American Moonshot: John F. Kennedy and the Great Space Race by Douglas Brinkley
Apollo 11 dir. Todd Douglas Miller (2019)
First Man dir. Damien Chazelle (2018)
Fifty years ago this summer, humanity left its first footprints on another world when American astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin gently climbed down the ladder of the lunar module Eagle and stepped onto the surface of the Moon. Beyond the stalwart efforts of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, NASA-sponsored events at other science and technology museum across the country, and an upcoming three-part PBS documentary, this momentous milestone approaches with little official fanfare. But the Apollo moonshot and what the historian Douglas Brinkley aptly terms the “great space race” remain indelible cultural touchstones for Americans and, indeed, many around the world.
Brinkley himself has become part of the unofficial public commemoration of Apollo 11 that’s steadily picked up steam over the past year. This output not only includes his new book, American Moonshot: John F. Kennedy and the Great Space Race, but also the films First Man, director Damien Chazelle’s dramatization of Neil Armstrong’s journey from X-15 test pilot to first man on the Moon, and Apollo 11, a breathtaking documentary of the mission pulled together by director Todd Douglas Miller from footage left neglected for decades in the National Archives.
It’s no coincidence that both First Man and Apollo 11 close with President Kennedy’s stirring September 1962 case for Apollo made at Rice University in Houston – and it’s President Kennedy’s space policy that American Moonshot explores. Though it doesn’t reach the same heights as Brinkley’s accounts of the conservationist policies of Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt (The Wilderness Warrior and Rightful Heritage, respectively), American Moonshot effectively argues for Kennedy’s personal importance in the politics and policies that set America on a course for the Moon in the early 1960s. Kennedy’s extraordinary competitive streak and faith in the fundamental tenets of mid-twentieth century liberalism – as Brinkley puts it, “America, the richest nation, doing big projects well” – drove his early and enthusiastic support for America’s space program in general and Apollo in particular.
But as Brinkley makes clear, the spirit of Apollo didn’t simply consist of high-flown rhetoric. The actual moonshot required a marshaling of national resources and purpose on a scale the likes of which have not been seen since. President Kennedy didn’t conjure Apollo into existence through sheer will; after all, he told NASA administrator James Webb in November 1962 that he was “not that interested in space” for its own sake. Instead, Kennedy saw space exploration both as a critical component of his own liberal nationalist vision and a central front in the Cold War with the Soviet Union.
Indeed, national prestige – as refracted through both America’s own domestic politics and its geopolitical competition with the Soviet Union – laid squarely at the heart of Kennedy’s initial and ongoing support for Apollo. As Brinkley notes, “Kennedy was a prestige maven when it came to space-related issues… Refusing to be first in space, JFK would say, telegraphed the wrong signals to Third World countries debating the political virtues of democracy over communism.” Or as Kennedy himself put it on that sweltering September day at Rice in 1962, Apollo would “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 which we intend to win, and the others, too.”
Yet Brinkley only partially manages to capture the grandeur of Apollo and the “great space race.” Nor does he entirely fulfill the book’s promise to situate Apollo in the sweep of mid-twentieth century American liberalism, despite tantalizing morsels and passing references scattered throughout. Brinkley leaves intriguing lines of thought unexplored, failing to dilate on the idea that both Kennedy and his successor Lyndon Johnson saw the space race with the Soviet Union as both “a challenge to the American democratic way of life” and a “dare to rise to greatness.”
Here, Brinkley misses an opportunity to more clearly show that today’s progressives need not fear constructive forms of nationalism. Indeed, it’s the under-developed subtext of American Moonshot that the nationalist impetus can harnessed and embraced to achieve liberal ends. In other words, today’s liberals and progressives could and should take take a page from JFK’s book and recognize the vital role that large, impressive, and ambitious national projects like Apollo can play in lifting national morale and cultivating a sense of collective national purpose. It’s no accident, as Brinkley himself notes in his preface, that the very neologism “moonshot” has been applied far and wide to such projects ever since the Apollo era.
