Times Literary Supplement, July 12, 2019
J. Michael Lennon
Review of American Moonshot: John F. Kennedy and the Great Space Race
By Douglas Brinkley
HarperCollins 2019, 549 pp.  $35 ISBN: 9780062655066

On November 21, 1963, the day before he was assassinated, President Kennedy gave a speech in San Antonio, Texas about the challenges facing the United States in its efforts to send a man to the moon. He summed it up by recalling a passage from Frank O’Connor’s memoir about growing up in Ireland, An Only Child:  

As a boy, he and his friends would wander the countryside, and when they came to an orchard wall that seemed too high and too doubtful to try and too difficult to permit their voyage to continue, they took off their hats and tossed them over the wall—and then they had no choice but to follow them.   

The boys’ bravado, according to Kennedy, was a metaphor for the national commitment he had announced in another speech two years earlier. In this memorable 1961 address to Congress, he stated that it was time “to take longer strides, time for a great new American enterprise”, and that the US should commit itself to “landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth”. Kennedy called for the newly established National Aeronautics and Space Agency (NASA) to accomplish this feat by the end of the decade.

When reports of Kennedy’s speech reached Wernher von Braun and his staff at the Marshall Space Center in Alabama, they were “beside themselves with glee”. A visionary promoter of the moon venture who enjoyed a warm friendship with the president, despite the fact that he was a former Nazi, Von Braun had been given the charge of developing the Saturn, a heavy-lift rocket for the moon shot. He had thought about it when building the V-2 rocket that terrorized London during the Blitz. In magazine articles, Von Braun was optimistic about the nation’s ability to meet Kennedy’s timetable, usually adding that the successful landing would be the first major step in the exploration of the solar system. Others were less sanguine. Robert R. Gilruth, then director of the Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston, was “aghast” when he read Kennedy’s speech. Chris Craft, NASA’s first flight director, was said to have blurted out: “Men on the moon, has he lost his mind?”

In 1959, two years after Sputnik orbited the planet, the Soviet Union accomplished another spectacular first: landing a 3,000 lb probe, Luna II, on the moon’s surface. But there it remained – round trips were not a Russian strong suit at the time. Luna II spurred the American effort, which was significantly more challenging. The moonshot, as eventually planned, would send a 100,000 lb payload to the moon, containing three astronauts, and return them and their lunar probe to Earth unscathed.  

Kennedy’s challenge was laid down at a time when many of the necessary techniques and much of hardware to accomplish it had not yet been tested, or even, in some cases, conceived. Several months after his 1961 speech, NASA administrators identified approximately 10,000 separate tasks to be completed in order to ensure the success of the mission; creating the countless interfaces among these tasks was something only dimly perceived at that time. When all was said and done, 20,000 companies and 400,000 workers contributed to the creation of a ziggurat of interlocking technologies that made up a launching platform for a spacecraft named after the Greek sun god. Apollo, bound to the tip of the Saturn rocket, had three parts: a command module, in which the astronauts would make the 250,000 mile voyage to lunar orbit; a service module containing power sources and supplies; and the lunar landing module, Eagle (10,873 lbs, including the weight of Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin). Eagle would  land them on the surface of the moon on July 20, 1969, and return them several hours later to the command module, piloted by Michael Collins, which would take them back to Earth. The cost was $25 billion, the equivalent of about $180 billion today.

Was it worth it? One must look at some of the spin-offs and breakthroughs before answering. In American Moonshot,  a comprehensive and deeply researched study, Douglas Brinkley lists some of the advances: satellite television, GPS, microchips, compact computers, improved solar panels, CO2 detectors, protocols for laser lights, various kinds of foam cushioning, numerous metallurgic and fabric innovations, the technology for retractable arena roofs, and, not least, the Dustbuster portable vacuum. There were important developments in medicine: CAT and MRI scanning, radiation therapy, kidney dialysis, muscle stimulation devices, and the now-ubiquitous foldable walker. On the military front, Apollo introduced or improved a variety of weapons, including lasers, ballistic missiles and anti-missile technology. Brinkley supplies detailed descriptions of Apollo’s costs, benefits, technology, and personnel, including succinct sketches of the stars in the astronaut pantheon (Yuri Gagarin, Alan Shepard, John Glenn, Wally Schirra, Aldrin, and Armstrong). 

But his major achievement is to demonstrate how Kennedy, aided by the charismatic von Braun, and the shrewd master of the Senate, Lyndon B. Johnson (later Kennedy’s vice president and chair of the administration’s Space Council), created alliances in Congress, the armed forces, the science community, the media, and corporate America to pull off an operation that consumed 2 per cent of the country’s gross national product for a decade. Relying on extensive citation from government and corporate publications and archives, as well as press and television coverage (and a brilliant collection of photographs assembled by Lawrence Schiller), Brinkley carefully delineates Kennedy’s master strategy for selling the moonshot to sceptics in Congress: explain and advertise how the Apollo missions would create mutually reinforcing links between scientific discovery, technological innovation, military prowess, and American foreign policy; emphasize how these synergies would assure America’s continuing position as the leading superpower, the essential nation. “Identifying the moon as the ultimate Cold War Trophy”, Brinkley writes, “and throwing his weight behind landing there was the most daring thing Kennedy ever did in politics.”

A seasoned presidential historian, Brinkley is also adept at delineating the public relations effort that convinced the American public to accept the Apollo mission. The astronauts were the official heroes and every one of their successes was celebrated with ticker-tape parades and bountiful media appearances. They were often accompanied by one or more of the following: von Braun (now an American citizen), the rocket wizard who predicted space stations and colonies on Mars; James Webb, the battlefield general who oversaw the vast NASA empire; Lyndon B. Johnson, who dealt with Congress; and Kennedy himself, the visionary young president and war hero who articulated the vision undergirding the whole project and delivered the metaphor of space as the new frontier. 

In Kennedy’s plan, the United States would become the first space-faring nation. A critical and brilliant feature of the public relations campaign was to permit live television coverage of the lift-offs and splashdowns, which contrasted starkly with parsimonious Soviet coverage of their own launches. Brinkley is at his best in comparing the moon venture with complex adventures of other American presidents: the Lewis and Clark Expedition (1804-06, Thomas Jefferson); the Panama Canal (1903-14, Theodore Roosevelt); the building of 50,000 aeroplanes annually (1942-45, Franklin Roosevelt); the Interstate Highway System (1956-60, Dwight Eisenhower).

Where Brinkley is disappointing is in the meager amount of space he devotes to the ineffable, mystical, dimensions of the moonshot. The first half of the book, 244 pages, takes us on a slow trot through the development of rocket science, from Robert Goddard in the 1920s to the efforts of the Eisenhower administration, ending just before Kennedy’s speech to Congress. Every inter-service squabble and bureaucratic imbroglio is dutifully sifted. The second half of American Moonshot moves more briskly, but it ends with Kennedy’s assassination in 1963 and devotes only a brief epilogue to the lunar landing itself. 

Brinkley mentions neither the unspoken fears of landing human beings on a surface beneath which no one is buried, nor the unutterable solitude of Collins sitting alone and out of communication in the command module for forty-seven minutes on the dark side of the moon. Armstrong’s final descent, when he was seconds from aborting the landing because of a loss of power to his computer, goes unremarked. Norman Mailer’s account of the moonshot, Of a Fire on the Moon (1971), a dazzling exploration of the psychic aspects of the moonshot, depicts these dramatic scenes with élan. Brinkley’s book gives us an equally brilliant account of the political and organizational origins of the Apollo 11 project. The two studies are the indispensable bookends to the body of literature devoted to the American space mission.