JFK's legacy: A race worth winning

CBS News

President John F. Kennedy's decision to commit the United States to "landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth" within a single decade, with only rudimentary ideas about how to do it and almost no space experience, was by today's standards an unimaginably daring -- and expensive -- gamble.

America won the bet, successfully carrying out six lunar landing missions between 1969 and 1972, leaving 12 sets of footprints on the moon's airless surface and returning 842 pounds of lunar rock and soil for detailed laboratory analysis.

The Apollo moon program cost U.S. taxpayers a staggering $25.4 billion, which translates to around $159 billion in 2012 dollars, according to John Logsdon, author of "John F. Kennedy and the Race to the Moon."

Six days before a tragic trip to Dallas, President Kennedy tours Cape Canaveral on Nov. 16, 1963, visiting launch complex 37 where a powerful Saturn 1 rocket awaited launch. (Credit: Cecil Stoughton/White House/John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum)

That's roughly how much it cost for construction of NASA field centers, the precursor two-man Gemini program, development of the huge Saturn 5 rocket and the lunar landers and command modules that carried U.S. astronauts to and from the moon.

With 50 years of hindsight, one can question the wisdom of Apollo, whether it was worth the high cost and even whether NASA was ever in a real "space race" with the Soviet Union.

But few challenge the sheer majesty of Kennedy's bold vision or how it will be remembered.

The historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. believed "the 20th century will be remembered, when all else is forgotten, as the century when man burst his terrestrial bounds."

Joan Johnson-Freese, a professor at the Naval War College and an expert on the Chinese space program, said Apollo "will forever be symbolic of the greatness of America."

"I mean we stepped off the planet," she told CBS News. "That's pretty big. Neil Armstrong ... has a place in history that no one else will ever have, and he was a one-of-a kind, first person to step on another celestial body. And I think that's the kind of thing that makes you endure in the history books."

Marcia Smith, editor of Space Policy Online, an expert on Russian space operations and a veteran NASA analyst, agreed, saying Apollo will long be remembered "as a highlight of the 20th century, the first steps of humankind off of Earth. I do consider it a watershed event in human exploration."

"If we continue to move off the planet and become a multi-planet species as people like (entrepreneur) Elon Musk would like to see, then that's going to really be the beginning of something," she said in an interview. "Even if we don't, if a hundred years from now we've taken the ancient China approach and just decided to give it all up, it will still be viewed as a tremendous technological, and I would say, socially transforming feat.

"I don't want to overstate the case for what it meant in terms of how people view our planet -- the 'pale blue dot' and all the other stuff people talk about -- but I do think that there is an element of truth to that, and I think we view our planet differently having seen it with human eyes from the moon."

But does that alone make Apollo worth the high cost?

"I think it depends on what happens in the next few centuries," Logsdon said in an interview. "If it were a one-shot venture (and) 200 years from now we haven't gone back to the moon, we haven't gone into deep space -- and I think that's a real possibility -- then I think the assessment by Schlesinger is over blown.

"If it's like the Vikings making the initial foray to the shores of North America and then another 200 or 300 years before Europeans came to stay, then it will be viewed as like the Viking voyages, as a first step in a long-term historical movement."

If humanity eventually becomes a multi-planet species, "if we move off of this planet at some point in the future, then Kennedy will have started it," Logsdon said.

But many argue Kennedy's gamble created an unsustainable space program that left NASA rudderless after the agency won the space race. By setting a clear deadline and couching the endeavor in terms of a Cold War space race with the Soviet Union, Kennedy made no provision for post-Apollo space initiatives.

In that sense, Apollo was a one-shot program that could not be sustained once the race was won. But that wasn't Kennedy's concern when he went "all in" on Apollo.

"He never thought about it," Logsdon said. "It's another way he was not a visionary. He didn't think, as (then NASA Administrator James) Webb did, that he was building the capability for a long-term, expanding space program. I don't think he ever thought one way or the other about that.

"It was not only custom-built hardware, but defining it as a race. Once you win the race, there's no need to keep racing. And so yes, I think Apollo was a phenomenon of the '60s, it was remarkable for those of us who got to see it happen, it was a great thing. But it was not sustainable at all."

Former NASA Administrator Mike Griffin doesn't blame that on Kennedy.

"Many people have said, well, Apollo was a dead end, Apollo was a flag and footprints," Griffin said. "I don't agree that is the case, but to the extent that that argument can even be made the fault is, in my view, with those who failed to follow up, failed to consolidate the gains of Apollo rather than the program itself."

Griffin agreed that setting up the Apollo program as a "race" with a clearly defined timetable "does contain those seeds of potential (for) its destruction, but I don't see that as inevitable. I see that as a choice that was made."

"The pattern of behavior that you cite, that when you have an urgent national goal and you win, it sort of automatically causes people to say OK, now we can do something else, I'm saying yes, I agree, that is a pattern of human behavior. I personally think that is a rather destructive pattern of behavior, but I would point out it's not inevitable."

In any case, given that Apollo was set up as a race with the Soviet Union, it's worth considering who, or what, NASA was actually racing against. The Soviet Union did not have a declared moon program until 1964, well after Kennedy's assassination.

But Kennedy and his advisors did not know that at the time, which makes the decision even more astonishing by today's political standards.

"The Soviets did not have a human lunar program at the time," Smith said. "They were, of course, sending robotic probes to the moon, they were the first ones to do that, but they did not start (a) manned lunar landing program until '64. Throughout Kennedy's lifetime, America was racing against itself."

But that doesn't mean it wasn't a race worth running.

Discussing Apollo and how it will be remembered in his 2010 look at Kennedy's decision to go to the moon, Logsdon writes that "Apollo was a product of a particular moment in time. Apollo is also a piece of lasting human history. Its most important significance may well be simply that it happened."