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JFK's reluctant reach for the stars

In John M Logsdon's intriguing account of the space race, John F Kennedy emerges as a Cold War pragmatist who had little interest in landing a man on the Moon.

Deputy administrator of Nasa Dr Robert Seamans, left, and Dr Wernher von Braun, centre, look on at US President John F Kennedy in November 1963. Nasa / AP Photo
Deputy administrator of Nasa Dr Robert Seamans, left, and Dr Wernher von Braun, centre, look on at US President John F Kennedy in November 1963. Nasa / AP Photo

It was the sound of national humiliation. On October 4, 1957, radio receivers around the world picked up a simple transmission - a metronomically regular 0.3-second beep, alternating on two frequencies. The signal that emanated for three weeks from Sputnik 1, the world's first man-made orbiting satellite, told the world that the Soviet Union had beaten the US into space.

The US rushed to catch up but stumbled badly at the first hurdle. The Russians had launched Sputnik 1 in secrecy, but the world's media assembled at Cape Canaveral on December 6, 1957, to witness a Vanguard rocket heave itself barely a metre off the ground before falling back and exploding. It was, declared Lyndon B Johnson, then a Texas senator, the "most humiliating failure in America's history".

Thus the space race began - not with the big bang of President John F Kennedy's 1961 speech committing the US to "the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon", but with the beep of a single-watt Russian radio.

Kennedy's space "vision" has become as much a part of his myth as the conspiracy theories that surround his assassination but, as John M Logsdon's book makes clear, Kennedy was no starry-eyed dreamer. Indeed, 50 years after the 35th president of the United States ordered the lunar mission, and in the very month the Space Shuttle programme approaches its end, Logsdon's account of how it all started serves as a timely reminder that the decision to reach for the stars was taken by a president with his feet firmly on the ground.

Kennedy's purpose was clear: to capitalise on the perceived failures of the Eisenhower administration as he campaigned in 1960 for the presidency and, once in office, to make a grand gesture that would persuade the world that America was in charge.

The Republicans declared the Kennedy campaign in the run-up to his inauguration in 1961, had "remained incredibly blind to the prospects of space exploration [and its] importance to the future of the world". The Democrats would "press forward with our national space programme in full realisation of the importance of space accomplishments to our national security and our international prestige".

That wasn't, of course, entirely fair. the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa), had been created by President Dwight Eisenhower in July 1958, just six months after Sputnik 1 had finally burnt up in the atmosphere, having circled the globe tauntingly once every 90 minutes for 92 days.

And the greatest blow to American pride was landed on April 12, 1961, almost three months into Kennedy's presidency, when the Russian fighter pilot Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space. This, says Logsdon, was the event that drove Kennedy to demand from his advisers "a space program which promises dramatic results in which we could win".

The new administration had been taken aback, both by domestic and world reaction to the achievement, hailed by The Washington Post as "a psychological victory of the first magnitude for the Soviet Union."

Three weeks later, the president's advisers proposed that the US should produce its own theatrical spectacular. "Our attainments [in space] are a major element in the competition between the Soviet system and our own," they wrote in a memo to Kennedy, dated May 8, 1961, and "part of the battle along the fluid front of the Cold War."

The only way, they concluded, was up - all the way to the Moon - and Kennedy went public with the plan on May 25, 1961. Behind the scenes, however, as Logsdon documents in fascinating detail, the president was a reluctant space pioneer.

In truth, he saw the Apollo programme as an annoying and expensive political necessity. In late 1962, for instance, the president chaired a crucial cabinet meeting to review Nasa's request for a 1964 budget of $6.2 billion - $4.6bn of which would be spent on trying to turn his lunar boast into a reality. For some reason, Kennedy chose to activate a secret recording system that had been installed; the result is a verbatim transcript of the president's views, which include the remarkable admission that he was "not that interested in space".

The Moon landing, said Kennedy, was the top priority, but only for "international political reasons ... This is, whether we like it or not, in a sense a race". Were it not for that, he would want to know "Why are we spending $7m on getting fresh water from salt when we're spending $7bn to find out about space?".

They were, he said, "talking about these fantastic expenditures which wreck our budget and ... the only justification for it in my opinion ... is because we hope to beat [the Soviets] and demonstrate that starting behind, as we did by a couple of years, by God, we passed them".

In light of this, Kennedy's rhetoric during his landmark speech at Rice University in September 1962 - "to solve these mysteries, to solve them for the good of all men, and to become the world's leading space-faring nation ... because there is new knowledge to be gained, and new rights to be won, and they must be won and used for the progress of all people" - rings hollow.

Yet a far darker moral cant underpinned the US's ultimate victory in the space race.

In his inaugural address in January 1961, Kennedy, the great liberal idealist, had spoken grandiloquently of the torch of freedom, passed to "a new generation of Americans ... unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this nation has always been committed". America, he pledged, would "pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship ... to assure the survival and the success of liberty".

Yet the reality was that both America's and Russia's space programmes were founded on the know-how of the German scientists both sides had raced to scoop up at the end of the Second World War - and that the liberty and lives of thousands had been sacrificed to make the space race possible. This is a subject beyond the reach of Logsdon's book but nevertheless illustrated by a photograph in it, which shows Kennedy meeting Wernher von Braun, then director of the Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama, in September 1962. During the spring of 1939, the German rocket scientist had had a similar audience with a previous paymaster - Adolf Hitler.

Von Braun was the brains behind the first rocket to reach space - the V2, or Retaliatory Weapon 2, hundreds of which rained down high-explosive terror on London from September 1944 until the end of the war. It later emerged that tens of thousands of slave labourers - some of whom von Braun had selected personally from Buchenwald concentration camp - had worked on rocket production in the underground Mittelwerk factory.

"He admitted that he had indeed visited Mittelwerk on several occasions," noted the authors of Power to Explore, a 1999 Nasa history of the Marshall Space Flight Center. "He insisted that his visits lasted only hours, or at most one or two days, and that he never saw a prisoner beaten, hanged, or otherwise killed."

Nevertheless, von Braun "conceded that in 1944 he learnt that many prisoners had been killed, and that others had died from mistreatment [and] malnutrition, and that the environment at the facility was 'repulsive'".To have objected to any of this, von Braun later remarked, would have meant that "I would have to abandon the work of my life".

That, it seems, he regarded as unthinkable, as did the US government, for whom the relocated von Braun oversaw the evolution of the V2 into the Saturn V rocket that carried US astronauts to the Moon.

Morality aside, it could be argued that, conceived at the height of the Cold War, the national vanity of human space travel is an adventure that has outlived its purpose. Apollo, as Logsdon concludes, was a product of "a particular moment in time [whose] most important significance may well be simply that it happened". And, of course, now more than ever, the world could use that cheap desalination technology Kennedy would have preferred to have left behind as his legacy.

The US has not, of course, enjoyed Kennedy's "great adventure" without paying its own human cost, from the deaths of three Apollo 1 astronauts in a launch-pad fire in 1967, to the catastrophic failures of the shuttles Challenger and Columbia, in 1986 and 2003, which together claimed 14 lives.

But as Nasa and the US ponder the end of the shuttle era and the future of the International Space Station - both projects, incidentally, conceived originally as weapons of the Nazi war machine - they would do well to pause and remember the estimated 20,000 who died in brutal slavery so that a dozen free Americans might leave their footprints on the Moon.

Jonathan Gornall is a senior features writer for The National. For a look back on the history of the space shuttle visit www.thenational.ae/space.