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

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

Instant New York Times BestsellerAs the fiftieth anniversary of the first lunar landing approaches, the award winning historian and perennial New York Times bestselling author takes a fresh look at the space program, President John F. Kennedy’s inspiring challenge, and America’s race to the moon.“We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not becau...

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Title:American Moonshot: John F. Kennedy and the Great Space Race
Author:Douglas Brinkley
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Edition Language:English

American Moonshot: John F. Kennedy and the Great Space Race Reviews

  • Will Byrnes

    – image from History Hub

    There have been many events in American history that can bring one to tears, decades later. There is no shortage of dark moments in our violent past, domestic and international. I was alive in 1963 when JFK was murdered, and when RFK and MLK were killed by sinister forces. Recalling those moments can bring tears of grief, a sense of a blow to us all, as well as a feeling of personal loss. 9/11 was a Pearl Harbor trauma for the 21st century. I choke up even thinking about it. But there have also been moments when threatened waterworks were of a very different sort. Moments of joy and pride, being at Woodstock, the 1969 and 1986 Mets, (OK, so maybe those two were not national events in the same way, fine) the election of Barack Obama and that day in July 1969 when a promise was kept, an ages-long dream was no longer deferred, and in the name of our global humanity, a human being first set foot on the moon. For me, in my lifetime, there has never been a prouder moment to be an American.

    - a predecessor to the Saturn V that would boost the Apollo missions - Image from This Day in Aviation

    Douglas Brinkley has been charting the history of the United States since the 1990s. The guy has some range. He was a mentee of

    , which should be recommendation enough. In addition, he was

    for

    , and was the authorized biographer for

    . He has been active in and has written about the environmental movement, and has been attacked by occasional Republicans, which usually means he is doing something right. Brinkley is CNN’s goto expert on things presidential, having written books about many of them. His focus here is on the brief, but impactful presidency of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, and how he led the nation to the signal achievement of transporting a man to the moon and bringing him safely home.

    - image from politicaldig.com

    Brinkley follows JFKs early life, from so-so student, enduring considerable medical miseries and enjoying a very active social life, both in two prep schools and then in two different colleges to someone with a keen interest in and talent for public policy. Of particular interest is the impact of seeing the face of fascism in 1932 when he toured Germany in a bit of a reconnoiter for his politically connected father, who would be appointed the US ambassador to the United Kingdom a few years later.

    - image from Space.com

    For much of the book, Brinkley parallels JFK’s rise with the career of Wernher von Braun, the German rocket expert who had overseen the development of the

    and

    rockets that Hitler used in attacking England. Von Braun is a fascinating character, however much his Hitlerian expedience marked him as a war criminal. Thousands of slave laborers perished in the

    rocket development site that he ran. He had dreamed of making space flight a reality ever since he was a child, and was willing to do whatever it took to move this goal forward. Post World War II, with the USA and the Soviet Union gearing up for the possible next great war, von Braun’s expertise was in high demand. He found his way to American forces in Germany, bringing with him a considerable supply of materials and research. Under a program called

    , von Braun and many other technically expert Germans, were brought to the United States to aid in the impending showdown with the Soviet Union. You will appreciate Tom Lehrer’s

    about him.

    - image from NASA

    Von Braun was, and remained a key player in the USA’s space program, being the force behind the development of the huge Saturn-V launch vehicle that sent most of the Apollo missions on their way. He remained a subject of considerable controversy, which he parried by becoming as American an immigrant as he possibly could. He had a gift for public relations, which led to a TV show promoting space travel, and a consultancy with Walt Disney to help design Tomorrowland at Disney’s new theme park. His articles appeared in many national magazines, which helped keep the space program in the national consciousness, a beautiful thing for those who supported American space efforts. It also made him a powerful friend in the new president. The two men were more than just convenient allies.

    - image from NASA

    We get a good overview of JFKs career, his heroism in the Pacific, and the subsequent fame he received for his PT-109 adventure, after a book written about the episode became a national best-seller, with help from his father. On domestic policy he was certainly of a liberal bent, but his foreign policy placed him much more in a conservative posture. He had seen what authoritarianism looked like and was eager to challenge it wherever possible, seeing the Soviet Union as the major authoritarian threat in the world.

    - image from NASA

    Brinkley catches us up on the progress, or lack of same, in the USA’s space program in the 1950s, as it was fraught with military branch in-fighting and was short on successes. But the launch of Sputnik was the wakeup call it took to refocus American interest in space. There remained naysayers, and many who believed that resources targeted to space exploration and development would have been better spent on more earthbound pursuits. But there was a growing sense that the country needed to make some serious headway in the exploration of space, lest the country be left in the dust by the Soviet advances, with repercussions that were not only military, but political and economic as well.

    - image from NASA

    What Brinkley captures here is Kennedy’s view of the whole enterprise as a main act in the Cold War, the peaceable competition of the Western states, led by the USA, with the Eastern bloc, led by the Soviet Union. The East and West were not only doing kinetic battle in proxy wars like Vietnam, but struggling to win hearts and minds across the planet. Kennedy saw that US success in the space race would elevate the status of the West, leading many to tilt West instead of East when looking for alliances. He also emphasizes that Kennedy saw the space effort as a form of Keynesian economy-boosting similar to the infrastructure development of the FDR era. Kennedy was also quite aware of the likelihood that the research undertaken in this project would leapfrog the USA ahead in technological development, with impact in fields across the economy. Brinkley offers an impressive list of some of the developments that were created or boosted by the space program.

