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N-1 rockets
During the race to the Moon, President Lyndon Johnson had access to American satellite photography nearly as good as this historical photograph, taken from a helicopter, showing two Soviet N-1 rockets on their pads in Kazakhstan. That intelligence information influenced Johnson’s views on the need to continue or slow down Apollo.

When Washington went to the Moon: An interview with Glen Wilson


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Glen Wilson was a Senate staffer and worked closely with Senator Lyndon Johnson in the 1950s, playing an important role in drafting the legislation that created NASA in 1958. He worked in the Senate throughout the 1960s, when NASA and the increasingly expensive race to the Moon was often a focus of the legislative branch. Wilson had a high opinion of Johnson as a master politician, and knew many of the key people in Washington during the Apollo program, witnessing how the Apollo program played out in the back halls of Congress.

“Kennedy sent his famous memo to Johnson and the very first question y’know: what can we do to beat the Russians? Didn’t say: what can we do to advance the scientific effort here; what can we find out if we send scientists to the Moon?

In 1999, in honor of the 30th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing, radio station WAMU in Washington, DC, aired a program about the role of Washington politics in the lunar landing. “Washington Goes to the Moon” was written and produced by Richard Paul and featured interviews with a number of key figures in the story, including Wilson. After the radio program aired Paul, the author of We Could Not Fail: The First African Americans in the Space Program, turned transcripts of the interviews over to NASA as historical documents. These transcripts include unaired portions of the interviews.

In his interview, Wilson provided his perspective on why Johnson may have been reluctant to cut the Apollo budget in 1966 and 1967. He discussed both the Cold War environment and intelligence information that Johnson had concerning the rival Soviet effort to send a cosmonaut to the Moon with its massive N-1 rocket. Under pressure from Congress to cut the federal budget, Johnson’s budget director, Charles Schultze, had included Apollo among suggested cuts to the federal budget. (See: “Astronauts, guns, and butter: Charles Schultze and paying for Apollo in a time of turmoil,” The Space Review, Monday, May 11, 2020.) Wilson also discussed why, after the Apollo 1 fire in January 1967, somebody leaked the existence of critical memos about Apollo contractor North American Aviation to Senator Walter Mondale. Those topics have been previously discussed by other key participants interviewed by Richard Paul for the radio program, but Wilson offered his own insights as to the motivations of key individuals during this time. (See “When Senator Walter Mondale went to the Moon: the Apollo 1 fire and the myths we create,” The Space Review, Monday, March 16, 2020; “Capsule on fire: An interview with Robert Seamans about the Apollo 1 accident,” The Space Review, Monday, March 23, 2020; “Rashomon’s fire: another perspective on Apollo 1 from NASA official Paul Dembling,” The Space Review, Monday, April 6, 2020; “And that’s the way it was on the way to the Moon: an interview with Walter Cronkite,” The Space Review, Monday, March 30, 2020.)

Richard Paul: When President Kennedy first proposed this idea, tell me what the reaction was in Congress.

Glen Wilson: Everybody was for it. Johnson had been the sort of guy to go out and test the waters, so to speak. And that’s when he met with some of the senators, and I know because I was at that meeting—and some of the House people as well—to be able to report back to the President: Look, if you say “Let’s go to the Moon,” if you make that your priority, you’re gonna get support in the Congress. Now, Kennedy was a pretty good politician whatever else you might have thought about him or think about him, and he would never have made that proposal on May the 21st of ’61 if he didn’t know that the slides were greased and it was gonna go! The only voices of dissent in those early days were from the conservative Republicans, ’cause they thought we were gonna spend too much money on something like that.

Paul: It was practically unanimous—the support for the space program, wasn’t it?

Wilson: It was extremely… it was, I won’t say unanimous, that’s a hard word to use. (laughs)

Paul: Remind us of the heightened sense of Cold War competition and Cold War anxiety at that time. It really is difficult to summon that up without being reminded.

“And the reason Webb was so good was, if his engineers told him they could do something, he would stand up to the death for them.”

Wilson: The very day that it passed the Congress, I think that’s April 12th, 1961, Kennedy sent his famous memo to Johnson and the very first question y’know: what can we do to beat the Russians? Didn’t say: what can we do to advance the scientific effort here; what can we find out if we send scientists to the Moon? He didn’t say any of that stuff. He said: what can we do to beat the Russians? As the struggle for men’s minds, you know of the world it was, in fact and I’m sure I’m not the only one that has identified it as this, the Apollo program was just another element of the Cold War. That’s what it was. Curiously enough, some of the people who became the strongest supporters of the space program were your conservative Republicans.

Paul: Because they wanted to beat the Russians?

