American Moonshot: John F. Kennedy and the Great Space Race

By Douglas Brinkley

HarperCollins, New York City, 2019, 528pp.

A review by Nancy Spannaus

Aug. 3, 2019–“Many Americans make the mistake of assuming that space research has no value here on earth. Nothing could be further from the truth.” Those words coming from President John F. Kennedy’s final speech before his assassination. The speech was given in San Antonio, Texas at the dedication of the Aerospace Medical Health Center[1] on Nov. 21, 1963, and they capture an essential premise behind Kennedy’s decision to mobilize the United States population to send a man to the Moon, and back. He saw the Moonshot, later Apollo 11, as a pathway to progress for all those who remained on earth.

History professor Douglas Brinkley, a professor at Texas’s Rice University, makes this commitment of President Kennedy a recurrent theme in his latest book, American Moonshot: John F. Kennedy and the Great Space Race. While tracing the history of the rocket program in the United States, Germany, and the Soviet Union as it evolved into the “space race” of the 1960s, the author simultaneously reports on the development of Kennedy’s thinking. There is no question but that JFK began as a “cold warrior,” and adopted the Moonshot program as an explicit means of “leapfrogging” over Soviet advances in space. But the President increasingly realized that his mobilization of the American “frontier” spirit to travel to the Moon, was much, much more.

JFK's Moonshot: Pathway to Progress
JFK at his speech speaking at Rice University on the Apollo Mission in 1962.

Brinkley reports on a crucial meeting of Kennedy with his space advisors on April 14, 1961, two days after cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin had electrified the world with his space flight. He cites an aide reminding the President before the meeting of the way in which Franklin Roosevelt had inspired the nation to accomplish the “impossible” in the war mobilization, and goes on to discuss how the United States had often risen to engineering challenges—cf. the Erie Canal, the Panama Canal, and the Hoover Dam. Mobilizing to go to the Moon was essentially a cross between a military buildup and a grand infrastructure project, held together by the overarching aim of expanding human knowledge.

There are no first-hand reports on this meeting, but according to Brinkley, Ted Sorensen, JFK’s intimate friend and speech writer, said that at this meeting “Kennedy began to really get the feel of what this whole thing might mean to the Presidency and to the United States.” The idea, as Brinkley puts it, was to “once again uncork America’s spirit of scientific achievement, engineering ingenuity, and global leadership.” (pp. 231-232)

Thus, while Kennedy’s Moonshot program, launched May 25, 1961 began as an avowed attempt to “win the battle that is now going on around the world between freedom and tyranny,”[2] by the fall of 1963 he had embraced the idea of space exploration as the pathway to international cooperation, economic progress, and world peace.

Military or Civilian?

The history of the American space program is marked throughout by tensions between the military and the civilian domains. The initial U.S. space agency, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), was established in 1915 and brought together military, industry, and scientific personnel to work on questions of flight. Labs were set up in various parts of the country, where test flights and other experimentation occurred.

In October 1958, thanks heavily to Senator Lyndon Johnson, NACA and its labs were subsumed by NASA, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. NASA was explicitly a civilian agency, although it worked closely with the military. Upon its establishment, President Eisenhower signed an executive order transferring “Certain Functions from the Department of Defense to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.” A few weeks later, the Army Ballistic Missile Agency, and its Saturn project, which were being run by German rocket scientist Werner von Braun in Huntsville, Alabama, were also transferred lock, stock, and barrel from the Army to NASA.

NASA was mandated to share with defense agencies any information of military value, but it was also explicitly mandated by law (section 203(a)(3) to “provide for the widest and most practical appropriate dissemination of information concerning its activities and results thereof.” President Kennedy took this mandate seriously, as exemplified in the sharing of the technology which allowed live overseas broadcasting in the summer of 1962 (Telstar).

Thus, although all the astronauts in the early days had military experience, NASA was run by civilians, and its orientation reflected that fact. In the face of rising tensions with the Soviet Union in the early 1960s (cf. the Berlin crisis and the Cuban Missile crisis), there was significant conflict between the military and the NASA leadership.  Numerous political figures, including Sen. Barry Goldwater, became increasingly vocal in attacking the huge allocation of resources into the Moonshot program, which even Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara was saying had “no military value.” Goldwater explicitly demanded that “the armed forces should already be planning the development as soon as possible of a completely integrated space warfare system.” (p. 351)

JFK's Moonshot: Pathway to Progress
President Kennedy meeting with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchov. (wikipedia)

While President Kennedy did his best to reconcile the military and civilian aspects of the space program, he came down decisively against the militarization of the space program. This was dramatized in the summer of 1963 when he devoted two major speeches, one at American University in June and one at the United Nations in September, to discussing how space could be the arena for improved superpower cooperation. The UN speech explicitly offered the sharing of scientific information between the United States and the Soviet Union in the interest of a potential joint moon landing. The military, and the CIA, were stunned.

In fact, President Kennedy had authorized a series of back-channel discussions on precisely this kind of collaboration. (pp. 416-418) And while Soviet leader Nikita Krushchov had by no means agreed, there were indications that progress could well be made.

The Role of Lyndon Johnson

Of great interest to this writer was what Brinkley had to say about the role of Vice-President Lyndon Johnson (LBJ) in shaping the direction of the NASA Moon program. It is well known that Johnson used his considerable political skill with the Congress to ensure the necessary level of funding—which ultimately amounted to 5% of the Federal budget–both before and after Kennedy’s death. But Johnson did much more.

