The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

Johnson and Agnew
Lyndon Johnson, seen here with Spiro Agnew at the Apollo 11 launch, may have played a key role in early US space policy, but one much be careful about overstating his influence in starting or stopping the Space Race. (credit: NASA)

Big claims, little evidence

<< page 1: factual errors

Errors of interpretation

The article also contains numerous interpretive mistakes, where the author has misinterpreted or over-emphasized weak evidence. For instance:

“Lyndon Johnson changed everything” and fired up the space race.

Although Johnson’s public pronouncements and congressional hearings certainly increased the rhetoric, it is a mistake to claim that they changed everything. The controversy over Sputnik in the United States was not immediate (due partly to the fact that it happened on a weekend), but it built rapidly without Johnson’s influence. The launch of Sputnik 2 a month later, which was far bigger and carried a dog, caused a dramatic increase in the controversy. Johnson fanned the flames, but he did not start the fire.

Similarly, the article declares that there was considerable fear that the Soviet Union might claim ownership of the Moon. However, its only support for this is a reference to a few newspaper articles. One of the sources refers to Air Force Brigadier General Homer Boushey, who rather infamously claimed that the Moon offered a “base of unequaled advantage” and proposed putting missiles there. Most historians interpret Boushey’s claims as hyperbolic, amusing, and not at all realistic. It is odd that they are considered legitimate here.

Just because national prestige was not mentioned in this one document does not mean that it was not the primary driver of the space race.

The author quotes from the summary statement of Lyndon Johnson’s senatorial investigation. Some of this is quite illuminating: “From space, the masters of infinity would have the power to control the earth’s weather, to cause drought and flood, to change the tides and raise the level of the sea, to divert the gulf stream and change temperate climates to frigid.” That sentence alone should serve as a warning that this document should be taken with several pounds of salt—as it was at the time. Only supervillains control the weather from space.

But the article states that “After the space race ended, some people tried to pretend that the reason for the race had been only the question of ‘national prestige,’ However, nowhere in his lengthy and detailed subcommittee statement summarizing the risks of Soviet dominance in space did Johnson so much as mention the question of national prestige!”

Just because national prestige was not mentioned in this one document does not mean that it was not the primary driver of the space race. In fact, it can be found in many other documents from that era.

The second part of the article is primarily focused upon the Outer Space Treaty and its prohibition against property claims. The problem here is that the Outer Space Treaty actually had three main features, and property was only one of them. The treaty also bans the orbiting of weapons of mass destruction, and bans all weapons (whether massively destructive or not), from the Moon and other bodies. A nuclear bomb is illegal if placed in orbit. A handgun is illegal if placed on the surface of the Moon. By putting so much emphasis on one aspect of the treaty, the author distorts what really happened.

Methodological errors

The basic thesis is that “who was going to own space” drove the space race. Lyndon Johnson signed the Outer Space Treaty that made physical ownership of the Moon impossible, and therefore the space race ended.

But the methodology leading to this conclusion is flawed. If ownership of the Moon was at the heart of the space race, how could the race be started by Sputnik? How could it be inflamed by Yuri Gagarin? Neither one owned anything. Furthermore, the author cites no evidence beyond a few newspaper articles that indicate that either superpower wanted to claim the Moon. Where are the declassified State Department documents? Where are the presidential directives? Where are the memos discussing ownership of the Moon or even fear of Soviet ownership of the Moon?

Similarly, where are the Soviet statements about desiring the Moon? Where are the Soviet documents on this subject? My colleague Asif Siddiqi has written a highly-regarded book on the Soviet human space program called Challenge to Apollo. It makes no mention of land and resources being the driver behind the Soviet space program.

Furthermore, if the space race “ended” with the Outer Space Treaty, then why did the United States bother to land humans there two years later, or continue lunar landings five years after it was signed? If the desire was to save money, and the Outer Space Treaty provided that excuse, why not save money immediately, in 1967, rather than wait until 1972 before ending Apollo landings?

Furthermore, if the space race “ended” with the Outer Space Treaty, then why did the United States bother to land humans there two years later, or continue lunar landings five years after it was signed?

A major problem with the article is that much of it is based upon what the author calls “the smoking gun,” a 1966 document written by Assistant Secretary of State Henry Owen linking the treaty to a desire to reduce space expenditures. One should never base the majority of a theory on a single document, unless one can prove beyond all doubt that the document accurately reflects the issues and was highly influential. But even then, context is everything. What about all of the other documents—letters, memos, drafts, briefing papers—that were obviously written about the treaty? What do they say? Do they contradict or support this interpretation?

There are undoubtedly hundreds of documents on this subject in former presidential and State Department files. It is entirely possible, indeed probable, that some of them directly contradict this one. Why select this document as a “smoking gun” on a battlefield that is filled with smoking guns?

Furthermore, as previously noted, NASA’s budget reductions began in 1966. There was a reason for this and it did not have to do entirely with the Vietnam War. First of all, the Apollo program had significant capital costs, such as building the giant launch facilities and ramping up production of the Saturn 5 launch vehicles. The Vehicle Assembly Building, the launch pads, the command and control complexes and all of that infrastructure was being built and by 1965 most of the major costs had been paid. A launch pad costs far less to maintain each year than it does to build in the first place. And so NASA’s budget went down. It is true that Vietnam and the Great Society began to cost a lot and Lyndon Johnson’s budget director began looking for other programs to cut to pay for them. But this began to happen in 1965. What about all the memos from 1965 that had nothing to do with the space race and everything to do with budget negotiations?

This document supposedly laid “out the views of a key part of the Johnson administration, and quite possibly the President.” How do we know that? How do we know that the document represented anything other than Henry Owen’s views alone? And how do we know that anybody took him seriously? We don’t.

In order for this document to be a true “smoking gun,” one has to not simply publicize it, but also demonstrate that it did have the influence that one claims it did. For that we need evidence, such as statements by the people who were involved that they did what they did because of this memo. We would need other pieces of paper demonstrating the influence of this argument on the outcome of the decision process. None of that has been provided. The document stands alone, and is completely unconvincing given the significant amount of other data. The space race did not end in January 1967. Neither the Soviet Union nor the United States ever desired to “own” the Moon. The budgets of both superpower space programs were independent of the Outer Space Treaty.

No legacy

The conclusion of this article states an ideological opinion as fact. It states: “Just as in Antarctica, the prohibition on claiming land succeeded in stopping serious [lunar] development in its tracks.”

This is simply false. Even if there was no Outer Space Treaty, the biggest impediment to developing the Moon would still be the immense cost of getting there. No treaty changes the laws of physics, no matter how much we wish it so.