    - image from NASA

    Just as Trump is a clear master of the new tech of Twitter, JFK was an early master of the PR potential of television, holding press conferences every sixteen days to make sure the messages his administration wanted in the public eye remained there. The focus on locating much of the NASA program in southern states was his version of a Southern Strategy, looking to build support for himself and Democrats by channeling federal investment where it was likely to do the most political good. But also, the nation was emerging from a recession, and a big public works project, like Eisenhauer’s national highway program, would pump enough money into the sluggish economy to get it moving again. It succeeded wildly in that.

    - image from NASA

    One thing that the book makes eminently clear was that Vice President Johnson was not only all in on supporting the Apollo program, he in fact was much more knowledgeable about the realities of space exploration challenges than JFK ever was. In addition, while Kennedy, privately, was more concerned with the potential military advantages of the space program, Johnson was more firmly in the peaceful-uses camp.

    - image from NASA

    One of the great joys of reading a well-researched work of history is the opportunity to pick up some nuggets of odd intel here and there. For example, where the term “moonshot” originated, JFKs fondness for Joe McCarthy, the existence of a program that you probably never heard of that preceded and spurred US manned space flight, who was

    the first man to orbit the earth, and a new update on the first words from the Moon.

    - image from NASA

    The 1960s was certainly a very exciting time in the USA. There was a lot going on, not all of it wonderful, but there was a drive to move beyond, to move forward, to fulfill not only the dream of our fallen leader but a dream that had been shared by humanity for as long as people had looked up and wondered about that thing in the sky. Douglas Brinkley has given us an insightful and informative look into the nuts and bolts of how Apollo 11 came to be, into some of the geopolitical forces of the Cold War, into the domestic political battles that were being engaged, into the economic considerations that fed JFKs need to push forward, and into the personalities that proclaimed the mission as achievable and then used all their powers to drive the mission forward to a glorious fulfillment. He shows the impact of the program on our relationship with the Soviet Union, and the impact the program had on our economy. In doing this, he has captured the feel of the time, the excitement about, as well as fear for, the manned space missions, and ultimately the joy in seeing the dream realized. He has given us a sense of who the people involved really were, and what drove them. It is a very readable history, and for someone who has been a lifelong fan of space exploration, it is no exaggeration to say that

    is out of this world.

    - image from NASA

    Review posted – April 26, 2019

    Publication date – April 2, 2019

    – image from NASA

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    Brinkley’s

    site

    He has a twitter page, but it has not been updated since 2013. I found no personal Facebook page for him.

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    with Susan Larson – audio – 28:56

    Really, this one should do

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    -----A 1955 video in which von Braun describes his plan for not only a

    , but a permanent space station

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    from which I extracted the “Public Affairs Officer” announcements included in the review

    -----JFK’s

    speech at Rice University – Video – 18:15

    -----A

    of that speech

    -----C-SPAN – a nice

    of Apollo 11 mission

    -----Smithsonian Magazine - June 2019 -

    - by Charles Fishman - excellent, informative article. Worth a look.

    -----New York Times - June 14, 2019 -

    By Jill Lepore - interesting look at the extant rash of Apollo 11 anniversary books and sociopolitical implications

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    - by The Tornadoes

  • Joan

    The fiftieth anniversary of the first lunar landing inspires the acclaimed historian to take a fresh look at the American space program, at President John Kennedy’s inspiring challenge, and at the race to the moon.

    Drawing on new primary source material, Douglas Brinkley brings this fascinating history to life as he turns the spotlight on the men and women who made this giant leap possible while exploring the technology and the political tensions of the time.

    Readers will find much to appreciate

    The fiftieth anniversary of the first lunar landing inspires the acclaimed historian to take a fresh look at the American space program, at President John Kennedy’s inspiring challenge, and at the race to the moon.

    Drawing on new primary source material, Douglas Brinkley brings this fascinating history to life as he turns the spotlight on the men and women who made this giant leap possible while exploring the technology and the political tensions of the time.

    Readers will find much to appreciate in this living history that chronicles one of our nation’s most thrilling events as it pays homage to the scientists and engineers whose magnificent efforts embody the curiosity and spirit of America.

    Highly recommended.

  • KC

    On July 20 1969, the country and the world watched as Astronaut Neil Armstrong walked on the moon's surface. Nearing the 50th anniversary of the first lunar landing, David Brinkley's latest novel reminds us of President John F. Kennedy's tireless and dedicated work towards space exploration and travel. This novel encourages us to forever look upward; to gaze deeper and further and especially into the great beyond.

  • Peter Mcloughlin

    covers the history of the space program from earliest imaginings of Jules Verne in 1863 through the rocketry of Robert Goddard in the 1920s, Werner Von Braun and the Nazi V-2 during the second world war, and a big focus on the cold war especially the JFK and his role in the moonshot and covers the story up to the 1969 moon landing. Good political history which is its focus rather than the science of the moonshot. Good to know how cold warriors got Apollo off the ground.

  • Jeff J.

    Not exactly what I expected. It’s marketed as a commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the moon landing, and while it does cover the space program up to the moon landing, the real focus is on President Kennedy’s career and his contributions to the space program. It may not be false advertising but be wary.

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