Steven Rothstein: –very briefly. Doug Brinkley is the chair of humanities and professor of history at Rice University, which you know, you'll hear about why tonight that's particularly important. He is also a CNN presidential historian, a contributing editor to Vanity Fair; literally seven honorary doctorates and numerous books. But this is absolutely my favorite, and it’s in so many ways so insightful in so many different elements.
While he came from Texas, Fred came from across the river in Cambridge. Fred is the professor of international affairs at Harvard Kennedy School, and is the author and editor of nine books, including the Pulitzer Prize-winner Embers of War: The Fall of an Empire and the Making of American Vietnam. So that book is amazing. But speaking of what's coming up, Fred – and you can't tell anyone yet; this is just our little secret – Fred is going to have a two-volume series, the definitive books on John F. Kennedy. So we'll have him come back for that.
So with that, join me in welcoming these two special people. [applause]
Fredrik Logevall: It's absolutely wonderful to see all of you here and to have this chance to share the stage with Doug Brinkley. I think of the fact that on May 25, 1961, as Doug writes about in this marvelous book, President Kennedy issued basically a challenge. And he didn't live to see that challenge met, that challenge realized, but eight years later some half-a-billion people, maybe upwards of 600 million people, saw that extraordinary moment when Neil Armstrong took those first steps.
I, alas, did not see them. I was a little guy, about this big, and I was in Sweden at the time where it was the middle of the night. So I don't have that recollection. Doug was also a little guy. I think he's going to talk about maybe that he did see it. But it's an extraordinary moment. And this book speaks to how this happened. And it's an incredible story, and I'm just thrilled to have this opportunity to be here tonight and to be part of this endeavor.
And I guess I want to start, Doug, in a sense I think it was inevitable that you would write this book. As he lays out in the early pages of this book, there is your childhood in Ohio that in a sense made you the person who should write this book. There is the fact that the President gave a very important speech – we may hear a snippet of this speech in a little while here – at an institution where Doug Brinkley is now a distinguished professor; that's to say, Rice University. And then, on I think what you call a kind of lark, Doug sought the opportunity to interview a certain very famous figure, got that interview. Was it foreordained that you would write this book?
Douglas Brinkley: That's why he teaches at Harvard, because he's right. It was foreordained. Because I grew up in Perrysburg, Ohio, a small town near Toledo. And Neil Armstrong was from Wapakoneta, Ohio. Now, these are two cities you don't often hear about, Wapakoneta, Perrysburg. So you can imagine, I was nine years old, going on nine soon. And my mom and dad were really space fanatics. I started collecting all of the plates for Apollo, and little astronaut things. I knew about Gemini at nine years old. I was a space geek. Also, Ohio was, we like to call it the mother of Presidents. There were seven US Presidents from there. So down the road from my house, in Fremont, Ohio, Rutherford B. Hayes's home. So presidential history and space were big for me.
And so, I remember watching it on television and it's just seared into my mind when Neil Armstrong walked down the ladder and said, "That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind." He had wrote that line himself. He had test marketed it to an audience of one, his brother. [laughter] And his brother said, "Oh, man, bingo! Go for it! It's pretty good." It's hard to beat the one line when you really try to come up with something better. And maybe if instead of man he said "for person” now in the 21st century.
So I got to then later know Neil Armstrong a little bit because I reached out to him. I had written a biography of Dean Acheson, including doing research here at the Kennedy Library about Acheson's role with JFK and the Cuban missile crisis, a book on James Forrestal, Secretary of Navy and Secretary of Defense. And I had the temerity to autograph each of those two, my first two works, and I got a PO Box to Neil Armstrong and wrote him a blind letter saying, "I'd be interested in interviewing you. I don't have a particular book project in mind, but I grew up in Perrysburg," and blah, blah, blah. And I got back a polite card from his assistant that said, "Mr. Armstrong will read one of your books" – meaning, not two [laughter] – "and he doesn't do interviews" – as you might know, he was very much media shy – "but we'll keep you in mind." Kind of a polite blow-off letter.
I had kind of forgot about it until I got asked by NASA to do the oral history interview for Neil Armstrong, which he never did, in 2001. The date was signed for a few days after 9/11, as it turned out, in late September of 2001. And I watched the Trade Towers collapse and I was positive that with all that death, carnage and airports shut that this interview was going to be canceled because he wasn't keen on doing it at any rate; he had felt he owed one to NASA for turning 70. And lo and behold, the chief person at NASA said, "No, he's coming. Neil Armstrong doesn't cancel anything; you must not know him." He flew his own plane from Ohio. He flew and landed at Johnson Space Center in Houston, and just walked off, came in, and we did the interview.
And at that time, I realized that in some way I was going to do a book that connected space and Apollo 11. And as was mentioned, I'm now at Rice University, where Kennedy gave the famous September 12, 1962, speech. So as you said, it all kind of came together for me in the writing of this book.
Fredrik Logevall: That's totally fascinating. One of the things that comes out of the book, which you'll all see when you read it, which you all will, is I think it highlights the importance of individuals. Just in class this morning, I talked about structure and agency and history, and how it is that obviously impersonal forces matter, but there are also moments in which individuals make a really important difference. And what comes through beautifully in the book is the degree to which, in this case, individuals matter. Not just the President, although maybe we'll start with John F. Kennedy. He's important in this story, isn't he? If you think counterfactually, if you remove him from the story, maybe this doesn't happen? Or it doesn't happen on the schedule that it does.
Douglas Brinkley: Exactly. Look, John F. Kennedy put a lot of political capital on going to the moon. It's pretty radical when you think about it. Here he is, in early '61, he's giving his famous inaugural. And then he has the Bay of Pigs. And then Yuri Gagarin goes into space, the Soviet cosmonaut. But Kennedy, to go from April not sure to May 25th, going to a joint session of Congress saying, "We're going to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade and bring him back alive," people were flabbergasted. Particularly NASA people. [laughter]
NASA was created in 1958, and everybody at NASA of that era was like, "You've got to be kidding me. We don't have the technology. This is crazy!"
John F. Kennedy's father, Joe Kennedy, called the White House to get through to an assistant of JFK and said, "Godammit, I knew Jack would do something reckless like this. Are you kidding me?"
Because we didn't have the technology. And it's a pretty brazen statement to say we're going to do this by the end of the decade. And it wasn't clear – is it good politics when you're not going to be President when it would happen in the late 1960s, even if you're a two-termer? It may not happen on your watch. And so many steps we had to get to go there. A big fear of all the Presidents I write about – Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson – was dead astronauts. Just because we know this summer Apollo 11's a success and we made it to the moon doesn't mean they knew it.
What I found out from this book about John F. Kennedy how much of a creature of the World War II era he was, where we did big things – FDR, the Manhattan Project and Grand Cooley Dam, the WPA bridges and projects. And of course, he wasn't very keen– there's no great lineage with Kennedy and Truman. And Eisenhower Kennedy was a critic of. So he's going back to a new deal, but not a new deal that's that big, as FDR's grand federal expenditure. So putting your money on space and technology is a pretty good idea in 1961.
And Time magazine in 1960 chose scientists as the Men of the Year. And NASA was getting good press. We needed to beat the Soviets, but the fact that Kennedy did it, and said we we're going to do it, it became this marvelous salesperson for going to the moon. No other politician can give a speech like "we choose to go to the moon." This is extraordinary oratory. And it wasn't just about going to the moon; it was about promoting science education, STEM in schools, the history of exploration, uplifting of the American spirit, beating an adversary in a peaceful competition. Going to the moon wasn't about war; it was a peaceful competition with Russia.
