Sometimes, timing really is everything. One of humanity’s most staggering achievements, the Apollo 11 moon landing, is a case in point, the result of a unique confluence of circumstances, personalities, technology, political and social factors, and plain old luck. As we prepare to celebrate Apollo 11’s 50th anniversary next month amid a flood of talk about returning to the moon, a flurry of Apollo-related books, films, exhibits, and other commemorations are bursting forth like exhaust flames from a Saturn 5 first stage.
Among the first are James Donovan’s Shoot for the Moon: The Space Race and the Extraordinary Voyage of Apollo 11 and American Moonshot: John F. Kennedy and the Great Space Race by historian and author Douglas Brinkley. In different ways, both put Apollo 11 into historical perspective with the hindsight of half a century — while, oddly enough, not dealing very much with the actual mission itself.
“Shoot for the Moon” is the more straightforward of the two volumes. Given the prominence of Apollo 11 in the subtitle, and the presence of Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins, and Buzz Aldrin on the book jacket, you’d expect it to be a detailed chronicle of that mission, but it’s actually a historical survey of American manned spaceflight, beginning with the Soviet firsts of Sputnik and Yuri Gagarin that spurred the American effort and ending abruptly with Apollo 11.
Donovan spins a lively and engaging narrative but breaks very little new ground; much of the book echoes the familiar stories of earlier works such as Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff and Andrew Chaikin’s A Man on the Moon among other popular histories. (The latter volume remains the definitive work for those looking for a complete account of the entire Apollo program through the final mission, Apollo 17 in 1972.)
American Moonshot is even less Apollo 11-centric, and even in the acknowledgements, Brinkley acknowledges that the book “is a work of US presidential history (not space studies).” And while all Apollo histories mention John F. Kennedy’s May 25, 1961 address to Congress, committing the US to put a man on the moon before the decade was out, Brinkley’s book details just how and why Kennedy chose that particular goal as the apotheosis of his “New Frontier” vision — and gambled everything, including the prestige and treasure of the nation and his political career (not to mention the lives of the astronauts) on it.
As both Donovan and Brinkley describe, Kennedy’s predecessor, Dwight D. Eisenhower, refused to be caught up in the 1957 post-Sputnik panic about supposed Soviet superiority, supporting only a modest and inexpensive space effort. But as the young and hungry Kennedy’s ambitions turned to the White House at the end of the 1950s, he realised that space offered an as-yet untapped source of political capital. “Kennedy believed that leadership was about galvanising a slumbering public (via speeches, articles, and radio addresses) to achieve great things,” writes Brinkley.
More than that, Sputnik had made clear that missiles and space flight were now critical aspects of national defence, and the supposed “missile gap” between the US and the USSR provided a handy political cudgel for Kennedy to batter his 1960 opponent: Eisenhower’s vice president, Richard Nixon.
Yet as Donovan notes, “In truth, there was no such thing — or if there was, it was actually in America’s favour — but Kennedy’s repeated use of the term persuaded much of the electorate that the Eisenhower administration was weak on defence and that Nixon would be too.”
Once Kennedy bested Nixon in the 1960 election, space travel wasn’t high on his initial list of concerns. He had other things to worry about, chiefly a Communist adversary eager to test his resolve by pushing limits in Cold War hot points such as Berlin and Cuba. And he wasn’t off to an auspicious start. “The first hundred days of Kennedy’s presidency, while dazzling in style compared with the Eisenhower era, were short on tangible accomplishments, beyond the establishment of the Peace Corps,” Brinkley writes.
Then came two major national humiliations. First, the USSR again kicked America’s smug complacency where it hurt the most by launching Yuri Gagarin into orbit on April 12, 1961, destroying US confidence that its Project Mercury would put the first man into space.
Two days later, Kennedy implored his advisors for some response: “Is there any place we can catch them? What can we do? Can we go around the moon before them? Can we put a man on the moon before them?” He was casting about for some way for the US to “leapfrog” the Soviets before their next inevitable space triumph.