Wilson: Yeah. Yeah. That’s right. Well, everybody wanted to beat the Russians, and everybody knew that that’s what we were trying to do. And what most people didn’t know is how serious a race it was. The Russians kept denying it, and it’s only really come out in the last couple of years that man, they were workin’ their tuchuses off tryin’ to beat us.

Paul: Talk about Sputnik.

Wilson: It took a little while for the impact of world opinion that particular achievement had created for them to realize they had a real good thing going here, as far as propaganda was concerned. And when it came to the point of flying men, well of course, they had the first man in space, they got the first woman in space—she didn’t do anything but go up and come down in a parachute, she didn’t know how to fly the damned thing—but they were heroes. And the Russians got wind that we were gonna do a space walk, so what’d they do? They quickly put one up and did it first. And so it went on like this through the whole period of the sixties.

Paul: Talk about how important it was for America overseas, among our allies, among the non-aligned countries, that America be first to the Moon.

Wilson: I mean it had an enormous impact. Everyplace in the world, not just United States or Canada or Europe. People in the remotest villages in Africa were cheering us on.

Paul: Tell me about Jim Webb. Why has be become such a legend?

Wilson: Jim Webb had the ideal job for a bureaucrat. He was given a program to do with almost unlimited money and congressional support to do it. But it was more than just that. He was—it was a real stroke of brilliance—that they brought in to head NASA not an engineer, but a management-type person. And the reason Webb was so good was, if his engineers told him they could do something, he would stand up to the death for them.

Paul: Talk about how he extracted what he wanted from Congress.

Wilson: Lobbying in many people’s minds is a bad word, particularly amongst the engineers. I had a lot of trouble with my engineering friends trying to tell ’em that lobbying is essential. But he knew what to do.

Paul: In the mid-60s the government had a lot of balls in the air. There was the war in Vietnam, the “Great Society” programs, and Apollo. What is your sense of how these three things were balanced? Were there discussions of weighing off one against another?

“The Russians were insisting to anybody who would listen that they were not in a race with the United States to do this. But they were! They were tryin’ like mad to beat us.”

Wilson: Lemme just remind you that the last year of the Johnson administration was the last year up until this one that we had a balanced budget. Look, any time you go up and try to fight for appropriations to get money for your particular cause, you’re gonna have to fight for it. It’s very rarely that it just comes dropping out of the sky. I don’t think that there was a whole lot of thought given to which of these would be better. I mean if you look at the Vietnam War as another element of the Cold War, and the Apollo program as an element of the Cold War, it’s like fightin’ two battles in the same war. And the question is: which one do you want to give your support to? I think that Lyndon Johnson was buoyed up by the space program. He just reveled in it. He had a lot to do with it. He was proud of it as well he should have been. I think that he was getting advice from people like Charlie Schultze, and I think there had to be some concern there that even though the country was going very well—we weren’t operating on big deficits that we did later on—and there had to be some pulling and tugging over priorities on money and the kind of money they were going to spend on various projects.

Paul: Now I want to talk about this Charles Schultze memo that I mentioned to you on the phone. To remind you of the situation: it was August of 1967. President Johnson needed a tax increase to fund the Vietnam War. Congress had told him: cut the budget by $2½ billion and you’ll get your tax increase. Schultze, in a memo tells Johnson: forget about the deadline of getting to the Moon by 1969, we probably won’t make it by then anyway. And when I talked with him [Schultze], he told me: it didn’t matter if we got there by 1975 or 1979.

Wilson: The Russians were insisting to anybody who would listen that they were not in a race with the United States to do this. But they were! They were tryin’ like mad to beat us. And I’m not sure that everybody in this country, although they knew we were racing and they wanted the United States to win, I’m not sure that most people in this country knew how really serious the Russians were. Now, if the President—and I’m assuming that President Johnson had better information on this than Charlie Schultze (laughs)—knew about some of the things that the Russians were doing then, he knew that it was a real race and that it was important to win that race.

Well of course there was the CORONA Project which has only recently—and by recently, within the last three or four years—been made public. They developed these satellites with cameras of better and better quality and better and more reliable ways of getting the information back down on the ground so they could use it. And what was happening was Johnson and his top people were able to see the Russians, what they were doing and what they weren’t doing. They began to get information in the mid-60s that the Russians were not building up this big cadre or group of missiles lined up at the United States. But they were building these massive space facilities. The Russians were building this enormous rocket! It was… it was half again as big as the Saturn V. And you can’t hide something like that. You know you don’t build it in an underground cave (laughs) ’cause it’s too big. And we knew what they were doing. At least Johnson knew what they were doing. I’m not sure that Schultze did. See? That’s the point.