So it all came together. And in hindsight, and that's what we do as historians, we can say, Kennedy picked a difficult number, going to the moon, and we did it. And so it's triumphalism in a way because Pearl Harbor's a disaster; we remember that day. 9/11's a disaster. Kennedy assassination, a disaster. For those big, epic moments, the Apollo 11, walking on the moon still lives on. And we all celebrate the moonshot. We're all looking for a new moonshot, a time we can all work on something grand together instead of bickering and arguing with each other all the time.
Fredrik Logevall: Let's pursue this a little bit further in terms of his motivations. Because something you said certainly jibes with my own research. I think that he had come to believe, John F. Kennedy, even before he became President, that in the nuclear age, war is an impossibility. Especially among great powers. We have to do whatever we can to avoid that kind of conflict.
Yet, as you also demonstrate in the book, and is very consistent with my own findings, he's extremely competitive. It's been instilled in all of the Kennedy kids, since they were little – Ted later talked about this, Bobby talked about this, Eunice talked about this, Jack himself mentioned this – that Joe Kennedy, Sr., had said to them, "Second place is no good." So there's a sense of competition that I think is here, and you talk about this. On the other hand, war is impossible.
So would it be fair to say, Doug, that a key motivation here is that here's a way to win in a very important geopolitical sense, but maybe without the attendant risks. Talk a little bit more about his motivation.
Douglas Brinkley: Perfectly said. That's why he's the definitive biographer of John F. Kennedy. That's exactly it. He really was a peace advocate, John F. Kennedy, in many ways. Not just because he did the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty in his presidency, but he knew that nuclear war was not an option. And it was renewed on him in the Cuban missile crisis, obviously.
And this idea of going into another Korean War situation, of just fighting what will become Vietnam automatically, just going proxy war, proxy war, proxy war. But yet he doesn't want to lose. And he is an anti-communist. And once the Soviets put Sputnik up in 1957, Kennedy's running on the missile gap with Russia, and the space gap. And that we've got to be first, that no use being second.
And it comes from part of that family background. There's one story you've probably stumbled upon where Kennedy's playing chess and he's about to get checkmated. And he topples over the table and says, "I guess we'll never know who won." [laughter] I say that he didn't like losing. And the thought that we were losing in space bugged him as a Senator, but now, when the Soviets put up the first person ever, human in space, ever, on his watch. And then I still think there's a pragmatism to him. And we talk about his romantic streak, but once Alan Shepard goes up on May 5, '61, that wasn't a dead astronaut, that was a space hero. Alan Shepard came back and everybody cheered. American pulled together. And Kennedy now was reassured that manned space was possible and greenlit continual manned space efforts with Mercury program.
There were the famous Mercury 7 astronauts; only one didn't go up during Kennedy's presidency, Deke Slayton, who never went up in Mercury. Kennedy was the first Mercury mission and the last. All six of the space heroes came back alive; they were successes. So the astronauts became Kennedy's space cadets, the space corps. And like his PT-109 experience in war where courage and risk and you're in the middle of a battle zone and anything can happen, he admired these astronauts – not superficially, not just as props, but as men. Kennedy liked the cut of their jib.
And of course, John Glenn in particular becomes nearly an adopted member of the extended Kennedy family. I talked to Ethel Kennedy and she told me that when her husband was killed in Los Angeles, she called John Glenn to go look after her kids at Hickory Hill in Virginia. That's how close the family was to Glenn. Bobby Kennedy and John Glenn became almost like brothers.
And so, this is a real thing for Kennedy, the astronaut and space age. And also the romance of the sea, the ocean that he had. He was able to call space the new ocean, and understood it was going to be something special to explore.
Fredrik Logevall: On the business about the will to win, just to echo what Doug has said, when Jackie came in to this life, when they were courting, and then after they were married, it turns out she's really good at board games and at a lot of games. And he did not like the fact that she would always, or almost always win at these games. So it squares with what you're saying.
One of the things you bring out, and maybe it's another motivation. In the causal hierarchy, maybe it doesn't rise as high as the things you've mentioned, but there's also a domestic political motivation. Or you talk about how Southern Senators were in a sense, if I remember correctly, placated by the fact that a lot of NASA money would be spent in their states. There's a certain domestic politician at work, too, isn't there?
Douglas Brinkley: Absolutely. That's my biggest takeaway from doing this research that I had no idea of, is that the tech corridors that get created. You know about MIT and Stark Draper and all of the computer specialization here and what Massachusetts did, but this Southern strategy of Kennedy and Lyndon– incidentally, right after Alan Shepard went up, President Kennedy is sitting in a limo with Minow of communications and Vice President Johnson and Alan Shepard, they're all in a car together, a limo ride, and they start to have a conversation, and the gist of it was, the comment was made by Minow, "You know what, if Alan" – to Alan Shepard – "if you didn't come back alive, Kennedy, the President would have blamed you, Lyndon, for the disaster." Because Kennedy[sic] was the head of space policy at that juncture. And then people laughed, and then the line became, "No, if Alan had died in space, Lyndon would be the next astronaut." [laughter]
The point being, we always talk about Jack Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson not seeing eye to eye. They did see eye to eye on space exploration. Kennedy and Johnson both were behind NASA in the '50s, both believed in it. And where Johnson works with Kennedy and James Webb, head of NASA, well, is they recognize– they barely won the South in 1960s; Texas they win by a hair, as most of you probably know. What about 1964? And the reason why the South in '64 is nerve-wracking is civil rights. Going on in the South there were blue dog Democrats still, Senators. But this is pre-Lyndon's Civil Right Acts of '64 and '65. But Kennedy is getting behind civil rights.
So what do you do in Alabama or Mississippi or Florida where you're not liking the progressivism of the Kennedy administration? One good way is pork. Tech money. And Johnson was able to finagle getting a lot of money into Oklahoma and Texas. The head of space appropriations in the Senate is Senator Kerr of Oklahoma. And Kerr is where James Webb of NASA was working when he got hired by Kennedy to run NASA. And the Congress, the head of space appropriations is Albert Thomas. Guess where Thomas is from? Houston, Texas.
And we can talk all we want about presidential leadership and strategy politics, but you need money to go to the moon. Billions of dollars, it would have cost to go to the moon. And so, they started getting money, which I really think was smart, into San Antonio; Houston, Huntsville, Alabama, Pearl River region of Mississippi/Louisiana border, New Orleans, Jacksonville, Brevard, North Carolina, Hampton, Virginia. Flooding the southern zone, not just with jobs that comes with NASA projects, and not just space hardware contracts, but building tech corridors.
My university, Rice University, we are the great beneficiaries. We're a top university now. We created space science due to NASA coming down there. And we're promoting astronauts all the time.
So the South, those Democratic Senators in the South said, "All right, we'll keep a little bit muted about your civil rights if I'm getting $150 million into this community or that." And so, it was a great public works project, building tech corridors all over the country, like Pasadena and Cleveland, also. But a lot went into that, what they were calling the Southwest or Gulf South, and particularly Houston, which is the giant beneficiary of Kennedy's policy.
Fredrik Logevall: You're mentioning here that there are other people who matter in this story. They don't matter to the degree that the President does, but they matter. And of course, Wernher von Braun, as we were saying before we came on stage, is just endlessly interesting, and you bring out the degree to which he is a very significant figure in the story. Talk a little bit about him.
Douglas Brinkley: I don't know how many of you remember the name Wernher von Braun. But he was the one who built the Saturn 5 Apollo rocket that took us to the moon. He was a rocket genius extraordinaire; a rocket engineer, is what they were called. But he was from Germany. And I kind of compared Jack Kennedy's upbringing and von Braun's. Both came from wealthy families. von Braun's came from a German aristocratic family in the Weimar Republic era.
