Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Masters Dissertation Chapter 2 - NASA and the reversal of trends

It's quite some time since I posted the introduction and Chapter 1 of my disso - and it's amazing how far my thinking around and understanding of the early years of the space race has matured in the last 15 months. But while I wait for an edited version of the disso to finally run in the pages of Spaceflight, here's the unabridged version of the second chapter. It seems appropriate now to turn to John F Kennedy as we recall his Inauguration 50 years ago. All the material on this entry and, indeed across this blog is copyright Mark Shanahan, 2011

Chapter 2: NASA and the reversal of trends

The period from October 1958 to May 1961 provided the hinge for US space aspirations and a 180 degree change in policy. While Eisenhower had provided strong foundations for the Space Programme as a response to intense media activity, he had done so reluctantly. Once he had seen off Nixon in the race for the White House, Kennedy inherited an agency and space programme that was achieving quiet success but was no longer buoyed aloft on media fervour. At first, he was antipathetic to space and even initially looked for co-operation rather than competition with the Soviets. But the Bay of Pigs fiasco swiftly followed by Gagarin’s space flight changed the attitude of a President looking for an expedient way to recover prestige and set his overall political agenda back on course.

This chapter assesses how the relationship between the President, the media and NASA changed in regard to America’s efforts to catch-up the Soviets and set the course that would ultimately win the space race. In so doing, it will focus on the foundation of NASA; the announcement of the Mercury 7; Life’s astronaut contract, the early space media corps, the Kennedy-Nixon presidential race, and most notably, Kennedy’s ‘Second State of the Union Address’.

The foundation of NASA as a civilian agency (albeit entirely dependent on the military machine) provided both stability and credibility for the US space programme. However, in moving away from the Committee-Director structure of the previous NACA to NASA’s direct responsibility to the President, the new agency became an arm of national and international political policy. While Eisenhower had little time to use the agency to advance his own agenda, and indeed asked Vice President Nixon to lead on space issues, Kennedy proved a much more active manipulator. In this, he was aided by his own Vice President, Johnson who had previously used space policy as a means to further his own national political aims. NASA’s launch in October 1958 was generally met positively by the media – especially as it came into being around four months sooner than predicted. However, its coverage was low-key. In fact it rated only a page 16 story in the Chicago Daily Tribune. .

Eisenhower favoured unmanned scientific rocketry over what he saw as a pointless race to put a man in space. He still would not use the ‘space race’ term or image. He was hugely heartened by the launch and perfect performance of the world’s first meteorological and navigational satellites in the last year of his presidency. But though these were real scientific achievements which changed weather forecasting and marine navigation forever, they were not the attention grabbers that would draw interest to the space programme.

As Eisenhower dealt with increasing tensions in Berlin, NASA was swiftly learning the value of good PR. Recognising the value of symbolic gesture, the agency chose to announce Project Mercury on the 55th anniversary of the first Wright Brothers flight, tapping into the American adventure-mythology that would shape its messaging in the early years. It would seem this was a tacit acknowledgement of the success of Khrushchev’s strategy of tying launches to significant historical events: the prime example being the launch of Sputnik 2 on the commemoration of the 40th anniversary of the October Revolution.

The Chicago Daily Tribune , reported that this marked a speed-up in efforts to get man into space, though Administrator T Keith Glennan expressed NASA’s pre-Kennedy caution by saying: “We shall be working very hard, but at the very earliest, success in this venture is several years away.”
Khrushchev appeared to the US public as much less cautious. His policy of propaganda was not particularly sophisticated, but between 1957 an 1960, it was particularly effective. Khrushchev hid the deficiencies of his missile force and space technology by camouflage and subterfuge . While his force was actually weak, by playing the space card and implying greater rocket strength than he actually possessed, Khrushchev hoped to force the US to weaken its own position. Rattling his atomic rockets in the wake of Sputnik’s launch is a tad ironic, since by 1957, Khrushchev’s decision to reduce spending on conventional arms and focus on a high tech missile deterrent had produced just four ICBMs.

