Historian and “Moonshot” Author Douglas Brinkley on the 50th Anniversary of the Moon Landing

Katie Couric: On May 25, 1961, President John F. Kennedy pledged to Congress that America would put astronauts on the moon by the end of the decade – how do you explain that kind of optimism and confidence? Who were the naysayers?
Douglas Brinkley: Chris Kraft, NASA’s first flight director, was writing a report at the Mercury Control Center at Cape Canaveral that May 25 when he flipped on CBS News to catch Kennedy’s speech. “My head seemed to fill with fog and my heart almost stopped,” Kraft recalled. “Did he say what I thought I heard?” Telephoning James Webb, NASA administrator, a flabbergasted Kraft tried to ascertain what this meant in terms of NASA budgets and research timetables. Kraft also called members of the Mercury team, who were all in state of puzzlement. In his memoir, Flight: My Life in Mission Control, Kraft inventoried the prevailing sentiments at NASA: “We’ve only put Shepard on a suborbital flight…an Atlas can’t reach the moon…we have mountains of work just to do the three orbit flight…the moon…we’ll need real spacecraft, big ones and a lot better than Mercury…men on the moon, has he lost his mind?…Have I?” Robert Gilruth, chief of the Space Task Group, leader of the American manned space program, had only one word for Kennedy’s arbitrary deadline of 1970: “aghast.” But following JFK’s lead, NASA officialdom went into overtime action mode.

One powerful naysayer was former President Dwight Eisenhower, who lamented the amount of federal money that was, in his view, being squandered on Kennedy’s Apollo program. “By all means, we must carry on our explorations in space, but I frankly do not see the need for continuing this effort as such a fantastically expensive crash program,” he wrote. “From herein, I think we should proceed in an orderly, scientific way, building one accomplishment on another, rather than engaging in a mad effort to win a stunt race.” To Eisenhower’s right in the Republican Party was Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona; he thought the $25 billion Apollo program money should instead be earmarked for the U.S. Air Force.

Katie: We were both kids when the moonshot came to fruition and Neil Armstrong became the first man to set foot on the moon. Looking back, what’s your memory of the event now? Take us back to that day…
Douglas: On July 20, 1969, when Neil Armstrong gingerly descended from the spider-like lunar module the Eagle with his hefty backpack and bulky space suit, becoming the first human on the moon, I celebrated. I was only eight years old that summer, and watching all things Apollo 11––from the nearly two-hundred-hour galactic journey out of the Space Coast of Florida to splashdown in the Pacific Ocean––became my obsession. I didn’t miss a moment of the long, nerve-racking chain of events that led to the Eagle establishing the moon base Sea of Tranquility (named in advance by Armstrong). I vividly remember our astronauts planting the American flag on the lunarscape, bouncing on the desolate moon’s surface, testing instruments, and scooping up moon rocks.

My family lived in Perrysburg, Ohio, and we considered Armstrong, from the nearby community of Wapakoneta, essentially a hometown boy. It was stunning that this local kid, who grew up on an Auglaize County farm with no electricity, was leading America into the new world of lunar exploration. When Armstrong said, “That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind,” my family was awed at the instantaneous marvel of it all.

Katie: You interviewed Neil Armstrong in 2000. What resonated with you most deeply about that conversation?
Douglas: For years I longed to personally hear Neil Armstong describe what it was like to contemplate Earth from 238,900 miles away, to explain, in his own words, the thermodynamics affecting motion through the atmosphere both in launching and reentry. Alas, I got the golden opportunity to interview Armstrong at NASA’s request. Armstrong’s reticence was legendary. He was known to be media shy. So the fact that I interviewed him for hours was a thrill. His detailed accounting of his Korean War service kept me especially riveted.

Katie: What do you think is the one thing the general public tends not to know or completely understand about the moonshot that they should?
Douglas: The technology that the United States reaped from the federal investment in Apollo era space hardware (satellite reconnaissance, biomedical equipment, lightweight materials, water-purification systems, improved computing systems, and a global search-and-rescue system) has earned its worth multiple times over. Ever since, whenever we have worried about an America in decline, Kennedy’s moonshot challenge has stood as the green light reminding us that together as a society we can accomplish virtually any feat.

Katie: Do you think a 21st century American moonshot would ever happen?
Douglas: America will return to the moon. I can’t timetable it. Perhaps in five to ten years. This time we’ll have women astronauts. So far America has sent 12 white male moonwalkers and no women or people of color. Because there is ice on the moon, we should explore. By 2040, we’ll hopefully be on Mars. New technology at NASA and companies like Space X is making that date reasonable.

Katie: Thanks so much, Doug!