But in 1930s, when the rise of Hitler, some German rocket scientists fled Nazi Germany; von Braun stayed. He was a big opportunist and was fanatical about some day going to the moon and Mars, and building rockets. You've got to know that in World War II, we had yet to go into outer space with a projectile. We had high altitude balloons that got up, but von Braun's the one who creates how to go into outer space during World War II, along the Baltic and Germany, Hitler's top secret base. As we put a lot of money and hope on the Manhattan Project for atomic weapons, Hitler put it into missiles.
And von Braun develops eventually the V-2. And the V-2 rocket is the beginning of the age of missiles that we're all living in. And the V-2, they would move it on launcher pads, and they fired it into London. You had 5000 V-2 missiles that would arc over 210 miles in the air, launched from, say, the Netherlands into London. And if you go to London, the word V-2 still resonates because the city could have been destroyed. There was a fear.
Luckily, this was late '44, early '45 and the Third Reich ran out of gas. Hitler commits suicide. And the genius rocketeer, nobody close to him in missile technology anywhere in the world, gets captured by US Army. It's a longer story than I could do now. You can read it in the book.
He forged some documents. He was in the SS. And they used slave labor at the Dora camp, a subcamp of Buchenwald so there could have been war crimes against Wernher von Braun. But he decided, "I don't want to be captured by the Russians have to work on my rocketry in Russia. London, because I bombed the hell out of Great Britain, they may actually do war crimes." So they sent his younger brother Magnus to look for the US Army and surrendered. And they had hidden in a mine shaft all of their blueprints for rockets, war materials, everything. They dynamited and closed the cave and basically said to the United States, "We'll give you everything. We'll move to America. We'll work for you. Just let us come there and be American and we'll do everything for you."
And the Truman administration greenlit a thing called Operation Paperclip. And we moved all these Nazi rocket engineers and scientists to Fort Bliss, Texas, which is right on the Mexico border by the White Sands Proving Ground, which is near Roswell, New Mexico, where Dr. Robert Goddard, the great American rocket scientist, was conducting his desert launches of early rockets. And von Braun worked there from 1945 to 1950. He was called a prisoner of peace. They allowed him to marry a German woman. But he was always under surveillance.
And then he moved to Huntsville, Alabama, in 1950 to work at the Army's Redstone Arsenal. This is where the moon rockets are built by von Braun. Kennedy first meets Wernher von Braun in 1953 when they are chosen, young Senator Kennedy – just won, from Massachusetts in '52; he's kind of like a hot, new politician – and von Braun were the judges for Time's Person of the Year. Henry Luce, who had written the introduction to Why England Slept, Luce kind of got them together as the judges. It was a stunt to talk to the media to promote Time.
And they got along famously. And in fact, von Braun later reflected that he told his wife, "That guy's going to be President some day," about Kennedy. But more importantly, he said Kennedy kept talking about his brother being killed in World War II trying to take out Soviet missiles or parts in underground caves in France. Operation Aphrodite is where Joseph Kennedy, Jr., they packed him in a plane with dynamite and it was like a drone. And it was aiming to take out the missile capacity of these parts, the Vengeance weapons of Hitler that von Braun had created and his brother blew up in the air, and as you know was killed. So here's Kennedy talking about how his brother died trying to take out the Vengeance parts that von Braun had created.
And yet, they were able to get over any resentment and became a team in developing going to the moon.
Fredrik Logevall: As you were sensing, I think, in this response, this part of the book I found absolutely riveting, and I think you'll find the same. Even though I teach this stuff, it's really new, this. And there's much here that I don't know. And the connection to Joe Kennedy, Jr., and what happens to Joe Kennedy, Jr. The explosion is so great over the Channel that there's no– they don't find any part of either Joe Kennedy, Jr., or his copilot. And of course, it's right, as you indicate in the book, it's when, as you say a moment ago, when this Nazi war machine is running out of gas and in fact the very target that they were going to hit, as I think you point out in the book, turns out to have been a useless mission in a sense; or a superfluous mission.
Douglas Brinkley: Yes.
Fredrik Logevall: We thought that we would play a couple of brief clips. So we're going to do that. They're a couple minutes each. They're probably self-explanatory, but I'll just say a word or two about them. The first is a short bit from the speech at Rice University, September 12, 1962, mere steps from our distinguished author's faculty office; maybe he'll say something about that. And the second is the 21st of November. So it's a couple months later. And it's in the Cabinet Room in the White House, and there are several participants, but the two that we will hear in the second clip – let's hope this works – is the President, and we're going to hear also from Jim Webb.
I'll just say this about the second clip. It's about 10 or 12 minutes long if you listen to the whole thing. But it's worth it. So if you're enticed by these two minutes, listen to the rest of it because it's worth doing.
So if we could roll the first of the tapes. Is it going to be playing here? Should we step out of the way? Oh, it's up there, okay.
JFK: Why, some say, the moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? Why does Rice play Texas? We choose to go to the moon! [applause] 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. [applause]
We shall send to the moon, 240,000 miles away from the control station in Houston, a giant rocket more than 300 feet tall, the length of this football field, made of new metal alloys, some of which have not yet been invented, capable of standing heat and stresses several times more than have ever been experienced, fitted together with a precision better than the finest watch, carrying all the equipment needed for propulsion, guidance, control, communications, food and survival, on an untried mission, to an unknown celestial body, and then return it safely to earth, re-entering the atmosphere at speeds of over 25,000 miles per hour, causing heat about half that of the temperature of the sun – almost as hot as it is here today – and do all this, and do it right, and do it first before this decade is out, then we must be bold. [applause]
Fredrik Logevall: The only thing that's jarring to our ears today is that Rice would not play Texas. [laughter] If they did, and Doug can speak to this, I don't think it would be a pretty result. But at the time they did play each other.
So the second clip, and I want to say before we roll the second clip, in the book this particular meeting is covered in depth. It's an absolutely fascinating contentious meeting. It gets more, in some ways I think it gets more testy after we're going to cut it off. I just didn't think that we should roll the whole thing; we have too short a time. But read about it also in the book. So if we could roll number two.
JFK: Do you think this program is a top-priority program of the agency?
James Webb: No, sir, I do not. I think it is one of the top-priority programs, but I think it's very important to recognize here– that as you have found what you could do with a rocket. As you find how you could get out beyond the earth's atmosphere and into space and make measurements, several scientific disciplines that are the very powerful and begin to converge on this area.
JFK: Jim, I think it is the top priority. I think we ought to have that very clear. Some of these other programs can slip six months, or nine months, and nothing strategic is going happen. But this is important for political reasons, international political reasons. This is, whether we like it or not, in a sense, a race. If we get second to the moon, it's nice, but it's like being second any time. So that if we're second by six months, because we didn't give it the kind of priority, then of course that would be very serious. So I think we have to take the view that this is the top priority with us.
James Webb: But the environment of space is where you are going to operate the Apollo and where you are going to do the landing.
JFK: Look, I know all these other things and the satellite and the communications and weather and all, they're all desirable, but they can wait.
James Webb: I’m not putting those– I am talking now about the scientific program to understand the space environment within which you got to fly Apollo and make a landing on the moon.
JFK: Wait a minute. Is that saying that the lunar program to land a man on the moon is the top priority of the Agency, is it?
Unknown Speaker: And the science that goes with it.
Robert Seamans: Well, yes, if you add that, the science that is necessary.
JFK: The science– going to the moon is a top-priority project. Now, there are a lot of related scientific information and developments that will come from that which are important. But the whole thrust of the Agency, in my opinion, is the lunar program. The rest of it can wait six or nine months.
