"We Choose to Go to the Moon."
Author Douglas Brinkley on JFK's challenge — and our obstacle today.
By Clark Miller | June 29, 2019
One of America's most eminent historians, Douglas Brinkley, comes to the National Writers Series at City Opera House at 7 pm Saturday, July 13, to unveil his latest book, “American Moonshot: John F. Kennedy and the Great Space Race,” which celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing.
Brinkley argues that JFK felt deeply that space would show the superiority of American science and technology. He also needed a cause that would distinguish his presidency and show that a bold new era had arrived.
JFK's predecessor, Dwight Eisenhower, had shown little interest in space. He saw it mostly as a stunt. He wasn't alone. Other critics used the term, "moondoggle." Measured by today's standards, Eisenhower was a different kind of conservative. He warned that taxpayer's money would be better spent fixing social ills. He took a similar stance about the defense budget by decrying the "military-industrial complex."
In 1953, Eisenhower said, "Every gun that is made, every warship that is launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and not clothed … ." At most, he considered it enough to simply keep up with the Soviet space program.
Kennedy took the opposite approach. He wasn't satisfied with keeping pace. The Soviets, under Eisenhower's watch, had shown their growing technical sophistication with Sputnik.
Kennedy had found his cause: He wanted to leapfrog ahead of the Soviets. In 1961, he staked out his bold vision: "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, and the others, too."
Kennedy, who didn't live to see Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walk on the moon, gave that speech at Rice University, where Douglas Brinkley now teaches.
Northern Express interviewed Brinkley about the 50th anniversary of the moonshot and what he thinks about the future of space travel.
Express: America's victory in the space race — getting astronauts to the moon and safely back — was a moment many of us will never forget.
Brinkley: Other generations talk about Pearl Harbor, the assassination of John and then Robert Kennedy, and now 9/11. But the moonshot is different. It's a celebration of the bravery of our astronauts and the quality of our country's scientific expertise. That makes it something we can all be excited about.
Express: You've expressed skepticism about future space travel.
Brinkley: There's a saying at NASA. "No bucks, no Buck Rogers." [Editor's note: Buck Rogers was an early, fictional space traveler.] We can't go back to the moon or build a colony unless taxpayers are convinced to pony up a lot more money. Meanwhile, we have a climate crisis right here on Earth and oceans full of plastic.
Express: You've written about returning to collaborative efforts in space.
Brinkley: What sometimes depresses me about American life now is the lack of collaboration. There's sort of a neo-Civil War going on. The moonshot was something all of America took part in. Much of the world watched it on TV. We need to do big things like that again. It's not the engineers or scientists who have let us down. Consider all the hate spewed every day now on social media.
Express: And what would a re-energized space program accomplish?
Brinkley: It could enhance living on earth. Space travel started with a focus on space, but astronauts came back talking about the earth. From their perspective, it looked like a beautiful "blue marble." From space, you can’t see borders.
Express: What about a cost-benefit analysis?
Brinkley: Going to the moon was very expensive, but it was worth it. I hope we return. It changed everything. Think of the use of satellite-based technologies. Space medicine. There's the big question — are we alone in the universe? — but also so many practical spinoffs.
Express: Does the younger generation have a curiosity about space?
Brinkley: Absolutely. They're all jazzed up about it. There are opportunities for women. Private companies. Jobs. Young people lean so heavily on tech. I teach in the humanities — it's not easy to find students who want to major in the field. But look at all the programs about space. They are very robust. It's a good time in America for STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics].
Space falls right into that. No colleges I know of are cutting space medicine or engineering programs.
Express: So much can be done now by robots. Doesn't that relate to space exploration, too?
Brinkley: I don't think you'll get the kind of national funding needed unless it's a manned venture.
BRUSH UP ON BRINKLEY
Brinkley has written about Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the creation of the United Nations, Jimmy Carter's "unfinished presidency," Civil Rights heroine Rosa Parks, newscaster Walter Cronkite, and one of Michigan's most controversial figures, Henry Ford. Brinkley serves as a commentator for CNN, usually on topics relating to the history of the U.S. presidency. He has also edited the letters of Gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson and beat writer Jack Kerouac. An amateur musician and jazz lover, he won a Grammy for co-producing the Ted Nash Big Band's Presidential Suite: Eight Variations on Freedom. He is an avid defender of America's wildernesses.
Doors to the 7pm NWS Douglas Brinkley event open at 6pm. For tickets, go to www.cityoperahouse.org; call (231) 941-8082, ext. 201, Monday-Friday; or visit the City Opera House box office at 106 E. Front St.