Whigs in Space

The Earth rising above the Moon’s horizon in July 1969, as seen from Apollo 11 (NASA)
Three new books advance an optimistic view of the possibilities of extraterrestrial exploration.

It would seem that a distinguished liberal historian, a jumbo-jet captain and retired Swiss Air Force officer, and a brilliant rocket engineer and satirical novelist would have little in common. But as their most recent books make clear, Douglas Brinkley, Lukas Viglietti, and Robert Zubrin share an optimistic, ‘Whiggish’ outlook on human progress and the possibilities of space exploration.

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Brinkley, an old-guard figure of the liberal establishment, has just published American Moonshot — John F. Kennedy and the Great Space Race, which tells the story of how JFK came to send America on its first voyages to the Moon. Smartly written and edited, it intertwines the biographies of our 35th president and the brilliant German-born aerospace engineer Wernher Von Braun, drawing heavily on Michael Neufeld’s outstanding 2007 book Von Braun: Dreamer of Space, Engineer of War.

American Moonshot occasionally shows a lack of understanding of a few critical parts of the story it tells. Brinkley garbles the naval background behind the PT Boat program and ignores Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s critical role in forcing the U.S. Navy to pay attention to these small craft. He is equally confused about the origins and impact of Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative.

Nevertheless, Brinkley has clearly mastered Space Race-era political history. Perhaps the most useful aspect of his book is that it puts to rest the idea that JFK had been indifferent or even hostile to the space program before a handful of humiliating Cold War defeats allowed Vice President Lyndon Johnson to bamboozle him into founding the Apollo program. In fact, JFK had been ready to use the “Space Gap” as well as the “Missile Gap” against Eisenhower and Nixon. And before that he’d met Von Braun and been fascinated by the idea of space exploration.

As befits a biographer of Walter Cronkite, Brinkley deals extensively with the way JFK used television to sell himself and his vision for space exploration to the country and the world. “Overall, even the president’s detractors had to admit that he handled the majority of the press’s questions with well-chosen words, a raised eyebrow, or a half smile that communicated clearly what he thought about a particular issue,” he writes. With the help of an adoring press corps, Kennedy had no problem convincing Congress to fund the initial stages of the Apollo project.

The early 1960s were, considered by some to be the golden age of American television. With only three major networks, it was fairly easy to rivet the attention of the nation as a whole on any spectacle — from the space race to the fight for civil rights to Jackie Kennedy’s White House interior decoration — that the media emperors wished to emphasize. It was also a time when American “soft power” thrived.

Brinkley is at his best explaining how the U.S., which had suffered multiple propaganda defeats after the Soviets successfully launched the first satellite (Sputnik 1) into orbit in 1957 and the first human (Yuri Gagarin) into space four years later, managed to recover its prestige. He implies that since the USSR’s space program had so much to hide, and the open U.S. program could hide nothing, especially not it’s failures: “Kennedy boasted of NASA’s steady technological advancements knowing full well that the Kremlin loathed and feared transparency.” The “Sputnik shock” wore off, and the sense that the U.S. was racing to catch up with the Communist superpower faded, in a remarkable demonstration of how an administration can turn PR disaster into triumph with the help of a pliant media.

One gets the impression that Brinkley would have liked to present JFK as a McGovernite avant la lettre, but that he’s too honest to portray the late president as anything other than a dedicated Cold Warrior. “To Kennedy, who was presiding over the most perilous period of the Cold War, ‘peacetime’ didn’t exist in the usual sense, and every measure of national accomplishment (technological, military, economic, social and moral) needed to be weaponized in the competition for geopolitical influence,” he writes. It may be doubtful if that period was “the most perilous” of the half-century struggle against Communism, but it was certainly perilous, and Kennedy’s approach was, like Reagan’s decades later, a wise one. Beating the USSR to the moon was worth every penny.

As a good liberal Brinkley ends the story by getting in a whack at Richard Nixon for his ungraciousness, but as an ultimately optimistic liberal Whig he writes of the Apollo 11 landing that, “It was as if a new millennium had opened up for the world to embrace with awe and wonder.”

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When he’s not flying passengers for Swiss International Air Lines, Lukas Viglietti runs a small organization called SwissApollo dedicated to bringing space travelers — including Apollo astronauts — to speak at events in the Helvetic Confederation. As a result of getting to know some of these speakers and developing contacts with their friends and old associates, Viglietti has been able to put together Apollo Confidential — Memories of Men on the Moon, a fascinating personal look at the people involved with the Apollo program. What makes the book especially interesting is that it approaches the subject from a distinctly non-American perspective.

Over the years, Viglietti has met most of the Apollo astronauts and many of the most important NASA managers and technicians. His gregarious, friendly disposition has allowed him to collect anecdotes and impressions most others couldn’t. If he has not seen deeply into the souls of his subjects, he has gotten to know them as unique, extraordinary individuals. His portraits of them help illuminate an era in our history that may now seem long gone, but lives with us on a daily basis thanks to the technology that the Apollo program helped develop.