James Webb: The trouble– Jerry is holding up his hand– let me say one thing.
Fredrik Logevall: So you get a taste. I mean, one of the things, Doug, that I find interesting about this last clip, and I think we talked a little bit about this earlier, but Webb is not shy about interrupting. He speaks his mind. Kennedy gives it back to him. This goes on for 10 or 12 minutes. It's pretty amazing.
Douglas Brinkley: It's really amazing. Webb is one of the great technocrats ever. Bobby Kennedy called him a blabbermouth. And some people called him the Mouth of the South. But Jack Kennedy had no problem, as some of you probably know, with that kind of give-and-take. Here's somebody working for him and "lay it on me, here's what I think, what do you think?" That's what a leader does. You just witnessed a leader in action in both of those, communicating to the public and pushing your policy with your own staff and challenging it.
Webb gets concerned that if you're going that moon crazy that Kennedy's not as focused on– the big debate, guys, that really goes on in the Kennedy years is, Eisenhower, who called going to the moon a stunt. He was anti-the Apollo program. Ike kept calling it a stunt. George Bundy, national security advisor, said to John F. Kennedy, "Going to the moon, it's a grandstand ploy. People are going to perceive it as you being grandstanding about going to the moon." And Kennedy said to Bundy, "You don't run for President in your 40s if you don't have moxie!" [laughter] Meaning, people were wondering– you have to remember, guys, the technology's not there for the moon for the President to be using that much of his political power on it. But what Kennedy knew was that– the big word, if I had to pick one word from this book Kennedy likes, it's leapfrog – We've got to leapfrog the Soviets. If we just go, you put up a cosmonaut, we do an astronaut, you do a cosmonaut, we're not going to win. There'll be maybe a parity to it.
But going to the moon would be a big win because Kennedy found out from von Braun – and others, but particularly him – they don't have– it's like a starting ground; it's like "go" on a race. The Soviets had developed a satellite, they'd put a dog in space early. The dog couldn't come back alive; it melted, dehydrated in space. And so, there was still a danger of just putting an astronaut in space, but Kennedy knew if we could focus big and leapfrog it all, we would have the success that we have with Apollo 11. And the point of the American moonshot is a point of national pride that our country did it; we planted an American flag on the moon. And we didn't do it for military reasons; we did it for peace and we did it for all mankind. [applause]
Fredrik Logevall: It's always tempting in sessions like this – and I guess I'm going to bite – to ask an author, is there something that surprised you, one or two things that surprised in the course of doing this?
Douglas Brinkley: I really didn't realize how much Kennedy got personally involved with space. In the '50s, he would make jokes about it. Well, one thing that you have to keep in mind, guys, is that it's– a big part of my book– everybody's fighting for the money. Army wants to put the rockets up. Navy wants to put the rockets up. Air Force wants to. Rivalry between the three. Eisenhower bet on the Navy building Vanguard missiles. So when you see in film clips of NASA rockets collapsing, those were Navy Vanguard rockets.
Kennedy's putting his money on von Braun and the Army rockets. Going to the moon was a big Army success. But one of the ways to split the rivalry up is to trade off astronauts – here's a Navy aviator, Navy, John Glenn was a marine. And the Marines had no rocket program, but we're putting a Marine in space. So each of those service branches got a test pilot up to feel part of the Apollo project.
And the other thing that was interesting was, these are all white men in an era of civil rights. And in retrospect, we should have had a woman as one of the Mercury astronauts, or Gemini. And we should have been able to put an African American into space. It wasn't in the mix back then. Edward R. Murrow was pushing for what he called a person of color to be one of the Mercury astronauts, not just for equity reasons, but to send a message to the world that America did that. But instead, NASA decided you have to stick with the trained fighter test pilots of the Korean war era, and those were white men with engineering degrees from places like Purdue and the like; MIT, where Buzz Aldrin got his PhD.
And so, I write in my book– with our world today it's very gender-conscious. I did not know till I did this book that there were Mercury 13 women that trained to be astronauts and they went through all of the endurance tests in New Mexico by Dr. Randy Lovelace. And they were incredible pilots. And the doctors, physicians, thought women would be the perfect astronauts because the capsules– if you see Alan Shepard's little capsule. So physiologically smaller. Less oxygen. He had blood statistics, endurance. He had all of the things that a woman should go into space. But unfortunately we let the Soviets beat us in that first; they put the first woman into space, Russia. Sally Ride is our first American female astronaut. She doesn't go up till 1983 in our space program. So I thought that was a missed opportunity for America, to be first in those glass ceiling shatterings. But alas, it didn't happen that way.
But now I go all over. I just spoke to a woman who was the first woman spacewalker. And women astronauts are populated in NASA and also working for new private sector companies like Jeff Bezos's Blue Origin or with Elon Musk and Branson and the like. So it's a very fertile field for young women here interested in science, technology, engineering, computer science. Space is now equal– women are all over NASA right now, working on going into space. And we've had many female astronauts.
Fredrik Logevall: Absolutely fascinating. One of the things that surprised me as a reader of the book – and I don't know whether, Doug, this was also surprising to you, but – Kennedy flirted with the idea – I guess a question for you is how serious this was – but he flirted with the idea of maybe joining forces with the Soviets on this endeavor. This, notwithstanding the fact, as we discussed earlier, that he's an extremely competitive guy, that this is a cold war, that he's had a setback at the Bay of Pigs. He needs to kind of recapture momentum. But he at least toyed with this.
Douglas Brinkley: It's a great point. And we could read it about it more because it's complicated. But Khrushchev and Kennedy would each taunt each other, that "maybe we should do things together." And then it would disintegrate. Maybe joint space. The best line of these games was from Nikita Khrushchev's son, who is our oral history eyewitness of saying that he spoke to his father about, "Will you go to the moon with America? Would you be interested?" He said, "No, we can't do joint space with America." And, "Why not, Papa?" And he said, "Because they'll find out what we don't have." [laughter] We forget, Khrushchev blustered his technology a lot. Putin does that today, too. They bluster it all. And if we did joint, our American intelligence officers, military people would get to see how primitive some of their technology was. We were overestimating some of their capabilities.
One of the other beautiful parts of this competition, which I actually almost get shivers just thinking about, that I didn't know, on your don't-know thing, is, when we landed on the moon, and right before they left, they were about to leave the moon, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, Armstrong said to Buzz, "Did you leave the packet?" And Armstrong said, "Oh, yeah." And Armstrong went back kind of and put– last thing they did. In that packet were medals to honor the Soviet cosmonauts who had died in their space program. So on the moon right now are Soviet medals by the American site that NASA decided to honor, because without the Soviet spur and their cosmonauts and their technological work, we wouldn't have been motivated to do it. But the fact that they thought to do that I found very impressive.
And of course, by 1975, when Gerald Ford's President, you have a docking in space with the Russians and United States. And it's clear that there is no space race. The United States, at least this phase of it, won. Nobody's gone back to the moon. We're talking about going back to the moon now. Vice President Pence was in Huntsville, Alabama, last week saying in four or five years we might go back. Buzz Aldrin thinks we need to do– the moonshot should be a Mars shot. But it's back in conversation now, partially because of the 50th anniversary.
There's also a group of people quite credible – and they may be right – who say the new moonshot has to be an earthshot – climate change. We've got to do a big thing on attacking climate change together. [applause]
We'll see how things go. But the very term moonshot has come to represent collective American can-do-ism in the best sense that any word could convey.
Fredrik Logevall: We're going to, in a few minutes – don't get up quite yet for questions – but we're going to be opening this up for all of you in a few minutes.
