“American Moonshot”

“American Moonshot”

Photo credit: Sara Wipfler Acharya

In honor of the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, we are re-posting this article on Douglas Brinkley, everyone’s favorite historian.  It was first posted on April 3rd.

“In 2001, I was able to do the official oral history for NASA of Neil Armstrong,” historian Douglas Brinkley told Hollywood on the Potomac at a book party in his honor at the Washington, DC home of Mary Streett & Clyde Tuggle for his latest tome: American Moonshot: John F. Kennedy and the Great Space Race

“It was done in Clear Lake City, Texas and he had been my boyhood hero. I grew up in Ohio and he was in a few counties away from me. I was going on nine years old when Neil Armstrong walked on the moon and I was susceptible to heroes and Neil Armstrong was mine. So the fact that I got to spend time and interview him was a big deal for me. I’m also a professor at Rice University and that’s where John F. Kennedy gave his famous September 12th, 1962.” 

Clyde Tuggle, Mary Streett and Douglas Brinkley

We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win.”—President John F. Kennedy

“I realized with the 50th Anniversary – July 20th – it will be 50 years of Armstrong. So this book’s about what was the Moonshot, why did our country put that many billions – $25 billion, $185 billion, in today’s terms – why did we put that much money on going to the moon and how did John F. Kennedy do it?  So it’s a story about technology, the birth of modern computers, World War II style military aviation, grit, US versus Soviet Union. There are a lot of elements to the book. At its core, it’s about space politics.”

“The actual term Moonshot got popularized by baseball player Wally Moon of the LA Dodgers,” he added. “He’d hit these towering home runs and they were called Moonshots: That happened in 1959. Vince Scully, a famous announcer, would say, ‘There goes a Moonshot.’  It fit into this kind of Kennedy era of  ‘We’re going to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade and bring him back alive.’  The question now is what’s the next Moonshot. Some people think instead of going to the moon, we need to do an earth shot here at home, meaning dealing with climate change.  We need to do a lot. It’s very hard to do one big thing though because we’re such a divided country right now. It takes a really unusual presidential leadership to pull everybody together on a collective endeavor the way Kennedy did. He called his presidency The New Frontier and at the heart and soul of it was the NASA and Nam space and the Moonshot.”

David Corn and David Brinkley

On Alan Shepard:  “Well, if you go to Huntsville, Alabama you’ll see Admiral Shepard Drive. I mention that because he stayed active and involved in Naval aviation for all of his life. He’s a beloved figure. But his May 5th, 1961 Freedom 7 rocket, I can’t believe still how he had the guts to go up in a contraption like that. The capsule is now at the Kennedy Library in Boston. They let you get right up next to it, and it is so small. How cramped he was, and to be in there – I would be utterly terrified. People like Alan Shepard and John Glenn, Gus Grissom are major figures in my book. I write about Pete Conrad in the sense of being with Gemini and Apollo.”

On Buzz Aldrin: “Buzz is very hell bent on going to Mars and I think that’s become his mantra in his later years. Not him personally, but he wants our country to really go to Mars. He’s going to be the toast of the town this summer because it’ll be 50 years. Buzz Aldrin is a survivor of Apollo 11, as is Michael Collins and I think our country will be making a big deal out of it. They’ll be everywhere, everywhere in America. It’s 50 years of going to the moon. It’s big – every museum, planetarium, university is doing something big. There are so many symposiums that are going on right now, it’s mind-boggling.”

Douglas Brinkley

Book synopsis: “As the fiftieth anniversary of the first lunar landing approaches, the award winning historian and perennial New York Times bestselling author takes a fresh look at the space program, President John F. Kennedy’s inspiring challenge, and America’s race to the moon. On May 25, 1961, JFK made an astonishing announcement: his goal of putting a man on the moon by the end of the decade. In this engrossing, fast-paced epic, Douglas Brinkley returns to the 1960s to recreate one of the most exciting and ambitious achievements in the history of humankind. American Moonshot brings together the extraordinary political, cultural, and scientific factors that fueled the birth and development of NASA and the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo projects, which shot the United States to victory in the space race against the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War.”

“Drawing on new primary source material and major interviews with many of the surviving figures who were key to America’s success, Brinkley brings this fascinating history to life as never before. American Moonshot is a portrait of the brilliant men and women who made this giant leap possible, the technology that enabled us to propel men beyond earth’s orbit to the moon and return them safely, and the geopolitical tensions that spurred Kennedy to commit himself fully to this audacious dream. Brinkley’s ensemble cast of New Frontier characters include rocketeer Wernher von Braun, astronaut John Glenn and space booster Lyndon Johnson. A vivid and enthralling chronicle of one of the most thrilling, hopeful, and turbulent eras in the nation’s history, American Moonshot is an homage to scientific ingenuity, human curiosity, and the boundless American spirit.”  Harper Collins

The Scene:

Douglas Brinkley and Sen. Don Nichols  Photo credit: Janet Donovan