American Moonshot by Douglas Brinkley


Though this book wasn’t the detailed account of the technical innovations required to get to space as I was hoping, I enjoyed it. I feel inspired reading about a time in America where a president had the ability to bring the nation together under one goal, even if some thought that goal was insane.

*American Moonshot* gives a unique peak behind the Cold War political curtain. I never realized how much of the space race was influenced because of the Cold War. Some reviewers, including me, have questioned whether Kennedy would have had such an audacious goal if there was no Soviet Union to race against. We’ll never know.


  • Robert Goddard was the first real rocketeer in America. His experiments began in the 1920s but didn’t gain much publicity. This was in part because he promised a moonshot and couldn’t quite deliver on that yet. After struggling to get someone to finance his research, Charles Lindbergh stepped up and convinced David Guggenheim to give him $100,000 over a four-year period. Ecstatic, Goddard moved to New Mexico. In one experiment, his rocket reached 9,000 feet in just 22 seconds.
  • JFK’s father was a diplomat of sorts in Britain during Roosevelt’s presidency, appointed by POTUS himself. Though he struggled to bite his tongue and keep his strong opinions to a minimum. Eventually, FDR fired him.
  • Upon Germany’s collapse and a couple failed evacuation attempts, Von Braun decided it was best to surrender to the US Army. One member of his team said:
    > We despise the French. We are mortally afraid of the Soviets; we do not believe the British can afford us; so that leaves the Americans. >
  • After his initial surrender, and with a map of where to go, American troops seized 14 tons of blueprints and designs from different Nazi facilities. They’d also have enough parts to make one hundred V-2s. And they had the guy who knew how to do just that. This did not make Stalin happy. He’s quoted saying, “This is absolutely intolerable. We defeated Nazi armies; we occupied Berlin and Peenemünde, but the Americans get the rocket engineers? What could be more revolting and more inexcusable?
  • Was operation overcast the same as operation paperclip?
    • Yes it was. It was changed due to a security breach. The name was chosen by officers who would fasten paperclips to the folders of Nazi rocket experts they chose to hire.
  • JIOA whitewashed von Braun and his teams of their Nazi history, sealed their files, and gave them full security clearance to begin work in America.
  • According to the US Government’s own estimate, America had been at least eight years behind German rocket capability. With the new addition of von Braun and crew, that gapped vanished overnight.
  • Jack Kennedy was a private man who preferred to keep to himself or spend time with friends. Pandering to voters wasn’t really his cup of tea. “With smiling ease, he could be full of good conversation while never completely connecting with anyone or revealing a thing.”
  • After FDRs death (and his thirteen-year long presidency), the Democratic party had a hard time redefining itself without its leader…and Truman was not the person to fit that bill. The Republican Party grabbed the upper hand and took a very anti-Soviet, anti-communism position that became the defining attitude of the times.
  • Stalin, in 1943, was The Times “Man of the Year” what
  • With the Red Scare in full effect in America, people became paranoid. “The murkiness of the line between reason and hysteria and the whisking away of serious deliberation bothered many New Deal Democrats. But any liberal candidates who attempted to have a nuanced discussion were attacked as being soft on communism.
  • In 1946, the Army Signal Corps bounced radio waves off the moon and received them back on earth for the first time. This proved that radio waves would work in space and could be adapted to control manned and unmanned spacecraft.
  • JFK was *such* a young senator
  • RAND was developed by many people, including General H.H. “Hap” Arnold. His idea was that academia, industry, and the military had common goals and would benefit from cooperation during the transition from war to peace.
  • Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier in October 14, 1947. He launched out of the bomb bay of a Boeing Superfortress B-29. Why couldn’t he have just gel nods like normal?
  • What exactly was the Berlin Air Lift?
  • What was Atomic Energy Act of 1946?
    • “The Atomic Energy Act of 1946 (McMahon Act) determined how the United States would control and manage the nuclear technology it had jointly developed with its World War II allies, the United Kingdom and Canada. Most significantly, the Act ruled that nuclear weapon development and nuclear power management would be under civilian, rather than military control, and established the United States Atomic Energy Commission for this purpose.”
  • Due to the Americans strength in the air during the Korean war, Truman did not think it was necessary to spend money developing ICBMs at a level comparable to the Soviets. For comparison, in Truman’s last year, he spent $3 million on ballistic missile development. Eisenhower took that number to $161 million when he became president.
  • Von Braun was a genius advertiser. He understood that in a democracy, where tax-payers were footing the bill of space exploration, he had to appeal to their patriotic pride. He juxtaposed spending on space exploration as a way to beat the Soviet’s and made sure that everyone knew that whoever was in space first…would eventually make the rules. “Advertising is everything in America,” he would tell a friend.
  • For some reason, I can’t totally figure out why, Eisenhower was avoiding space, satellites, and rockets. He spent money on them, sure, but he didn’t want to actually launch anything. Was he afraid of failing?Am I missing something? Probably. That is until London B. Johnson gave a riveting speech to the people after *Sputnik* was launched. His speech is recognized by most as the tipping point in the Cold War to create a unified space program. p.134