I want to talk a little bit, Doug, before we get to that point, about the end of the story as far as JFK is concerned. It's poignant and powerful in the book when you talk about the fact that the last fateful trip to Texas in November of 1963 had a connection to this space program. Can you just say a little bit about what those last days were about in this regard?
Douglas Brinkley: Well, I didn't fully answer the joint space– Kennedy went to the UN and toyed with the idea of Russia and the United States going to the moon. And he got a lot of blowback about it. But it was just this sort of constantly telling– Kennedy wanted the world to know we are doing this for peace, for science, for exploration, not to militarize the moon. And of course, it was a nonstarter, in the Kennedy years, US/Soviet going together, for a lot of reasons.
At the time of his death, he was on a space tour, basically. The day before he was killed in Dallas, John F. Kennedy was in San Antonio, Texas, at the Brooks Air Force Base, talking to the space medicine center that just opened and promoting all the applications of going to the moon that we were developing for healthcare, including foldable walkers, to kidney dialysis machines, to CAT scans and MRI. The spin-off medical technology of tests to go into space have had giant benefits on our healthcare sector and modern medical miracles.
At San Antonio, he invited Gordon Cooper, one of the Mercury astronauts, to come with him to Dallas. He said, "I need a space hero up there. They don't love me in Dallas as much as Houston and San Antonio." And Cooper got called off to do a NASA meeting and didn't get to be with Kennedy in Dallas in that open convertible.
But from San Antonio, he then went to Houston. And Jackie Kennedy's at his side for this trip. And they go speak– he stays at the Rice Hotel just to clean up, and then they go for an Albert Thomas, the head of the Congressional Space Committee, talk. And Kennedy does a flub in his oratory because he says, with Albert Thomas there, "And here in Houston, you are the benefits of the payroll– I mean, payload." [laughter] He said, "But you're getting the payroll here in Texas, too, in Houston." And then they left Houston and of course went to Dallas/Fort Worth.
One interesting thing, he was going to meet the family in Texas, for the first time, of the pilot that died with Joe Kennedy, Jr. He was from Texas and they were going to meet. And of course, that never happened. But on his way to the Trademark when he was killed, he was about to give a hunk of this big, important speech about space exploration, about how many communications satellites, meteorological satellites. He was doubling, tripling, quadrupling down on space at the time that he was killed.
Fredrik Logevall: One of the things you do towards the end of the book that I think is very powerful, you suggest, Doug – and I'm paraphrasing, so please correct if this is not what you intend – but you suggest that the lunar program, the moon program was not justified primarily at least because of the tangible benefits that it brought, although those were obviously considerable. But you talk about how it really spoke to something else which of course has, for me, and I think for all of us, contemporary resonance here today. And that is, you say, it spoke to national purpose, that Kennedy, I think you're saying, was able to bring this sense of national purpose, on some level bring together left and right, to very powerful ends. I don't know if you have a further thought on that. And maybe if we can still achieve something like this today?
Douglas Brinkley: I hunger for presidential leadership like John F. Kennedy. [applause] You watch the "choose to go to the moon" clip that we played a little bit ago, and it's like, my gosh! It's so refreshing. It's almost riveting television to hear somebody talk to us in such a smart and inspiring way. We just haven't that, of that degree.
And then this bipartisan thing, when we'd all do things together, I mean, this is not a Democratic Kennedy Democrat success, going to the moon. It's American success. At one point in my research I found that Kennedy had the Mercury astronauts come in to the Oval Office and he had his famous rocking chair and he was joking about it – "this is my space capsule" kind of thing. And then he said to all those astronauts, "I hear you're all Republicans." And most of them were. John Glenn was an independent who gets recruited to be a Democrat. But they all kind of, "Oh, oh, he just said that." And then Gus Grissom said, "We don't know what the hell we are, Mr. President." And they all kind of chuckled.
Kennedy didn't care if they were Republican or not. It was zero difference to him. They were Americans. He fought in World War II; he wasn't asking people on his PT 109 boat whether they're Republican or Democrat. It didn't matter with him; we're all pitching in together. This is an American enterprise.
I miss that in America. And hopefully we can get that back and get out of this grotesque political theatre we're in right now where everybody's scoring points on the other side every second and all of that. [applause]
And government can be overblown. One of the great things about NASA is they budgeted well. They appropriated federal spending. They brought in academia. They brought in private sector. Companies benefited. They worked it so it was a really smart project, going to the moon and Apollo. Not only was it successful, but as I said, it had all the spin-off benefits.
Fredrik Logevall: In my own manuscript, I've been working lately on the mid-1950s, and I wrote a pretty extensive section on his 1956 book, Profiles in Courage, on which he had important help. But in terms of the conception of the book, the main arguments, the main themes, I suggest in my book that they are John F. Kennedy's own. And just to Doug's point, what's powerful, among other things, in that book, Profiles in Courage, is the degree to which he is speaking about the need for bipartisanship. And of course, he brings in examples in that book, if you know the book, of Senators in American history who have shown that.
And I think for him in that book, those who show particular courage are those politicians who will not simply respond to what their constituents need in their districts or in their states, but who look to the national interest. And so, I think that is something he probably didn't practice perfectly; I'm sure made his own mistakes in that area. But I do think Doug is correct, that that's something that's there. And it has the ring of truth when, as Doug says, he doesn't care if these astronauts in his presence are Republicans or Democrats.
Maybe the last question from me, and then we're going to open things up here, you're going to hear Doug, maybe you're already hearing the following, I suspect. But as you continue to talk about this book, some may say, $25 billion, give or take, that could have been spent on a lot of things in American society; there were needs – housing, education, antipoverty programs. What do you say to that?
Douglas Brinkley: It's a great question. Kennedy was thinking about doing what Lyndon Johnson called the war on poverty, and went with technology and the moonshot. And once Kennedy's killed, one of the dramatic moments at the end of my book is when Jackie Kennedy comes to see Lyndon and Lady Bird for the first time after Dallas and wants to make sure Kennedy's dream is alive, of going to the moon and the space program. And Johnson, the first thing he does is name Cape Canaveral the Kennedy Space Center.
And to give Lyndon Johnson credit, during the '60s they very easily could have gutted Gemini and Apollo. He had to defend it a lot, Lyndon Johnson, because of his war in Vietnam, because of Medicaid/Medicare Great Society expenditures. And it was getting tough to get the budget through on Capitol Hill.
Now, Apollo in the mid-'60s, due to the Kennedy effect of getting the budgets going, had about a 4.4%– of taxpayer dollars per year; 4.4% went to NASA for space and to go to the moon. Today, NASA, it's like a third of 1%. That's how much it gets cut. And so, the fact that it stayed prioritized– and the critics, what you said, from the right and left, Barry Goldwater did not like the moonshot Apollo because he thought that money should go into the Air Force. He was a big Air Force guy, Barry Goldwater. If you go to the Air Force Academy, it's the Barry Goldwater Visitors Center. He was a brigadier general in the Air Force. So Goldwater wasn't keen on it. Walter Mondale was totally opposed to funding, keeping this space stuff funded, on the more liberal side of the equation. Point being, it had critics.
The worst thing is when the Apollo 1 disaster occurs in 1967, the first Apollo blows up at Cape Canaveral pad. Grissom dies, and White and Chaffee, three– on a test; not even dying in space or on launch. Just doing a test they die. And so, there became movement – What are we doing? We're not ready for the moon. We can't even get a liftoff.
