I vividly recall being 6 years old and sitting in front of our tiny 1950’s red and white tv–and watching in bad black/white as Neil Armstrong stepped onto the moon. Moon fever was big then. Snoopy was depicted as an astronaut and to any 60s kid if Snoopy did it it was cool. One of my friends (my friends then were all boys–there were no girls around in our neighborhood) had a model later of the Apollo 11 spacecraft that he and his dad built. It was the kind of thing a father and son did before sports leagues too over childhood.
Fast-forward to just after college when my best friend urged me to read Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff. Wow! Blown away! Then the movie and of course, too, the Challenger disaster. Space and astronauts, like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, have never not been a part of my life.
The subtitle to this new re-telling of the birth of America’s exploration of space is “John F. Kennedy and the Great Space Race.” Brinkley, whose books are very readable, spins parallel stories–of JFK’s heroic struggle against bad health and the destruction of his famed PT 109 in World War II and on to his life in politics set against Werner Von Braun and the development of rockets and the U.S. space program.
In reading this I had to keep reminding myself that I am OLD. That to young people today, JFK is on par with Millard Filmore. That NASA has never not been around, that women and minorities have OF COURSE been astronauts. Looking at this book thru their lens, Brinkley tells the story in enough detail to paint the full picture. He goes far enough into politics to show JFK neutralizing his rival, Lyndon Johnson, by making him is Veep and then having him do the dirty political work in Congress to make the vision of a man on the moon by the end of the decade a reality. He also shows how JFK, like any number of politicians from the beginning of time onward, used “spin” to create a focus on himself in an election and then on staying in office. The great missile gap and the space race were never as deep a problem as they were represented to be.
One interesting thing I did learn was that Gordon Cooper, the Mercury astronaut, had been invited by JFK to go to Dallas with him. Cooper turned it down, thus giving us a great “what if” to add to the conspiracy theories of that fateful November day.
Brinkley is a fine writer and historian. This is not a scholarly work, but it is well-researched. It does a respectable job of introducing newbies to the whole U.S. space program’s beginnings. He discusses JFK as a politiican in enough detail that accurate conclusions can be drawn about him. I am left still preferring Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff though, by at least the length of a moonshot.
American Moonshot: John F. Kennedy and the Great Space Raceby Douglas Brinkley.
See also: The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe
JFK’s “Man to the Moon” speech at Rice University