JFK Library Releases New Tape on the Space Race

JFKThe JFK Library has released a new tape from September 18, 1963, in which President Kennedy and NASA Administrator James Webb discuss the race to the moon. The Library's press release is reproduced below.

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
May 25, 2011
Media Contact: Rachel Day
(617) 514-1662
rachel.day@jfklfoundation.org

JFK Library Releases Recording of
President Kennedy Discussing Race to the Moon
- Tape Released 50 Years after JFK's Speech on Urgent Need for Space Program -

BOSTON - On what marks the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy's first challenge to the country to commit to sending a man to the moon before the end of the 1960s, the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum today announced that it has declassified and made available for research a presidential recording of President Kennedy and NASA Administrator James Webb discussing the future of the US space program. The meeting was held in the White House on September 18, 1963 and reveals President Kennedy's private concerns over waning public support for space exploration.

In President Kennedy's address to Congress on May 25, 1961, he urged the country to make sending a man to the moon a national priority:

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.

Over two years later, President Kennedy is confronted with the financial burden that he predicted in 1961 and, in the conversation with Webb, expresses concern over what Congress and the public would see as the high cost of the space program. The President also discusses the challenges he foresees in trying to maintain the American public's interest in space exploration when, in fact, there would not be a moon landing during his presidency. He says, "I mean if the Russians do some tremendous feat, then it would stimulate interest again, but right now space has lost a lot of its glamour."

"President Kennedy was both a visionary and a realist," said Kennedy Library Archivist Maura Porter. "He understood the necessity of having both public and Congressional support if his vision of landing a man on the moon was to become a reality before the end of the 1960's."

The President and Webb go on to discuss in great detail the need to link defense or national security to the space program in order to garner the political support needed for the program's success. President Kennedy describes this point in time as "mid journey" for the country's space initiative:

...I think this can be an asset, this program. I think in time, it's like a lot of things, this is mid- journey and therefore everybody says 'what the hell are we making this trip for' but at the end of the thing they may be glad we made it.

Later in the conversation, President Kennedy comments that going to the moon must be more than just a "stunt". At one point the President said to Webb:

Why should we spend that kind of dough to put a man on the moon? But it seems to me...we've got to wrap around in this country, a military use for what we're doing and spending in space. If we don't, it does look like a stunt...

The President's uneasy tone during this meeting is in contrast to his public statements at the time, which were far more optimistic about the space program's future. A year earlier, in November 1962, the President and Webb had met at another White House meeting which has been described as adversarial. At that time, the roles were reversed: in 1962, the President was brimming with political confidence in the space program while Webb expressed concern that beating the Russians to the Moon should not be the space program's top priority. Now in September 1963, the President is faced with the challenge of maintaining public support when the rewards of space travel remain years away. This time it is Webb who reassures the President telling him, "it will be one of the most important things that's been done in this nation":

President Kennedy: If I get re-elected, I'm not - we're not - go to the moon in my - in our period are we?...

Webb: No, no. We'll have worked to fly by though while you're President but it's going to take longer than that. This is a tough job, a real tough job. But I will tell you what will be accomplished while we're President and it will be one of the most important things that's been done in this nation. A basic need to use technology for total national power. That's going to come out of the space program more than any single thing.

President Kennedy: What's that again?

Webb: A basic ability in this nation to use science and very advanced technologies to increase national power - our economy all the way through.

President Kennedy: Do you think the lunar, the manned landing on the moon is a good idea?

Webb: Yes sir, I do.

President Kennedy: Why?

Webb: Because...

President Kennedy: Could you do the same with instruments much cheaper?

Webb: No sir, you can't do the same. (break) While you're President, this is going to come true in this country. So you're going to have both science and technology appreciating your leadership in this field. Without a doubt in my mind. And the young of course see this much better than in my generation. The high school seniors and the college freshman are 100% for man looking at three times what he's never looked at before. He's looking at the material of the earth, the characteristics of gravity and magnetism and he's looked at life on earth. And he understands the Universe just looking at those three things. Alright, maybe he's gonna have, material from the Moon and Mars; he's going to have already a measurement from Venus about its gravity and its magnetic fields. And if we find some life out beyond Earth, these are going to be finite things in terms of the development of the human intellect. And I predict you are not going to be sorry, no Sir, that you did this.

Just two months after President Kennedy's conversation with Webb, in a speech at the dedication of the Aerospace Medical Health Center in San Antonio, Texas on November 21, 1963, the President reaffirmed his commitment to the space program, embracing the challenges that the country faced in its quest to reach the moon:

This Nation has tossed its cap over the wall of space, and we have no choice but to follow it. Whatever the difficulties, they will be overcome. Whatever the hazards, they must be guarded against.

The recorded meeting is open in full without any redactions. Unlike many of the presidential recordings from the Kennedy Library Archives, the quality and clarity of the tape recording are exceptional. Today's release is from Tape 111. Approximately 30 hours of un-reviewed meeting tapes remain. Processing of the presidential recordings will continue to be conducted in chronological order.

The first items from the presidential recordings were opened to public research in June of 1983. Since that time, the Library staff has reviewed and opened the telephone conversations and a large portion of the meeting tapes. The latter are predominantly meetings with President Kennedy in either the Oval Office or the Cabinet Room. While the recordings were deliberate in the sense that they required manual operation to start and stop the recording, they were not, based on the material recorded, used with daily regularity nor was there a set pattern for their operation. The tapes housed at the JFK Library represent raw historical material. The sound quality of the recordings varies widely. Although most of the recorded conversation is understandable, the tapes include passages of extremely poor sound quality with considerable background noise and periods where the identity of the speakers is unclear.

Today's release of White House meetings is available for research use in the Library's Research Room. The hours of operation are Monday - Friday from 8:30 am - 4:30 pm and appointments may be made by calling (617) 514-1629. The recordings and finding guide are available for purchase at the John F. Kennedy Library, Columbia Point, Boston, MA 02125, or by calling the Audiovisual Department (617) 514-1622. Members of the media are cautioned against making historical conclusions based on the sound clips and transcript alone. They are provided as a professional courtesy to facilitate the reporting of the release of these presidential recordings.

The John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum is a presidential library administered by the National Archives and Records Administration and supported, in part, by the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation, a non-profit organization. The Kennedy Presidential Library and the Kennedy Library Foundation seek to promote, through educational and community programs, a greater appreciation and understanding of American politics, history, and culture, the process of governing and the importance of public service. More information is available at www.jfklibrary.org.

[Editor's Note: please visit the JFK Library's website to download the six excerpts which are highlighted in this release. Archival photographs and video are provided online. Transcripts for the clips are included below. Kennedy Library Archivist Maura Porter is available to answer questions from the media concerning this newly released tape or the Kennedy Library Presidential tapes in general. She can be reached through Rachel Day, Director of Communications.]