In April 1963, when Kennedy and the NASA leadership were forced to fight tooth and nail to maintain the necessary level of funding for the Moonshot, the President called on LBJ to help. The help came not only with political maneuvering, but with Johnson providing conceptual input for the President. The following memorandum, delivered by Johnson on May 13, 1963 reflects his argument (pp. 401-2):

JFK's Moonshot: Pathway to Progress
Lyndon Johnson, the pointman for the Apollo program

Benefits to National Economy from NASA Space Programs

  1. It cannot be questioned that billions of dollars directed into research and development in an orderly and thoughtful manner will have significant effect upon our national economy. No formula has been found which attributes specific dollar values to each of these areas of anticipated developments, however, the “multiplier” of space research and development will augment our economic strength, our peaceful posture, and our standard of living.
  2. Even though specific dollar values cannot be set for these benefits, a mere listing of the fields which will be affected is convincing evidence that the benefits will be substantial. The benefits include:
  3. Additional knowledge about the Earth and the Sun’s influence on the Earth, the nature of interplanetary space environment, and the origin of the solar system as well as of life itself.
  4. Increased ability and experience in managing major research and development efforts, expansion of capital facilities, encouragement of higher standards of quality production.
  5. Accelerated use of liquid oxygen in steelmaking, coatings for temperature control of housing, efficient transfer of chemical energy into electricity energy, and wide-range advances in electronics.
  6. Development of effective filters against detergents; increased accuracy (and therefore reduced costs) in measuring hot steel rods; improved medical equipment in human care; stimulation of the use of fiberglass refractory welding tape, high energy metal forming processes, development of new coatings for plywood and furniture; use of frangible tube energy absorption systems that can be adapted to absorbing shocks of failing elevators and emergency aircraft landings.
  7. Improved communications, improved weather forecasting, improved forest fire detection, and improved navigations.
  8. Development of high temperature gas-cooled graphite moderated reactors and liquid metal cooled reactors; development of radioisotope power sources for both military and civilian use; development of instruments for monitoring degrees of radiation; and application of thermoelectric and thermionic conversion of heat to electric energy.
  9. Improvements in metals, alloys, and ceramics.
  10. An augmentation of the supply of highly trained technical manpower.
  11. Great strength for the educational system both through direct grants, facilities and scholarships and through setting goals that will encourage young people.
  12. An expansion of the base for peaceful cooperation among nations.
  13. Military competence…

Promises Fulfilled and Unfulfilled       

As you can see from this list – and as later studies have confirmed – a good deal of what Vice-President Johnson outlined was accomplished, at least in potential. Major discoveries were made, setting the stage for a new burst of productivity in the U.S. economy and within its workforce. Medical breakthroughs occurred. The basis for international collaboration in science at the highest level was established. A bright future lay ahead.

JFK's Moonshot: Pathway to Progress
Life support for a premature baby–one beneficiary of space science

President Kennedy’s final speech in San Antonio, although restricted to the question of advances in medicine, is a perfect example of the mindset which the Apollo project portended. His short speech included the following:

Many Americans make the mistake of assuming that space research has no values here on earth. Nothing could be further from the truth. Just as the wartime development of radar gave us the transistor, and all that it made possible, so research in space medicine holds the promise of substantial benefit for those of us who are earthbound. For our effort in space is not as some have suggested, a competitor for the natural resources that we need to develop the earth. It is a working partner and a co-producer of these resources. And nothing makes this clearer than the fact that medicine in space is going to make our lives healthier and happier here on earth.

I give you three examples: first, medical space research may open up new understanding of man’s relation to his environment. Examinations of the astronaut’s physical, and mental, and emotional reactions can teach us more about the differences between normal and abnormal, about the causes and effects of disorientation, about changes in metabolism which could result in extending the life span. When you study the effects on our astronauts of exhaust gases which can contaminate their environment, and you seek ways to alter these gases so as to reduce their toxicity, you are working on problems similar to those in our great urban centers which themselves are being corrupted by gases and which must be clear.

And second, medical space research may revolutionize the technology and the techniques of modern medicine. Whatever new devices are created, for example, to monitor our astronauts, to measure their heart activity, their breathing, their brain waves, their eye motion, at great distances and under difficult conditions, will also represent a major advance in general medical instrumentation. Heart patients may even be able to wear a light monitor which will sound a warning if their activity exceeds certain limits. An instrument recently developed to record automatically the impact of acceleration upon an astronaut’s eyes will also be of help to small children who are suffering miserably from eye defects, but are unable to describe their impairment. And also by the use of instruments similar to those used in Project Mercury, this Nation’s private as well as public nursing services are being improved, enabling one nurse now to give more critically ill patients greater attention than they ever could in the past.

And third, medical space research may lead to new safeguards against hazards common to many environments. Specifically, our astronauts will need fundamentally new devices to protect them from the ill effects of radiation which can have a profound influence upon medicine and man’s relations to our present environment.

While some of these medical breakthroughs were made, the political steps necessary to achieve the scientific revolution at hand were not taken. The economy did experience its last major infusion of technological progress, but the lion’s share of the objectives laid out by the Kennedy Administration were never realized. Nuclear power was sabotaged; nuclear desalination of seawater has not yet been developed on the necessary scale; and the space program itself was chopped to ribbons following the success of the Moon landing itself. Indeed, the productivity of our economy has stagnated, along with wages, infrastructure, and general conditions of life, since the early 1970s when the Moon program was dropped.

JFK's Moonshot: Pathway to Progress
Buzz Aldrin on the Moon, July 20, 1969.

Today we face the challenge of reversing a cultural decline of close to 50 years, through a restoration of the American System spirit which President Kennedy—and in large part, President Johnson–embodied. This book by Douglas Brinkley can provide a significant boost to that effort.

1] The health center continued in operation at the Brooks Air Force base until 2011, when that base was shut down, and the center’s functions shifted to Wright-Patterson in Dayton, Ohio.

[2] The quote comes from JFK’s May 25th address to Congress where he announced the Moonshot program.


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