But there was so much energy that Kennedy had put into it and enough public will that we continued with Apollo and were able to do that Apollo 11 on Nixon's watch. Richard Nixon was President with Apollo 11. I found out in my research that Bill Moyers, speechwriter for LBJ, who many of you know, and Daniel Patrick Moynihan were lobbying hard to have the rocket called the John F. Kennedy. And I read the memo – it's at the Nixon Library – where HR Haldeman, Nixon's like, "This is an NBC News stunt to Kennedyize everything. Enough Kennedy. No, absolutely not."
And Nixon never mentioned John F. Kennedy that entire summer, never invoked him in any speeches. But you know who did mention John F. Kennedy? NASA. Because once we retrieved Armstrong, Aldrin, and Michael Collins, three Apollo 11 astronauts, the first thing we did when they were safe on earth is that mission control put up Kennedy's pledge to going to the moon of May 25, 1961, and then underneath it something John F. Kennedy would have loved – task accomplished.
Both the mother and father were alive, Rose and Joe, for that day. Joe Kennedy would die later in 1969, but they were alive for the moonshot. Dwight Eisenhower had died early '69 and wasn't alive to see that it wasn't a stunt, but that it was an accomplishment.
Fredrik Logevall: Marvelous story. So we want to make it now possible for you to pose a question to our author. You'll see mics. I already see a gentleman here. There's one on the left, one on the right. I would ask that you put a question mark at the end of the sentence. [laughter] And that you keep it brief. Yes, sir?
Q: First, thank you for coming, and your students. The first book I read was The Majic Bus, which I hope is still available for purchase, perhaps here.
Douglas Brinkley: I have a fan, a Majic Bus fan right there!
Q: Being of a certain age, I remember the moon landing. I'm wondering whether we've ever really recovered from the assassination. In my particular case, I was in basic training at Fort Polk, Louisiana, when they had the moon landing. I was in the day room watching it on television, and the door to the day room was open and I could see the moon reflected in the glass. Meanwhile, outside, at one of the… North Fort or South Fort – there were two of them – we were sending troops to Vietnam. I wonder how Kennedy would have felt about that. And listening to what we heard today, I wonder how far we really have come and whether we really have recovered. Question mark. [laughter]
Douglas Brinkley: What's very important – and we have America's foremost expert on the Vietnam War history – what is important to remember is Apollo 11 took place during the Vietnam War. And a lot of the world was angry at the United States for the Vietnam War. France had pulled out of the integrated military command and NATO. Our country was divided between hawks and doves. And so, it's kind of odd in '69– and this summer will also be the 50th anniversary of Woodstock and the counterculture and the turmoil that this event occurred at that kind of moment.
Again, I think there was a residual effect of Apollo from World War II. It was like, in many ways, it is the beginning of modern technology. From NASA tech it goes to Silicon Valley, to digitalization, and beyond.
So there was almost like a World War II program in the middle of the Vietnam era. But I don't know if our country's ever recovered from the Vietnam War. I mean, it was the beginning of the division and the distrust of the federal government.
Pick the Presidents after FDR. We know he's big government, but Eisenhower did the interstate highway system and St. Lawrence Seaway. Kennedy and the moonshot. Lyndon and government with Medicaid/Medicare/Great Society. Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency and Endangered Species Act. Jimmy Carter created FEMA and Department of Energy.
And then Reagan. The Reagan revolution started telling people the federal government's the problem. And once you start talking about the federal government being a problem, it builds. And I think, incidentally, Ronald Reagan was a very good and effective two-term President, so I'm not questioning that. But it started a kind of feeling of the deep state that you hear about today, that the federal government's the bad guy because that's who you have to write taxes to. And nobody wants to pay taxes.
And then we started getting true stories about why we were in Vietnam? Waste of money. Kissinger lied to us. McNamara lied to us. People lie. And there became a distrust of the federal government. And so, I don't know– one of the challenges today for an earthshot or a moonshot is to have people believe in government. And right now we see very low opinion of– Congress has like a 15% or 20% approval rating, at best – Congress, our representatives.
In the Kennedy era, Congressmen and Senators were big deals. And they did what was right for the country. They weren't so highly partisan.
So I think it's important to put that 50-year anniversary into the context of Vietnam. So thank you for raising that.
Fredrik Logevall: I think it's a very important point. It seems to me that what John F. Kennedy did, among other things, I think he inspired Americans to believe – and this goes to Doug's last point – inspired Americans to believe that politics and government can respond to society's moral yearnings, can respond to the hopes of Americans. And I think, as Doug has pointed out, his successors held to that, too. I don't mean to suggest for a moment that this is just John F. Kennedy. He did it perhaps more than most, and that, as I think you suggested earlier, is something that we need to get back to.
I'll just say a quick point. If the moonshot is a kind of high water mark for John F. Kennedy as a leader, Vietnam, to go to the question, is certainly a much more problematic legacy for the President. As I think I've said on this very stage, I do think on the great what-if, in my personal view, if John F. Kennedy survives the Dallas shooting, I think he avoids the kind of large-scale Americanization of the war that his successor embarked upon. But nevertheless, John F. Kennedy expanded US involvement very dramatically during his 1,000 days as President. Certainly complicated the mission for Lyndon Johnson. And that's something that we have to reckon with.
Let's go to this side here. Please, yes.
Q: Going back to 1961 and the speech, I'm wondering about, especially with you mentioned about Draper sponsoring some of this event, how much his confidence was influenced by successes with the ICBM program and things like Project Corona, the spy satellites, which were reasonably successful space shots.
Douglas Brinkley: Let me say something positive. Look, Kennedy, his space advisor was from MIT. Many people in Massachusetts were angry that Kennedy didn't do a manned space center in Massachusetts and put more of the money here. But it's tough to have done that to your home state; it would have looked– it's hard enough saying we're going to the moon, let alone pour the money back to your home state. [laughter] To be fair to Kennedy on that.
But the Bay State was putting into it because the Harbor here would have been exactly what they could have used, like they have Houston with the Ship Channel, and able to move things. So it was a viable alternative, coming here.
But I think the big thing about the spy satellites and Corona and all, Eisenhower wasn't wrong that when Sputnik went up, Ike kind of low-keyed it and said, "We have U-2 planes being developed. We have spy satellites. We don't need to be jarred by Russia's BS. We're doing things really well and we actually are ahead making better satellites soon to come." So Eisenhower wasn't wrong. Kennedy was briefed by Allen Dulles after he got nominated– and Lyndon, too. They were briefed after the Los Angeles convention in 1960 by Allen Dulles and the CIA. And they showed them all the papers from the spy satellites. Saw that we were actually ahead of Russia in satellite technology and missiles.
And the big question is, did Kennedy process that? Because he sure didn't do that on the campaign trail. And if you go to the Kennedy/Nixon debates, which I had to go back to – they're fascinating – I think Kennedy, some of his best punches at Nixon was when he saying, "You spoke to Khrushchev in your famous kitchen debate" – when Nixon debated Khrushchev about who has better appliances, kitchen appliances – and Kennedy said, "You told Khrushchev that we're beating them in appliances, kitchen appliances. Well, I'll take my TV in black and white. I want to be number one in rocket thrust." And then he insinuated that, in one of the debates, said, "If Nixon's elected, I see a Soviet flag planted on the moon, not an American one," at one of the debates.
But what Kennedy knew and found out quickly when he was President, we were doing pretty well on the tech front. NASA, created in '58, civilian. Our technology in satellites were coming along. And he recognized that really Eisenhower did a pretty good job of keeping America defense-ready and doing R&D on ICBMs and intermediate-range missiles. And the Jupiter missiles you guys will hear about if you're a Cuban missile crisis person, that are on Turkey, that we put there on Turkey, those were the junk missiles of Wernher von Braun. He built them for defense purposes. They weren't that effective and we put them on the border there with Turkey. And then in the Cuban missile crisis, the United States, of course, does the deal to eventually get rid of those if the Soviets don't build the launching things there.
