Category Archives: People

One Giant Leap

Douglas Brinkley, American Moonshot: John F. Kennedy and the Great Space Race (Harper Collins, 2019, 548 pp.)

Since humans first crawled out of the primordial soup millions of years ago, they have gazed up at the moon in the night sky and dreamed of what it was like. Only 24 people–all men–have ever been there. Twelve of them walked on it.

With the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing this summer, I thought I’d check out Douglas Brinkley’s new book on that historic event. Your favorite blogger reviewed Brinkley’s biography of Walter Cronkite a few years ago [Cronkite was a space junkie], and this new book seemed a natural with all the fuss over the moonshot anniversary. 

Despite the title, American Moonshot is not a history of the space program or of Apollo 11, but is instead a history of JFK’s leadership of the program up until his death. It is very thorough through the Mercury program, less so for Gemini or Apollo.

Still, the book is a goldmine of information and insights, as you’ll see below. And Brinkley makes clear that without JFK’s single-minded devotion to space exploration, the great events of July 1969 would never have happened.  

As I watched the commemorations of Apollo 11 this summer, I was deeply moved once again by the tremendous courage of the astronauts, from Mercury to Gemini to Apollo. They willingly placed themselves on top of rockets that could have blown them to bits; they could have been sent into orbit and never returned, or they could have been stranded on the moon to die very lonely deaths. Their country called them and they answered, in the name of science, exploration, duty, and Cold War patriotism.

Still, the thing that I can’t help wondering about the moon landing of 1969 is the dramatic impact it had on everyone at the time–President Nixon called it “the greatest week in the history of the world since creation”–and how little of that effect seems to have lingered across the years. The space shuttle program gave NASA a boost in the 1980s (at least until the Challenger disaster) but when’s the last time you talked to someone who dreamed of being an astronaut when they grow up?

Has anything ever seemed so momentous at the time that has arguably had so little impact on the world now? Was all the sacrifice and billions spent to get there ultimately worth it?

I think it was, but a lot people then and now disagree, perhaps most famously Gil Scott Heron in his 1970 song, “Whitey on the Moon”:

“I can’t pay no doctor bill.
(but Whitey’s on the moon)
Ten years from now I’ll be payin’ still.
(while Whitey’s on the moon)

The man jus’ upped my rent las’ night.
(’cause Whitey’s on the moon)
No hot water, no toilets, no lights.
(but Whitey’s on the moon)”

To be sure, as Walter Isaacson pointed out, while working to solve the problems of manned spaceflight, NASA laid the foundations for all kinds of modern technology, to wit: satellite TV, GPS systems, microchips, virtual reality technology, solar panels, carbon monoxide detectors, cordless power tools, bar coding, even the Dustbuster.

Research into space medicine contributed to radiation therapy for treating cancer, foldable walkers, personal alert systems, CAT and MRI scans, muscle stimulant devices, advanced types of kidney dialysis machines, and many others.

What NASA didn’t invent: Teflon (developed by DuPont in 1941), Velcro (invented in 1941 by a Swiss engineer to remove burrs stuck in his dog’s fur), or Tang (1957).

Rather than reviewing Brinkley’s book in detail, I thought it might be fun to provide you with a bulleted list of some of the things I learned that I didn’t know before. What follows is another list in the ever-popular feature known as

