Apollo 11 Memories 'Seared in My Mind': Q&A with Presidential Historian Douglas Brinkley

In this image taken during the Apollo 11 mission, astronaut Buzz Aldrin moves toward a position to deploy two components of the Early Apollo Scientific Experiments Package (EASEP) on the surface of the moon.
In this image taken during the Apollo 11 mission, astronaut Buzz Aldrin moves toward a position to deploy two components of the Early Apollo Scientific Experiments Package (EASEP) on the surface of the moon. (Image credit: NASA)

NEW YORK — Beneath the Space Shuttle Enterprise within the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum, presidential historian and Rice University professor Douglas Brinkley sat down with Space.com to chat about the Apollo 11 mission and his latest book, "American Moonshot: John F. Kennedy and the Great Space Race" (Harper, 2019). 

The 50th anniversary of the first moonshot journey is weeks away, and during this June 14 interview, Brinkley offered both a historian's perspective as well as a few personal anecdotes about being a boy and staying up late to watch the mission unfold on his television.

Space.com: What's something that you discovered in the process of researching the book?

Douglas Brinkley: Sure. One of the stories about going to the moon is that it's all American men.

But there was a women's pilots core: 13 women astronauts known as the Mercury 13, who went out to New Mexico and trained and passed all the endurance tests, and were ready to go into space. [NASA never formally accepted them as astronauts and the Mercury 13 nickname was bestowed on them decades later.] But due to that era of gender bias, women never got the opportunity. The Soviets beat us to putting the first woman in space. But by 1983, you have Sally Ride, and now we're sitting under a space shuttle and in the new space era, women astronauts are abundant. 

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I wanted to make sure that I told the story of the Mercury 13 in my book. I'm asked a lot now, "Should we go back to the moon?" And I say, yes, in four or five years, but it needs to be with the first woman on the moon because I think that would be a great opportunity for our country to experience that and also it would generate a lot of national excitement.

Space.com: I'm wondering if you think about the international scope of sending people to the moon. We talk about NASA and the American ability to be able to send spacecraft these long distances, but I think this story also reaches a lot of people across the world. 

Brinkley: Well, I'll tell you, I teach at Rice University; that's where John F. Kennedy on September 12, 1962, gave the famous speech, "we choose to go to the moon." The point of that speech was public discovery, science, space as the new ocean.

I wanted to really write [in this book] more about the beginning; how humans [broke] the shackles of Earth, putting projectiles 62 miles (100 kilometers) up into the sky and beyond. That didn't happen until World War II, and it was Germany that was the pioneer in early space exploration. So I write about what happened in Germany and then about the competition between the United States and the Soviet Union.

Going to the moon became sort of a proxy to not go to war. We had fought the Korean War, and we get mired into the Vietnam War. But space was presented as a friendly competition between two geopolitical adversaries. 

Related: New Apollo 11 Book Shows Incredible, Forgotten Photos of the Apollo Program

Both the United States and Russia went gangbusters to try to be the first there. The fact that the United States did it is something that's celebrated in the U.S., because Neil Armstrong and the Americans were the first on a celestial body. But, our astronauts left on the moon medallions commemorating the Russians that died in the space program. So on the moon where Neil Armstrong's bootprints are, are memorials to Russian cosmonauts. 

Now, ever since the United States went to the moon, many countries are participating in space. China has a robust program, Russia, Brazil, the European Union, Japan, and so it's really an international field. That's why after the moonshot, the big thing became the International Space Station

Today, Russian rockets are sending American astronauts into space. So it doesn't have a rivalry aspect to it. That might happen down the line, China and the United States might compete. Some people think the United States and Japan may go into space or Mars together. Who knows. But it's definitely global in scope. But back in the early days, it was more about two countries who had the money to get into it.

A colorful high-resolution mosaic of the full moon reveals slight differences in the chemical composition of the lunar surface. (Image credit: Miguel Claro)

Space.com: NASA announced that it will be opening up the International Space Station to  private astronauts. How do you think that may affect the future of spaceflight?

Brinkley: It's an exciting field. I once wrote a book on Henry Ford and the automobile world, called "Wheels to the World" (Penguin Random House, 2004), all about Henry Ford and Ford Motors. 

At the World's Fair in St. Louis at the beginning of the 20th century, there were 100 auto companies trying to premiere the automobile. Ninety-nine are defunct. Only Ford Motors survived. So of all these people trying to go into space today, we don't know who the winners and the losers are. But there is a fierce competition between these companies to get U.S. government contracts and sub-contracts. 

Space.com: What was the connection between John F. Kennedy and the Apollo mission? What was it about that administration that made that possible? 

Brinkley: U.S. presidents only have so much bandwidth, and they often get to pick one issue or two issues, which they turn into something that they care deeply about. John F. Kennedy picked space. Kennedy's timing was good because as a U.S. senator in the 1950s, he had complained that the United States was woefully ignorant in the field of teaching math and science.

So Kennedy was an early promoter of what we call STEM [science, technology, engineering and math] research at public schools and universities. And then also, the Soviet Union put the first satellite into space with Sputnik. And they put the first creature into [orbit] with Laika. And yet the computer chip of today was really innovated by Texas Instruments in the late 1950s. NASA wasn't created until 1958. In 1960, Kennedy is elected. So when he's president, NASA's only a couple years old, and Kennedy's a beneficiary of new computer technology and new innovations. 

