The 50 Year Legacy of Two Presidents and the NASA They Created

    February 22, 2008

    "You are hereby directed…to accelerate the super booster program for which your agency recently was given technical and management responsibility."

     

    President Dwight D. Eisenhower
    Letter to T. Keith Glennan, NASA Administrator
    January 14, 1960

    "I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to Earth."

     

    President John F. Kennedy
    Address to Congress
    May 25, 1961

     

    President Dwight D. Eisenhower's special message 50 years ago recommending the formation of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) arrived on Capital Hill April 2, 1958. By the time NASA began operations on October 1, 1958, the nation had a strong foundation in aerospace technologies pertinent to the tasks ahead, provided by the core of the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics, from which NASA arose.i On the initiative of the first Administrator, T. Keith Glennan, the Army's Jet Propulsion Laboratory was added to NASA near its beginnings. ii Glennan, strongly supported by Eisenhower, also brought in the Army Ballistic Missile Agency in Huntsville, Alabama. iii

    In spite of contradictory indications it is hard to believe, that Eisenhower had anything in mind other than human flights to the Moon in his push for "super booster" development.iv His personal message to Glennan, quoted above, constituted just one indication of his apparent intent. On Eisenhower's watch, NASA came into existence, public education in math and science was enhanced, studies of manned flights to the Moon progressed under George M. Low, and Wernher von Braun's manned lunar booster project, the Saturn V, was aggressively pursued.

    The most important managerial step taken early by President John F. Kennedy was the selection of James E. Webb as NASA Administrator. In addition to Deputy Administrator Hugh L. Dryden, Webb recruited Robert C. Seamans, Jr., as the third member of the top management team.v In Dryden, he had a respected scientist and science administrator. In Seamans, he recruited a top-notch engineering manager with strong contacts throughout the aerospace community. Webb, in turn, had the Washington political insights necessary to operate in that competitive, cutthroat, political environment.

    The focus Kennedy needed for action was provided on April 12th, 1961, when the Soviet Union placed Gagarin in orbit around the Earth. Kennedy already had discussed his options with Space Task Group head Robert R. Gilruth as early as March. Faced with the Gagarin flight and its obvious impact on Americans and the world, Kennedy held a Cabinet meeting on April 14th at which he reviewed the options the United States had to overcome the Soviet lead in space. At an April 21st press conference, Kennedy then stated, "If we can get to the Moon before the Russians, then we should."

    On May 5th, Alan Shepard's successful and very public sub-orbital flight changed the political momentum, permanently. The next day Webb met with Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara and Willis "Shap" Shapleyvi of the Bureau of the Budget to discuss what should be recommended.vii That night, Webb personally crafted their report into a formal presidential decision memorandum. The memorandum, signed also by McNamara, clearly affirmed NASA would be the lead agency for the effort to go to the Moon. Kennedy accepted Webb's decision memorandum. Then, on May 25th, he announced to the nation that Americans were going to the Moon "before this decade is out."viii

    The legacy of NASA's success in meeting Kennedy's challenge resonates throughout the modern history of the Cold War, of human society, and of science. America demonstrated to the world and to its own people that any technical challenge the Soviet Union could present could be met. Apollo further established a new evolutionary status for human beings in the solar system. Finally, from the samples collected and placed in context by the astronauts, there came a first order understanding of the origin and history of the Moon. Importantly for the economy of both future lunar settlers and those ultimately to be left behind on Earth, the samples show the presence of resources needed for independence and for export (energy).ix

    NASA and its men and women have supported the continued migration of our species into new habitats that began 150,000 years ago. Fifty years ago, using the inherent ingenuity of human beings and the "instruments and containers" they create, NASA began to bend our evolutionary path into a future in space.

    Congratulations and best wishes for the next exciting 50!

    Harrison H. Schmitt Chairman,
    NASA Advisory Council
    Apollo 17 Astronaut
    Former U.S. Senator (NM)
    October 1, 2007

     


    iBilstein, R. S., 1990, Orders of Magnitude: A history of the NACA and NASA, 1915-1990, NASA SP-4406, p. 1.

    iiGlennan, T. K., 1993, The Birth of NASA: The Diary of T. Keith Glennan, NASA, SP-4105, pp. 9.

    iiiGlennan, T. K., 1993, The Birth of NASA: The Diary of T. Keith Glennan, NASA, SP-4105, pp. 10-12 and 31-59; Dethloff, H. C., 1993, Suddenly, Tomorrow Came…A history of the Johnson Space Center, NASA SP-4307, p.27.

    ivGlennan, T. K., 1993, The Birth of NASA: The Diary of T. Keith Glennan, NASA, SP-4105, p. 226.

    vLambright, W. H. (1995) Powering Apollo – James E. Webb of NASA, Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, pp. 84-99; Seamans, R. C., Jr., 1996, Aiming at Targets, NASA SP-4106, p. 82.

    viGlennan, T. K., 1993, The Birth of NASA: The Diary of T. Keith Glennan, NASA, SP-4105, p. 356. Lambright, W. H. (1995) Powering Apollo – James E. Webb of NASA, Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, pp. 97-99; Seamans, R. C., Jr., 1996, Aiming at Targets, NASA SP-4106, pp. 88-91.

    viiLambright, W. H. (1995) Powering Apollo – James E. Webb of NASA, Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, p. 101; Logston, J. M., 1970, The decision to go to the Moon: Project Apollo and the national interest, MIT Press.

    viiiSchmitt, H.H. (2006) Return to the Moon, Springer-Praxis, New York.

    xiGamble, C. (2007) Origins and Revolutions: Human Identity in Earliest Prehistory, Cambridge University Press, 362p.