Why Apollo 11 Wouldn’t Have Happened Without Lyndon Johnson

“We will not abandon our dream. We will never evacuate the frontiers of space to any other nation.”

By Michael MarksJuly 19, 2019 10:14 am, , ,

On Oct. 4, 1957, Senate Majority Leader Lyndon B. Johnson, and his wife Lady Bird, were entertaining friends at their ranch in the Texas Hill Country. The Johnsons often took after-dinner walks – a habit they developed after he had a heart attack in 1955 – and so they did that evening.

“The sky was like velvet, and the stars hung close, like brilliant diamonds around us,”Lady Bird Johnson said in a later recording, reading from her diary.

This stroll felt different though. As they walked the road from the ranch house to the Pedernales River, the group was quiet, tense even. They’d learned that a 184-pound metal orb was circling the earth. It was called “Sputnik,” and the Russians had put it there – the first manmade satellite in human history. Even on the ranch, removed from the wider world, they could feel something had changed.

“Each of us was pondering what the future now held. We had lived with the sky all our lives. And suddenly, it was as though we had never seen it before,” Lady Bird said.

In 1957, a Soviet satellite wasn’t a cosmic curiosity; it was a real threat – a nuclear threat. The public imagination was gripped by the idea that the Russians could bomb the United States from space. A few days after Sputnik launched, Johnson got a memo from an aide named George Reedy, urging the Senate majority leader to push for more aggressive space exploration. He saw an opportunity for good public policy – and good politics. John Logsdon is professor emeritus at the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University.

“That was Reedy’s message, that this was something that’s a good thing to do. Plus, it will be attractive to the public and position you, as Reedy said, and make you president,” Logsdon says.

Johnson ran with Reedy’s idea. He came to believe that control of space meant control of the world. For the next decade, Johnson worked to make sure that Americans were those controllers.

“Would we be on the moon without Lyndon Johnson? I think the answer is no,” Logsdon says.

A few weeks after Sputnik, Johnson called a series of congressional hearings to evaluate the United States’ space program versus Russia’s. Here he describes some of the findings in an episode of “Face the Nation:

“I think the Soviet Empire has given more stress to this field than we have. We have not had the proper sense of urgency, and I don’t think we have the proper sense of urgency now,” Johnson said.

To remedy that, Johnson wrote, and championed, the Space Act in 1958. The bill did a few things: first and foremost, it established NASA, but it also kept government in control of spaceflight technology, and ensured that military and civilian space development were independent of each other. It was a landmark piece of legislation for which LBJ could claim much of the credit. But it wasn’t enough to put him on top of a presidential ticket in 1960. Instead, he became John F. Kennedy’s running mate.

“It’s Kennedy, Kennedy, Kennedy, Kennedy, Kennedy, Kennedy, Kennedy, for me,” went the catchy campaign advertisement.

The Kennedy-LBJ ticket squeaked past Richard Nixon to win the White House. But Kennedy’s primary interests were foreign policy and civil rights. Space was the kind of thing a vice president could deal with. Johnson wanted the responsibility though. He chaired the National Space Council, working in relative obscurity until April 1961 when the Soviets took another step forward.

On April 12, Russian cosmonaut, Yuri Gagarin, orbited the earth for 108 minutes.

“The space pilot whom the Russians have deified as the ‘Man of the Century,’ arrives at the airport outside of Moscow for his first public appearance, as the crowds go wild over the first man to conquer space,” said an announcer in a newsreel at the time.

Just as Sputnik spurred Johnson to get Americans into space, Gagarin did the same for Kennedy. Eight days after the flight, Kennedy fired off a memo to his vice president, tasking him with an honest update on America’s space status. He wanted to know if the United States could beat the Soviet Union in a space race. Could we land a rocket on the moon, or, put a man on the moon and bring him back? Johnson polled the country’s foremost scientists and engineers. A week later, he responded to Kennedy’s question:

“A very strong recommendation, which turned out to be to send people to the moon,” Logsdon says Johnson told Kennedy.

It was the answer Kennedy wanted. He needed a win. In addition to Gagarin’s flight lengthening the shadow of Soviet supremacy in space, his administration was also trying to recover after the Bay of Pigs debacle, when the CIA tried, and failed, to overthrow the Communist Cuban government. Within three weeks of Johnson’s response, Kennedy addressed Congress.

“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 the earth,” he said.

NASA Image and Video Library

Former President Lyndon Johnson watches the liftoff of Apollo 11 from the stands located at the Kennedy Space Center VIP viewing site.

It’s a pledge that Johnson could have discarded after Kennedy’s assassination. He had reason to back out: there was plenty of grumbling by the press and the public that space exploration was too expensive. Federal budgets in the mid-1960s were already sapped by the Vietnam War. And in 1967, the three crew members of Apollo 1 were killed in a fire during a pre-launch test. These could have all been good reasons to throw in the towel, but Johnson didn’t. Through the ‘60s, he protected the Apollo program’s budget with an eye toward overtaking the Russians. Here he is in 1965 talking to John McLellan, a Democratic senator from Arkansas:

“We got everything we asked for in the manned spaceflight, and we think we’ve got a fair chance to keep up with these people by ’70,” Johnson said. “This research, this research is the most important thing we can do.”

There were a few reasons he felt that way.

“The unfortunate strength of the impact of Kennedy’s assassination made Apollo politically untouchable in terms of backing off or canceling,” Logsdon says was one reason.

Another reason was that Johnson saw space as a social program. He envisioned it as an economic engine, particularly for the South. That’s a big reason why NASA has major facilities in places like Huntsville, Alabama, Merritt Island, Florida, Hancock County, Mississippi, and, of course, Houston.

Also, Johnson just wanted to win; he wanted to beat the Soviets. He wanted the United States to forge new frontier. Here he is in Houston in 1968, at the opening of the Manned Spaceflight Center – later known as the Johnson Space Center:

“We will not surrender our station. We will not abandon our dream. We will never evacuate the frontiers of space to any other nation. I repeat that pledge, and I repeat that purpose, to you and to the nation, here today,” Johnson said.

Johnson kept that promise through his presidency, but his administration ended on Jan. 20, 1969. When Apollo 11 launched on July 16, 1969, he’d spent the past six months on his ranch, trying to get used to retirement. He was at the launch, there at the personal invitation of President Nixon. But according to an interview he later gave to biographer Doris Kearns Goodwin, he was miserable.

The reason for his displeasure is unclear. Maybe it was the Florida heat; maybe it was being bereft of power after a lifetime of accumulating it; maybe it was knowing that Nixon would make the call congratulating the astronauts after he’d worked for over a decade to make sure they got to the moon before their Russian counterparts. Whatever it was, he didn’t betray any of that displeasure during a launch-day interview with Walter Cronkite. There, he seemed to understand that this was a capstone achievement, the fruition of so much time, effort and political capital.

“As they started to lift off, it just seemed like a half a million people who had worked on this program through the years, each of them were there lifting just their all, and trying to see that great power go into the skies,” Johnson said.