JFK and the Space Race: Transcript

JOHN F. KENNEDY: 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.

MATT PORTER: In 1962, President John F. Kennedy told a cheering crowd of more than 40,000 people at Rice University that American astronauts would land on the moon by the end of the decade. With much of the needed technology not even invented yet, it was a bold promise many people didn't think was possible. In this week's episode of JFK35, we'll revisit his speech at Rice University and also speak with historian Doug Brinkley and his new book, American Moonshot: JFK and the Great Space Race.


MATT PORTER: Welcome to this week's episode of JFK35, a podcast by the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation. I'm Matt Porter.

In 1962, President Kennedy made a speech at Rice University that has now become one of his most famous and iconic speeches from his presidency. On a beautiful fall afternoon, he told a cheering crowd of 40,000 people that the United States must be bold and cannot fall behind in the race for space. In his speech, the president paints the space race as not only an opportunity to advance in technology, but as a crucial battlefront in the burgeoning Cold War with the Soviet Union.

JOHN F. KENNEDY: If this capsule history of our progress teaches us anything, it is that man and his quest for knowledge and progress is determined and cannot be deterred. The exploration of space will go ahead, whether we join in it or not. And it is one of the great adventures of all time. And no nation which expects to be the leader of other nations can expect to stay behind in this race for space.

For the eyes of the world now look into space, to the moon, and to the planets beyond. And we have vowed that we shall not see it governed by a hostile flag of conquest, but by a banner of freedom and peace. We have vowed that we shall not see space filled with weapons of mass destruction, but with instruments of knowledge and understanding.

MATT PORTER: But this speech was not as well known then as it is today. In fact, research materials from our library show the speech went unnoticed at the time. The press coverage during President Kennedy's visit to Texas doesn't mention the speech much at all. Despite the little press, the journalists who were there described an electrifying atmosphere. Then CBS Southwest Bureau Chief Dan Rather described the speech as a thrilling moment in the race for space.

Today, the speech is one of our most requested recordings and repurposed often to serve as an inspiration for any number of products or causes. The speech serves not only as a motivator for sending a man to the moon, but its theme of encouraging bold action has a wide appeal.

Joining me now is historian Doug Brinkley. Doug just wrote a new book called American Moonshot: JFK and the Great Space Race. Doug is also a professor at Rice University, where JFK made that famous speech almost 57 years ago.

Doug, welcome to the podcast. Thanks for being here.

DOUG BRINKLEY: Well, it's a great pleasure.

MATT PORTER: Well, your book is a really nice complete look at the space race, from its modest beginning all the way to getting ready to go to the moon. I particularly liked how you sort of told the story parallel with President Kennedy's sort of young life, early life, and the influences that things were going on. Why did you choose to tell it that way?

DOUG BRINKLEY: Well, you know, I wanted to write about why John F. Kennedy, as president, put so much of his prestige on going to the moon. Why did he pay $25 billion of taxpayers' moneys? That's about $185 billion in today's money. What made Kennedy do it?

And so as a biographer, I went back to the beginning, to his childhood in 1917 and to family influences, how the early aviation of the Wright Brothers and how he was 10 years old at the time of Charles Lindbergh's trans-Atlantic flight, how Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon were in the air. There was a little bit of a space Renaissance going on for young people in toys and memorabilia. And how Kennedy loved the ocean and the seas and loved-- had a great sense of adventure. And how, due to a number of circumstances, including his brother dying in World War II in a-- when his brother's plane became like a drone, trying to take out missiles, parts of Nazi Germany, to Kennedy's great fear in the Cold War that the Soviets were beating us after Sputnik in 1957.

I followed Kennedy's career. And it started making sense why he was poised to make the New Frontier, which was the name for his presidential agenda, into a high frontier of space technology. And the Apollo program going to the moon was the heart and soul of it.

MATT PORTER: Right. You know, one thing you mentioned there was World War II. And we like to think of space, the space race, these days as that promise of a new frontier, that bold leadership, that focus on innovation and discovery. But in your book, you really go into detail about how war played a major factor in the development of the technologies that would lead us to space, starting in World War II and, of course, going into the Cold War, if you want to tell me a little bit about that.

DOUG BRINKLEY: Everything's about World War II. First off, John F. Kennedy served with the PT109 in the South Pacific. And as its famously been portrayed by many before me, barely survived, became a great war hero and a leader. But it was very audacious what those PT boats were doing. And later, Kennedy's love of the astronauts are of the same cut, of people willing to risk their lives to accomplish great national things.

