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LBJ, von Braun, and Webb
Lyndon B. Johnson publicly supported NASA in its race with the Soviets to reach the Moon, while privately he sought a way to end the race and divert funding elsewhere. (credit: NASA)

LBJ’s Space Race: what we didn’t know then (part 2)

The 1967 Outer Space Treaty: the antidote for Vietnam expenditures

Kennedy had gotten involved in the revolution in Vietnam and left the resulting mess to Johnson, who got sucked in deeper and deeper. LBJ was in a terrible dilemma. He knew he couldn’t win in Vietnam, but he also knew he couldn’t quit, because the political consequences of losing were too great. So the stalemate in Vietnam just kept getting worse, and more and more expensive.

Johnson didn’t want to give up his Great Society programs, and he didn’t want to raise taxes, so he absolutely had to cut everything else—and the space race was a big fat money pot. But, as with the war in Vietnam, the consequences of losing the Space Race were also unacceptable. Remember, to LBJ we were in a desperate race to see who was going to own space—free men or the tyrants of the USSR—and the future of the world depended on making that come out right.

He had tried to negotiate a compromise in Vietnam, but couldn’t get the other side interested. So he looked for a compromise in the space race instead, and there, probably to his surprise, he succeeded. It was early 1966, and the US was gaining but still hadn’t quite caught up to the Russians in space. In one sense, it appeared the Soviets were about four months ahead. On January 31, 1966 the USSR launched Luna 9, which made mankind’s first soft landing on the Moon. America’s first soft landing came four months later, with Surveyor 1, on April 30, 1966.

The administration had to assume that, if it cut space spending to pay for Vietnam, it might well lose the Space Race. The question became how to keep the other side from using that victory to gain control of space.

Information that has come to light only since the end of the Cold War reveals that the Soviet’s manned lunar landing program was actually in very big trouble and on the verge of failure. Then, the ultimate disaster hit. Sergey Korolev, the Soviet’s genius rocket designer, the super-secret “Chief Constructor” who we now know was behind all the Soviet’s space successes, the one man who might have made their troubled N1 Moon rocket work, died during colon surgery in Moscow on January 14, 1966. But the US did not know that at the time. Johnson’s intelligence services were telling him the Soviets were on track to reach the Moon.

Because of that lack of intelligence, the administration had to assume that, if it cut space spending to pay for Vietnam, it might well lose the Space Race. The question became how to keep the other side from using that victory to gain control of space. So Johnson offered the Soviets a deal for mutual renunciation of the prizes to be won: no nuclear weapons in space, and neither country claims ownership of the Moon, regardless of which nation gets there first. As the New York Times pointed out on May 8th, “the treaty sought by the United States would be similar to the one pertaining to Antarctica” which had effectively stopped all development there.

LBJ must have been pleasantly surprised when the Soviets accepted, since he didn’t realize they too were now worried about the consequences of losing the race to the Moon. LBJ had no idea of the significance of the death of Korolev—if, indeed he’d ever heard the name—but Khrushchev certainly understood, and unlike the US, the USSR could easily keep tabs on how their opposition was doing so they knew the US was doing better than they were.

The result was the “Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies” (referred to simply as the Outer Space Treaty), negotiated directly with the Kremlin by Johnson’s personal representative, former Supreme Court Justice and UN Ambassador Arthur Goldberg, and only later shown to the UN in its final form to be ratified by other nations.

Of course, Johnson didn’t say publicly that the reason for the treaty was to cut space spending to pay for Vietnam, so how do we know that was the reason?

The smoking gun: the LBJ Library gives up its secrets

I spent many hours in the LBJ Library in Austin, Texas, looking for the proof. Arthur Goldberg’s recollections provide clues, but the real smoking gun was in a 1966 State Department policy document which was secret until 1985, and then only partially declassified. A Freedom of Information Act request was required to get to the rest.

The document is titled “Space Goals After the Lunar Landing“ and was written under the direction of Assistant Secretary of State Henry Owen, the then Chairman of the State Department’s Policy Planning Council.

It starts out: “Even before the outcome of the moon race has been decided, we face the question of whether to commit ourselves to… proceeding with manned exploration of the moon after the initial landing.” Later: “The advanced stage of Apollo development and the lead time requirements of possible follow-on programs make it necessary to consider future space goals at this time.”

“Instead of indefinitely extending the space race, it would be preferable to work toward de-fusing the space race between the US and Soviets.”

The following are all selected quotes from that paper, laying out the views of a key part of the Johnson administration, and quite possibly the President himself. Note: all underlining is as it was in the original paper. I have bolded the sections I consider most significant to this discussion.

