American Moonshot: Douglas Brinkley at Arts and Lectures

By Robert Bernstein

Douglas Brinkley – “Presidential Leadership and Space Exploration: From John F. Kennedy to Today” – UCSB Campbell Hall 12/5/19

There was no April Humanist Society talk due the coronavirus crisis. But in December I had the privilege of attending this talk by Douglas Brinkley at Humanist Society expense. My friend Jim Balter had won the Humanist Society door prize raffle and he invited me to be his companion. Here is my report on the talk!

Here are courtesy photos given to me by Douglas Brinkley along with NASA photos and other public domain photos relevant to the talk. Here is a courtesy photo of David Brinkley along with the cover of his book:

The moon landing cost $185 billion in today’s dollars.

Brinkley grew up in Perrysburg, Ohio near Toledo and he was 8 ½ years old for the moon landing. Neil Armstrong grew up down the road in Wapakoneta, Ohio. This was Neil Armstrong’s official NASA photo:

Neil Armstrong was almost a hermit in Ohio after the moon landing. Brinkley would send books to him and politely ask for an interview. Armstrong would politely say no. But then, after six years, Armstrong called Brinkley. Armstrong said he was turning 70 and he wanted Brinkley to do an oral history of him for NASA. He was the only astronaut who hadn’t yet done one.

This was in 2001. Then 9/11 happened and all commercial flights were grounded. Armstrong never cancels anything. He flew himself for the interview. It was to be an 8 hour interview with no restrictions.

Brinkley is a humanities guy. He wants to know things like “what did it feel like”.

Armstrong was chosen for the mission because he is unflappable. Brinkley asked him, “Did you ever look at the moon and think ‘I will be standing there’?”. “No.”

Very different than astronaut William Anders who took the famous photos of Earth during the Apollo 8 mission.

Brinkley is a professor at Rice University. In 1962 President Kennedy gave his famous “We choose to go to the Moon” speech at Rice University. “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.”

JFK said that space is the new ocean. He wanted the country to pull together for a single purpose.

JFK was born in 1917 in Brookline, MA. The Wright Brothers had flown in 1903. WWI really pushed aviation. Going to the moon was a big question.

Robert Goddard was not far from where JFK was growing up and he was the only one figuring out the details of how to put a projectile in space. 62 miles up.

Goddard knew it had to be liquid fuel. Others were thinking it would be some kind of cannon as Jules Verne had proposed back during the time of the US Civil War. Verne actually got a lot of it right, though. It would be three Americans going to the moon in a three stage rocket. Verne thought it would be launched from Tampa in Florida.

Goddard was arrested at one point for making too much noise. But in 1926 he made the first successful launch of a liquid-fueled rocket using gasoline and liquid oxygen. It was launched from his Aunt Effie’s farm and landed in a cabbage field. At this time Goddard was a physics professor at Clark University. Unfortunately, the New York Times wrote an article calling him a “quack” and his funding dried up. The New York Times apologized in 1969, long after Goddard was dead.

Goddard moved to Roswell, New Mexico. Germany was funding rockets, but the US was putting its money in the Manhattan Project. The plan was to deliver the atomic bomb with an Air Force bomber and the Air Force had no interest in rockets.

Many German rocket scientists fled as WWII approached. But not Wernher von Braun. Von Braun built the first true Weapons of Mass Destruction. He worked out of a top secret base on the Baltic to create the V2 rocket. They broke the 62 mile barrier. They rained V2 rockets on London late in the war.

Churchill was forced to move government operations underground. The V2s had no precision. They might land in the English Channel or on a farm. It was lucky that the war ended before the guidance systems were perfected.

The V2s were built at the Buchenwald concentration camp with Jewish slave labor. Von Braun realized the war was lost for Germany. He knew that the British would have him tried for war crimes. And if he was captured by the USSR he would be forced to serve Stalin.

He got his brother Magnus to bicycle 100 miles to surrender him to the US. Operation Paperclip was a US operation to smuggle over 1,600 German scientists, engineers and technicians to the US from 1945 to 1959. Even though many of them were members and even leaders of the Nazi Party.

Von Braun was taken to Fort Bliss, Texas to work for the US Army. This had big moral implications and there were protests when it was discovered that von Braun was living and working in the US.

But von Braun went on to design the Saturn V rocket that went to the moon. Walt Disney helped promote von Braun.

From 1945-49 the US had a nuclear monopoly. But then the USSR had an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) and nuclear weapons.

Von Braun moved to Huntsville, Alabama and was given real money for his rocket work. Eisenhower hated von Braun. He knew about the death camps. Eisenhower was an Army man. He gave money to the Navy to stifle von Braun.

Brinkley noted that Huntsville lived under Jim Crow laws discriminating against black Americans.

1957 was a big turning point with the launch of the Soviet satellite Sputnik. Democrats accused the Republicans of losing the space race and allowing a “missile gap” to give the Soviets an advantage.

JFK was a WWII war hero. His older brother died trying to make a drone to destroy von Braun’s weapons. JFK had never lost an election, starting with his first run in 1946. He met von Braun in 1953. Von Braun was on the cover of Time Magazine on February 17, 1958.

JFK had no grudge against him. Brinkley said JFK had more distaste for leaders born in the 19th century. Notably, Churchill and Stalin.

