Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon: How their presidencies shaped the mission to the moon

In May 1961, President Kennedy addresses Congress and announces his goal of sending an American to the moon before the end of the decade.
(Associated Press)

The three presidents of the lunar decade played substantial roles — and were intimately affected — by the effort to reach the moon.

John F. Kennedy set the goal of sending Americans to the moon. Lyndon B. Johnson, who as a senator had pressed a reluctant Dwight D. Eisenhower to treat space travel as a national security issue, supported the Kennedy initiative and was so great an advocate that the Houston space complex now is known as the Johnson Space Center. And Richard Nixon was in the White House during the Apollo 11 mission and spoke to the astronauts while they were on the moon.

But all three chief executives understood that the great lunar adventure included great risks.

What if the small lunar lander crashed on the moon’s surface? What if its launch mechanism failed and it could not lift off from the moon? What if the astronauts missed their rendezvous point?

Astronauts Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins and Buzz Aldrin before the launch of Apollo 11.
(Associated Press)

The terrible ifs accumulated — the phrase is from Winston Churchill and his account of the fateful summer before World War I — and that accumulation prompted a Nixon speechwriter to draft a speech for the president to read in the event of a disaster 238,900 miles from Earth:

“Fate has ordained that the men who went to the moon to explore in peace will stay on the moon to Rest In Peace,” wrote the speechwriter, William Safire, later to win fame (and a Pulitzer Prize) as a New York Times columnist. Then, in a haunting echo from Rupert Brooke’s “The Soldier” poem from World War I, he added this line for Nixon to read: “For every human being who looks up at the moon in the nights to come will know that there is some corner of another world that is forever mankind.”

Nixon never needed to read that passage.

The 37th president watched the moon landing on July 20, 1969, on three television sets in the White House, a scene that one of his advisors witnessed and never forgot: John Kennedy’s greatest rival celebrating the completion of Kennedy’s greatest goal: “Nixon watched the live transmission intently,” recalled John Roy Price, a domestic aide who was in the Oval Office as the Apollo drama unfolded. “The astronauts took a few steps and then stuck into the moon’s surface a simple metal, Erector Set-like American flag, then pulled a small lanyard and the flag extended to full view. At this, Nixon saluted, then clapped alone and loudly four or five times.”

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Some 1,500 miles away sat Johnson, retired president, in many ways as important a midwife to Apollo 11 as Kennedy because of his stewardship of space appropriations through Congress.

William H. Pickering, left, director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, with President Johnson in 1964.

One of his aides during Johnson’s years as Senate majority leader, George Reedy, told the Texas Democrat that the Soviet achievement with its Sputnik satellite signaled an important moment. “The Russians have left the earth,” Reedy wrote Johnson in a memo, “and the race for control of the universe has started.” Johnson threw himself into the space effort, much to the disapproval of Eisenhower.

“Lyndon Johnson can keep his head in the stars if he wants,” Eisenhower said. “I’m going to keep my feet on the ground.”

In the end, Eisenhower’s successors accelerated America’s commitment to space, though Johnson — who said he did not believe “that this generation of Americans is willing to resign itself to going to bed each night by the light of a communist moon” — was out of office when the great goal was achieved.

“He had done so much to move along the space program, so when the astronauts landed on the moon and Nixon was president, everyone was talking about Kennedy’s [role] and no one said a word about Johnson,” said the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, then a post-presidential aide who was at a picnic with Johnson when the lunar landing occurred. “He felt left out, feeling that no one remembered him and all that he did to build up the American space effort after Sputnik.”