  • “If we can de-emphasize or stretch out additional costly programs aimed at the moon and beyond, resources may to some extent be released for other objectives which might serve more immediate, higher priority interests.”
  • “Whether our over-all space effort can prudently be conducted at a more deliberate pace in the future may depend in part on de-fusing the space race between the US and Soviets. We should consider the desirability and feasibility of this objective.”
  • “Instead of indefinitely extending the space race, it would be preferable to work toward de-fusing the space race between the US and Soviets.”
  • International agreements defining rules for space, [such as] the proposed celestial bodies/outer space treaty are pointed in this direction.
  • “In seeking to de-fuse the space race, several types of arrangements with the Soviets might be considered: [first] Joint US-Soviet conduct of major space exploration programs looking toward eventually placing such efforts on an international basis.“
  • “Coordinating national efforts with a view to limiting pressures for racing toward new goalposts deep in space.”
  • “For example, a Manned Orbital Research Laboratory might serve scientific purposes and also open the way for some degree of international cooperation in manned spaceflight”
  • The effect, although not the explicit purpose, might be a tacitly agreed pacing or slowdown of some of the more costly ventures.

How prophetic those words were, especially the last two points, written in 1966! Indeed, we did get the “Manned Orbital Research Laboratory” referred to in that memo. Now, close to four decades later, we have the International Space Station instead of real efforts to explore and settle the Moon and Mars. Just as those who wanted to de-fuse the Space Race hoped, international cooperation allowed them to “release” resources for the things they wanted instead. Although no one has ever admitted that it was the space station’s “explicit purpose”, it certainly has kept us distracted from those “more costly ventures”.

The following quotes from the document illustrate the fact that the Johnson administration did not have accurate intelligence about just how badly the Soviet Moon program was actually doing in 1966:

Is there any chance (before the moon race is decided) of interesting the Soviets seriously in the possibility of curtailing the race in the future? The answer to this question is probably “no”, but we can ourselves begin to do the planning needed to support that objective. Moreover, we can begin to adjust our own programmatic goals accordingly.
We have to anticipate that the Soviets will not only place additional emphasis on competing in practical applications, but will also continue to view space spectaculars as a useful psychological tool. They probably do not plan to stop at the moon. [Therefore] it is difficult to see the Soviets agreeing to any such arrangements now.

In that, of course, the authors of the paper were wrong. That’s why I believe they must have been very pleasantly surprised when the Soviets did, in fact, agree to “curtail the race”.

Indeed, we did get the “Manned Orbital Research Laboratory” referred to in that memo. Now, close to four decades later, we have the International Space Station instead of real efforts to explore and settle the Moon and Mars.

By the way, it is interesting to see now what those who declassified the rest of the report in 1985 felt was too sensitive to declassify even then, almost twenty years after it was written. The following section was completely blacked out in 1985 until I got it released in 1998 by a Freedom of Information Act request.

It can be argued that this [de-fusing the space race] might prove disadvantageous — especially if Soviet resources were thus freed for military programs. Although we cannot be sure how such resources would be allocated, four considerations tend to vitiate the argument that we would be better off keeping the Soviets “diverted” into space.
First, extending the space race might itself contribute to military potential; measuring this effect would be especially difficult in the Soviet case since their single space effort-covers both military and civilian purposes. Second, the Soviets can, in any event, be expected to give priority to whatever they may consider essential for defense. Third, given the strained situation of the Soviet economy, there is a good chance that at least a part of any freed resources would find its way into the civilian sector. Finally, although our own economy is far stronger, we are also confronted with problems of resource allocation. In the final analysis, we can’t really “divert” the Soviets without to some extent “diverting” ourselves.

Cover memo sums it up

Perhaps most damning all is the cover memo for the classified document that Henry Owen sent to Walt Rostow, Johnson’s hawkish Special Assistant for National Security Affairs, the post now known as National Security Advisor. It boils down the reasons Owen and his associates felt the Space Race must end and what it would take to end it:

The final draft of our space paper is being distributed to members of the Space Council — McNamara, Webb, etc. The Vice President wishes it to be discussed at the Council.
It will encounter strong opposition from NASA and Ed Welsh, the secretary of the Space Council.
Nonetheless, I believe it right [because] it will save money, which can go to foreign aid and domestic purposes — thus mitigating the political strain of the war in Vietnam.
If the proposals in this memo are left to be fought out by the space marshals and their clients, we will lose. Therefore I urge you to get into the fight personally — let the Vice President, Schultze (Bob), and others know how you feel. Send a copy to someone on the domestic side of the White House staff to ensure that someone from that side representing the constituency whose interests are most directly affected, gets into the fight.

Of course, they did win.

The legacy

We need to find a way to restart a race to space.

Significantly, space funding increased every year, in both the US and USSR, until the passage of the treaty in 1967, and then decreased thereafter. LBJ barely managed to preserve the Moon landing itself, but he effectively killed all the wonderful things that were planned to follow it. Just as in Antarctica, the prohibition on claiming land succeeded in stopping serious development in its tracks. For 38 years, space development and particularly the technology to allow humans to travel to and from the Moon and Mars safely, reliably and affordably, has gotten lip service but very little serious advancement.

We need to find a way to restart a race to space. This time it won’t be for military reasons like the race that LBJ started and ended, but it could be for the reasons of private enterprise: the chance to make a profit.

If those of us who want space developed—who don’t want it kept like Antarctica—ever hope to change that situation we must find a way to remove or get around the prohibition on land ownership in space.


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