  • Von Braun became a hero in Cold War America due to his beliefs that they could beat the Soviet’s in most space exploration’s. He said he got 10 letters a day from people asking how to be a rocketeer. One lady, he said, wrote that God doesn’t want man to leave earth and that she’ll bet him $10 they never make it. He wrote back saying, “as far as I know, the Bible said nothing about space flight, but it was clearly against gambling.”
  • 2 months after Sputnik, the Navy launched one of their Vanguard rockets with a test satellite. It rose 4 feet in the air and then exploded. There was no live coverage, but the event was called “Kaputnik” or “Stayputnik.” I thought that was funny lol.
  • At the time, a Washington journalist, Drew Pearson, accused Kennedy of not actually writing Profiles in Courage and instead said the credit belongs to his speechwriter. Why did he say that? Is there any merit to it?
  • After the Navy’s failed launch, von Braun, working with the Army, got word to build a modified Redstone rocket in 90 days. If he did it, he could launch. 90 days later, Explorer 1, the first US satellite to circle earth, was in orbit and carried by von Braun’s rocket. Feb. 1.
  • Joe Walker, one of the astronauts picked as a contender to the be the first in space, was a test pilot. Though Chuck Yeager received world fame by breaking the sound barrier in 1947 in the X-15, Walker eventually flew higher and faster then Yeager. On his first flight, being surprised by the sheer force of the rockets, he yelled, “Oh my God!” into the radio. “Yes? You called?” The flight controller responded back comically.
  • Watch *Shooting for the Moon*.
  • JFK had an uncanny ability to master and brand words that defined his mission. He used “missile gap” to explain the vast difference between the Soviet Union’s missile tech and that of the United States. During his presidential bid, he used the term New Frontier to captivate the minds of Americans to think about what was next.
    • New Frontier would be a cool newsletter name
  • JFK’s “missile gap” propaganda was a Cold War myth. The Soviet’s were a lot less armed than was thought of at the time. The problem was, no body knew that except high level officials in the CIA. Since this “gap” was one of Kennedy’s main talking points during his presidential campaigning, the CIA director, Allen Dulles, decided to let him and Nixon, his opponent, in on the secret: the Soviet’s are not stockpiling ICBMs. Kennedy didn’t change his strategy and kept alluding to the gap. Nixon knew he could destroy this play, because it was a strong one, but only by giving up their source and information, which he obviously couldn’t do. “I could expose that phony in minutes by displaying our high-altitude photographs and explaining the quality of information we are getting,” Nixon declared. “I can’t do that without destroying our source, and Kennedy, that bastard, knows I can’t.
  • Explaining Tomorrow with the Space Agency - read this.

  • A common anecdote JFK told on the campaign trail about Benjamin Franklin watching the first gas-filled balloons rising up in Paris. A skeptic asked Franklin what possible use the balloon was to mankind. Franklin answered, “What good is a baby?”