NASA really first connected with the media in April 1959 when it introduced the world to the Mercury Seven – the original US astronauts. The Soviets selected and trained their cosmonauts in complete secrecy. NASA, on the other hand introduced its newly-coined ‘Astronauts’ in the full glare of publicity, long before the seven military test pilots had ever gone near a rocket. Playing on the theme of nationalism, encompassing prestige, national strength and a US lead in international co-operation, NASA considered its image carefully when selecting and publicising ‘the Original Astronauts’. All were presented as ‘all-American, exemplary citizens’, and their introduction to the press brought initially widespread curiosity, soon to be replaced by seemingly unwarranted adulation. But it is worth noting the low-key role NASA’s Public Affairs team played in presenting the Mercury Seven. In April 1959, NASA HQ in Washington issued 100 pages of media material. Two thirds of this was directly to do with the Mercury Astronauts. The press conference announcement was a buried within a three-page release of April 7th 1959 titled: “Seven to enter Mercury Training Program.” In support of the press conference, NASA released a detailed paper covering a blow-by-blow account of the Astronaut selection process; three-page career biographies on each of the Astronauts and a transcript of the Press Conference. A week later, the agency was forced to issue a ‘Press Memorandum’ stating: As soon as they arrive at Langley they will begin Project Mercury orbital flight training. Each will have an important role in engineering and scientific development of the space vehicle, sub-orbital build-up missions and finally manned satellite flight. The training will be conducted on an extremely tight schedule. For these reasons the Astronauts will not be available for special interviews or other public activities for the time being. NASA will report progress on Project Mercury as it occurs, and as the training and work program of the Astronauts permits, we will arrange for special public activities in the future. We know that we have your understanding and cooperation in this activity.”

Several points are worth noting: unlike their Soviet counterparts, the seven were to have active roles in the Mercury development. Second, there is a distinct increase in pace and urgency implied by the note. Finally, the implication is that NASA was surprised by the reaction to the Mercury Seven announcement, and had not yet developed a tactic to deal with the clamour for a piece of the new ‘heroes’. Once the Mercury Seven were announced, the media did indeed have its heroes to face off against the faceless Soviets, small-town, lantern jawed risk-taking frontiersmen, echoes abounded from Davy Crockett to Charles Lindbergh. The Chicago Daily Tribune reported on the Mercury Seven announcement as a page 14 story the day after the April 7th Washington press conference. But three days later, the Seven were on page one. Two were noted to be from ‘Chicagoland’

What is significant in assessing the US media’s response to the Mercury Seven is that there was really no such thing as a daily national news media in the US. Newspapers were local and fiercely parochial, looking for the local angle on any story, be it national or international. Hence the interest in the astronauts’ birth places, where they came from, went to college and had previously worked. There was interest too in their families, their religious beliefs and all the traits that brought a chink of individuality to a fairly homogenous group. From the first, the newspapers focused on the astronauts as heroes: James Reston of the New York Times famously stated that “The astronauts may make Columbus and Vasco de Gama look like shut-ins before they’re through.” This was a new frontier adventure; one was soon to find an echo with Kennedy’s far wider-reaching New Frontier presidential candidacy. As Wolfe wrote: “Within 24 hours of their Washington DC introduction, the astronauts were heroes.” Reston summed up the mood of the media: “What made them exciting was not that they said anything new, but that they said all the old things with such fierce convictions. They spoke of ‘duty’ and ‘faith’ and ‘country’ like Walt Whitman’s pioneers.” These solid citizens appeared to have ‘The Right Stuff’ and an implicit alliance of NASA’s public affairs team and the Washington press corps ensured that nothing would dent that image.

That ‘Right Stuff’ was captured and played back nationally and internationally (though syndicated features and international editions), by one of the key segments of the American media: the news magazines. Without national newspapers and with TV news restricted to generally around 15 minutes a day, news magazines led the public opinion agenda. Newsweek devoted a double page spread to the press conference in its April 20th 1959 issue, presenting an image of the Mercury Seven based on ‘family and faith’ where the seven aviators (and much was made of their test pilot backgrounds, thanks to NASA’s extensive briefing notes) were “fearless but not reckless”, attributes that would stand them in good stead in their endeavours beyond the earth’s atmosphere. Almost equally important was the trade press, with titles such as Collier’s, Popular Mechanics and New Scientist all strong in driving popular opinion. But if NASA’s new Mercury Seven were to shine, they needed the backing of Newsweek, The New Republic, Time and Life all of which had been disparaging of Eisenhower’s apparent hesitancy in embracing the space race they had done so much to create. If there was any opposition to the new manned space programme, it remains terribly well hidden, and even by 1962, Newsweek was reporting that many reporters “are under the temptation to function as rooters for ‘The Team’ – a role abhorrent to most newsmen.”
With the announcement of the Mercury Seven, there was a subtle change in emphasis on the way that space news and features were handled. Up to this point, space had been largely a political story handled by Washington reporters. It stayed a political mainstay during the Nixon/Kennedy election race. However, the growing amount of activity at NASA’s Langley and Cape Canaveral facilities, plus the endless round of astronaut visits to the spacecraft manufacturers up and down the country called for active media management from NASA, and the emergence of a new breed of space reporter who understood the scientific and engineering complexities, but could synthesise them for mass audiences.