But also in World War II, the technology developed. The US had, for example, brand new types of planes, military aviation. Radar comes out of World War II. But in Europe, Nazi Germany broke the-- made history when Wernher Von Braun shot a rocket over 62 miles into the atmosphere and we started going into space for the first time. He developed the V2, which is the prototype for the Saturn V that took us to the moon. The V2 was a war weapon. It rained V2 bombs on London, 5,000 of them, and Antwerp in Belgium, and a little bit in France.

And so fortunately, Hitler loses. Nazi Germany breaks up. And the United States, through Operation Paperclip, brought all of the Nazi rocketeers to America, including the great Wernher Von Braun, the genius engineer. And so Kennedy meets Wernher Von Braun in 1953. They are both the judges for Time magazine's Person of the Year. And they met in New York. And Von Braun and Kennedy chose Conrad Adenauer, West Germany, as the Person of the Year. And Kennedy and Von Braun have a very unique history throughout the '50s, so much so that Von Braun voted for Kennedy and very much for him, didn't like Eisenhower.

Because the big deal in the Cold War for American missile technology was who was going to build the missiles. And Eisenhower backed Navy and Vanguard rockets. And when you see old film clips of these American rockets at Cape Canaveral collapsing, those are Navy Vanguards. Kennedy gets into Wernher Von Braun's US Army rockets. And Von Braun has success after success after success. He knew how to build rockets and later, space rockets. And John F. Kennedy gets closely aligned with the Army in that regard.

Eventually, Von Braun works for NASA, after it's created in 1958. And it's unusual for a rocketeer or an engineer to be brought into top policymaking. But if you look at the memos at the Kennedy Library, it's always Jack Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, James Webb, Head of NASA. And Von Braun's included in the inner circle on figuring out, can we leapfrog the Soviets and go all the way to put a person on the moon.

And so the story of going in the moon is deeply a also-- we did it for a name of peace, but it also is developed after World War II and post-World War II missile technology.

MATT PORTER: Was there ever any concerns from some people having Wernher Von Braun there as part of the team, with his history?

DOUG BRINKLEY: More so historians today are investigating Von Braun's time in Nazi Germany, where there is some evidence that he should have been tried for war crimes. You know, anybody working in the Nazis could have been charged with that. But there were slave labor camps to build his V2 rockets. Many people perished. And so there's kind of an asterisk by Von Braun's name in history.

If you're studying engineering or rocketry, there's nobody-- you have to study his principles. But the idea of just turning your back on his Nazi past isn't correct to do, either. But Von Braun, once he came to America, he became naturalized. He called himself a German American. And he ended up staying very loyal to the US government for his entire career. So it's just a question of trying to put his biography in balance.

We sure are lucky Von Braun and his rocketeers weren't taken into the Soviet Union.

MATT PORTER: It was kind of just a very lucky thing that Von Braun and his team sort of were looking for Americans. And they found, I believe in your book, just this American lieutenant before the Soviets got to them.

DOUG BRINKLEY: You know, Wernher Von Braun was very, very smart, to put it mildly. But he saw the writing on the wall. Nazi Germany was collapsing. His view was, I'm never into politics. I'm a rocketeer building rockets. Hitler's German army paying for my experiments and so be it. But he knew to turn himself in to US armed forces. Otherwise, the Soviets would have gotten to him. And in London, if the British got to him, he may have been tried for war crimes for what he did to the city of London with his V2 rockets.

But the Truman administration said, look, this is the biggest windfall of the post-war world. We're getting all of this science coming over in one swoop. And so they call Von Braun a prisoner of peace and they bring him to Fort Bliss, near El Paso. And he starts testing his rockets on the White Sands Proving Ground in New Mexico, which was by Roswell, New Mexico, where Dr. Robert Goddard, the great early American rocketeer, was perfecting them.

And Von Braun already, as soon as he comes to America, is talking about going to the moon and to Mars. And he gets adopted by Walt Disney on his television show as explaining the future of space exploration. He writes articles, books. Von Braun becomes a big celebrity. Walter Cronkite would go down to hang out with him in Huntsville, Alabama. And so Von Braun did a lot to promote going to the moon. And he finally had a president that knew how to find the money, in Jack Kennedy, to pursue such a thing.

