enjoyed this trip back through time.

    I was in my twenties during those glory days. It was thrilling. Today, two of my favorite movies: “October Sky” and “The Right Stuff.”

    • #15
    • April 22, 2016, at 2:37 PM PDT
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  16. Vectorman Thatcher
    Vectorman Post author

    Trink:

    Vectorman: , we probably couldn’t reach the Moon within eight years with our present dysfunctional culture. The media of the 1960’s was behind the effort, and various distractions from social justice warriors and political correctness were relatively unknown. Moreover, most of the NASA community had experienced World War II and/or Korea, where extraneous constraints might get you killed. And while women and minorities contribute to present missions, having a relatively homogeneous group with wartime experience (home and abroad) made it possible to have strong views yet agree on the common goal. It a unique time in modern USA that has passed.

    Oh how I wish I didn’t agree with your last statement. I enjoyed this trip back through time.

    I was in my twenties during those glory days. It was thrilling. Today, two of my favorite movies: “October Sky” and “The Right Stuff.”

    My wife is a High School Math teacher. The math students sometimes get to see “October Sky” on special occasions.

    • #16
    • April 22, 2016, at 2:52 PM PDT
    • Like
  17. Basil Fawlty Member

    Trink:

    Vectorman: , we probably couldn’t reach the Moon within eight years with our present dysfunctional culture. The media of the 1960’s was behind the effort, and various distractions from social justice warriors and political correctness were relatively unknown. Moreover, most of the NASA community had experienced World War II and/or Korea, where extraneous constraints might get you killed. And while women and minorities contribute to present missions, having a relatively homogeneous group with wartime experience (home and abroad) made it possible to have strong views yet agree on the common goal. It a unique time in modern USA that has passed.

    Oh how I wish I didn’t agree with your last statement. I enjoyed this trip back through time.

    I was in my twenties during those glory days. It was thrilling. Today, two of my favorite movies: “October Sky” and “The Right Stuff.”

    Since I just re-read The Right Stuff book, I decided to also re-watch the film. It’s currently streaming on Netflix.

    • #17
    • April 22, 2016, at 3:06 PM PDT
    • Like