Of course, NASA had to maintain a positive public perception if the American public was going to support the agency’s need for billions of Federal dollars to be spent on manned exploration of space. The agency had a good cohort of Governmental PR personnel to call on under the Eisenhower administration. Public relations as a government practice had grown exponentially in the 1950s, and in 1957, the US Civil Service Commission listed 679 personnel as ‘Information and Editorial Employees’ – somewhat more than the numbers of DC news reporters. Walter T Bonney, head of Public Affairs for the NACA took on the same role at NASA. The 1958 Space Act stated that NASA must “provide for the widest practicable and appropriate dissemination of information concerning its activities and accomplishments.” Within months, Bonney had one of the largest public affairs teams in government – over 100 people supporting an engineering and scientific team of some 8,000 NASA employees. It had a dual aim of providing up-front material for journalists to use on every aspect of the space programme, and also a remit to answer media questions “so that reporters won’t besiege the administrator and other management.” Once the Astronauts had been announced, the Public Affairs team also took on the role of barrier between reporters and their prey.

By January 1959, all media enquiries were referred to Bonney’s office and that all material for release, no matter what its source, had to be routed through his Office of Public Information at least a week prior to release. This was significantly ahead of its time in terms of news management and could have caused untold reporting problems had not the media been quite so prepared to take NASA’s pronouncements at face value. Yet given the vast amount of information that NASA provided on an almost daily basis to reporters (the pre-launch press release for Alan Shepard’s 15 minute sub-orbital flight ran to 22 pages for instance), it is hardly surprising that they were so unchallenging. This was an entirely new scientific and technological area: NASA had the best engineering brains and they were planning to deliver a completely new engineering challenge. They simply overwhelmed most journalists with the sheer quantity of available material. But the material was largely technical or procedural. Almost from the outset, NASA devoted its media machine to scientific and engineering issues as well as the logistics of appointments and launches. Personal information about the astronauts swiftly became the remit of Life magazine.

As coverage moved to Cape Canaveral in May 1959 NASA fought an uneasy battle with the Air Force on how to accommodate the needs of the media without compromising national security. The Air Force was all for a media blackout: almost impossible to impose as rockets flashed across the Florida sky. NASA, on the other hand, took the view that it had a duty to report all activities – success or failure. The philosophy of ‘do first, talk second’ became a mantra, with the aim of making known the facts of any launch, and Congressional information and any supplier contract award promptly and accurately. This was 180 degrees removed from the Soviet policy of ‘Do first....and only if it’s a success, spin the story.’

The new NASA facilities being planned for Cape Canaveral were on Merritt Island. However, the early satellite and Mercury’s manned launches took place from the Cape Canaveral Air Force station using an Air Force-run launch pad and blockhouse. After the early very public failures of the Vanguard launches, the Air Force was doubly wary of allowing reporters to cover tests on site, or indeed provide any pre-launch information. However, journalists are generally well-networked, and most knew when a rocket test was likely and even if not officially invited to witness the test, would do so from beyond the reach of the Air Force Cocoa Beach. By the time of the Mercury flights, the Air Force was forced to back down as the TV networks and reporters from all across the US successfully lobbied NASA for access to the launch sites. However, the constant stream of missile tests and even defence satellite launches were conducted, as far as possible, beyond the reach of the media.

At NASA Bonney decreed: “The distinction between publicity and public information must be kept constantly in mind. Publicity to manipulate or ‘sell’ facts or images of a product, activity, viewpoint or personality to create a favourable impression, has no place in the NASA programme. The essential aim of our information work is to furnish Congress and the media with facts – unvarnished facts – about the progress of NASA programmes.” This may have worked in the conservative Eisenhower era, and worked alongside a massive get-out clause in terms of the astronauts’ Life contract. But it had no place after 1960 when space was wrapped up into JFK’s overall ‘New Frontier’ plan. NASA’s administrators and senior managers were political appointments. Bonney moved on the day before JFK took office. Glennan was replaced by Jim Webb.

If NASA was still learning its way in news management, the media were learning their way in reporting space too. A new breed of reporter was emerging, trained largely in the post-Sputnik era. Reporters had mastered a vast amount of scientific and technological complexity, and were still deciding whether to educate the public or merely report events. Some, such as William Hines at the Washington Star and Reg Turnill at the BBC chose the former, but most took the latter route, preferring to hang out at Cocoa Beach in thrall to that new breed of celebrity: the astronaut. NBC’s Jay Barbree was a prime example. His memoir describes the free-flowing relationship between reporters and astronauts beyond the confines of the Cape Canaveral ranges. There was a strong code of respect from the reporters to the new celebrities: astronauts are never asked for information, they have to volunteer it; reporters don’t speak until spoken to; and the party lifestyle, including many women, much drinking and a lot of roaring around in sports cars never, ever, makes it into print or on the air. Thus the image of the seven All-American heroes was never tarnished. James Schefter reflects that this was simply the way journalism operated at the time. “There was an unwritten gentlemen’s agreement between reporters and the astronauts. If it didn’t get entered on a police blotter, it wasn’t a story” The impression is that the reporters were hungry for stories and that anything to do with space was a prime assignment. The ‘collegiate’ atmosphere at the Cape and Langley that drew together a community of astronauts, engineers, hotel owners, reporters, waiters, car salesmen and everyone involved in the enterprise was fragile and relied on a collective management. It would quickly come crashing down if a reporter shattered the great illusion. NASA had to put no rules in place to manage the manufactured presentation of the astronauts’ image. The media managed themselves.

