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

Nine stars

With the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon Landing only a few days away, Douglas Brinkley’s latest book surrounding the early years of space exploration, seemed the perfect fit. Told as a loose biography of the race to get into space, Brinkley explores the two main camps vying for control of the territory outside of Earth’s atmosphere—USA and USSR—as well as bringing in the promise President John F. Kennedy made about sending a man to the moon by the end of the 1960s. Brinkley begins his narrative by examining the mystery of space, at least as seen through the eyes of those positing about missions into the atmosphere. Writers have long created stories about inter-planetary adventures and trips to the Moon, even before they was a means to get off the ground. As Brinkley discusses, this science fiction soon turned into a spark that began a race to use the skies as a means of transportation at high rates of speed. The Nazis capitalised on this, though both superpowers poached their rocket scientists at the end of the War to begin creating their own rocket weapons and early prototypes of space vehicles. The Soviets pushed full speed ahead, while America lagged behind with President Dwight Eisenhower less than keen on the space race. Enter John Kennedy, a young congressman from Massachusetts, who sought to harness this race as being of utmost importance to the American psyche and as a key element of the Cold War.

Brinkley uses the middle portion of his book to really explore the Space Race and how the Soviets sent so much time focussing their attention on outmanoeuvring the Americans. It was truly a Cold War battle, but one in which the Americans were not—surprisingly—invested. One can speculate that America had domestic issues that needed solving, while the Soviet state suspended everything to ensure a cosmonaut made world headlines. There is an interesting undertone throughout this portion of the book, one that argues that Eisenhower was less than interest in seeing man enter space or land on the Moon. It was the Kennedy push, with Lyndon Johnson working his magic on the Senate floor, who pushed for the American Space Program. Brinkley thoroughly explores the early talk of rockets and the Space Program, strongly supported by Kennedy and Johnson, while Eisenhower continued to fumble and remained in constant catch-up mode. Seeing the price tag as being unrealistic or unfeasible, Eisenhower acted only to ensure the egg left on America’s collective face did not solidify. Kennedy’s eventual win in the 1960 Presidential election paved the way for a new era in space, one in which Kennedy vowed to push America ahead and land a man on the Moon by the end of the decade.

Brinkley proves repeatedly how the contrasting US Administrations tackled space in different ways. Under Kennedy, space was finally of the utmost concern, even if it was still a lukewarm idea to many who saw the expense as being too high. Kennedy pushed forward with missions orbiting above the Earth and locked in a location for many of the future launches into space. Kennedy was convinced that the Americans could land a man on the Moon and do so before the Soviets, though it would take innovation and excellence, something the president felt the country had in large quantities. During his brief time in office, Kennedy watched as the US Space Program came to life and the world could see its progress on television. More familiar names, such as Glenn, Shephard, and Armstrong, pepper the narrative and show how incremental successes helped Kennedy disprove his detractors. Armed with ongoing Cold War issues, Kennedy worked to keep the Space Race going, even as Khrushchev sought to tighten his grip in Europe with the Berlin Wall and pushed the Soviet Space Program to take risks to keep pace. During his short time in office, JFK showed the world just how dedicated he was to his pledge, which miraculously continued on after an assassin’s bullet ended the life of the 35th President of the United States. Kennedy’s footprint remains permanently etched on the American Space Program, with his insights leading to the eventual Apollo 11 Moon Landing, whose anniversary reminds the world of the important innovation made when humans eventually made their way onto the Moon’s surface.

While I am no expert on things related to space, my interest in history fuelled my desire to give this piece a try. Brinkley does a masterful job of creating an intriguing narrative about the Space Race and how it became one plank of the ongoing battle throughout the Cold War. More than that, Brinkley effectively argues that an obsession with getting into space far surpassed when he became feasible, citing numerous books and articles on the subject. His pinning the development of space exploration on the keenness of JFK’s life-long curiosity proved a secondary biography of sorts that will appeal to those who have an interest in all things Kennedy. Brinkley has been able to create a seamless narrative discussing the enormous world of space progress and its science into something that can be easily comprehended by the layperson. Using a number of key characters in both American and Soviet space camps, the story takes on a new light as the race to land on the Moon heated up throughout the 1960s. With political vilification of the US-USSR politicians, as well as in-fighting within America, Brinkley shows just how controversial and divisive this venture would be, as well as the astronomical amounts spent to see Neil Armstrong make that prolific walk outside of Apollo 11 in July 1969. With detailed chapters full of information and told in a well-paced narrative, Brinkley brings space development to life throughout and paves the way for the event 50 years ago that many who were alive can remember with great detail. It was surely one of the great feats humans have undertaken in their constant march towards technological mastery, though Brinkley asserts that the exploration should never stop, even if they race to do so is no longer as fervent.

Kudos, Mr. Brinkley, for telling this wonderful tale and bringing history to life yet again. I have enjoyed both books of yours that I have read and will have to try more, when time permits.

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