What he did quite well was sell space. He gave great speeches and fundraised on Capitol Hill and turned it into a great, collective, American endeavor. There are very few presidents that are as good as orators as John F. Kennedy. He is still quoted all the time. So for a future president, they would first, a. have to pick space as being important, and, b. prioritize it. Now the Trump administration is making rumbles about going to the moon and Mars. But [because of] the Kennedy effect of the mid-1960s, 4.4% of our annual budget went into space for NASA. Today, it's a third of 1%.

Neil Armstrong photographed his shadow on the moon after walking away from the lunar lander. (Image credit: NASA)

Space is very expensive; you have to prioritize it. Right now the Earth needs some help. We're dealing with climate change, and we have oceans that are dying. And some people feel it's really a time for an Earthshot: that we need to work on saving planet Earth. NASA today is giving us our climate data. I mean, so it's all interconnected. It's about believing in scientific experts, trusting scientists, believing in empirical data, and Kennedy wanted to both explore space and do oceanography, mapping of the oceans and the like. So I think both of those fields — space and oceans — are really viable for a president that develops a passion for them and who can put them to the front of a very heavy national priority list. Anything in life is about where you're going to appropriate the money. If you have funds, you can do things. No funds, you can't.

And right now, the United States has a lot of debt and we're in a kind of strange political climate. So it's hard to galvanize [collective] public support.

Space.com: What makes the 1960s era different from today? 

Brinkley: Well, in the 1960s, we were still having the World War II hangover effect; you know, it's only 15 years after World War II ended when Kennedy ran for President. The United States' economy had been very tied to the federal government and private sector, working in collaboration on big projects in World War II. So it was easily transferable to take that energy into a Cold War battle to who's the first to the moon. Things have changed since then. 

Yet what's consistent and, I think, has even grown, is public interest in space exploration. It may not be to the point that everybody's glued to their T.V., [as they were] watching Neil Armstrong walk on the moon, but space is a very robust field of endeavor and people from universities all over the country, all over the world, are engaged in space exploration. It's an exceedingly exciting area.

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From a thousand-year perspective, we may be traveling this entire solar system in ways we can't even imagine today. But what's important about Armstrong and Apollo 11 and Kennedy's Apollo push was we did it, and finally humans were able to leave the shackles of Earth and go somewhere else. And that, in the scope of human history, is a large event. Maybe a thousand years from now, most politicians alive today won't be known; nobody's going to remember senators or congresspersons from today. But people will know the name Neil Armstrong. Not just because he's the first, but [he] became our representative human to leave Earth. 

And it's a big accomplishment, but it was really the rocket engineers, computer specialists, astrophysicists; it was the scientific community that allowed Armstrong to go up there. 

Space.com: Do you, or anybody in your family, have memories of the Apollo 11 landing? Could you maybe share a little bit about the feeling?

Brinkley: I was eight and a half years old and I was living in Perrysburg, Ohio. And it was about 80 miles (129 km) or so from Wapakaneta, Ohio, where Neil Armstrong was from. So when you look at the whole planet, I happened to be living right down the road from where Neil Armstrong. I was eight and a half years old, so it was pretty exciting.

Space.com: So you knew that at 8 and a half years old?

Brinkley: Yes, oh my god! My mom and dad were high school teachers so they were really in [to it]. We had space posters and memorize-your-planets and star-galaxy guides and a telescope, and we were pulled into it. And so it was a great memory not just [because of] my own excitement, but I remember my mother, who's now dead, how excited she was that we did it, [that] we went to the moon. And so it's those memories of that 8-day mission of Apollo 11 that are seared in my mind. Obviously it gets warped over time because [footage] gets shown over and over again from a few iconic moments. 

But for me it was, like, an event because I got to sleep in my sleeping bag by the T.V. and stay up at weird new hours to watch different programming from it and see all that grainy black-and-white footage. And for my mother and father's generation, to them, it was so wild. They were born with no television … in the 1930s. The fact that the United States is doing television images from the moon live into your living room in the middle of rural Ohio is pretty spectacular.

Hopefully, the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 will make people appreciate the past, but also look at the moon and the stars, and aim for the future.

Follow Doris Elin Salazar on Twitter @salazar_elin. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.

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Doris Elin Urrutia
Contributing Writer

Doris is a science journalist and Space.com contributor. She received a B.A. in Sociology and Communications at Fordham University in New York City. Her first work was published in collaboration with London Mining Network, where her love of science writing was born. Her passion for astronomy started as a kid when she helped her sister build a model solar system in the Bronx. She got her first shot at astronomy writing as a Space.com editorial intern and continues to write about all things cosmic for the website. Doris has also written about microscopic plant life for Scientific American’s website and about whale calls for their print magazine. She has also written about ancient humans for Inverse, with stories ranging from how to recreate Pompeii’s cuisine to how to map the Polynesian expansion through genomics. She currently shares her home with two rabbits. Follow her on twitter at @salazar_elin.