That image was brought most fulsomely to life through the pages of Life, Henry R Luce’s large-format, picture-led magazine that carried his Cold War, anti-Soviet crusade into the homes of millions of Americans and others around the world each week. It became NASA’s mouthpiece in the popular media . Certainly the publication, which was an outlet for Luce’s unbridled patriotism enabled NASA to get around Bonney’s dictum that all public information should be ‘unvarnished’. In mid-1959, ironically at Bonney’s suggestion, NASA invited the press to bid for the exclusive rights to cover the Mercury seven astronauts’ personal stories. Bonney knew that his team of Washington civil servants and former engineers simply didn’t have the experience to meet the demands of the press on personal rather than programme issues. His team’s background with the NACA had been developed through promoting aircraft engineering advances since 1915 – and doing so in a quiet, low-key manner. Promoting the Mercury 7 was an entirely different proposition and needed very different skills.

In the event, the low-bidder Life won, and set about depicting the seven, and their families, as America’s perfect citizens. Prose and photographs combined to build a compelling narrative blending the inherent drama of the programme with the kitchen sink drama of the wives and children standing behind their men. The contract was good for NASA as it bound the astronauts as a group into one coherent, controlled storyline, enabling the agency to popularise the space programme without significant cost, while it helped boost sales of the magazine to beyond seven million copies each week. Indeed, research at the time suggests the reading figures for the publication were six or seven times that, making it the most influential media instrument in the pre-TV era. While other magazines complained of being rather frozen out by the exclusive contract, NASA could contain the personal narrative and ensure a positive image of the astronauts and of Mercury. NASA had a contractual clause approving all ‘personal stories’ and the ‘apple pie America’ text was backed by Life’s key differentiator high quality, feature photography.

Many of the best Life pictures of the Astronauts and their families, including those reproduced here, were taken by Ralph Morse, a Life staffer who developed a close relationship with the Mercury Seven and their wives. NASA had access to all Life images, and many were syndicated for other journalists, enabling the agency to keep control of the visual image of the Astronauts as well as what appeared in print . Throughout an 11-year relationship, Life‘s uncritical coverage of the space programme gave NASA an unprecedented platform for presenting a positive spin on manned spaceflight and, in time, its race to the moon. What is most notable about Life is that its readership was two thirds women. Thus the space race moved from the male perspective of Newsweek and Popular Mechanics into a much wider popular consciousness. There’s no indication that this was a deciding factor in awarding the contract to Life – low bidder status appears to have carried the day. However, being able to reach such a wide audience was a definite if unplanned benefit to NASA.

Under Luce, its fiercely patriotic proprietor, Life set a heroic tone of voice for its coverage of the astronauts, one that was to align significantly with Kennedy’s ‘New Frontier’ agenda through his election campaign and into his Presidency. In the Introduction to We Seven , a contemporaneous account of the Mercury Seven with the strong hand of Life holding the pen, John Dille refers to the astronauts as: “part engineer, part explorer, part scientist, part guinea pig – and part hero.” They are complimented on their “rare standards of courage and stamina, skill and alertness, vision and intelligence.” The men were described as “The raw material for the great adventure.” They were bound as a team, working together, helping each other, but each was filled with “driving ambition.” Unlike the Soviet cosmonauts, each was engaged in a “daring and honest gamble, representatives of a free and open society.” NASA provided the fact: the hyperbole came from Life and was picked up by the rest of the media. It happened to resonate with the campaign plan Robert Kennedy was putting together for his brother’s run for the Presidency.

As NASA’s activities were accelerating, so was the Presidential race between Kennedy and Nixon. Kennedy’s vigorous campaign and decision to compete in the primaries won a significant public groundswell and saw off the challenge of Stevenson before the Democrat Convention. Johnson had chosen not to compete in the primaries but felt his wide and deep Congressional network would be enough to earn him the nomination when the candidates convened in Los Angeles. The media was to play a key role in deciding the candidate. Johnson challenged Kennedy to a televised debate – and the erudite, vigorous and well-prepared Kennedy won handsomely. Johnson’s national support eroded leaving him only his power base in the south west. Nixon had used his Vice Presidency to establish a national power base and was never seriously challenged for the Republican nomination.