  • “Everyone has oceans to fly, if they have the heart to do it. Is it reckless? Maybe. But what do dreams know of boundaries? – Amelia Earhart
  • Yuri Gagarian’s flight was soon followed by the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion. These events acted as a one-two punch to knock Kennedy down.
  • “Instead of cowboy hats and six shooters, the unshrinkable New Frontier heroes wore silvery fabric and rubbery space suits along with round helmets with wide visors.”
  • One Mercury astronaut, Deke Slayton, commented that Kennedy’s “before the decade is out” goal was brilliant. “What Kennedy did was pick a goal people could relate to,” he said. “It has to be something under ten years; if you give people a thirty-year goal, they won’t waste time thinking about it, it’s too far away.”
  • I like how Harvard professor Richard Neustadt defined presidential greatness, saying that it was the “power to persuade.” I think that’s just what makes a great leader. Can you get the people around you bought into your vision? I think that’s why D is having trouble with their ideas… too in the weeds. They need to be inspired.
  • But not everyone agreed with JFK’s moon mission. Robert Boyd, a British physicist said, “This may in fact be the best political thing they can do in the circumstances in which they find themselves. But just taking humanity as a whole and the question of what we would do if we were all sane men, I think we wouldn’t be spending money sending man into space…Personally I am rather sorry that, frequently, science is dragged in as the justification for what I really regard as political exercise.”
  • Dr. Hans Thirring said he didn’t think it would be possible for another 30 or 40 years!
  • Another critique, that had merit, was what could be accomplished if the $20 billion being allocated for the moon landing would do if spent on a more humanitarian cause like curing cancer or building a high speed rail from coast to coast.
  • How and why was Rice University tuition free? And why did they start charging tuition?
  • Houston winning the bid for the new Manned Spacecraft Center was a lifeline to Houston; and all embraced it. I didn’t put this together, but the Astros and the Rockets are named after the space buzz of the 1960s.
  • Gemini, the astronaut training program designed for two-man space flights, was named after the constellation that included twin stars Castor and Pollux, a sign of the zodiac controlled by Mercury.
  • On Jan. 20, 1962, after a few scrapped launched for John Glenn, he was summoned to the White House. Im his words, Kennedy and he chatted “like one guy to another.” Kennedy wanted to be sure Glenn felt personally that everything had been done to keep him safe and make sure everything goes to plan. Glenn said when they first started the program, Space Task Group chief Robert Gilruth told each astronaut that they had complete veto power and if at “any time we, as experienced test pilots, saw something going on that we didn’t like or there was an area that we thought needed more testing or anything that we weren’t satisfied with, to let him know…the President thought that was an excellent way to conduct such a project.”
    • Interesting…I get the sentiment because they were test pilots, but where does the trust the expert motto come in here? Maybe there isn’t one because they are talking about a literal life or death scenario and not the copy on a
  • Friendship 7, Glenn’s capsule, contained more than 7 miles of wiring and ten thousand components! It was built by McDonnell Aircraft in St. Louis, which eventually became Boeing.
  • Minutes before Glenn blasted off, he told his wife, “Remember don’t be scared. I’m just going down to the corner store to get a pack of gum.”
  • On reentry, Glenn’s capsule lost part of its heat shield. He was rescued sweating, dehydrated, and 5-pounds lighter than when he entered it.
  • After the flight, Glenn and JFK became quite the friends. Aboard Air Force One, Jackie Kennedy brought her daughter, Caroline, to meet Glenn. After being introduced, five-year old Caroline looked confused. As tears started to swell up in her eyes, she asked, “But where’s the monkey?” Referring to Enos.
  • I wonder, then, can law in general not exist without any means to enforce it? Could the Tragedy of the Commons be used as a description here? If there are many people in one area and someone doesn’t follow the rules but doesn’t get punished for it, is that why the Tragedy of the Commons happens?
  • Gordon Cooper, the last and longest of the Mercury mission astronauts had a short circuit on reentry and had to do it manually. He splashed down Faith 7 just 4.5 miles from the recovery ship. Unbelievable.