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Review: American Moonshot

American Moonshot: John F. Kennedy and the Great Space Race
by Douglas Brinkley
Harper, 2019
hardcover, 576 pp., illus.
ISBN 978-0-06-265506-6

The space community’s opinions of John F. Kennedy have varied over the decades. During the race to the Moon, and the years that followed, Kennedy was seen as a brilliant visionary and passionate advocate for space exploration because of his support for the effort that led to the Apollo lunar landings. He was virtually canonized by space enthusiasts who believed someone like him was needed to enable a return to the Moon or similar feats in space exploration.

Over time, though, that lionization faded, particularly as new historical materials came to light. In particular was a transcript of a November 1962 meeting where Kennedy, NASA administrator James Webb, and other were discussing the space program. “I’m not that interested in space,” Kennedy said at one point as Webb talked about other scientific priorities for the agency. In the views of enthusiasts, Kennedy went from being the patron saint of human spaceflight to just another politician.

Historian Douglas Brinkley offers something of a middle ground between those two perceptions in American Moonshot. The Kennedy that emerges from the pages of his book is a man who was interested in human spaceflight, and getting Americans to the Moon, but who was driven to support the program because of a Cold War competition with the Soviet Union and not some innate interest in exploring the universe.

Much of the first part of the book is a biography of Kennedy leading up to winning the presidency in 1960, one that showed little interest in space. That biography is paired with developments in rocketry and space, with a particular focus on Wernher von Braun. At times it appears that Brinkley is drawing parallels between Kennedy and von Braun: both young, articulate, and comfortable with the new medium of television. The two, in fact, met years before Kennedy becomes president, in a New York studio in 1953 promoting the selection of West German chancellor Konrad Adenauer as Time’s Man of the Year. The two “got along famously” in a backstage discussion, Brinkley recalled, and “Kennedy kept an interested eye on von Braun” in the years that followed, even though he acknowledges that there’s little information about what Kennedy thought about space exploration in the years leading up to Sputnik.

What was clear, though, was Kennedy’s fervent anti-Communist stance, which Brinkley notes set him apart from many of his fellow Democrats. He campaigned for president on the argument that Eisenhower had allowed a missile gap between the Soviet Union and the United States to form—even after he received intelligence that indicated that any gap was in favor of the US, not the Soviets. There was, though, a space gap that became clear when Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space. “Is there any place we can catch them?” he asked in a meeting two days after Gagarin’s flight. “Can we leapfrog?”

That meeting, and the urgency provided by the Bay of Pigs fiasco days later, put into motion the discussions that led to his May 25, 1961, speech calling for landing a man on the Moon by the end of the decade. Kennedy thought that Congress was “skeptical, if not downright hostile” to his announcement, which Brinkley said carried a “note of distraction” in his voice, as if Kennedy himself was questioning whether it could be done. Speaking by phone the next day to a space conference in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Kennedy didn’t mention the Moon at all, although Brinkley concludes he didn’t need to: “Everybody in Tulsa knew what JFK meant.”

Kennedy’s fears, though, weren’t realized, as Congress moved to accept his plan and provide major funding increases to NASA to accomplish it. Kennedy would be linked inextricably to NASA and the race to the Moon for the remainder of his presidency and far beyond. He welcomed that association, and frequently toured NASA facilities and met with its astronauts, who reported that he seemed genuinely interested in them and their missions.

But that interest was also couched in that Cold War competition with the Soviets, which explained the November 1962 meeting with Webb. While Webb plays up other, scientific benefits of space exploration, Kennedy makes clear his priority is beating the Russians. “Some of these other programs can slip six months, or nine months, and nothing strategic is going to happen,” he told Webb. “But this is important for political reasons, international reasons.”

And, later in that conversation: “Everything that we do ought to really be tied into getting onto the Moon ahead of the Russians.” Kennedy said that studying space for scientific benefit was fine—“I think we ought to know more about it”—but only for “reasonable amounts of money.” The race to the Moon, he said, involved “fantastic expenditures which wreck our budget and all these other domestic programs and the only justification for it” is to beat the Soviets to the Moon.

In another meeting with Webb two months before his assassination, Kennedy asked if that goal could be achieved by the end of a second term in office in 1968. Webb tells him no, and Kennedy becomes “slightly sulky,” Brinkley writes. Kennedy is worried Apollo will appear like a stunt, and an unsuccessful one at that. “We’ve got to wrap around in this country, a military use for what we’re doing and spending in space,” Kennedy concludes.

There is not much in the way of new scholarship in American Moonshot, but instead a historical reconsideration of Kennedy’s interest. What emerges is a man who did not have an innate interest in space, but saw its value at that particular point in history: a Cold War competition with the Soviet Union he was determined not to lose so he could demonstrate the technological superiority of the United States.

At a different time, and under different geopolitical circumstances, it seems unlikely Kennedy would have been willing to support a goal as audacious as landing a man on the Moon within a decade. However, the stars aligned and he seized the opportunity. (Whether he would have kept that strong support throughout an eight-year presidency is a what-if question only hinted at in the book, such as proposals in the fall of 1963 for a joint US-Soviet lunar exploration program.) That is something to keep in mind when considering the value, and effectiveness, of presidential leadership in subsequent initiatives related to human space exploration, including the current one.

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