Kennedy accepted the Democratic nomination by criticising Nixon’s old ideas and “pledge to the status quo.” Noting that the world was changing and that “The old ways will not do”, Kennedy outlined his “New Frontier” platform, with echoes of the New Deal and the Fair Deal, but focused on the future. Reflecting that he was standing (in Los Angeles) on what was once the last frontier for the pioneers, he noted that America now stood on “a frontier of unknown opportunities and perils”, beyond which stood the “uncharted areas of science and space, unsolved problems of peace and war.” His clarion call was for Americans to be pioneers of the New Frontier through “new invention, innovation, imagination, decision.” A vigorous space policy appeared to fit seamlessly within that platform.

As the campaign moved towards the Presidential election space became a battle ground for the two in the media. Nixon initially held the space high ground. Seen as more pro-space and pro-missile than Eisenhower, the Vice President had already engaged Khrushchev head-on in the ‘kitchen debate’ in Moscow. But when it came to campaigning a year later, the Republican nominee came up against a staunch Cold Warrior in Kennedy. Their own early blows were played out not in the national TV debates, but in the pages of the trade magazine Missiles and Rockets. The journal asked the candidates to respond to a series of statements on space and defence, the first asking if they recognized that the US was in a space race with Russia? Kennedy, setting his stall for the next three years said: “We are in a strategic space race...and we have been losing. We cannot run second in this vital race. To insure peace and freedom, we must be first.” Immediately Kennedy set the rhetorical tone that aligned with the voice of the media over the previous two years.

One might have expected Nixon to stick to Eisenhower’s conservative pragmatism, but on issues such as the missile gap and space exploration, Nixon had more radical views than Eisenhower and had been constrained by the President’s more taciturn approach. Stressing his independence from his leader’s position he responded by agreeing the US was in a race, but pointed out it was in the lead in terms of “instrumentation, communications, electronics, reliability and guidance.” For Nixon the race was certainly on and he concluded by saying: “We will continue to maintain a clear-cut lead in the race for space.”

Missiles and space remained a warm issue throughout the campaign. But neither candidate drew any real difference between the weapons of war, the weapons of prestige or even scientific exploration. Kennedy continually stressed the ‘missile gap’ even after briefings from CIA Director Allen Dulles ensured he and Johnson knew the true extent of Soviet missile power. But Kennedy was shrewd: a record of his speech to an American Legion Convention in October 1960 showed him consistently referring to old reports and views to stress the missile gap: a Rockefeller report of 1958; Republican testimony that same year to Johnson’s Senate Preparedness Committee, and arch-hawk Lt. General James Gavin’s comment: “We are in mortal danger. The missile lag portends serious trouble.” All the views were genuine and Kennedy dutifully recorded them – knowing them to be out of date but supportive of his cause.

It may be argued that what won Kennedy victory was the media – notably the contrast in the candidate performances in the first televised debate, broadcast from Chicago on September 26th, 1960. Nixon, still recovering from an infected knee looked tired, underweight and ill in front of the 80 million viewers . Refusing television makeup, he also appeared sweaty with a heavy five o’clock shadow. His performance was less sure-footed that of his competitor. Kennedy won the debate. Though Nixon’s performance improved in the later three debates, they never won such a large television audience. First impressions last, and this event may just have swayed the election.

While pledging strength against the USSR in missile defence, stating that he would never “dare tempt them with weakness” in his inauguration speech, Kennedy sought co-operation in space: “Together let us explore the stars.” For a brief moment, the space race was off. But reaction to Gagarin’s flight ensured it would be rapidly resumed. On April 12th, reports appeared across the country such as the Chicago Daily Tribune’s ‘Reds orbit and land man’ . Details were sketchy. But it was clear that the US had lost another lap in the space race. Just how weak Kennedy’s position was in relation to space was clear a day later. The Chicago Daily Tribune’s Philip Dodd reported on Kennedy’s reaction at a White House press conference. “We are behind in the space race with Russia,” Kennedy stated. Dodd noted Kennedy’s comments that the news would get worse before it got better, and it would be some time before the US caught up. Tellingly, the report picked up on Kennedy’s telegram to Khrushchev in which the President said it was “his sincere desire that...our nations can work together to obtain the greatest benefit to all mankind.” That view hardened in the coming weeks.

Hindsight would have it that Kennedy stood before Congress on May 25th 1961 with the moon landing at the centre piece of a directive that swiftly galvanised 400,000 Americans in every state of the Union into a relentless drive to the moon where this time, the Soviets would finally be beaten. However, it is worth deconstructing the myth to look at the reality of Kennedy’s speech and the degree of direction it actually provided. Undoubtedly the speech was meant to revive the spirit of optimism of the early weeks of the Presidency and, in the run-up to the June summit with Khrushchev was planned to show Khrushchev that Kennedy was not the callow youth the older leader took him for. But the speech gained so much resonance across the world and across four decades of regular repetition not as a whole, but because one section, towards the end, was pounced upon by the media and endlessly replayed – especially after Kennedy’s death, and most especially once the pledge to put a man on the moon and return him safely to earth before this decade is out had been achieved.

