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For decades, space advocates have been trying to identify and recreate the factors that enabled the “Kennedy Moment” for Apollo. (credit: NASA)

The Apollo formula

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In a 2010 issue of SpaceNews, Dr. John Logsdon laid out a need for “ending the era of Apollo.” Project Apollo, with its monumental view by Americans and the world, is outdated, according to Logsdon. I agree with this sentiment. Apollo was enigmatic of an era some call the age of the Imperial Presidency.1 But the stakes aren’t as high today as they were in 1961. What led to Apollo was a context that hasn’t been seen, in the same form, since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Today’s backdrop is no longer the Cold War. Therefore, a Cold War mindset doesn’t always work for today’s space program. We must enter a new era, not mired in the perceptions of the past.

But before NASA heads out to Mars, an asteroid, or back to the Moon, it is necessary to understand how Apollo happened, and how Kennedy-style Moments have failed to reach the same heights as Apollo.

Roger Launius writes that “the meaning of Apollo is consumed by myth.”2 Apollo was a hallmark event, one of the most important in American history. It is no surprise then that “moonshot” is used to describe large government investments in research and technology, in order to meet a very distinct and specified goal. The idea that it was solely the push by President Kennedy for a lunar mission, the so-called Kennedy Moment, that made Apollo happen is part of this mythos. Acknowledging that future civilian space missions should not and cannot follow in the formula of Apollo is the only way to see the American civil space program survive beyond low Earth orbit.

But before NASA heads out to Mars, an asteroid, or back to the Moon, it is necessary to understand how Apollo happened, and how Kennedy-style Moments have failed to reach the same heights as Apollo. Almost every presidential administration since Ronald Reagan has had a “national space policy,” attempted Kennedy Moment, or both. These declarations of space policy priorities and objectives are influenced by the mythos surrounding Apollo. Presidents, looking to boost approval numbers, win technological challenges against adversaries, and/or ensure American prestige and security, look to space for the answers. Just as Kennedy did in 1961, presidents have stood in front of the American people, Congress, and the world to make declarations about their intent to further the expansion of humanity and exploration of the cosmos. But since Kennedy, the success of these Kennedy-style Moments has been a mixed bag.

Before positing an answer to whether a Kennedy-style Moment is possible for today’s space program, it’s important to understand exactly what led up to the original Kennedy Moment. One can argue that there was a formula that led to its creation and success. The circumstances, or variables, in this Apollo Formula aligned in 1961 to produce the near unanimous support that Apollo received from the Congress. Leading up to Apollo, Kennedy’s administration saw varied success in the way of its initiatives. Congress, although controlled by the Democrats, did not always agree with the policy priorities of the administration. However, when it came to human space exploration, support did not fall along party lines. Support for Project Apollo was nearly unanimous. According to McCurdy and Launius, votes for funding Project Apollo were formalities in the Senate, and received almost no opposition in the House.3 To achieve the level of support Apollo got in its formation, a few things had to align. These are the variables that make up the Apollo Formula. The context needs to be right in terms of geopolitics, values, and organization, and there must also be an aspect to the project that make it a historic legacy.


“The exploration of space will go ahead, whether we join in it or not...We need to be a part of it. We need to lead it.” These words, spoken by President Kennedy at Rice University on September 12, 1962, echo one of the most profound reasons Project Apollo was supported almost unanimously by the Congress and the US government. At the height of the Cold War, the United States was placing second in the world, technologically and politically. The Third World, the nations not aligned with the United States or the Soviet Union, was the prize goal of the superpowers. And with the first human to enter space and orbit the Earth being a Russian, the United States appeared to be falling behind. Even though the US was ahead militarily, the Soviets were able to perform amazing technological feats that made the US seem second-rate in the world. The United States needed, in 1961, a major initiative that would rocket itself ahead of the Soviets. And beyond that, this initiative needed to be a concerted effort on the part of the government.