Later that night, 1,500 Cuban exiles landed at the Bay of Pigs in Cuba in an ill-conceived invasion attempt that turned into a catastrophe. “In the span of one stinging week, the young president had been thoroughly embarrassed both militarily and scientifically,” writes Brinkley.
It was “a nasty one-two punch that damaged Kennedy” and brought worldwide criticism on both himself and the US. “We’ve got to do something to show the Russians we’re not paper tigers,” the president’s brother, Robert F. Kennedy, complained.
That something, Kennedy and his advisors realised, might be putting a man on the moon. Not only did that goal appeal to Kennedy’s sense of adventure and drive to be first, it would unite a sprawling, unfocused space program, divided between civilian and military purposes, into a single effort to demonstrate American strength and technological superiority. It would be the ultimate “leapfrog” move to answer the Soviets’ endless upstaging of America in outer space.
After America finally sent its own brave astronaut, Alan Shepard, into space on May 5, 1961, Kennedy made his decision. Just a few weeks later, before Congress and the entire world, he committed the US to “landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth,” while knowing that America had a grand total of 15 minutes of manned spaceflight experience, and had yet to figure out how to get a man to the moon or even if it was technologically feasible.
It didn’t matter. The gauntlet had been thrown, and the race was on. It also didn’t matter that JFK privately admitted more than once to his advisors, including his brilliant NASA administrator James Webb and engineering genius Wernher von Braun, that he wasn’t “all that interested in space” (although by the time of his death, he’d become far more excited about it). Instead, Brinkley notes, “the point of Project Apollo was prestige (proving US technological excellence over the Kremlin’s).”
But more than that, for Kennedy “it represented simultaneously a fresh articulation of national priorities, a semi-militarised reassertion of America’s bold spirit and history of technological innovation, and a direct repudiation of what he saw as the tepid attitude of the previous administration.”
As Brinkley describes through voluminous primary research, including rare insights from previously classified White House tapes, these attitudes drove Kennedy to keep the moon program alive and moving forward in the face of wavering public interest and increasing Congressional resistance to its ever-growing price tag. “With a sweeping sense of history, he was arguing for a new era in which technological superiority was power,” observes Brinkley.
Yet Kennedy eventually began to grow beyond such attitudes. After the harrowing reality check of the Cuban Missile Crisis, which led him to push for a nuclear test ban treaty and warmer US-Soviet relations, he began to see the space program and its technological benefits as a means for promoting peace.
Much to the chagrin of most of his advisors and the Pentagon, he began seriously considering making the Moon race a joint US-USSR endeavour. “Even though he himself had framed winning the race to the moon as essential for America’s national pride, he was willing to possibly sacrifice the win if doing so built a bridge for peace,” writes Brinkley. “Kennedy … had stopped viewing the US-Soviet rivalry as a terminal condition.”
Such hopeful sentiments died on November 22, 1963, but Apollo went on to achieve Kennedy’s goal, despite tragedy and setbacks along the way.
Fifty years later, humans have yet to venture again beyond low Earth orbit, even with all the recent hype from various players about going back to the Moon. Thanks to Apollo, we know a little bit more about how to do it, though we’re lacking the technical means at the moment.
Yet it will require more than Elon Musk’s money or Donald Trump’s bravado to determine whether Apollo remains a singular moment in human history or truly the “one giant leap for mankind” it promised to be half a century ago. As Brinkley says, “It takes a rare combination of leadership, luck, timing, and public will to pull off something as sensational as Kennedy’s Apollo moonshot.”
Mark Wolverton is a science writer, author, and playwright whose articles have appeared in Undark, Wired, Scientific American, Popular Science, Air & Space Smithsonian, and American Heritage, among other publications. His latest book Burning the Sky: Operation Argus and the Untold Story of the Cold War Nuclear Tests in Outer Space was published last November.