Not Long Ago in a Galaxy Not Very Far

“If someone can just tell me how to catch up [to the Soviets in the space race],” John F. Kennedy thundered to a room full of space advisors. “Let’s find somebody–anybody. I don’t care if it’s the janitor over there, if he knows.”

The tense meeting came after the Russian cosmonaut, Yuri Gagarin, became the first person in history to orbit Earth. This latest accolade for the Soviet Union was another blow to America’s trepidatious attitude towards the space program. Unfortunately, it wasn’t the worst thing to happen that week. Five days later, the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion kicked off. Though Eisenhower planned it, he was no longer in office and the nation needed someone to blame. Kennedy became that someone.

For Kennedy, the answer for America’s next greatest feat had always been to go up. Space was the end all be all of the Cold War. Whoever could get the furthest in space, the quickest, Kennedy believed, would win the Cold War.

After Gagarin became the first man to orbit earth, Kennedy and his administration changed their approach to conquering the eternal sky. No longer could America entertain a tit-for-tat pattern with the Soviet Union. Instead, as Kennedy wrote to a Princeton student, America needed to Leapfrog the Soviet Union. And leapfrog they would.

Spaceflight in America was still young at the time. Before the Second World War broke out, Robert Goddard became the first real rocketeer in America. His experiments with liquid-fueled rockets proved they were the way forward. Unfortunately, Goddard was one of many who passed on before they could witness their innovations come true.

Goddard’s research, however, influenced a young engineer in Germany who used Goddard’s work as a foundation to build the V-2 rocket: the deadliest weapon used in WW2 against Britain. Unbeknownst to the engineer, Werner von Braun, his design for the V-2 would lay the groundwork for the eventual Saturn V, the rocket that landed two young astronauts on the moon in 1969.

Von Braun and a host of other brilliant German scientists and engineers were brought to America through Operation Paperclip, a covert plan to bring the most intelligent German minds to America at the end of WW2. The operation, originally called Operation Overcast, changed its monicker to Operation Paperclip after a security breach. The name was derived from the paperclips military officers would fasten to the folders of the Nazi experts they chose to hire.

Werner von Braun and John F. Kennedy became two backbone figures of the Space Race. Their journey, along with all the drama and political woes of the early 1960s is chronicled in American Moonshot: John F. Kennedy and The Great Space Race by Douglas Brinkley. In the words of a Kirkus review of the book:

[This book is a] look back at the days when American presidents and politicians believed in and promoted science—days when there was a world to win, along with the heavens.

The first part of the book is a mini-biography of John F. Kennedy. Brinkley writes about JFK’s childhood, his family life, and his time spent in the Navy. Kennedy’s character is slowly transformed from a party boy to a diplomatic statesman (though the parties never stopped). Paralleled with Kennedy’s life is a brief account of the history of rockets and Werner von Braun’s journey from Nazi engineer to the head of a rocket lab in Huntsville, Alabama.

Once Kennedy gets elected, Brinkley does a magnificent job pulling conversations, reports, scientific facts, and the general consensus at the time all together to paint a full picture of what was going on in America and around the world.

It’s unclear if Kennedy would have put such emphasis on a literal moonshot were it not for the times. Kennedy loved space, yes, and he was enamored with it. But asking for $40 billion from the American people wasn’t something that happened often. Would he have been as brave as to do so without the pressure of the Cold War? Brinkley doesn’t state the answer explicitly, but it can be implied. He cared less about space and more about winning the Cold War and proving to the world that America was the best. This doesn’t diminish his efforts one bit but casts them in an interesting light.

There was one conversation with James Webb, the NASA administrator, that gives a peak behind Kennedy’s motives. In September of 1963, Kennedy and Webb had a private conversation in the White House and you can hear the trepidation and regret in Kennedy’s voice about making “the moonshot” his grand plan.

Kennedy: “Do you think the lunar, the manned landing on the moon, is a good idea?”

Webb: “Yes, sir, I do.”

Kennedy: “If I get reelected, I’m not–we’re not– go[ing] to the moon in my–in our period are we?”

Webb: “No.”

Kennedy (Brinkley notes that his voice is slightly sulky): “We’re not going…yeah.”

Kennedy: “Why should one spend that kind of dough to put a man on the moon?”

Kennedy (Answering his own question): But it seems to me…we’ve got to wrap around in this country, a military use for what we’re doing and spending in space. If we don’t it does look like a stunt.”

Though some in America saw Kennedy’s ambitions for space as a waste of money and time, such as the former president Dwight D. Eisenhower, who Brinkley wrote, “continued to snipe that ‘anybody who would spend $40 billion in a race to the moon for national prestige is nuts,” the majority were inspired by the grand ambition, even though everyone knew money would be required in hefty amounts. A phrase repeated throughout the book is “No bucks, no Buck Rogers.”

But aside from the Eisenhower administration's plans for incremental innovation and a small company named NASA that wasn’t quite sure who to listen to, Kennedy didn’t have much to go on when he took office. His presidency would be a continuous act of spinning plates between Kruschev and the Cold War, working with Lyndon B. Johnson to lobby congress for an ever-increasing pool of funds, and deciding just how ambitious America should be in trying to win the space race. The rewards were high, sure, but so were the risks, and no one let Kennedy forget that. Brinkley writes about the warning Eisenhower’s former science advisor spooked Kennedy with by saying “NASA wasn’t ready for manned space, and that if a Mercury astronaut were prematurely launched on a Redstone rocket, the attempted suborbital flight would be ‘the most expensive funeral man has ever had.’”

Thankfully, the warning didn’t deter Kennedy and the rest of America. JFK, his administration, NASA, James Webb, the Navy, and countless private companies worked together throughout a heyday of technical innovation, budgetary restrictions, and threats of war, to eventually put a man on the moon.

If you’re hoping to read a detailed account of the scientific and technical breakthroughs NASA achieved for the moonshot, this book is not the one. Though the beginning had interesting anecdotes about rockets, the majority of the book is about the political side of the space race and John F. Kennedy. Though interesting and I’m glad I read it, it lacks the technical bravado I was hoping for. That said, it’s a masterclass on power, influence, and Cold War politics.


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