Today, 50 years after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, some are using the anniversary to make a call for a return of the robust space program so closely associated with him. “We should put the space program back at the center of American life. Let’s begin a national discussion to decide the next great mission for NASA,” wrote Brent Budowsky, a former congressional aide, in an op-ed in The Hill.
Budowsky’s essay follows familiar lines for those looking for guidance from the space program’s past: the leadership offered by Kennedy, the right stuff of those early astronauts (“Knights of the Round Table,” he calls them in an extension of the “Camelot” mythos), and the spinoffs created by space exploration, among other familiar tropes. He himself doesn’t know what that “next great mission” for NASA should be, other than presumably not NASA’s current plans to redirect an asteroid as a stepping stone to eventual human missions to Mars.
“I propose a national discussion seeking ideas for the next great mission of NASA from astronauts past and present, Nobel laureates, leaders in science and technology, educators, entrepreneurs, media commentators and, above all, young people,” he says, but is vague on how that “national discussion” would lead to anything like he admired about the early space program.
What he doesn’t mention, though, is that energy from the early Space Age was driven by a Cold War competition with existential stakes. And, even fifty years ago, there were doubts about the direction of the program: Kennedy was in discussions with the Soviets about potential cooperation versus competition weeks before his death, although as John Logsdon writes in his recent book about Kennedy’s space policy, a review he initiated, but not completed until after his assassination, advocated for continuing Apollo in some form.
“So it is quite possible, and even likely, that had Kennedy lived, what many view as one of his signature achievements, if not indeed the one — sending America to the moon — would not have happened,” argues Rand Simberg in an op-ed in USA Today. “Kennedy’s legacy in space is a NASA human-spaceflight program that has been rudderless for half a century, because its purpose was never articulated in terms that would justify the massive amounts of money expended on it.”
Kennedy’s influence on space policy, in that respect, continues to this day. But what could have happened to Apollo, and space policy in general, had Kennedy lived will remain a tragic what-if.