It was the spring of 1961. President John F. Kennedy, speaking of new frontiers and projecting the vigor of youth, had been in office barely four months, and April had been the cruelest. On the 12th, Yuri Gagarin became the first human to orbit Earth one more space triumph for the Soviet Union. Though the flight was not unexpected, it was nonetheless deflating; it would be more than a month before Alan Shepard became the first American in space, and that was on a 15-minute suborbital flight. On the 17th, a force of anti-Castro exiles, trained by the C.I.A., invaded communist Cuba at the Bay of Pigs a fiasco within 36 hours. Mr. Kennedys close aide Theodore Sorensen described him on the 19th as anguished and fatigued and in the most emotional, self-critical state I had ever seen him.
At one meeting, his brother Robert F. Kennedy, the attorney general, turned on everybody, it was reported, saying: All you bright fellows. You got the president into this. Weve got to do something to show the Russians we are not paper tigers. At another, the president pleaded: If somebody can, just tell me how to catch up. Lets find somebody anybody. I dont care if its the janitor over there. Heading back to the Oval Office, he told Mr. Sorensen, Theres nothing more important.
So, 50 years ago, on May 25, 1961, President Kennedy addressed a joint session of Congress and a national television audience, declaring: 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 Earth.
There it was, the challenge flung before an adversary and to a nation on edge in an unconventional war, the beginning of Project Apollo.
Echoes of this time lift off the pages of John F. Kennedy and the Race to the Moon (Palgrave Macmillan), a new book by John M. Logsdon, a political scientist and longtime space policy specialist at George Washington University. He has drawn on new research in archives, oral histories and memoirs available in recent years to shed new light on the moon race.
The famous speech came after five weeks of hand wringing, back-channel memos and closed-door conferences, often overseen by Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson. In those meetings NASA and Pentagon officials, scientists and engineers, budget analysts and others decided that sending astronauts to the Moon by the end of the sixties was the countrys best shot at overcoming the Soviet post-Sputnik command of the orbital front in the cold war.
But, Dr. Logsdon said in an interview last week, the new material highlighted some recurring themes that had been overlooked, like Mr. Kennedys return, time and again, to the idea of engaging the Russians in a cooperative venture, his continuing support of the project through a time of doubt, and how little was known then of Soviet capabilities and intentions.
Most of all, Dr. Logsdon said, hindsight had made him aware of his blindness to Apollos implications for the long run. He said he had been wrong, in a 1970 book on the subject, to think that the lunar decision can be generalized to tell us how to proceed toward other great new American enterprises.
And like many others who for years lived and breathed the project, he finally had to recognize that the impact of Apollo on the space program has on balance been negative. It was, he explained, not the beginning of human voyages to Mars and lunar bases but a dead-end undertaking in terms of human travel beyond the immediate vicinity of this planet.
Of course, it takes two to have a race. The American president could not be sure the Russians had a lunar-landing program. There was no evidence that the Russians were building facilities for a booster capable of launching people to the Moon. Was the president just double-dog-daring them to come out in the schoolyard and show their stuff
An intelligence report in 1962 had nothing to add, short of speculating that the chances are better than even that a lunar landing is a Soviet objective. Only in 1964 did intelligence agents detect signs that there was indeed someone to make it a race.