The Oversized Role of Southern Politicians on the Apollo Program

The Apollo Space program of the 1960s and 1970s is one of the largest governmental programs in American history, even dwarfing the Manhattan project in costs and manpower. Over $20 billion dollars were spent to design, build, test, and fly a rocket to the Moon and back, which, adjusted for inflation, comes in at over $100 billion dollars over the course of roughly a decade. Yet for all the costs and massive influence that this program had on the American economy, the effects of this program were largely concentrated in the Southern United States, especially with regard to NASA facilities and manpower needed to make the program a reality. The Johnson Space Center in Houston, the Stennis Space Center in Mississippi, the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville Alabama, the Kennedy Space Center in Florida and other facilities were all located in the Southern United States, and were responsible for carrying out the bulk of American spaceflight activities during this era, and even largely so up to this day. While geographical considerations and Great Depression/World War II build-up are partially responsible for this concentration, a great deal of influence was had by the powerful Southern Democrats in Congress at this time, who were able to steer the space program to fit their wants and needs.

At the inception of the space program in the late 1950s, Southern Democrats had an almost absolute control of Congress, with Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn and Senator Majority Leader Lyndon B. Johnson both hailing from Texas, and other important positions filled by other prominent Southern Democrats. These Democrats were able to use their power to influence the shape and scope of the space program that would eventually put a man on the moon. Johnson was instrumental in pushing for the creation of a national space agency, and his special investigations into the failure of America to reach space first was the push that was needed to organize and galvanize American space efforts. Some of his motivations were personal; Johnson was a front runner for the Democratic Presidential nomination at the time, and hoped that the issue of space exploration would be one that he could use to distinguish himself from the other Democrats and clobber the Republicans for their relative inaction on the issue. (President Eisenhower was never thrilled with the idea of a national space program.) Although Johnson was successful at creating a space program with his fingerprints all over it, the Democratic nomination went to Kennedy, as did the responsibility of guiding the future of the space program.

Another tangible sign of political influence is the placement of the Manned Space Center (currently known as the Johnson Space Center) in Houston. The MSC was the crown jewel of the Apollo program with regards to new jobs and money to be brought to a specific area, and the bidding to host it was fierce. The site required year-round warm weather, which led to bids from cities such as Tampa, Houston, San Francisco, San Diego and Jacksonville. But political machinations ensured that Houston would be the host site. Congressman Albert Thomas represented Houston, and was also the chair of the powerful House Appropriations Committee’s subcommittee on defense, which was also responsible for funding NASA at that time. In addition, he was also part of a powerful cabal of Houstonians called “The Suite 8F Club”, which included the chairman of Humble Oil (today known as Exxon) and the former governor of Texas. This group had previously worked out a scheme where they would donate a great deal of largely worthless land to Rice University. In return, Rice would bid for a large federal project to develop the land. The development of this land would make the surrounding land more valuable, which was owned by various members of the Club. Their first attempt to win a national research laboratory had failed, and Fermilab was built in Chicago instead. But this time, Thomas was able to lobby his sub committee to ensure that the Houston bid won, despite opposition from other members of his party.

Other signs of influence by politicians include efforts by Senator John C. Stennis of Mississippi to NASA in order to create a facility in his home state, and it was not uncommon for President Kennedy to ask the Senator for support in pushing through legislation for the space program. Senator Robert Kerr of Oklahoma was accused of supporting the North American Aviation bid to build the Apollo Command Module in return for an exclusive vending machine contract for one of his close friends, a contract worth possibly millions. There are undoubtedly dozens of other instances that I did not find in my research, and possibly even more that haven’t been seen by the public eye yet. But hopefully, this is an informative view on NASA politics, an often-overlooked aspect of the American Space Program.

Reprinted from the Times-Picayune/The States-Item, August 25, 1963; in Walter A. McDougall, The Heavens and the Earth: A Political History of the Space Age (New York: Basic Books, 1985), 375.
Reprinted from the Times-Picayune/The States-Item, August 25, 1963; in Walter A. McDougall, The Heavens and the Earth: A Political History of the Space Age (New York: Basic Books, 1985), 375.

Cover photo: Reprinted from the Times-Picayune/The States-Item, August 25, 1963; in Walter A. McDougall, The Heavens and the Earth: A Political History of the Space Age (New York: Basic Books, 1985), 375.

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