National Values

One of the most important aspects of the success of Apollo and the American space program is in its values congruence. There is no one-size-fits-all set of values for the American populace, but there are some common themes. The zeitgeist of the time can tell a lot about how Americans perceive themselves, their country, and their ideal society. During the 1960s, astronauts, and by extension NASA, were perceived by the American people as embodying their deeply-held values. In Space and the American Imagination, McCurdy discusses how one of the greatest assets to the American space effort was in their astronaut xorps. “They seemed to embody the personal qualities in which Americans of that era wanted to believe: bravery, youth, honesty, love of God and country, and family devotion.”4 Although this may not have been true for any or all of the Mercury 7, the public perception led to the creation of a devoted following of the astronaut corps. A similar occurrence happened with the Apollo astronauts.

Organizational culture, structure, and the systems between the different parts of the structure all contributed to the overall functionality of the space program, and ultimately, the success of Apollo.

Across the entire astronaut corps, people could see common themes. Many of the astronauts were not scientists by trade; another indicator of the actual intent of Apollo. The astronauts that went up on Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo were test pilots and war veterans, adding to their public image as heroes. And as biographer T. A. Heppenheimer notes, “Nixon liked heroes.”5 The astronauts that stepped foot on the Moon, the public-facing side of the space effort, embodied everything good about America in its victory over the Soviets. But Apollo didn’t only succeed because the astronauts and the program aligned with the nation’s values. The success is rooted deeply in the organization and management of the program.


It goes without saying that with any space program, much of its success hinges on the technological abilities of the scientists and engineers involved. What is often overlooked, however, is the systems management that takes place. Space programs do not exist in a vacuum. Organizational culture, structure, and the systems between the different parts of the structure all contributed to the overall functionality of the space program, and ultimately, the success of Apollo. In his book The Secret of Apollo, author Stephen Johnson discusses how NASA adapted to the transfer of almost five percent of the annual federal budget into its account. Johnson’s book describes the rise of technical challenges to Wernher von Braun in the 1930s and ’40s as the catalyst for a revolution in managerial and organizational techniques. Von Braun, one of the architects of modern rocketry, also became the architect for NASA’s organizational success during Apollo. No challenge like Apollo had been faced before by humanity, and it required a new way of thinking about management of government programs.

In the beginning of the Cold War, the “four social groups”6 defined by profession in Johnson’s book melded their different managerial and organizational structures to create a culture of concurrency. While scientists and engineers performed research, the military tested and fielded the “wonder weapons.” This gave the late 1940s and 1950s a bit of a Felix Hoenikker-feel to the whole process of research and development. Moving into the late ’50s and ’60s, the technical challenges facing scientists, engineers, managers, and the military became increasingly complex. These challenges, backed by considerable political weight, required leaders like von Braun and Lt. General Samuel Phillips to focus heavily on the systems engineering and management aspects of their projects.

By incorporating cost-considerate measures, with the focus on concurrency and military-like dedication, von Braun, and Phillips especially designed a human spaceflight program that blew away the competition. Johnson concludes in his chapter on the organizing of the manned space program that the “secret of Apollo” was in the organizational reforms that “transferred air force methods to NASA, superimposed upon the technical excellence of STG and MSFC engineers.”7 Apollo became just as much a research project in creating an organizational wonder as it was an investment in putting a few guys on the Moon.

There is one final component that made the Apollo Formula work, and that is in its legacy.


The concerted effort that led to the success of Apollo can partly be attributed to the events of November 22, 1963. After the death of Kennedy, his legacy was almost inexplicably tied to the success of Apollo. If the project was canceled, Kennedy’s legacy would be tarnished. The Kennedy Moment would have been for naught if Johnson and Nixon did not see the project to completion. Apollo was never really at risk of being canceled post-Kennedy, but major setbacks, like the fire that killed the crew of Apollo 1 in 1967 and the Apollo 13 malfunction in 1970 that nearly ended in disaster, put the space agency on edge for the future of the program. These setbacks and accidents were played off to the public as part of the dangers of exploration.

The long-term failure of Apollo lies in its success. If NASA is to succeed as it did in 1969, it needs to adapt.

Public support of Apollo rarely faltered, and with the legacy of Kennedy at stake, Presidents Johnson and Nixon didn’t dare cancel the program before it achieved multiple Moon landings. Nixon inevitably ended Project Apollo because, although the legacy of Kennedy was a powerful political force, the legacy of expensive government programs that yield very little in terms of direct benefits to the American people was not a legacy Nixon wanted to instill, especially as social program spending was beginning to soar after implementation of Johnson’s Great Society.

