President Kennedy's disclosure that from now on space projects will be chosen with an eye towards "putting us first in a new area" could indicate the long awaited end to the Government's acceptance of a second best role. However, unless this policy is implemented calmly and wisely by the new Space Council, headed by vice-President Johnson, it will mean the sacrifice of legitimate, if unspectacular, scientific goals for the sake of defense and propaganda.
It would be ironic indeed if the American space program were to be crippled by expensive stunts aimed at gaining prestige throughout the world. For it was exactly in this area that the Eisenhower Administration lacked perception.
But it was disquieting to learn that the United States may begin playing the space game on a "sour grapes" basis, deciding which events to enter and how hard to run by the opponent's strength and by how good the whole thing will look to the crowd. Whether the new emphasis on the public impact of the space program will be constructively integrated into the whole program, or whether valid scientific goals will be thrown to the propaganda winds, is the question that faces Kennedy. There are several pieces of evidence as to which course he will take.
The first is the double-take of the Kennedy Administration after the Soviet man-in-orbit feat. The first reaction actually began long before the actual event, when it was candidly admitted that the United States was second in boosters, would be second for a long time to come, and that the best that could be done was to keep plugging in hopes of catching up. But, like Sputnik, the achievement itself was more stunning than could have been imagined. Kennedy's statement, then, may very well presage a shift from resigned acceptance of a secondary position to withdrawal from those races that cannot be won and emphasis on those that can.
A second key to anticipating the space policy of the Kennedy Administration is the record of Johnson, and the experience under Eisenhower of the National Aeronautics and Space Council, which has been moribund since January, 1960. Johnson, former Chairman of the Senate Space Committee, is known around Capitol Hill as a "space cadet," a man who supports a bold civilian space program. It is doubtful that he will permit the undercutting of the scientific satellite and rocket programs, the life sciences program, or the aeronautical research, which is neither highly publicized nor directly related to military weapons systems.
A third powerful influence on space policy will be the President's Science Advisor, Jerome B. Wiesner, but just where that influence will be exerted is not at all clear. The report of the task force which he headed urged the strengthening of big booster projects, manned space flight, and commercial applications of space technology. But it also heavily emphasized the military aspects of the space program.
Thus there are several divergent influences at work within the Administration, which one will determine the governments' space policy is not yet clear. The selective strengthening of the space program will not lead to the demise of non-spectacular, non-military scientific research projects if the selection is done wisely. Efforts must be made to leapfrog the Soviets in big boosters, by working on "far-out" ideas. A clear choice must be made between the Rover, Nova and Saturn booster projects, and that choice must be pushed hard, with work done on more than a 40-hour-a-week basis. Adequate deterrent power is an necessity, of course, but unnecessary obeisance must not be made to the holy word Defense, even though the more mention of it is guaranteed to bring forth funds from Congress.
If Kennedy is searching for new areas in which to pioneer, he must not forget to take advantage of those areas that are already successful parts of the space program. Instead of playing sour grapes over the man-in-space, he could, for example, make great political capital from the development of a satellite system that would bring inexpensive space telecommunications to the underdeveloped nations.