American Moonshot: John F. Kennedy and the Great Space Race

Published on June 12, 2019

“It wasn’t luck that made them fly; it was hard work and common sense; they put their whole heart and soul and all their energy into an idea and they had the faith.”

– John T. Daniels, recalling the first airplane flight by the Wright Brothers at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina on December 17, 1903

Throughout human existence, people have looked to the sky and dreamed of breaking free of the earth and soaring upward toward the heavens. This dream was firmly within the realm of science fiction for millennia until the dawn of the twentieth century when the Wright Brothers changed the world by proving that it is possible for humans to pilot a heavier-than-air powered aircraft. The full implications of human flight were not fully grasped for some time and skeptics abounded. Yet within a span of a few decades, airplanes had become vital tools that changed the world.

Fast forward fifty-seven years to the spring of 1961. At the Baikonur Cosmodrome in southern Kazakhstan, Yuri Gagarin climbed into the Vostok 1 capsule and was blasted into space in the first manned space flight in history. Less than 21,000 days had passed between the triumph of the Wright Brothers in North Carolina and this early success of the Soviet Union’s space program. To put this into context, slightly more than 21,000 days have passed between Garagin’s historic spaceflight and the date of this article.

If taking flight seemed like an impossible fantasy prior to the twentieth century, traveling from the earth to another celestial body was even more far-fetched. In 1865, Jules Verne wrote his futuristic novel From Earth to the Moon. The plot involves a plan to send three astronauts to the moon in a capsule launched from a giant cannon. Jules Verne lived long enough to know about the first human flight but never knew that man would walk on the surface of the moon in the twentieth century. Apollo 11 was launched on July 16, 1969 with three astronauts aboard. Two of the astronauts, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, would walk on the surface of the moon four days later on July 20, 1969 while Michael Collins remained in lunar orbit.

The story of the moon landing is inextricably linked to the brief presidency of John F. Kennedy. It is through the lens of President Kennedy’s leadership that Douglas Brinkley tells the story of this epic achievement in American Moonshot: John F. Kennedy and the Great Space Race. The book does not purport to be a study of the technical accomplishments that led to the moon landing and readers who are looking for much detail on the science of space exploration will be disappointed. The book is more suited for those who are fascinated by the leadership of President Kennedy and the story of the team of scientists who made the moon landing happen. Perhaps more importantly, the reader comes away with a sense of the level of commitment and effort that will likely be required to send humans to Mars and beyond during the twenty-first century.

The race to the moon cannot be viewed outside the context of the dawn of the nuclear age at the end of World War II and the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union that began almost immediately after the Nazis were defeated. Nazi scientists, led by Wernher von Braun, had developed revolutionary capabilities in rocketry that the Germans used toward the end of the war to attack targets in France and the United Kingdom. The German V-2 program provided the means to launch conventional weapons from hundreds of miles away and foreshadowed the possibilities of inter-continental ballistic missiles tipped with nuclear warheads. The race to master long range missiles and to gain a nuclear advantage dominated the rivalry between the superpowers in the late 1940s and 1950s.

The story of Wernher von Braun and Operation Paperclip might be unfamiliar for many readers. Once the fate of the Nazi regime became obvious in early 1945, von Braun and his team of scientists were ordered to evacuate the German rocket facilities at Peenemünde in a retreat from the rapidly advancing Soviet army. Eventually, von Braun and his team evacuated to the Bavarian Alps where he decided that his best option was to surrender to the United States Army. In a breathtaking turn of events, the U.S. Army ended up capturing not only the personnel on von Braun’s team but also fourteen tons of blueprints and design drawings from Nazi facilities and enough parts to manufacture one hundred V-2 rockets. These materials would otherwise have fallen into the hands of the Soviet Union within days.

By late 1945, the United States had achieved one of the greatest technology grabs in history with the capture of 119 German Rocket scientists who were cleared of war crimes and brought to America under Operation Paperclip. The benefits were tremendous:

According to the U.S. federal government’s own estimate, at the close of the war, America had been eight years behind the Germans in rocket capability. With the arrival on American soil of von Braun and the other Peenemünde engineers, that gap vanished all at once.