MATT PORTER: So let's talk about that. You know, NASA was not in great shape when President Kennedy took over. How did President Kennedy go from turning that ship around and getting NASA to where it was to not only put men in space and then have John Glenn orbit, but eventually set NASA up so that it could get men to the moon within the 10-year deadline?

DOUG BRINKLEY: The big thing to keep in mind with President Kennedy is that he did not like Sputnik. Jack Kennedy liked to be first. You know, he never lost a political election. He ran for Congress in 1946 and won. Won in '48. He ran all the time in the 40 for Congress and won. In 1952, he won the Senate, '58, the Senate. 1960, the presidency. He liked to be first. He was competitive. It comes out of his family's DNA.

And the fact that the Soviets had beat us with satellite, putting one up in the Eisenhower years, inflamed Kennedy. And he started using it as a club against Eisenhower-Nixon. There's a space gap, a missile gap. So much so when Kennedy debated Nixon in the famous four debates in the fall of 1960, at one point Kennedy scores points by going after Nixon and saying, you told Khrushchev last year that you want to be number one in appliances, and America's beating you in appliances. I will take my TV in black and white. I want to be number one in rocket thrust.

And then he tells Nixon in one of the debates, if you're elected, basically, I see a Soviet flag planted on the moon. I want to see an American flag on the moon.

MATT PORTER: And did that have an effect on people? Was that--

DOUG BRINKLEY: Oh, yeah. It's part of this idea that technology and NASA and going to the moon was all in the mix. But Kennedy becomes a salesperson for it. The New Frontier, I found out in my book, was actually being used in early 1960 by NASA in their publications. They would call it the New Frontier. There's a direct correlation between Kennedy and the New Frontier, just the term.

Then once he's president, of course, Yuri Gagarin goes into space, the Soviet cosmonaut. And Kennedy now allows, on May 5th of 1961, Alan Shepard to go. The big thing was, can we risk putting an astronaut into space? Because we had a lot of disasters at Cape Canaveral. And shepherd's a success. Kennedy basks in the glow of America as a new hero. Kennedy recognizes that space exploration is a television bonanza. It's good politics. It's good for the American spirit.

And that same month as Alan Shepard, he goes to Congress, on May 25, 1961. It's an afternoon, joint session of Congress, when he makes the pledge, we'll put an astronaut to the moon and bring them back alive by the end of the decade. At that point, it's all about convincing Congress to fund it. Kennedy does an amazing job, and it becomes a big bipartisan effort to fund Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo.

MATT PORTER: You talk a lot about James Webb, the people that Kennedy put in charge of this mission. How important was that, and how good was he at finding the right people for the right jobs to do the right thing?

DOUG BRINKLEY: Beside John F. Kennedy, the other two important people on going to the moon are Lyndon Johnson and James Webb. Webb is running NASA in its high watermark during the Kennedy years. And he is an amazing administrator. I don't know if I've ever-- and I've written a lot of books of presidential history-- have ever seen an administrator of any government agency as effective as Webb.

He was from North Carolina. He was a great lawyer. He had worked in the Truman years dealing with budgets, knew State Department and international affairs, had worked in Oklahoma. And as a business partner of Senator Robert Kerr of Oklahoma-- Kerr was the head of the Senate space appropriations. And then Lyndon's good buddy was Congressman Albert Thomas, who was the head of space in Congress appropriations, in Houston, Texas.

So Webb was able to bring in the two leaders of space on Capitol Hill into Kennedy's New Frontier moonshot pledge. And with the money, things can happen. And it was always well spent at NASA. There weren't budget overruns that were a waste. NASA didn't waste money. They perfected technology. And the spin-offs that Webb always understood, it wasn't just about going to the moon or having global prestige or winning a Cold War battle, it was about new technology.

And so we connect, whether it's MIT, or Purdue, or Rice University, or University of Alabama, I can go on and on naming beneficiaries of NASA. Because this was providing technology jobs, and it pushed America into the new tech age. If you want to study the history of technology in recent decades, there are two big moments, NASA in the Kennedy years and Silicon Valley, 1970s. We're living in the world of both of those two energies.

MATT PORTER: You said Sputnik was a low point. But that was during the Eisenhower years. Was there another, any other low points where you could say it almost didn't happen? You know, points where things went wrong and that the thing, we just didn't almost get there. Were those were moments?

DOUG BRINKLEY: Well, Sputnik's a low point. But on the other hand, it's a spur. It spurs America onwards. We don't like losing in the United States. When Jack Kennedy would talk about it in football terms, you know, why does Rice play Texas? It's a challenge. And he was saying, the Soviet Union's challenging us.

