Did Kennedy Privately Denigrate the Moon Shot?

Eli is a contributing correspondent for Science magazine.

The Atlantic reviews transcripts of newly released tapes of President Kennedy in the White House:

The space program is one of President John F. Kennedy's great legacies but he privately fretted that putting a man on the moon was not much more than a "stunt," according to a secretly-recorded Oval Office conversation finally going public Wednesday.

"But this looks like a hell of a lot of dough to go to the moon when you can go -- you can learn most of that you want scientifically through instruments and putting a man on the moon really is a stunt and it isn't worth that many billions," Kennedy told James Webb, the head of NASA, on Sept. 18, 1963, just over two months before the president was assassinated in Dallas.

"But it seems to me what we've got to try and do is for the reasons you suggested: we've got to wrap around in this country a military use for what we're doing and spending in space. If we don't, it does look like a stunt and too much money," Kennedy declares.

"If we can show that that's true but there's also a very significant military use. Now how are we going to do that?"

Near the end Kennedy concedes, "I think this can be an asset, this program. I think in time, it's like a lot of things; this is mid-journey and therefore everybody says, 'What the hell are we making this trip for?' But at the end of the thing they may be glad we made it." Through the chat, Webb makes the case for staying the course and assured, "You're going to have both science and technology appreciating your leadership in this field. Without a doubt in my mind. And the young, of course, see this much better than in my generation."

Posted in Space