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JFK Exchange with NASA on Priority of Moon Landing

An excerpt of a tape recording of a 73-minute White House meeting that took place on November 21, 1962 during which President Kennedy made clear his administration’s priority that the United States land on the moon before the Soviet Union.

The tape is particularly noteworthy for the window it provides into presidential decision making. Faced with the option of directing federal funds more generally across the entire space program, President Kennedy argued with James Webb, the head of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), for a more focused approach toward the lunar landing. Having such a goal, the President argued, would carry the country’s entire space effort forward and have the same outcome NASA was seeking. Unlike many of the presidential recordings from the Kennedy Library archives, the quality and clarity of the tape recording are also exceptional.

The entire tape is of a meeting that took place in the Cabinet Room on November 21, 1962. The identified participants are: President John F. Kennedy; James E. Webb, Administrator, NASA; Jerome Wiesner, Special Assistant to the President; Edward Welch, Executive Secretary, NASA; David E. Bell, Director, Bureau of the Budget; Vice President Lyndon Johnson; Hugh Dryden, Deputy Administrator, NASA; Dr. Brainard Holmes, Director of Manned Space Flight, NASA; Robert Seamans, Deputy Administrator, NASA; Elmer Staats, Deputy Director, Bureau of the Budget; Willis H. Shapley, Deputy Division Chief, Military Division, Bureau of the Budget. The tape is declassified in full and there are no excisions.

At the meeting, the President and his staff were discussing a supplemental budget for NASA and the effect the increased money would have on expediting the scheduled orbital flights and the Apollo Space Program. There is a disagreement among the staff over whether or not the increased budget will change the target dates for the Apollo Program, including the lunar landing scheduled for 1967.

James Webb, Administrator of NASA, and Robert Seamans, Deputy Administrator for NASA, explain to the President that they do not believe that the timetable for Apollo can be expedited. NASA’s Apollo Space Program sought to develop man’s capability to work in the lunar environment, to carry out a program of scientific exploration of the moon, and to establish the technology to meet other national interests in space.                                  

In the course of the discussion, an animated exchange between the President and Webb took place over the priority of the lunar landing program. Webb, in a spirited and fearless exchange with President Kennedy, argued that the lunar program was “one” of the top priority programs of NASA.  The President wanted it made clear that it was “the” priority program — not only for NASA but for the entire government — with the desired result being that the United States would beat the Russians to the moon.

Other subjects covered in this meeting were the rising costs of governmental contracts, the target dates for the lunar landing, the political importance of John Glenn’s orbital flight on February 20, 1962, and the game plan for approaching congressional leaders regarding increased NASA support. Researchers should be aware that after the meeting ends and the President departs, staff discussions continue for a portion of the tape.