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Kennedy and Sidey
Hugh Sidey, seen here with President Kennedy, was present at a White House meeting just two days after Yuri Gagarin’s flight where the roots of the decision to go to the Moon began to form. (credit: Time Inc.)

Pay no attention to the man with the notebook: Hugh Sidey and the Apollo decision

Hugh Sidey died on November 21 at the age of 78. In his long journalism career he had been Time magazine’s primary chronicler of the presidency and had written or contributed to seven books. Sidey left a long legacy, but he also made an important contribution to space history.

Sidey was in the room on April 14, 1961 when President John F. Kennedy held a freewheeling discussion with several top government officials about how to respond to Yuri Gagarin’s recent spaceflight—and the perception that the United States was losing the space race. Sidey wrote about this in his 1963 book President John F. Kennedy, and later recounted the meeting, with one minor addition, in essays that he wrote in 1979 and 1986. However, it also formed the background for an article that Sidey wrote for Life immediately after the meeting in which he portrayed Kennedy as agonized because of the costs of responding to a situation that had in some ways been created by his predecessor, Dwight Eisenhower. The Life magazine article provided a more positive spin on the story than Sidey’s 1963 book.

Sidey presents an image of a president desperately trying to cope with the perception that the United States was losing the space race to the Soviet Union.

In 1971 Sidey searched his records to find his notes from that meeting so that he could give them to Robert Sherrod, who was then writing a book about the Apollo program. Sherrod never finished the book, but he conducted extensive research and donated his material to the NASA history office. Sidey could not find his original notes, but he did provide an account of the meeting in a letter to Sherrod. In the letter he reaffirmed the account from his 1963 book and added a number of details, which are not terribly flattering of either Kennedy or his advisors.

Collectively, Sidey’s several accounts of this meeting make for fascinating reading, presenting an image of a president desperately trying to cope with the perception that the United States was losing the space race to the Soviet Union.

From gap to Gagarin

John F. Kennedy had made the “Missile Gap” with the Soviet Union part of his campaign for the presidency in 1960—at least until the CIA briefed him on what was really happening and Kennedy toned down his rhetoric. Although space occasionally came up during the campaign, he did not devote much attention to it. After becoming president, Kennedy was approached by NASA Administrator James Webb in March 1961 about adding supplemental funding to NASA to speed up both the Saturn and Apollo programs. Kennedy approved more money for Saturn, but not for Apollo, which was then planned to eventually conduct circumlunar flights, not a Moon landing.

What this early history demonstrates is that Kennedy did not show any inclination to engage in a space race with the Soviet Union before April 1961. It was not really on his agenda. Gagarin’s flight put it there.

The CIA had evidence that the Soviets were going to launch a man into orbit before it happened. Soon after Gagarin’s rocket lifted off from its secretive launch pad in Kazakhstan, the National Security Agency intercepted transmissions from the capsule, including television images that clearly showed a human figure moving inside the spacecraft. However, at the time Kennedy had left instructions that he was not to be woken from his sleep if the launch happened, and he learned about it when he woke up the next morning.

Sidey had been assigned by Life to do a story about how the United States was lagging behind in the space race and he had met with presidential aide Ted Sorensen on April 13 and discussed the subject at length with him. The next day, a Friday, Sorensen invited Sidey to the White House at the end of the day to discuss it; after they had talked for a while Sorensen suddenly said, “Why don’t you ask the President these questions?” Then Sorensen took Sidey down the hall and through a looking glass.

A most curious meeting

At 6:35 pm, Kennedy returned from a coffee hour with members of Congress and went into the Cabinet Room around the same time that Sidey was being escorted in. According to Sidey, Kennedy pulled out a chair for him at the end of the table and said, “Here, you sit at the head of the table. That’s a good place.”

In the room were a number of top officials. Sorensen was there, of course, but so was the Director of the Bureau of the Budget, David Bell; Kennedy’s science advisor, Jerome Wiesner; and NASA Administrator James Webb and Deputy Administrator Hugh Dryden. Kennedy told Sidey to ask his questions about the space program. “Tell everybody and maybe we can get some answers,” he said.

The fact that this meeting took place with a journalist in the room is rather astounding, as even Sidey acknowledged later. Kennedy was at that time being pounded in the press over the Gagarin flight. Clearly Kennedy and Sorensen had an agenda—to get Sidey to portray the President as concerned about the Gagarin flight, engaged in the issue, and searching for an appropriate response. They undoubtedly had in mind Sputnik three and a half years before, when President Eisenhower had seemed unconcerned and Democrats charged that a Red Moon orbited overhead while Ike played golf.

The fact that this meeting took place with a journalist in the room is rather astounding, as even Sidey acknowledged later. Kennedy was at that time being pounded in the press over the Gagarin flight.

Although they were trying to spin Sidey, it is also clear that they were grasping for answers and that some of the answers were unpleasant. Kennedy and his top advisors did a lot of thinking aloud during that meeting. Equally important, when a journalist watches the decision-making process at work, there is no guarantee that he will observe, and write, what the leadership wants. Sorensen and Kennedy apparently viewed Sidey as a sympathetic journalist, and they did get a story from Sidey that apparently suited their purposes, but some of Sidey’s later observations of the meeting did not cast them in a positive light.

