American Moonshot, Douglas Brinkley. New York: Harper, 2020.
Summary: A history of the American space program centering around John F. Kennedy’s embrace of the space race and goal that an American would walk on the moon by the end of the 1960’s.
Born in the 1950’s, I grew up loving rockets. I built models of rockets, launched rockets, and read about rockets. In first and second grade, I remembered televisions wheeled into our classrooms when Alan Shepard became the first American launched into space and John Glenn the first to orbit the earth three times. As fellow Ohioans, we were especially proud of Glenn, as we were that moment Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon–we stayed up to watch the landing and hear those words “That’s one small step for a man…”
In Douglas Brinkley’s book, I was able to relive all of that, as well as understand the history and personalities behind America’s race to the moon. Brinkley introduces us early to two central figures, John F. Kennedy and Werner von Braun, the former a war hero, the latter a German scientist who hitched his scientific aspirations in rocketry to Nazism, then escaped prosecution as a “paperclip” scientist brought to the U.S. for his expertise. Brinkley describes how the two would team up to drive America’s space program to new heights, even while making his own opinion clear that von Braun was a Nazi war criminal unworthy of enduring fame, despite his signal contributions to American rocketry culminating in the Saturn V and eventually the space shuttle boosters.
Brinkley casts this against the backdrop of the Cold War with the USSR and the space race kicked off with the launch of Sputnik, followed by the Soviet manned (and womaned) spaceflights with few answering U.S. accomplishments, although we rapidly surpassed the Soviets in satellite technology. These flights also underscored a feared threat of nuclear weapons in space and that the USSR would dominate space. This provided Kennedy an issue in the form of “the missile gap,” later shown to be spurious, that helped him win the 1960 presidential election. The Eisenhower administration had taken only slow, measured steps to develop space exploration.
Kennedy changed all that, facing the opposition of the former president, especially when he gave the speech at Rice University pledging the United States to land a man on the moon by the end of the decade, galvanizing von Braun and those he worked with at Huntsville. The book narrates the efforts to create NASA, mobilize the funding, and under space administrator James Webb, build out the capacity to accomplish the complex task of figuring out how to actually do what Kennedy pledged. As Kennedy’s re-election approached, Brinkley describes the increasing resistance and efforts to cut NASA funding. Paradoxically, it was Kennedy’s death that saved the program as Lyndon Johnson carried it through. The book portrays the breadth of Kennedy’s vision–at once to meet the Soviet threat, to give the country a lofty goal, and to create a kind of technology infrastructure that would bolster the economy of a number of states and result in spinoff inventions that enhanced Americans lives from medical devices to microchips.
Another facet of the book were the first American astronauts, the Mercury Seven, who were our space pioneers and paved the way for the subsequent Gemini and Apollo programs. It was fascinating to learn how deeply acquainted Kennedy became with the astronauts, hosting them collectively and individually at the White House. Some, like John Glenn, became family friends. It was Glenn who represented the astronauts at John Kennedy’s funeral, and who comforted the children of Robert Kennedy when he was assassinated. Those relationships, in turn, led to Glenn’s decision to pursue public service in a political career, serving as an Ohio Senator for three decades, attempting a run for president, and then returning to space in his seventies.
Because the book center’s around Kennedy’s role in the space program, the Gemini and Apollo launches are much more briefly covered, coming after Kennedy’s death, with the book ending with the Apollo 11 mission and the announcement that “the Eagle has landed” beating Kennedy’s goal by five months.
Douglas Brinkley pulls all these threads together around a study of presidential leadership in setting America a lofty goal wedding disciplined and courageous performance with technological innovation. While Brinkley doesn’t overlook it, one wonders if Lyndon Johnson deserves greater credit for bringing this program to fruition, if not being its inspiration. While telling a compelling story, Brinkley still left me wondering, was it worth it, particularly when what considers was not done with the tremendous outlay of money, further complicated by the Vietnam war? How important are national goals that capture the imagination and harness the resources of our best and brightest? How do we address the militarism and military industrial complex that grew around this program?
Nevertheless, there is a sense in which this was a “bright-shining moment,” a national effort that captured and held the country’s imagination. It was an exercise in presidential leadership, for which Brinkley has given us an in-depth case study. And for some of us, Brinkley’s book enables us to relive a decade of space exploration that is just as, if not more extraordinary, fifty to sixty years later as it was at the time.