Friday, July 19, 2019

American Moonshot: John F. Kennedy and the Great Space Race by Douglas Brinkley

I am a degreed historian with a knack for remembering dates of historical events. As 2019 dawned, I knew we'd hit the fiftieth anniversary of the moon landing this summer. Tomorrow. I also knew there'd be a slew of new historical accounts published to commemorate that momentous giant leap for mankind. Which one to read? When I saw noted historian Douglas Brinkley's name among the list, I made my decision.

American Moonshot: John F. Kennedy and the Great Space Race isn't necessarily a play-by-play of all the steps the United States took to land Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the moon fifty years ago. Instead, it is more a political biography of two men--John Kennedy and German Wernher von Braun--as they both came of age in Depression and war. Most of us know the basics of Kennedy's life history, but Brinkely zeroes in on space and the filter through which he described Kennedy's life. What did he think about Sputnik? Where was he when Yuri Gagarin was the first man in space? What did Kennedy really think about space?

Which made for a fascinating way to examine Kennedy's experiences and how he came around to seeing the moonshot as a Cold War technique to use against the Soviet Union. Late in the book, Brinkley wrote one of Kennedy's defenses of the massive amount of money spent to land men on the moon was worth it considering the alternative--a shooting war against the Soviets, if not nuclear war itself--was too horrible to contemplate.

Von Braun, on the other hand, was more of a mystery to me. I first read about him in James Michener's novel, Space (1982), and again earlier this year when I read Apollo 8: The Thrilling Story of the First Mission to the Moon by Jeffrey Kluge. His story was a troubled one. With eyes on the skies and dreams of sending rockets and men to the moon, von Braun, in Brinkley's words, made the Faustian bargain in World War II, to build the V-2 rockets with slave labor, the end results of which were the deaths of civilians when those rockets were launched against England. Sure, von Braun was a crucial member of the NASA team in the 1960s to engineer the Saturn V rocket and an constant cheerleader for the importance of the moonshot, but at what cost? Did it even out his activities in the war? Should it? Still, it was interesting to learn more about him and the relationship he and Kennedy formed.

Speaking of relationships, what I most enjoyed was the descriptions of the camaraderie Kennedy formed with the Mercury 7 astronauts. I had always seen photos of him with them, but never knew how close some of them became with the president. Which made his assassination much more personal. Brinkley described where each of the astronauts were when they learned of Kennedy's death. For most of them, it was the radio.

As a native of Space City, USA, I have always been keenly aware of the role Houston played in the history of NASA and space exploration. Some of my favorite parts of Brinkley's book was the discussion of Houston and the surrounding areas during the 1960s. If Armstrong took the one giant leap for mankind, then the manned space program was Houston's leap forward.

Brinkley went on to write the great irony of Kennedy's death helped NASA get the funding it needed to land Armstrong and Aldrin on the moon in 1969. President Lyndon Johnson felt no problem with using Kennedy's vision, as set forth in a pair of 1961 speeches, to get the money. Was it worth it? Johnson himself, as vice president, delivered a report which laid out all the ancillary benefits humankind could reap as a result of doing what it took to put men on the moon.

Think about this: the device you're using to read this review is likely a cell phone. That computer-in-your-palm is exponentially more powerful than the computers used to shepherd Apollo 11 to the moon. The GPS system we all use to get us to where we want to go is a result of the space race. Might we have eventually got to the moon and invented all this technology without the great race? Most likely, but the pace would have been much slower.

There are lots of books that discuss the engineering feats needed to land the Eagle in the Sea of Tranquility fifty years ago tomorrow, including all the intricate details of all the various Mercury, Gemini and Apollo missions. But if you want the political version of that story centered on one man who saw the potential of a victorious moon landing for us here on Earth, then American Moonshot by Douglas Brinkley is a good recommendation.

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