One thing quickly becomes apparent in reading through Apollo Confidential: The program’s astronauts were all aggressive, intelligent, highly competent, and highly competitive. Managing such men in a normal environment would be hard enough; that they were kept under control in the high-stress, politically explosive atmosphere of NASA in the 1960s and early 1970s seems something close to a miracle. NASA’s leaders from those days deserve immense credit for pulling it off while still pushing technology to the limits of possibility.

Viglietti succeeds in bringing the humanity, including the flaws, of the Apollo astronauts to light. The book is full of the sorts of tales that usually only get told over a round of drinks in an intimate setting, and the historical record will thank him for digging them up.

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Bob Zubrin has been thinking about space exploration and development for almost his whole life. A highly respected aerospace engineer and prolific author, he founded the Mars Society to help fulfill his vision of a mission to the Red Planet that would “live off the land.” In his latest book, The Case for Space, he begins by explaining why U.S. government space projects take so long and cost so much: cost-plus contracting, which “both forces contractors to increase their costs by requiring legions of administrative personnel to document their billings, and incentivizes them to do so, since the more overhead they incur, the more profit they make.”

It should be noted that NASA and the Defense Department are, in the most painfully slow way possible, weaning themselves off the cost-plus model in favor of more commercially oriented fixed-price contracts. NASA has had considerable success with this newer model, as when it hired companies such as SpaceX to fly resupply missions to the International Space Station. (The Defense Department’s deal with Boeing to build the first batch of KC-46 Pegasus tankers has, unfortunately, been less successful.)

The big change in the nature of the space industry is the way a few very rich men have used their money and their talents to begin to lower the cost of access to orbit. The idea for a reusable space-launch vehicle (RLV) has been around for a long time, but it was not until the Strategic Defense Initiative Organization during the George H.W. Bush administration that the concept began to be taken seriously. The DC-X program, initially managed by the Apollo astronaut Charles “Pete” Conrad, who died in a motorcycle accident detailed by Viglietti, was the first real attempt to develop an RLV.

After the DC-X project was cancelled by the Clinton administration, the torch was passed to the X Prize organization, then to the late Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, then to billionaire Richard Branson and space tourist Denis Tito, and finally to SpaceX’s Elon Musk and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos.

“Musk spends money like it’s his own — for the simple reason that much of it is,” Zubrin writes. “As a result, he does things much more cheaply than government-funded, cost-plus corporate contractors.” Since 2010, the SpaceX Falcon series of launch vehicles has come to dominate the commercial-launch market, displacing its Russian and European competitors. Sometime soon, Musk will launch the first of his Starship reusable rockets. If it works as planned, the moon and the rest of the solar system will become available for widespread exploration and development. The SpaceX Starship will be the 21st century equivalent of the 15th century European caravel, which carried Vasco Da Gama and Christopher Columbus on their epic trips.

Like many other space experts, Zubrin is a NASA critic. He believes that the current plan to use the large SLS rocket and the Lunar Gateway space station to fly back to the lunar surface is too expensive and will take too long. Instead, building on his ideas for Mars exploration, he proposes a series of Lunar Direct missions that would use mostly existing launch vehicles such as the SpaceX Falcon Heavy and Falcon 9, as well the Dragon capsule that SpaceX is currently developing and hopes to send on its first manned mission this year or the next.

Building a self-supporting base on the Moon would be a major first step in establishing a human presence throughout the solar system. But being able to live off the land on the Moon, or Mars, or asteroids, requires the ability to extract and transform local elements into the fuel humans need, especially oxygen and water. Thankfully, Zubrin provides a useful primer on “Chemistry for Space Settlers.”

Much of Zubrin’s book is devoted to what may now seem like “far out” ideas — fusion or antimatter propulsion, terraforming planets, traveling to other star systems. But given how far we’ve come since Zubrin first published his seminal book The Case for Mars in 1995, there is no reason to think that any seemingly impossible systems will never become real. Indeed, if we play our cards right, we can almost certainly bring about a solar system full of humans building on the land and trading with one another in this century.

There is room for debate as to just how much or how little harm 21st century human civilization is doing to Earth’s environment, but there is no question that it is doing some harm. Creating a spacefaring civilization is probably the only way to reduce such harm to zero without leaving billions of people to starve or freeze to death in the dark. Zubrin makes the case that fighting over apparently limited resources is idiotic when a solar system full of energy and minerals is now within our grasp.

If he’s right, the future will belong to his fellow Whiggish optimists, Brinkley and Viglietti included.

Taylor Dinerman is the author of Subway Lists and Other Writings from the iPhone Era.

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