So keep in mind, with the moon it's a lot about missile technology spy satellites. And out of all of this technology, GPS of today, global positioning systems, is pioneered by NASA. I don't like to say "invent things," because I found out in my book– everybody says Velcro was created by NASA. I found out, it isn't. Nor is Tang. [laughter] Velcro was a Swiss gentleman in World War II who would do Alpine hikes with his border collie sheep dog or whatever, and it would get burrs in its fur. And he created Velcro to get the burrs off the dog's fur. But what is true is NASA uses it and applies in the space program. And now Velcro, it's ubiquitous.
Radar being created is important, guys. MIT computer technology is gigantic. The computering system of going to the moon is done right here in Cambridge, Massachusetts. And a woman, Miss Hamilton, was the pioneer in it, of Stark Draper's laboratory. And the work that they did there at MIT is phenomenal. The Draper family, a great American family, and I appreciate all that they've done for the Kennedy Library, but also for America in general by funding and pioneering and hiring the right people to do the right amount of R&D in order to be in space. So thank you to the Draper family.
Fredrik Logevall: Let's go to this side, please. Sir.
Q: Something you may not be aware of is that the US Department of Transportation's national research center is in Cambridge, but that was originally intended to be a NASA research center. When John Volpe, governor of Massachusetts, became the first secretary of transportation, he swung the transportation bucks to here.
I was a fledging engineer, newly arrived in Washington, DC, and watched with rapt attention when the moon landing happened, and I was thrilled. And I've followed the space race ever since. And I've read a lot of books about it and I'm really looking forward to this.
My question is, when John F. Kennedy declared that we were going to the moon, had he consulted with scientists and engineers so he had some feeling that this was a doable thing? Or did he actually, as you imply, spring this on NASA?
Douglas Brinkley: No, and great question. And I did not know that about transportation. Very interesting to me, thank you for educating me about that. But in my book I write a lot, and they have them here at the Kennedy Library, the memos of '61 going back where Kennedy tells Lyndon Johnson, "Get me answers. What can we do? I want the leapfrog. Give me big answers." And it gets spread. All of our experts start weighing in on it.
Kennedy comes in and decides to go with the very radical going to the moon. But Lyndon Johnson thought it was doable. Wernher von Braun thought it was doable. Webb thought it was doable. They're just the big names. But under them, they talked to the engineers. They didn't know how, but what they knew from intelligence is it would be, again, this fair start. We didn't think the Soviets– and one of the important things, the Soviets were trying to go to the moon. Some people, it's like a myth that we weren't really in a race. When the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, and when German unification occurred, and we got archives over there, we now have the Soviet archives, they were trying to get to the moon right up until they had failures in '67/'68. They were about ready to put tortoises on the moon right before all of this happened. But they had a major disaster of their own in Kazakhstan. And that’s where a lot of the Soviet money – I was talking about the Southern states getting money for space – in Russia Kazakhstan got the money because that was the way for Khrushchev to help a region that needed some economic lift.
And so, it's really interesting. Also your point, you mentioned you're an engineer, and it just dawned on me I wanted to tell you. In my oral history, Neil Armstrong, he is Mr. Engineer – Purdue, engineer, engineer. There's no better example of an engineer than Armstrong. And he spent his whole life, including to me, but to everybody, that we don't honor engineers enough in American history. So I'm honoring the engineers tonight. [applause]
But I'm a humanities guy. And I'm not an engineer. And I tried to get him off of that engineer mind of his, and I said, "Mr. Armstrong, did you go out and just stand up there and look up at the moon and see it glowing up there and say, My goodness, I'm going to be standing there looking at earth?" "No." [laughter] He wasn't messing with me! His mind just didn't work that way.
And interesting though, a little aside, do you guys remember the writers, Tom Wolfe, The Right Stuff book, and Norman Mailer wrote a book on going to the moon? Armstrong thought Mailer's was pretty interesting, only because he was talking in Mailer's book about the dangers of technology, and Mailer put himself as the main figure in the book. But I did get him to say that of any of those kind of space things, he thought Mailer raising some of the problems with technology was quite interesting.
And also, he was very self-effacing. James Michener had a pseudonym for a pilot in the Korean War. He was with Armstrong's ship out in the Korean War, James Michener, the great writer, and noticed it. I don't have time tonight, but Armstrong was an exceptional pilot. You can't read about a better pilot than Neil Armstrong, what he could do with planes. And the reason he went to Purdue and Gus Grissom went to Purdue? Young people here, this is pretty cool. If you go to college, Purdue was the first one to give you, if you went there, you could take a class in aviation history, about planes, and earn your pilot's license in the classes.
So a lot of these guys that loved airplanes wanted to go to Purdue because they could get their pilots license. I'm talking about 18-year-olds that want a pilot's license. It would be part of their degree program that when they leave college they could fly. And so, Purdue produced so many of our astronauts because they have an airport on the campus for students.
Fredrik Logevall: Isn't it nice, ladies and gentlemen, to have, should I say, an extolling of expertise? And it comes through in this book. And in this day and age, I think at least for me, it just resonates. It's not to say that experts don't get it wrong. As Doug indicated, I've spent a lot of my career researching the Vietnam War. And there are lots of experts who got that story wrong. But nevertheless, John F. Kennedy had a commitment to fact-based discourse, right to the end. And I think it matters a great deal. Sir?
Q: So the Third Reich ran out of gas? That's a pretty provocative way of putting it. But in '67, there was an international outer space treaty convened. As of this year, 108 countries have signed on to it, including the United States. It prevents weapons of mass destruction from being deployed in space, but not conventional weapons. And after that, in '79, there was actually a moon treaty that was proposed and written, and only ten countries signed on to that; the United States is not one of them. But that would prevent any type of weapons and military bases on any celestial bodies, including the moon.
Now the President has recently proposed and has gotten funding for a new space force. Not an international, but a United States one. Which brings these questions back to mind. Do we need a treaty that would prohibit the militarization of space? Including conventional weapons, as well as any celestial bodies.
Now, you can opine based on historical knowledge on what JFK might have done, and also look into the future. But we have to be considering that these space programs do contain and are implicitly designed for militarization at some point, too, don't we?
Douglas Brinkley: Yes, we do. If you don't know, there are two things the Trump administration's promoting right now. And many more, obviously, but two just quickly. Space Force, which I don't think is a very good idea. It leads to what you're suggesting, militarization of space. And it's not very practical because Navy doesn't want a new branch. Army doesn't. Air Force doesn't. So I don't think Space Force is going to get much momentum.
Then there's this thought in the next four or five years of going to the moon again, and doing the south pole of it and, in a way, bring in the private sector, some of these space groups that might get contracted out. That to me is more promising. As long as it's done in the name of peace. What we don't want to be doing is militarizing space.
And so, while I'm opposed to the Space Force, just personally, not as a historian, as a human looking at this, I'm more inclined to see how we could go back to the moon in a way that would have a positive effect, maybe even a joint visit to the moon with other countries. But I think that might be a more fertile ground for us to explore. And we do need a treaty.
Fredrik Logevall: Yes?
Q: Good evening. I'm a researcher from Boston University and I'm writing a paper, and I wanted to answer the question: Aside from the competition and trying to beat the Soviets, if there was a moral compass guiding America's actions and the Apollo space program.