The speech was a set-piece: it was unusual for the President to address Congress directly, but Kennedy valued the public platform and knew it was essential to recapture the high ground at a time when his new Presidency could lose all momentum and credibility due to the body blows inflicted on it by the Bay of Pigs failure and Gagarin’s success. On May 25th, the Washington Post remarked on the short notice given that the President would address Congress in person saying: “There was no public expectation that the President would speak on urgent national needs.” The article later stated: “Ever since the Cuban invasion fiasco, the bloom has been off the bright rose of the early days of the Administration. Now may be the time to recreate the spirit of the January 30th State of the Nation Speech.” The networks were primed to take the speech live and transcripts were made available for print journalists to have as soon as Kennedy stepped down from the podium. But the moon announcement actually comprised only the last fifth of the speech. Before reaching that most famous passage, Kennedy had talked about stimulating the economy at home, fostering global progress by fighting the advance of communism, extending the US Information Agency and tripling the budget for fallout shelters at home – essentially all the issues raised in the media and rejected by Eisenhower a little over two years previously.

The space passage came after calls for an Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, almost as an afterthought. That’s certainly how the Los Angeles Times reported it the following day, in an editorial that was distinctly critical of Kennedy’s address. Robert T Harman wrote: “We expected extraordinary proposals....but he outlines rather ordinary plans...leaked to favourite TV and newspaper reporters days and weeks ago, so there was little impact of surprise. (The speech) was something of a dud....slightly spiced with a 10-year space adventure which Mr. Kennedy didn’t seem too certain of himself.”

The speech did receive national front page coverage and the space pledge drew the headlines. But equal focus on the analysis was placed on the other elements of the speech. Don Shannon, writing the lead news article for the Los Angeles Times, for instance noted that Kennedy had “urged Congress to back a multi-billion programme to put an American on the moon and counter the Soviet Union on earth.” He reflected Congress was split on the ‘omnibus’ plan and “noticeably cool on all except his call for a US challenge in space.” It is perhaps unsurprising that the Los Angeles Times was critical of Kennedy’s speech. California had backed Nixon in the 1960 election (just), and the Times was noted for its conservative stance.

The Democrat-leaning Washington Post was slightly more positive – but only slightly. In its news lead, John G Norris reported: “He (Kennedy) committed the United States to an all-out race to overtake Russia in space and to be the first to put men on the moon...”It is time”, said the President, for a great new American enterprise; time for this nation to take a clearly-leading role in space achievement.” The news report chimed with the intent of the President, picking up on his request for a spending boost for space, arms and the jobless, but undercut this when stating that the proposals would be unsatisfactory to liberals since they favoured big business. Equally Norris noted, they would not satisfy conservatives since the spending boosts would not go far enough. Interestingly, in the ‘Freedom Doctrine’ editorial within the same issue, going to the moon does not even rate a mention.

That pledge is often reported today as a directive for NASA. But that was not within Kennedy’s power. Instead Kennedy was posing a question – would Congress agree to the proposal and would it authorise the funding? Congress could have said no, indeed with just 15 minutes of actual space flight behind them and a very uncertain path to the moon, logic appears to have been outmanoeuvred by the strength of Kennedy’s rhetoric. Two republican Representatives are quoted opposing Kennedy’s call for support: The Los Angeles Times reports Representative Steven Derounian from New York saying: “Not once did I hear him say a word pledging that we would not retreat one inch from the communist tyrants. This was a tired speech full of apologies.” Fellow member of the House, Representative Glenard P Lipscomb added: “This was a lot of words with not enough justification of needs.”

A counterview comes from James Baughman, biographer of American media giant Henry R Luce, the proprietor of Life, Time, and Fortune magazines. In an email exchange with this writer, Baughman recalled his research on Luce and the space programme, noting: “I’m struck, even now, by how few sceptics I could find, in the press and politics, regarding the space programme. I can think of only one senator, Norris Cotton of New Hampshire, who gently questioned JFK’s man on the moon proposal.”

With the hindsight of the President’s assassination and the subsequent success in landing a man on the moon in 1969, the rest of the speech has been forgotten. The final section has been raised to a mythical level at odds with its immediate reaction. It actually took a lot of legwork on Capitol Hill by Vice President Johnson, already the father of space legislation, to ensure that Congress supported Kennedy’s man on the moon funding request. This was achieved by promising a space-industry job boost, with the programme of works for Gemini and Apollo divided up among contractors in every State of the Union.