To truly capture the awesome nature of Apollo, however, we have to turn to cinema – especially Todd Douglas Miller’s thrilling documentary Apollo 11. Miller’s cinematic tour-de-force combines digitally-restored footage originally filmed for a long-forgotten NASA-sponsored documentary released in the early 1970s with contemporary 1969 audio, much of it consisting of transmissions between the astronauts aboard Apollo 11 and Mission Control in Houston laboriously synced up with the film. Television newsman Walter Cronkite’s broadcast updates on Apollo 11’s progress provide a brilliant substitute for the traditional voiceover narrative found in documentary films.
This minimalist approach works wonders, letting events speak for themselves and bringing those of us born after Apollo as close as we can get to actually experiencing events as they happened. But perhaps more importantly, Apollo 11 manages to place its subject in its proper, awe-inspiring context in ways that the written word simply cannot convey. Video collages, for instance, give brief glimpses into the lives as astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins as they suit up for their epochal voyage – creating a sense of personal and historical perspective in just a few short minutes.
Alternately pulsating and ethereal, Matt Morton’s score – performed entirely on instruments and equipment available in 1969 – adds power and tension to the film’s most important scenes. Countdown to launch concludes with a pulsing heartbeat just as the Saturn V’s massive F-1 main engines ignite to lift the gargantuan rocket off the pad. Thunderous strikes of piano keys accompany liftoff and the successive shedding of rocket stages as Apollo 11 claws itself into orbit. Strings meld with electronic beats ratchet up the tension as Neil Armstrong brings the lunar module Eagle in for a safe landing on the Moon despite constant alarms, ever-decreasing fuel, and a forbidding lunar terrain.
Miller even manages to effectively convey the massive scope of the national effort that sent astronauts from the Earth to the Moon. Shots of the army of workers that made Apollo 11 possible are spliced into the mission’s final television broadcast, with Armstrong offering “special thanks to all those Americans who built those spacecraft, who did the construction, design, the tests, and put their heart and all their abilities into those craft.” It’s supremely fitting, then, that the credits of Apollo 11 close with a dedication“to the thousands of NASA staff, contractors, and volunteers of Project Apollo.”
By contrast, Damien Chazelle’s First Man only rarely manages to capture the same sort of spark. Where the stark presentation of Apollo 11 allows the epochal journey to speak for itself, a similarly austere approach falls flat with this Neil Armstrong biopic. That’s not to say First Man fails altogether: the action sequences – the opening X-15 flight, the hair-raising end-over-end tumble of Gemini VIII, and the launch of Apollo 11 – all thrill. Justin Hurwitz’s score provides a suitable backdrop to momentous events. Perhaps most importantly, Chazelle’s gives a gorgeous depiction of Eagle’s landing and Armstrong’s first steps on the Moon. But it’s not clear that the film itself truly earns these moments, and in the end they pale in comparison to the reality conveyed by Apollo 11.
First Man’s biggest flaw is its cold depiction of its subject, Neil Armstrong. Here the film’s spartan aesthetic works against it: while it purports to be a character study of the first human to set foot on another world, it’s hard to figure out what makes that character tick. It’s clear that Ryan Gosling’s Armstrong is deeply introverted – the line he delivers about standing alone in his backyard if he wanted to talk to somebody about the death of a fellow astronaut resonated strongly with this introvert – but Gosling’s strong performance notwithstanding it’s unclear how or why that made him the astronaut or person he was.
That may simply be due to the nature of the man himself. Notoriously and understandably averse to talking about himself, Armstrong often felt more comfortable talking about the engineering problems involved in landing on the Moon or flying the X-15 than about what either of those experiences was like. But as any introvert would tell you, there are depths that can still be plumbed. In the end, First Man sells Armstrong short even as it shows that Apollo can still inspire wonder even in somewhat lackluster fictionalized accounts.
If anything, however, the fiftieth anniversary of Apollo 11 should be an occasion for all Americans – and progressives in particular – to reflect on what a constructive nationalism can accomplish when harnessed to liberal ends. Apollo remains a symbol of the America mid-twentieth century liberals like President Kennedy wanted to create, the sort of nation they wanted America to be. They only partially succeeded in that task, but Apollo still instills a sense of collective accomplishment and pride in what America can do when it works together under inspiring political leadership. Even at our current national nadir, Apollo reminds Americans that we once did great things – and can do so again in the future.