Douglas Brinkley: Great question. Only to the degree, first off, that Kennedy – and I'll just pick him – he truly did not want to militarize space, even though there is the– it is about militarization. In many ways, going to the moon's a fig leaf for rocket development and weapons of destruction. But most of the astronauts – not Neil Armstrong who stayed very engineer–focused, but many, maybe not most, but maybe most – came back not thinking about the moon. They thought that was their mission. But seeing earth, that blue/green marble, floating out there, how there are no borders. Bill Anders', the astronaut's, famous Earthrise photograph that helped trigger the environmental movement.
And when we talk about NASA today, the leading people on climate change have come out of NASA, like James Hanson and others. NASA is doing weather forecasting. I mean, it's not just shooting rockets. NASA's a very interesting government agency that needs funding. And yes, I think, whether it's Whole Earth Catalogue or the birth of the Environmental Protection Agency, it came out of a moral idea that we need to protect our planet and how vulnerable we are and how lonely it is out there. Meaning, we went to the moon and it's lifeless.
Incidentally, we still don't know really how the moon was created. Some people think two planets clashed; a planet hit into earth and it created this moon. But what we did find out from all that moon rock and moon soil of the various Apollo missions was, the composition of minerals and the like, the deposits we got were very much like earth. We thought it would be a little more different than earth, but there was nothing that we discovered that wasn't earthlike. Meaning, it is like a direct connector to our planet.
And remember, guys, since the beginning of time, the moon sets the ocean tides. It's why we have our calendars. It's like everything. And the thought of all these brilliant Aristotles, Platos, Shakespeares staring at the moon and writing about it, now we were actually there, is a pretty big thing in world history that we're going to be celebrating this summer.
Fredrik Logevall: I'm still trying to get my mind around you asking Neil Armstrong that question. And him saying, "No." [laughter]
How can you look at that –
Let me say, since we're running close to the end, just remember to be concise and we'll move over to this side. Thank you.
Q: Okay, this is a question. I’m glad I have the two of you, both, for this one because it's about Kennedy's speech in 1961, when he says, "Go to the moon and do the other things." And I've always wondered what "the other things" could be. And you guys are the best people to ask that of right now probably. So did you find out anything about what the other things could be?
Douglas Brinkley: Well, one of the things I write about in the book is, this isn't just the moon. Although you heard that argument with Webb; Kennedy saying it's lunar, number one. But we were doing probes of Venus, for example. We were doing Mars probes. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory out in Caltech in Pasadena has been pioneering in the Mars Rovers and the like. And so, the idea was to study all of the solar system with our new technology. Not just the moon, but all of the others. That's how I would interpret that.
And I write about Mariner and all of these other– you said something that's very important. John F. Kennedy really believed in science, believed in scientists; believed in space exploration because it enhanced science. Public discovery is what Kennedy was about. And he was interested in the ocean, also. He wanted to deal with desalinization of ocean water to create fresh water for an arid world, and all of this. It never caught on like the moonshot, but he had other pet projects like this. To have created a freshwater system out of ocean water, like Kennedy was constantly talking about, would have been a great initiative. We're doing it a little bit in California now, but it's so expensive without federal largesse to help that technology along.
Q: Whenever you talk about or think about President Kennedy's legacy, one of the names that always pops up, at least into my mind, is somehow who you wrote a definitive biography about, Walter Cronkite. And I wonder if you could comment upon the coverage that Cronkite gave that evening when Armstrong stepped foot on the moon. Thank you.
Douglas Brinkley: Great. I have a photo of Cronkite in there. Cronkite was considered the eighth astronaut of the Mercury 7. He was a bonanza of PR for NASA because Cronkite in World War II was the dean of Air Force. He was embedded with the UP, the UPI it used to be some people called it, the old United Press wire services, and learned all of the Air Force pilots, et cetera; so, aviation. When he came back after World War II, in the Korean war period, he took on a beat nobody wanted – space. And he grew up in Houston, Texas, Walter Cronkite.
And so, he got to know a lot of the early NASA people by the late '50s, but also pilots from World War II and Air Force people and all this. And he had a great rolodex. And he is a fanatic about space, Cronkite. And like John F. Kennedy, he loved sailing. You'd be amazed how many people like sailing in the ocean that have become space buffs. It's remarkable how many.
But without Cronkite, that night of Cronkite, it was just classic coverage. I wrote in my book, out of all the things Cronkite did, his hours and hours of coverage of Apollo 11 was the maestro moment of his career because he had so well educated himself and had so many contacts, and they recreated things at CBS. It was really a marvel of television.
Fredrik Logevall: Let’s do this. This may be a mistake and I may get in trouble for this. Let's do a lightning round. So what I'm going to have the four of you do, because then maybe we can get you all in, is to pose a 20-second question each. Either Doug can remember them all – because we're going to take them all at once – or I can jot down what they ask. But let's start over here, please. Brief.
Q: First of all, I would say I've been watching you on CNN for years. I can't believe I'm in the same room with you. [laughter] Wonderful. My quick question is, I wasn't born before the moon landing, but I certainly know the global and historical importance of that. But recently, China has landed a craft in the dark side of the moon, and SpaceX is talking about going to Mars. So I wanted to basically hear your view on the future of space exploration in our country.
Fredrik Logevall: Hold that one. Yes, sir?
Q: On the question of an earthshot, there are a number of nominees, climate change, infrastructure, healthcare. Among those three, or any other possible earthshots? Which one would have the best chance of developing a sense of national purpose that would be bipartisan?
Fredrik Logevall: Excellent. Yes?
Q: I worked on the Apollo program at MIT under Stark Draper. [applause]
Fredrik Logevall: Wonderful!
Q: And I was there when we lost Grissom, White, and Chaffee in the Apollo 1 fire. And I wondered if you could say a little more about the impact of that on both the schedule and the motivation.
Fredrik Logevall: Finally, yes?
Q: My question is an earthshot question, so to speak. Do you see any opportunity for NOAA to become as big a – National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association – to be sort of the leader in a new American inspiration and a new political practicality of distributing resources to areas that need to be developed?
Douglas Brinkley: Okay, great questions. I like the idea of never letting somebody at the mic at the end, so we got everybody in the conversation. The China question, China is doing a great job right now in space exploration. They're putting a lot of their energy into it. And they are exploring the dark side of the moon. And if we do a national thing – it may be a space race with China – let's hope it can be done in a way that's not militarized, but in a way that it's a friendly competition. Mars is still out there on everybody's mind.
NOAA, amazing operation. In fact, the former head of NOAA was the first woman – Kathryn Sullivan – she was recently head of NOAA and she was the first woman spacewalker. There's a great connection to NOAA. I would think the oceans is a moonshot, cleaning the world's oceans, one that I would think everybody would want to get behind. [applause] And NOAA could take a great lead in the United States on that.
It's funny you say. NOAA and NASA are both remarkable government agencies.
And Gus Grissom and Chaffee, White, that’s a shocking event when they all died. Whether Apollo could be canceled– it led, in fact, to Webb, by '68, kind of got muscled out by Lyndon to head NASA. Some people blamed him. It was inevitable that it was going to happen. They always thought that deaths would occur in space, but here it was on the ground. But it didn't defund or derail Apollo, but it really for people – like Neil Armstrong – it's not hyperbole – he figured he had a 50/50 chance of surviving Apollo 11. That's how brave these Apollo astronauts were. Imagine your family right after, "Oh, Apollo 1, all of them died," and now you're having your loved one go up, the wives of those astronauts.
Did I miss one of them?
Fredrik Logevall: I think you got them all, including the earthshot. You get a sense, ladies and gentlemen, of why Doug Brinkley is celebrated, why you need to read this book. I want to thank all of you for coming this evening. And please join me in thanking Doug Brinkley. [applause]