JFK pushed for going to the moon. Brinkley said that in 1958 Eisenhower was forced to create NASA. He wanted it to be a civilian agency.

The 1960 presidential debates pitted JFK against Nixon. JFK won on the space issues. Nixon had told Khrushchev that the US led the Soviets on kitchen appliances and color TVs. JFK said we need to lead in rocket thrust.

JFK was in office just a few months when Gagarin was the first human in orbit.

JFK did not want tit for tat with the Soviets. He wanted to leapfrog past them. Von Braun told JFK he could get us to the moon if he was given the money.

The USSR didn’t care much about safe returns. In 1957 they launched the dog Laika into orbit with little concern for Laika’s safe return. Laika died in orbit.

On May 25, 1961 JFK called a joint session of Congress to announce we will go to the moon. NASA thought it was crazy. McGeorge Bundy called it “grandstanding”.

Alan Shepard was already the first American in space on May 5, 1961. His sub-orbital flight lasted just 15 minutes but he was an instant hero.

Money for technology would be a win for all. In 1960 there were no computer science departments. In 1963 every major school had it. The money for the moon mission attracted the best and brightest.

LBJ was from Texas. The South had been solidly Democratic before the Civil Rights movement. Then came the Freedom Rides. And Robert Kennedy pushing for integration. JFK saw the Democrats would lose the South. His solution: Massive “pork” spending in the South. NASA money went to Houston, Huntsville, Brevard, NC, Florida and Louisiana.

LBJ wanted to be the space czar. He and JFK despised each other. Former FCC Chair Newton Minow said if Alan Shepard had died, JFK would blame LBJ. No. LBJ would replace Shepard!

Walter Cronkite was covering John Glenn’s space flight as the first American to orbit the Earth. Glenn’s mother was excited for the chance to meet Walter Cronkite! Here John Glenn was in a parade in Cocoa Beach, Florida with JFK after his historic space flight:

A big sell of the space program was the idea of technology spinoffs. It was giving us defibrillators. Firefighter suits. Helmets.

GH Bush praised the money the space program brought to Texas. But no money had yet come to Dallas. JFK prepared to give a speech at the Dallas Trade Mart on November 22, 1963. He would talk about the economic value of satellites for communication and weather forecasting. But JFK never got to give that speech as he was assassinated on the way. John Glenn was a pallbearer for JFK’s body.

LBJ asked Jackie Kennedy what she wanted. Jackie said to keep the moon dream alive. He said he would and he would name the space center for JFK.

A big question was the prioritization of money. LBJ also wanted money for public schools, ending poverty and for his escalation of the US war in Vietnam. Goldwater wanted money for an Air Force presence in space, instead.

In 1967 the dream almost died with the first Apollo disaster. It was asked if the moon landing really had to be in this decade. But too much was already invested.

Nixon was not much into the moon landing. He hated the possibility of a disaster. Neil Armstrong was picked because he was not a military man.

13 women trained to be astronauts for the mission as well. They passed all the tests. Physician Randy Lovelace trained them. He thought they would be better for space travel than men in part because they were smaller and lighter than men. The group was called “Mercury 13” but it was never an official part of NASA.

TV newsman Edward R Murrow had become the director of the United States Information Agency, in charge of fighting the Cold War on the “hearts and minds” front. He argued that sending a black man in space would be a huge public relations boost for the US. But NASA vetoed that idea.

There was a movement to name the rocket to the moon after JFK. Nixon’s Chief of Staff Haldeman said no.

Neil Armstrong is remembered for his famous line upon stepping onto the surface of the moon: “That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.” Armstrong told Brinkley that he came up with that line in his kitchen.

When they left the moon, Armstrong asked Aldrin, “Did you leave the packet?” The packet referred to three medals for the three Apollo One astronauts who had died. This was the Apollo One crew that died:

After that? There were 12 people total who walked on the moon. TV ratings dropped. Nixon slashed funding for the last part. The US switched funding to the Space Shuttle.

It took the US until 1983 before Sally Ride became the first female American astronaut in space.

Where is the space program going now? NASA wants to go to the moon in 4-5 years. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi wants to see women on the moon.

Ice on the moon is a big motivation to go back. This water would allow an extended stay. The moon is mainly the same composition as the Earth. The space camps are divided. Some are pushing to go to Mars. Aldrin and Collins are still alive. They would like to see a direct leapfrog to Mars.

Bezos is one who sees the moon as a necessary launchpad to go on to Mars.

Others want to see that money used here on Earth to solve the Climate Crisis.

Do we want to go to Mars in collaboration with other countries? Not like the JFK sports metaphor to “beat them”. Mars will be a chance for a multi-national cooperation.

Brinkley ended by taking quite a few questions. I will note a few highlights from his answers.

He said that there are many today who claim that the entire moon landing was a fraud. He said that 70% of Russians believe it was a fraud.

Brinkley offered his opinion that landing people on Mars is 40-50 years away. Brinkley teaches classes on the 1960s. He said the students used to be interested in the social activism of the era. But now they are more excited at the prospect of space travel.

As for dealing with the Climate Crisis, Brinkley said that we have the technology to go beyond fossil fuels right now. The obstacle is not technology but vested interests who have political power.


Written by sbrobert

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