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

This is a fascinating book about America’s efforts to conquer space during the Cold War. However, it is not a comprehensive history of the space program. Instead, it focuses on John F. Kennedy’s fixation on space exploration and eventually on his goal to land Americans on the moon.

To get there, it goes deep into Kennedy’s past and even beyond to provide background. It begins with the early rocketry efforts of Goddard in the United States and other scientists in Germany and Russia. It traces Kennedy’s youth, school days, and military service aboard PT 109 during World War II. It also backtracks to the youth of another person crucial to the U.S. space effort, the German scientist Wernher von Braun, whose genius with rockets caused him to become involved with Hitler’s Third Reich in the development and production of the destructive V2 rockets. The use of slave labor, considered expendable by the Nazis, implicated von Braun in war crimes for which he should have been arrested, tried, and imprisoned, but because his expertise was so important to America’s own development of missiles and rockets, he and his team of scientists were slipped out of Germany, exonerated of all charges, and put to work in top secret programs.

After the war, Eisenhower was a conservative concerning the national budget and reluctant to spend much on efforts to reach space. In the meantime, Kennedy moved upwards from Congressman to Senator to presidential candidate. Early on he seized the vision of the space program and America’s need to be first in various space achievements as a crucial factor in the Cold War. He fought for scientific superiority as part of the nation’s efforts to combat communism and promote democracy.

Soon after Kennedy defeated Nixon and won the White House, he challenged the nation to place American men on the moon before the end of the decade of the 1960s. No matter what emergencies erupted domestically or internationally, he never wavered from this vision. The missile and rocket research being carried on in various branches of the military became consolidated in NASA, which spawned the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo space programs.

There were many challenges along the way. For instance, the Russians were first to launch a satellite into orbit, and they were also the first to send a man into space and bring him back safely. Although the nation was swept up in the space craze and adulated the astronauts who rode in the early space capsules, Kennedy sometimes found it difficult to persuade Congress to continue funding such expensive programs.

These are just a few highlights of this absorbing history; there are many more details equally fascinating. Since the primary focus of the book is on Kennedy, the final chapter takes place in 1963 and describes his assassination and the immediate aftermath. An epilogue, however, goes on to describe how President Lyndon Johnson kept the Apollo program alive in Kennedy’s honor, and how the first men finally made it to the moon in the summer of 1969.

Brinkley is an excellent writer, and this is a great book. I was sixteen years old when Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon, and I recall what an important moment it was nationally and internationally for all humankind. It’s amazing that the technology to reach the moon safely was available decades ago and we haven’t done much about it since. It seems, though, that the private sector is stepping in to help us on our next journeys to the moon, Mars, and beyond.

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