In the late 1940s, The United States was not only the world’s only nuclear power but also possessed rocket technology that far surpassed anything that the Soviets had. If von Braun’s team and the materials had been captured by the Soviet Union, the course of history would have changed dramatically. Yet, the moral dimensions of exonerating von Braun and his team of war crimes cannot be easily ignored.

Although von Braun always maintained that he was a scientist fascinated by space travel who had no choice but to apply his skills to weapons of war under Hitler, the book provides ample evidence that von Braun was fully aware of atrocities taking place all around him. He had joined the Nazi party and became an SS officer, enjoying the privileges that came with his position during the war. In 1943, Germany established Mittlewerk, an underground facility used to produce thousands of V-2 rockets. Mittlewerk employed slave labor from the Dora camp of the notorious Buchenwald concentration camp:

Conditions at Mittlewerk and Dora as 1944 began were nothing short of a living hell: there was no fresh air, little water or food, vermin and lice, plumbing that consisted of open barrels, and grueling work without end — slave laborers were tortured and beaten if caught working at less than a double-time clip. These physical strains were combined with the oppressive knowledge that illness or injury might mean instant execution by their Nazi overseers.

Corpses were piled up on a daily basis for cremation as more than twenty thousand slave laborers died of disease, torture, beatings, and malnutrition. Von Braun was a colonel in the SS and regularly visited Mittlewerk during this period. There is little doubt that he was at least aware of these crimes, if not fully complicit in their execution. Yet, after the war, the United States government protected von Braun:

When the Dora-Mittelbau war crimes trial ensued in 1947 at Dachau, the U.S. Army Ordnance Corps made it clear that the von Braun team (the Peenemünders) had eluded any charges. Unscathed by the Dachau trial, in the fall of 1948, von Braun’s team began contemplating the development of Earth-orbiting satellites.

It is easy today to cast moral judgements on the men who made the decision to utilize von Braun’s skills rather than subject him to deserved punishment for his war crimes. However, it also cannot be denied that von Braun’s genius and passion for his craft greatly accelerated American capabilities during the 1950s and 1960s, both in the race to achieve an advantage over the Soviets in intercontinental ballistic missile technology and in the space race. Although President Eisenhower never fully trusted von Braun due to his Nazi past, John F. Kennedy had no such reservations after meeting von Braun in 1953. Kennedy preferred to attribute von Braun’s wartime actions as being swept up in German nationalism during the 1930s and 1940s. Once he took office, President Kennedy enthusiastically utilized von Braun’s unique skill set to advance the moonshot.

Douglas Brinkley’s book is a captivating story of achievement and the possibilities that come with strong presidential leadership. John F. Kennedy’s optimism and belief in American greatness led him to set challenges for the country that seemed outrageous at the time and were mocked by his political opponents. Kennedy knew that the winner of the race to the moon would gain enormous political benefits in the eyes of the world, especially the many countries that were weighing the advantages of aligning with the United States or the Soviet Union in an increasingly bi-polar world. The need to achieve that goal was paramount in his thinking, and outweighed any moral qualms he might have had regarding the personnel used to achieve it.

At the end of the book, the author renders his personal opinion regarding Wernher von Braun:

It is my personal opinion, based on all that I’ve read, that Wernher von Braun was culpable for war crimes associated with the German Third Reich, using slave labor to build his V-2s during World War II. Too many studies of von Braun try to sugarcoat his questionable Nazi past. While von Braun should be studied and honored within the guided corridors of engineering and space exploration, he should not be treated as a sustainable twentieth-century American hero.

As Americans celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the moon landing next month, it is doubtful that many mainstream media accounts of the story will even mention the critical role of Wernher von Braun. Like so many aspects of history, this story is one of imperfect human beings who nonetheless achieved remarkable things. After the war, von Braun became a born-again Christian, and by all accounts embraced his American citizenship and poured all of his efforts into helping the United States win the space race. However, he never faced up to his crimes during the war before his death in 1977 and continued to deny any culpability.

One of the great aspects of reading widely is that one never knows where books will take you. I expected to read an account of the events leading up to the moon landing, which the author certainly delivered. I did not expect to read a book that involved at least as much contemplation of World War II and Nazi atrocities. Ultimately, the book is stronger for its thorough coverage of both aspects of this story, and for pulling no punches when it comes to the complicated life of Wernher von Braun.

American Moonshot: John F. Kennedy and the Great Space Race
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