[Kennedy] asked James Webb and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara to prepare a response to the [Reader’s Digest] article [“We’re Running the Wrong Race with Russia”]; a week later, he asked Vice President Johnson to lead a quick review of the space situation, asking, “How much of our present peaceful space program can be militarily useful? How much of our capability for our moon program is also necessary for military control of space?”
So there you have it: Kennedy was a space controller, a high frontier type of guy.
As he considered his options with regard to Project Apollo, Kennedy was also mulling over returning to a theme he had first raised in his Inaugural Address, where he had said to the Soviet Union, “let us explore the stars together.” As he met with Soviet ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin on August 26, Kennedy reflected on the high costs of the lunar landing project, saying that “If outer space was not to be used for military purposes, then it became largely a question of scientific prestige, and even this was not very important.”
So there you have it: Kennedy was a space internationalist.
What is perhaps the most surprising thing to come out of the tape release is Kennedy’s statements that “unless the Russians do something spectacular, the only way we can defend ourselves is if we put a national security rather than a prestige label” on Apollo and that “we’ve got to wrap around… a military use for what we’re doing and spending in space.”
So there you have it, Kennedy was a realist, rightly concerned about space objectives. Even more:
While still wanting to go on with Apollo, Kennedy during the meeting mused that “this looks like a hell of a lot of dough to go to the Moon… putting a man on the Moon really is a stunt and it isn’t worth that many billions. Therefore the heat is going to go on unless we say that this has some military justification and not just prestige.”
With John F. Kennedy’s tragic death, Apollo became a memorial to a fallen president, and no longer a topic for intense political criticism. Whether, if Kennedy had lived to campaign for a second term as president, his support of the lunar landing program would have been a political vulnerability is a question that cannot be answered.
The real lesson here seems to be that the Kennedy space ‘vision,’ much like that of Camelot has been romanticized beyond recognition. The reality to keep in mind is that space must be able to compete with other priorities and add value (in excess to its costs) to U.S. national interests.