Things got difficult when John F. Kennedy died. You lost your great cheerleader, orator, salesperson for going to the moon. But Jackie Kennedy met with Lyndon and Lady Bird, and Johnson lived up to his word. He said, I'm not going to forget Kennedy's dream. They named Cape Canaveral Kennedy Space Center, the first honor of the slain President Kennedy.

And Kennedy's name was evoked throughout the 1960s every time budgets were going to be cut. It came, at one point, five votes away in the Senate for cutting the moon shot. So budget appropriations may be a little boring. But they used to say in NASA culture, no bucks, no Buck Rogers. And you know, it's not as exciting as watching Kennedy and Johnson do big foreign policy events, but they're funding it, they're finding a way to fund. In the middle of the '60s, 4.4% of our budget's NASA budget. Today, it's less than 1/3 of 1%.

But the Apollo 1 disaster, when three astronauts are blown up on a launch pad, Chaffee, Grissom, and White, that's a setback. Because some people thought, we maybe have to stop Apollo, it's not working. We're trying to work too fast, breakneck speed. End of the decade. There were people that said, why do we have to put an astronaut to the moon by the end of the decade? Why not 1975? Why not 1980?

MATT PORTER: Take as much time as you need.

DOUG BRINKLEY: Because Kennedy knew it wouldn't work if you didn't do it in a war time, a way we did in World War II. That hurry up and do it helps push and prod people. We didn't-- in World War II, FDR had to do the Manhattan Project breakneck speed, or industrial mobilization, procurement, changing our factories from making one day, making women's blouses, next day parachutes. A trumpet company would start making ship valves. We did it in World War II.

And one of the things I realized by writing American Moonshot, the Apollo program, for all of its modernity, that in one way you can look at it as the birth of the modern technological revolution. On another way, it's the last act of World War II. It was the last time when companies knew how to mobilize, working with the federal government on a large project.

So it's interesting. It's the end of a World War II energy and a beginning of the modern high tech culture.

MATT PORTER: So we're almost out of time, but I want to talk about one more thing, which was Neil Armstrong. You were lucky enough to interview him for the oral history. You actually told the story how you initially tried to interview him years earlier and he gave you a polite decline, but then remembered you when he wanted to do an oral history.

You both talked a little bit about how can you capture this sort of drive again for a moonshot? Whether the moonshot is solving climate change or whether it's going to Mars. You talked with Armstrong about that, and he had an answer for why we haven't seen that type of drive like we did in the 1960s today.

DOUG BRINKLEY: But the answer is that it's a confluence of reasons. You have to have presidential leadership. We had it with Kennedy. You had the computer technology was just developed in the late 1950s, MIT being a big part of all of this. And that was unique. But we also had a rival in the Soviet Union, somebody to beat. Somebody, the anti-communist fervor of the Cold War, which is problematic in Vietnam, is very positive in the sense of helping American technology go forward.

There also has to be a belief in science. In 1960, Time magazine picks scientist as their Persons of the Year. Right now, we're in an age where people are denying science. But the moonshot is a term that we use. A moonshot may be returning to the moon. Vice President Pence has recently suggested that. The moonshot, as Buzz Aldrin sees it, it's a Mars shot. But also, the moonshot may actually be that we need today may be an earth shot to fight climate change. We may need to pull together and do a grand attack on the climate challenge. Or Joe Biden talks about the new moonshot to be a cure for cancer.

So the idea is there are a lot of ideas. What people are hungering for on the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 is Americans working together politically and with a grand goal. And even though we're going to squabble about other things, there's one large thing that we can do as Americans that doesn't divide us. And Kennedy provided the leadership for that. We could use that kind of leadership right now.

MATT PORTER: Hear, hear. I agree.

Well, Doug, thank you so much for joining us on the podcast. We wish you luck with the book. I'm certainly going to enjoy reading the rest of it. Thank you.

DOUG BRINKLEY: Thank you so much.


MATT PORTER: And that's it for today. Thank you for listening to our latest podcast. Stay with us next time as we bring you more stories from the JFK Library. If you have questions or story ideas, email us at jfk35pod@jfklfoundation.org. Or tweet us at JFK Library, using the hashtag JFK35. You can also follow us on Facebook and Instagram. And if you liked what you heard today, please consider subscribing to our podcast or leaving us a review on iTunes.

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