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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Kennedy: We Must Beat Russia

BOSTON — When U.S. President John F. Kennedy met with U.S. space officials in 1962, he bluntly told them scientific advances came second to the political benefits of landing on the moon ahead of the Russians, according to an audiotape released Wednesday by the late president's library.

"This is important for political reasons, international political reasons and this is, whether we like it or not, in a sense a race," Kennedy told James Webb, then head of NASA, during a 73-minute meeting on Nov. 21, 1962.

"Second to the moon is nice, but it's like being second any time. If we're second by six months, and didn't give it the kind of priority, then of course that would be very serious," the president said.

The meeting came about a month after Kennedy had squared off against Nikita Khrushchev over Soviet missiles based in Cuba.

"There was still that feeling that there could be a U.S. invasion of Cuba," said Maura Porter, an archivist at the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston.

In a special address to Congress in 1961, Kennedy said the nation should commit to landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth before "this decade is out."

Being first was the top priority, he declared.

"Otherwise we shouldn't be spending this kind of money because I'm not that interested in space," Kennedy said. "I think it's good, I think we ought to know about it.

"But we're talking about fantastic expenditures," Kennedy said. "We've wrecked our budget, and all these other domestic programs, and the only justification for it, in my opinion, is to do it in the time element I'm asking."

During the discussion, Webb stressed the difficulty of meeting Kennedy's timetable.

"The kind of crash program that would be required to try to push this thing forward six months and do it in early '67 instead of late '67, I think, would make us vulnerable to a good many pressures," Webb told Kennedy.

Scientific challenges aside, NASA had to deal with the escalating costs of contractors, Webb warned.

"We've got to make industry conscious of costs," Webb said. We have been alarmed at these large increases. We have fought tooth and toenail with these people. … We got a real job to do to make this thing come out without a scandal."

Webb also told the president he was worried about the political costs if the moon mission failed.

"There are real unknowns as to whether man can live under the [harsh] conditions if you ever make the lunar landing," Webb said. "If you say you fail on your No. 1 priority, this is something to think about."

At one point Webb asked why the program could not be tied to being preeminent in space.

"Because by God we've been telling everybody we're pre-eminent in space for five years but nobody believes it," Kennedy snapped.

Kennedy talked about how $125 million was being spent on an instrument he couldn't even name. Webb and the other NASA officials told him it was a linear accelerator.

"Everyone says we're No. 1 [with that]," Kennedy said. "That's wonderful but no one knows anything about it."

Kennedy was assassinated in November 1963. Apollo 11 landed on the moon in July 1969.