Although Sidey’s initial meeting with Sorensen was supposed to be “not for attribution,” this meeting was not off the record; it is not listed as such in the official White House log of the president’s activities that day. What Sidey did not know at the time was that Sorensen, Bell, Wiesner, Webb, and Dryden had all met shortly before Sidey showed up for his interview with Sorensen. What they discussed is unclear, but they probably spent at least some time talking about how to present their views to Sidey.

Sidey later wrote an article for Life that asserted that Kennedy was “gravely concerned” and realized that “it was more urgent than ever to define U.S. space aims.” The message, which served the administration’s purposes, was that Kennedy was working to fix a situation that was the result of Eisenhower making a conscious decision to not race the Soviets in space. But if Kennedy, Sorensen, and the other men were trying to portray a concerned and competent administration, they did a bad job of it, and they appear to have gotten incredibly lucky that Hugh Sidey did not write his full account of the meeting until years later.

After Kennedy told Sidey to ask his questions, Sidey recalled: “I then went through the usual series of questions about just where did we stand and what did we plan to do. It appeared that we had fallen behind and had no incentive to catch up and that Russia would indeed dominate space, and get to the Moon before we did. Then, Kennedy took over the meeting and went around the table, asking each of the men—Webb, Dryden, Bell, Wiesner—their thoughts.”

If Kennedy, Sorensen, and the other men were trying to portray a concerned and competent administration, they did a bad job of it, and they appear to have gotten incredibly lucky that Hugh Sidey did not write his full account of the meeting until years later.

“It was a pretty nebulous report,” Sidey remembered in 1971. “The main thing everybody was hung up on was the projected cost that might be at the outside as much as forty billion dollars. Dryden could not give any firm scientific assurance that we could even get to the Moon after spending all that money. Dave Bell, Budget Director, was the most pessimistic. I guess that was because he had the job of juggling the books. I recall his kind of muted horror at the thought of launching a project that was so ravenous and so vague in promised results. Webb, as I reported in the book, launched into kind of a bureaucratic paean but then got down to the fact he thought it could be done and we could try it. Wiesner, who was slumped down in his chair so far that his head seemed to be at table level, didn’t even take a position. My impression was that he was somewhat negative about the whole idea, but I couldn’t be sure of that. That might have been just his manner. Kennedy seemed preoccupied with the size of the engines we were developing and the fact that the Russians had bigger ones.”

“In the meeting, Kennedy complained throughout about the failure of scientists to give him hard answers. Also, about their failure to live up to their promises once they were given. Kennedy was very anguished during this meeting. He, too, slumped down in his chair. At one point, he had his feet at the edge of the Cabinet table and he was pushed back on the hind legs of his chair and teetering there. He kept running his hands through his hair, tapping his front teeth with his fingernails, a familiar nervous gesture. At one point, he examined his shoes thoroughly, which were on the edge of the table, and he tore off a piece of rubber sole that was loose. I got the feeling then that Kennedy’s mind was always ahead of those men who were testifying. There was an aura of impatience, like he’d heard this all before and he was hoping that maybe some place there would be something new that he could grasp.”

Sidey added that “At the end of that meeting, Kennedy turned to me again and asked if all my questions had been answered and I said something to the effect that they had been answered but, yet, there was no answer to the big question about going to the Moon. Kennedy replied that I could see how difficult it was to get answers to these questions, and the real problem was whether we wanted to spend that immense amount of money for space when we had so many other pressing needs at home.”

Kennedy said something that he should not have said with a reporter in the room. “When we know more, I can decide if it’s worth it or not. If somebody can just tell me how to catch up. Let’s find somebody—anybody. I don’t care if it’s the janitor over there, if he knows how.”

In his book, published two years later (and which he reportedly allowed Kennedy to review prior to publication to make sure he had “gotten his quotes right”), Sidey recounted that the costs of landing a man on the Moon then being discussed could have been as high as $40 billion. In fact, most of the early estimates were between twenty and forty billion dollars. The final cost of Apollo was actually around $23 billion, or well over $120 billion in today’s money. (It is also worth noting that this discussion sheds light on the popular anecdote about how James Webb took a ten-billion-dollar cost estimate and doubled it before testifying in front of Congress—if anything, Webb was being optimistic.)

“The cost,” Sidey quoted Kennedy as saying during the meeting, “That’s what gets me.” Wiesner told Kennedy that they were currently undertaking a review of the booster program. “When can you have it finished?” asked Kennedy. “Now is not the time to make mistakes,” cautioned Wiesner, who asked for three more months.

Then Kennedy said something that he should not have said with a reporter in the room. “When we know more, I can decide if it’s worth it or not. If somebody can just tell me how to catch up. Let’s find somebody—anybody. I don’t care if it’s the janitor over there, if he knows how.” Sidey then wrote: “Kennedy stopped again a moment and glanced from face to face. Then he said quietly, ‘There’s nothing more important.’”

Luckily for Kennedy, Sidey did not include the reference to the janitor in his Life magazine article. Instead, he held that gem for his book.

page 2: revising history >>

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