Kennedy was driven by political motives unrelated to any commitment to a moon landing. He had no great scientific or even romantic attachment to the race to the moon, but had done his homework prior to the May 25th speech. On April 20thth, just after the Bay of Pigs fiasco, Kennedy wrote to Johnson, the space expert in the Administration, asking for the answers to five questions: “Do we have a chance of beating the Soviets by putting a laboratory in space, or by a trip around the moon, or by a rocket to land on the moon, or by a rocket to go to the moon and back with a man? Is there any other space programme which promises dramatic results in which we could win?” Johnson assembled a committee of advisors including Frank Stanton, head of the broadcaster CBS, Donald Cook of American electric Power, George Brown from engineering company, Brown and Root, Air force Missile Chief Bernard Schriever, Senator Kerr, the newly-appointed chairman of the Senate Space Committee and NASA Administrator Jim Webb. In both a telephone conversation with Johnson and through a detailed five page memo, Von Braun provided a detailed argument to go to the moon. Johnson was convinced, and pulled the rest of the panel towards his view.

By April 23rd, Johnson had provided the answers and Kennedy had shifted his position from his immediate comments following Gagarin’s launch. At his press conference that day, he said: “If we can get to the moon before the Russians, then we should.” Johnson’s panel had convinced Kennedy that a lunar landing was viable for the Americans – but not for the Russians who were way behind on technology and would need an unfeasibly large rocket to lift their larger, heavier technology out of earth orbit and on the way to the moon. That panel was probably swayed more by Johnson’s strength of feeling than by a logical belief that a moon landing could be achieved within a decade. Even his phrasing: “Before this decade is out”, gave Kennedy a get-out card. Even if he fulfilled a complete two-term presidency, Kennedy would almost certainly be out of office before the moon landing. If it failed, it would not be on his watch – and potentially could be laid at the feet of Johnson, the Administration’s most persuasive space advocate. And that would likely be the case if the Soviets got there first as well.

Whereas the media had set the space agenda for Eisenhower, Kennedy had turned the tables. He was now attempting to set the agenda, using the New Frontier of space as a way to regain standing and challenge the Soviets to what Wolfe describes as ‘single combat’ on the Cold War battlefield. Domestically, the speech coalesced all thinking around space on one goal. The public, press and networks were now focused on one message that summed up the “invention, innovation imagination, decision” of Americans. The President’s claim that: “No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long range exploration of space, and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish” recalled the romance and adventure of Lewis and Clark.

Coupled with the relief and outpouring of positivity that Shepard’s successful Mercury flight had achieved, and the carefully-nuanced image of an All-American Astronaut elite ready to struggle against the unknown travails of space, the mixture was potent. Congress would never turn Kennedy down, and the perceived failure to get an American into space first could be turned into a positive: a catalyst for America’s next great adventure. However, not all the elements were truly aligned yet, and a Gallup poll completed as Kennedy spoke showed that the public remained sceptical of the President’s pledge being delivered. Asked whether participants viewed the US or Russia as being ahead in the Space Race, the response was evenly split. And on which would be first to send a man to the moon, 34% said the US, 33% said Russia and 33% didn’t know . There was clearly still much work to be done on public opinion.

Rep. Lipscomb’s comments on the speech: “This was a lot of words with not enough justification of needs” were prescient. Kennedy had put the building blocks in place to turn the media and public opinion on space from adversary through ally to involved partner. He had set a goal that defined the next lap of the space race. He had made space a core part of the Administration’s policy. He had control of the agency that would deliver space success. But still there were sceptics in the media and in Congress. The US had just 15 minutes of space experience and was clearly still some way behind the Soviets. The moon seemed an awfully long way away. What would make the difference was action. As the final chapter will show, that ‘action’ came in the form of the flight of Friendship 7.

Tuesday, 18 January 2011

the challenge of teaching: attitude and aptitude...on both sides

I'm beginning to reflect on my first term of undergraduate teaching: an experience I enjoyed more than I expected.

Last term I co-convened a module on US Foreign Policy to be delivered to second year politics and history undergrads. Over 90 signed up for the module, and though lecture attendee numbers dropped off dramatically in the last couple of weeks of term (when essay writing was really biting), for the most part, the sessions were well attended. the scary part was that all but a few of the students were born after the fall of the Berlin wall. For them, the Cold War was history.

Being dropped in to deliver 11 lectures and half a dozen seminar sessions was a terrific first teaching experience - and being older than the average newbie really helped me. One poor chap called me 'Dr. Shanahan' throughout the term - and wouldn't be disabused of the fact that I was still some way short of completing my PhD. Because I'm mid-40s and have a fair bit of conference presenting and training behind me, most of the rest simply assumed I was a regular lecturer.....little did they know that I was hitting the books pretty hard each week to shape my thoughts, keep a week ahead of them and deliver something that was even half-way convincing.
Some weeks went better than others. The Truman Doctrine, Marshall Plan, Communism at Home and Kennedy's Khrushchev summit all elicited interesting questions and comments and rather more interaction from the students than, say, the sessions on NSC 68 or Eisenhower's Presidency - you can tell which topics get covered at A Level! The sessions where I felt I was rather talking to myself for an hour were tougher - particularly one or two of the earlier ones which were followed by videos rather than a live seminar. I still find it weird to see students standing up and walking out before the session's over - not while I'm lecturing, but both during the screenings and worse still, while their colleagues were debating in the seminar sessions. I find that quite rude and it's an aspect of the modern student life that I'd reverse if I had the chance.

