The Kennedy Space-Myth

Posted: May 23, 2011 in Songs of Space and Nuclear War
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How do myths get started?  As an effort to burnish legacies.

Which is exactly what happened with President John Kennedy and the U.S. manned space flight program.

Check out this awesome post, a review of the John M. Logsdon book “John F. Kennedy and the Race to the Moon” from which you can only conclude that the U.S. manned space flight program was all about looking good in the shower.

Where did the U.S. lead the Soviets back in Kennedy’s day?  Military space applications?  Check.  Commercial and civil space applications?  Check.  Scientific space applications?  Check.  Prestige space programs?  Well, we Americans could do a small bit of some work there (largely as a form of political theater). 

Ready for some unburnishing (deburnishing?)?

During his Senate years, Kennedy showed no interest in space exploration. Like many Americans in the late 1950s, he mistakenly viewed Soviet achievements with the Sputnik launches aboard their R-7 intercontinental ballistic missiles as evidence of a "missile gap" that threatened U.S. security. (Apparently Kennedy himself originated the phrase, in a Senate speech on August 14, 1958.) During his 1960 presidential campaign, Kennedy received a CIA briefing which showed him no missile gap existed — but he didn’t correct the public misperception he himself helped create.

I’m shocked, shocked that political rhetoric could be disconnected from reality.

Kennedy’s legacy as a space visionary has been diffused by the prism of history. This myth was substantially debunked by a tape recording of a November 21, 1962 meeting between Kennedy and NASA Administrator James Webb, along with budget and other government officials. Webb pressed for more money to accelerate Apollo as well as conduct more science missions. Kennedy replied, "I’m not that interested in space," and reiterated that his sole interest was in showing the world that U.S. technology was superior to the Soviet Union.

So what’s the way ahead for space in the here and now?  Robotic (see UAVs) space, same as it’s ever been.

Manned space is and will remain a prestige issue.  The biggest benefit of new space/space tourism may well be to write down the costs of doing other things in, to, through, and from space that are truly useful.

When space becomes more concerned about making life better for people here on earth (delivering energy, materials, new services, additional security, etc.) it will have fulfilled its essential mission.



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