In summation, the success of Apollo did not hinge on one moment. In fact, the Kennedy Moment was only the catalyst for a much bigger event. The lunar landings of 1969 to 1972 were the result of the Apollo Formula. But whether this Apollo Formula can be replicated is another question.

Presidents have attempted to mirror Kennedy’s leadership, with marginal success. The International Space Station began its life as Space Station Freedom, an idea proposed by President Reagan to a joint session of Congress in 1984. However, there was no agreement on what the goal of a space station was for. The military wanted a battle station, the intelligence community wanted an orbiting photo booth, the science community wanted an observatory, capitalists wanted a factory, and the president wanted his legacy sealed in the ether. The result was none of the above. Unlike Apollo, concurrency was not in the cards for the space station. Likewise, President George H. W. Bush’s Space Exploration Initiative was met with applause, but little else. The Apollo Formula went unmet throughout these successive administrations. And even today, the public perception of the Apollo Formula at work was one of strong presidents leading by decree, with no mind paid to the aspects that made Apollo happen.

On May 25, 1961, President John F. Kennedy announced to the Congress, the nation, and the world the intent of the United States of America to put a man on the Moon and bring him back safely, and to do it within the decade. Fast-forward to a little more than eight years later, as Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin set foot on the lunar surface. Less than a week later, they’re back on Earth. This feat of technological strength expanded the horizon of human capability, and put America first in the world. Or so the mythos says.

The famed Kennedy Moment has been seen as the pinnacle of presidential power since the 1960s. But this isn’t the full picture. The truth is this: Kennedy couldn’t care less about space exploration for the sake of space exploration. There were ulterior motives.8 If an Antarctic voyage had met the same national needs and fit the values profile that Apollo did, Armstrong would have been photographed in snow gear instead of his EVA suit. Apollo only happened because it fit the formula. And in that, Apollo was a failure for space exploration. The project was more a national security and prestige initiative than it was an exploratory one.

The long-term failure of Apollo lies in its success. The moonshot seemed, at the time, like the start of something bigger. But since the last boots stepped off the lunar surface, the world’s space programs have not yet topped this technological miracle. If NASA is to succeed as it did in 1969, it needs to adapt. There are two ways to think of the Apollo Formula. First, that the Apollo Formula is simple and self-contained; if a Kennedy Moment happens, NASA can go to the Moon. Second, and more plausibly, the Apollo Formula is complex and contextual. Apollo could not have happened ten years prior, and not just because the technology wasn’t available. Apollo happened because it met the needs and values of 1961. Another time, in another place, Apollo could not have happened in the same way it did.

A speech to Congress or a national space policy are great, in that they define priorities and set up a focus for NASA. But space policy does not exist in a vacuum. The success of the space program is both a technical and a cultural question. Any future success for NASA must be reflective of the times. The Apollo Formula highlights how so much of Apollo was defined by the culture and values of the time that, to follow it verbatim, will lead—and has led—to the failure of space policies. If anything can be learned from Apollo, it’s this: the time, place, politics, culture, organization, and values must all be ripe for a successful space program.


  1. Launius, Roger, and Howard McCurdy. “Introduction: The Imperial Presidency in the History of Space Exploration.” Spaceflight and the Myth of Presidential Leadership. 1st ed. Champaign: U of Illinois, 1997. Page 7.
  2. Launius, Roger. “Perceptions of Apollo: Myth, Nostalgia, Memory or All of the Above?” Space Policy 21.2 (2005). Pages 129-39.
  3. Launius and McCurdy, page 4.
  4. McCurdy, Howard E. Space and the American Imagination. 2nd ed. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution, 2011. Page 102.
  5. Heppenheimer, T. A. The Space Shuttle Decision: NASA’s Search for a Reusable Space Vehicle. NASA History Office. Washington, DC: n.p., 2004. Page 393.
  6. Johnson, Stephen B. The Secret of Apollo: Systems Management in American and European Space Programs. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2002. Page 14.
  7. Johnson, page 153.
  8. McNamara, Robert and James Webb. Recommendations for Our National Space Program. Department of Defense. (1961).