363. Memorandum From the Secretary of State’s Special Assistant for Atomic Energy and Outer Space (Farley) to the Under Secretary of State (Bowles)1


  • The Mercury Program and NASA’s Conduct of Public Relations

At the staff meeting yesterday morning several questions were voiced about the desirability of proceeding with the current Mercury shot in view of its having been over-publicized and the chances that it may be unsuccessful.

Although there is some basis for the concern recently expressed by Mr. Tubby, Mr. Chayes, and others about the adverse effects of failures during Project Mercury, I believe we must proceed with the Mercury ballistic and orbital flights as expeditiously as possible. The problem is not the program itself but the way it has been handled publicly.

It is apparent that the excessive and over-personalized publicity build-up surrounding NASA’s Project Mercury manned ballistic launch fosters at least four undesirable impressions among foreign audiences:

By again violating the precept that an achievement not be publicized before the fact, such publicity contributes to a foreign image of American braggadocio and lack of restraint;
By providing for a microscopically detailed coverage of the astronaut, the present information arrangements encourage reporting in unfortunate terms;
Because our massive media coverage of the manned ballistic launch might suggest to foreign audiences that the U.S. is attempting in this way to meet the Soviet space challenge, even an entirely successful launch at this time would seem destined to appear as obviously inadequate, perhaps even a pathetic, American response to a major Soviet achievement;
Most importantly, the fanfare of pre-flight publicity would make a catastrophe, especially the death of the astronaut, all the more damaging to American prestige.

Despite the foregoing, the stake of the United States in achieving manned space flight argues strongly against any delay in pursuing the Mercury program. The program itself has been exhaustively reviewed by a special panel established by Dr. Wiesner and adjudged scientifically [Page 818] and technically sound.2 In this connection, the Mercury ballistic flights were determined to be an integral part of the program.

We obviously should not cancel a project to which we are so heavily committed and which is, in any case, our first venture in the field where we are going to have to take our first step some day. On the other hand, we can try to bring public relations aspects of the project back into balance and prevent recurrence of the circus-like atmosphere which has exaggerated tomorrow’s ballistic attempt beyond all reason. There is no question here of “freedom of the press” versus “censorship.” There is a question of sensible handling of the project to give out all necessary information without incurring the risks of over-publicizing events that haven’t happened and that are of secondary importance when they do.

In order to minimize or prevent unfavorable foreign reactions to publicity attending NASA’s space programs, the Department should be assured that the public relations connected with these programs will be fully coordinated in advance between NASA and the Department. If this were done, we would hope to influence NASA’s public relations toward effectively contrasting our open space program pursued for meaningful scientific ends with Soviet secrecy, while concurrently avoiding the carnival-like atmosphere characterizing present publicity. Because of its need for favorable domestic publicity to facilitate public and Congressional support of the program, such restrictive counsels are difficult for NASA to accept without an assurance that they accurately reflect the judgment of the highest levels of the Department of State.


Because of the intimate involvement of the U.S. space program with American prestige and the conduct of foreign relations, I recommend that there be close, complete coordination between NASA and the Department of State on all public relations aspects of NASA’s space program. If you approve, Mr. Tubby and I will make the necessary arrangements promptly with the appropriate people in NASA.3

  1. Source: National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1960–63, 701.56311/5–561. Confidential. Drafted by Howard Furnas, Wreatham E. Gathright, and Richard V. Hennes (S/AE), and cleared by Roger W. Tubby (P), Abram Chayes (L), and George A. Morgan (S/P).
  2. Reference is to the Ad Hoc Mercury Panel, chaired by Donald C. Hornig, that conducted a technical review of the project and issued its report on April 12. The Panel concluded that a manned suborbital flight using the Redstone booster “would be a high risk undertaking but not higher than we are accustomed to taking in other ventures.” See Loyd S. Swenson, Jr., James M. Grimwood, and Charles C. Alexander, This New Ocean: A History of Project Mercury (National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Scientific and Technical Information Division, Washington, 1966), p. 331.
  3. Bowles approved the recommendation on May 5.