Paul: Why was the deadline of 1969 important?

Wilson: As close as the first of July the first day or two of July, one of those Russian rockets blew up. Now, I don’t know what other information, what other intelligence information the President may have had. That was not the first one to blow up… but what the heck. We knew it was on the pad. And they did try to launch it… but that might have been the mission, see? In any case, the Russians kept trying and kept trying and kept trying and kept losing.

Paul: As I told you, a large portion of this show will deal with the aftermath of the [Apollo] 204 fire. my understanding is, immediately after the fire, Jim Webb did everything he possibly could to keep the whole investigation in-house.

“Mondale was amongst those who supported, he supported the Apollo program, understand he’s made that statement. But [later on] he did, in fact, lead the way to try to kill the shuttle program. And he felt that NASA had lied to him.”

Wilson: Well it’s just the way you did things in those days. You have a problem with your agency or your group of engineers… you wanna investigate it. Particularly with people who are familiar with what you’re doin’. It doesn’t make sense many times to bring quote “outside experts” who may be experts in their field, but don’t know what the heck it is that you’re doin’. Now, as far as I know, at the time nobody questioned the fact that NASA was the right people to investigate this thing. And as far as I know, they did a good job.

Paul: I want to talk to you about the “Phillips Report” hearing. and I understand what you told me about what you will say and what you won’t say about Senator Mondale. Why is it, do you think, that of all the members of the Senate, it was Mondale who had the document leaked to him?

[Some back and forth about the “tiger teams” who wrote up the memos in 1965 that became what has become known as the “Phillips Report” and why the memo’s existence was leaked to Senator Mondale.]

Wilson: If somebody involved in that procedure [drafting the memos in 1965] had, for some reason, had designs on getting somebody out of the way, I don’t know… And why they leaked it to Mondale I don’t know, except that Mondale was on our committee. And Mondale was amongst those who supported, he supported the Apollo program, understand he’s made that statement. But [later on] he did, in fact, lead the way to try to kill the shuttle program. And he felt that NASA had lied to him.

And I know that from my own sources that when Webb was asked that question in the hearings he didn’t know what Mondale was talking about! It wasn’t as though there was a report with (claps) “Phillips Report” stamped on it on top of it. That Webb did not know about.

Paul: Tell me about the atmosphere in the hearing room when he pulled this stunt.

Wilson: Anytime you have an accident like that, it’s just, it’s just a given that the responsible committees are (laughs) gonna have some investigations of it.

Paul: What’s your sense of Mondale’s feeling about the Apollo program, from a federal spending standpoint?

Wilson: I think that [opposition to Apollo] was led by a Britisher named [Frank] Whittle who’d invented the jet engine in the ’30s. He became he was a very highly respected scientist and engineer. And for some reason or another, he got cross-wise on the Apollo program. And he made a lot of wild statements about how we shouldn’t be doing all of this, and they’re spendin’ a lot of money and it became sort of the rallying cry of the liberals in the mid-60s who felt that we weren’t spending enough money on social programs.

Paul: Talk about Senator Fulbright—he was a segregationist who still craved liberal support.

Wilson: His stand was against integration of schools and all that sort of stuff which of course was what most of the liberals were for. And so in order to try to cover up his shortcoming in his support for integration, he took to this cause of trying: We should cut back on the space program. And he drew a bunch of liberals to him. Including Ted Kennedy and that whole crowd. All those liberals, including Kennedy and Mondale you can name ’em, voted against the shuttle. He wanted to kill its development. I always resented Mondale’s role in trying to kill the shuttle. He knew that [Senator Clinton] Anderson was not in a condition to defend it.

Paul: There are a lot of people at NASA, and other friends of the Apollo program, who have done a lot to tarnish Mondale’s reputation on this issue. Where do you think the enmity comes from?

Wilson: For one thing, if somebody’s been supportin’ you all along and all of a sudden he comes off and changes his spots so to speak, you’re not likely to take too kindly to that. Mondale was looking for an issue. There’s no question about it, he wanted something that could get him a little publicity and I shouldn’t try to examine the motivations of these people. They, I guess most of ’em at least, genuinely were anti-technology. They genuinely wanted to spend more of our money and our efforts on social problems and stuff like that than on technology. And there was a lot of anti-technology abroad in the country at that time.

 

“Washington Goes to the Moon“ was sponsored in part by the National Science Foundation, NASA, WAMU FM, WABE FM, and the Morehouse School of Medicine. You can listen to parts 1 and 2 for free here. The author wishes to acknowledge Richard Paul and former NASA JSC historian Glen Swanson for their help. This is the last of the radio program interviews to be published in The Space Review, but future articles may discuss this program.


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