I'm none too impressed either by the students who habitually turn up 15 minutes late for the lecture. My habit is simply to stop (often in mid sentence) when they arrive and pick up from where I've left off only when they've finally sat down. Most got the message, but there were one or two rhino-skinned characters who really didn't seem to care. The lecture theatre had doors on the front on either side. So one week, after the latest flurry of latecomers had arrived with the usual 'Sorry we're late!' sentiments, I disappeared out one door, walked back in the other, paused, looked up at the students and went: "Sorry, I'm late." Sadly, my poor attempt at sarcasm went right over the heads of most - while some didn't even appear to notice.

In terms of lecturing, there were two other changes I noted from my days as an undergrad. The first was the large number of students who arrived with laptops and netbooks and proceeded to type up my every utterance and every word of every slide. I could never quite reconcile how they had time to listen to, or digest, anything as they seemed totally absorbed in note taking. At the other end of the sphere was a small group who seemed far more concerned to keep up a low level of conversational buzz throughout the whole session. It was the same people week in and week out and frankly, it was pretty tiresome. I don't think I'd ever have had that level of disrespect for my lecturers or, particularly. my fellow students. Thankfully, it was a very small group and most students were both attentive and encouraging.
Presiding over seminar sessions (which were structured debates) and then marking the follow-up essays was an eye-opener too. At the start of term, students rushed to sign up to debate sessions. But as the weeks rolled round and the need to work as a team to structure a good argument kicked in, so did the propensity for some students to try and wriggle out of the work. It was quite amazing how many serious accidents and misfortunes befell not the students, but generally their nearest and dearest, with the result that they couldn't complete their assignments. I have no doubt that some of the reasons were genuine, but I swiftly became quite cynical as people simply didn't turn up to their presentation sessions and then submitted weak essays, often late.

The debates were often quite good. Generally there's be one or two really good speakers per team....while the rest had a tendency to read from a script or address their slides rather than the audience (or both). Again, this generation of students appears to be weaker than my generation when it comes to public speaking - and structuring a debate. But there again, I went to an independent school and we were pushed into fairly regular public speaking from a pretty young age. This generation seems to have far greater swagger than mine. But when it comes to a pretty critical aspect of education, a lot less confidence.

It has been interesting to see just how spoon fed some (by no means all) students want to be. in the early weeks I was continually badgered for my slides and asked to provide my lecture notes. But this isn't like the American system (yet). There is no foreign policy 101: my notes tended to be scribbles for me and the slides tended to contain more pictures than words - copying them faithfully wasn't going to gain an A in the essay or exam. They simply reflected my view at a certain time and were intended to stimulate the students to think for themselves about the subject matter.
Some certainly grasped that. I marked some really strong essays demonstrating incredibly sharp minds among these budding historians. Many of the essays were a real pleasure to read and gave the feeling that people had gained something from the class. But I marked some stinkers too - poorly researched, full of factual errors, incredibly badly written and with no coherent argument. In some cases, I wondered how the writers had got so far through the educational system - and why on earth they were studying a subject they clearly had no aptitude for. I first went to university when it was rather more elitist, but I began to think over Christmas, when marking a pretty mediocre batch of essays, that perhaps the pendulum has swung too far.
The problem for middle-ranking universities like mine is that they need to keep student numbers up - more so than ever now as Government funding dries up. The result is that they're far more likely to take a chance on a less gifted student now, and will do all they can to keep the cohort solid once students have signed up and paid the fees. That seems even more apparent when it comes to foreign students - of course, a great source of revenue. My class was absolutely a rainbow nation - and generally all the better for that. But, in some cases, I had students whose grasp of English was so poor that I really didn't know if they were good, bad or indifferent as scholars since their written English simply did not enable them to express themselves properly. However, there are always surprises. Some of the very best essays I marked came from International students while I was just about to recommend one student should sign up for the free seminars on academic writing for students with English as a foreign language when I realised the student was, in fact, white, middle class, British and a product of our own education system.
The last surprise was how few students could be bothered to come and collect their essays. Even during my Masters, I'd be knocking on the lecturer's door as soon as I knew one of my essays was ready for collection. When I handed over to my co-convener last week, I also handed him probably half of the essays I'd marked.

I learned a lot - and there's much I can work on to make me a far better lecturer going forward. It has taken me some time to get used to the changing attitudes of students and the differing aptitudes that are bound to exist within a class of 90+ students. But I've come through this experience feeling very positive - and with a real appetite for more.