Fun Facts Known by Few

  • Jules Verne, writing in the 1860s, predicted that the United States would beat Russia to the moon, that the voyage would be launched from Florida, and that it would take four days–all of which turned out to be true.
  • Theodore Roosevelt (no longer in office) was the first president to fly in a plane, October 11, 1910. The first sitting president to fly was FDR, January 14, 1943.
  • In a 1920 headline, the New York Times famously lampooned Robert Goddard’s idea of a rocket being able to operate in a space vacuum. After Apollo 11 landed on the moon 49 years later, the Times famously issued a public retraction.
  • Brinkley pulls no punches on former Nazi rocket scientist Wernher von Braun: “NASA was lucky to have a rocket engineer as talented as von Braun to work on Apollo. But he shouldn’t be remembered as an American hero. His direct role in the Nazi concentration camp labor programs, where thousands perished under inhumane conditions, makes him a pariah figure of sorts”
  • Following his success with the Nazi V-2, von Braun worked to design the first trans-Atlantic ballistic missile, which Hitler wanted to use to attack New York, Washington, and Boston. It was called “Projekt Amerika.”
  • A Nazi V-2 rocket launched on October 3, 1942, broke the sound barrier and traveled to an altitude of 52 miles, reaching the ionosphere and marking the first time in history that a man-made object had technically ever flown beyond Earth’s atmosphere. On June 22, 1944, another V-2 became the first man-made object to reach outer space.
  • Hitler’s commitment to the V-2 rocket meant that Nazi rocket engineers would work on and solve many of the problems of space flight that ultimately helped to speed up the moon landing by decades.
  • JFK enrolled at Embry-Riddle Seaplane Base in Miami in 1944 to learn to fly; his flight log confirming this was not discovered until 2018.
  • In 1946, the Army Signal Corps bounced radio waves off the moon and received the reflected signals back, proving that radio transmissions through space and back to Earth were possible. This would be crucial for space exploration.
  • On September 14, 1961, the Soviets unmanned Luna-2 spacecraft crash-landed on the moon, becoming the first man-made device to touch another planetary body.
  • When the first Atlas rocket that would launch the Mercury astronauts into space exploded just after liftoff during its first test, astronaut Alan Shepard quipped, “Well, I’m glad they got that out of the way.”
  • In 1961, as planning for Apollo began, NASA identified more than 10,000 separate tasks that had to be accomplished to put a man on the moon.
  • Alan Shepard was the first American in space aboard Freedom 7 in 1961 and is the oldest man to have walked on the moon, as commander of Apollo 14 in 1971. He was 47.
  • A reporter asked Shepard what his thoughts were as he sat waiting on the launch pad aboard Freedom 7. His reply: “The fact that every part of this ship was built by the lowest bidder.”
  • In 1999, the Liberty Bell 7 was discovered and recovered from the floor of the Atlantic Ocean, 16,000 feet below the surface, almost 38 years to the day after Gus Grissom splash landed on July 21, 1961.
  • The Soviet cosmonaut Gherman Titov, who piloted the Vostok 2 at age 25 in August 1961, was the youngest person ever to fly in space. He died in 2000, age 65.
  • In April 1962, JFK had a 79% approval rating as president. Only 12% disapproved of his performance.
  • JFK’s favorite beer was Heineken
  • Cape Canaveral flight director Chris Kraft thought astronaut Scott Carpenter performed horribly aboard Aurora 7 in May 1962, talking to himself, peering out the porthole, and ignoring NASA requests to check his instruments: “I swore an oath that Scott Carpenter would never fly again.” He didn’t. Kraft died July 22, 2019, age 95, two days after the 50th anniversary of the moon landing.
  • Dr. William Lovelace II, an aeromedicine pioneer who chaired the Special Advisory Committee on Life Science, believed that women were physiologically better equipped for space travel than men. In 1959 he invited American aviator Geraldyn “Jerrie” Cobb to take the same tests as the Mercury astronauts, along with 18 other female aviators. They graduated with flying colors and the those at the top became known as the “Mercury 13,” ranging in age from 23 to 41. When NASA got wind of it, they shut the entire program down: “Since there is no shortage of qualified male candidates, there is no need to train women for space flight.” John Glenn came out publicly against the program as well. The next year, the Soviets did what the Americans wouldn’t, making Valentina Tereshkova the first woman in space, in June 1963. She orbited the Earth 48 times and remains the only woman to have been on a solo space mission. It would take the Americans 20 more years to send Sally Ride into space aboard the Challenger in 1983.
  • During NASA’s heyday between 1964 and 1969, the space agency employed 36,000 people, hired 400,000 contractors, and operated facilities worth $3.65 billion.
  • President Dwight D. Eisenhower always derided the frantic moon-shot efforts as an unnecessary and expensive Cold-War stunt. He died on March 28, 1969, nearly 4 months before Armstrong and Aldrin landed on the moon.
  • Jackie Kennedy sent Wernher von Braun a note two months after JFK’s death, lamenting that her late husband was “at least given time to do some great work on this earth, which now seems such a miserable and lonely place without him.”
  • As the Apollo 11 launch approached, former LBJ Press Secretary Bill Moyers and future Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan lobbied the Nixon administration to name the spacecraft the John F. Kennedy. Nixon refused and did not mention JFK in the days before or after the moon landing.
  • 528 million people around the world watched the moon landing on television.
  • Neil Armstrong took a fragment of the Wright brothers’ famous Kitty Hawk plane with him on Apollo 11, linking man’s first successful flight with the first moon landing.
  • A total of 12 men have walked on the moon, all between July 1969 and December 1972. Four of them are still alive: Buzz Aldrin, Harrison Schmidt, Charles Duke, and David Scott. NASA has pledged to put a woman on the moon as part of Artemis by 2024.

Finally, perhaps my favorite story of all: just before climbing back into the Eagle and leaving the moon for the last time, Neil Armstrong reminded Buzz Aldrin to leave behind some NASA-sanctioned mementos he had brought with him. Aldrin reached into his shoulder packet and pulled out a package containing four items: two medals honoring Soviet cosmonauts Yuri Gagarin–the first human to orbit the Earth–and Vladimir Komarov, both of whom were killed in separate 1967 accidents; an Apollo 1 patch that memorialized Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee, all killed in the Apollo 1 fire in 1967.

These were fitting tributes and recognition, deep in the midst of the Cold War, of the courage and sacrifice of their American and Soviet colleagues, upon whose shoulders they stood.

The last item was an olive-branch pin, symbolizing that the Apollo 11 astronauts had “come in peace for all mankind.”

Aldrin bent down and laid the package on the lunar surface. It’s still there.

The next time you look up at the moon, think of that small bag, and reflect a moment on all that it symbolizes, and on the giant leap it took to place it there.

S3E1: One of the Last Living WWII Combat Veterans Remembers: The Invasion of Guam, 75 Years Later

This week’s special guest is 95-year-old Fred Mingledorff, one of the last living combat veterans of World War II. Mr. Mingledorff was there 75 years ago, on June 21, 1944, for the invasion of Guam during World War II, a turning point in the war against the Japanese. He talks with Stan about what he did during the war, how the war affected him, and looking back 75 years later.  

What I’m Reading Now: May 15, 2019

Robert A. Caro, Working: Researching, Interviewing, Writing (Alfred A. Knopf, 2019, 207 pp.)

I’m fascinated by process. I’m never content to simply talk to someone about what they do, I always want to know how they go about doing it. This is especially true of writers and readers, even down to what the space looks like where they work.

There are a plethora of books written by writers about writing–including the one I wrote about in this blog, Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft is one of the most popular and one of the best, in part because he gets down in the weeds about how to actually write, giving advice about everything from how to craft dialogue to how to find an agent.

More unusual is a writer who tells you how they actually work–what time of day they write, how many hours a day, how much time they spend researching, even the kind of paper, pen, or computer they use. I’m fascinated by all of it. 

I well remember the afternoon in the fall of 1986, when, as a first-year graduate student at the University of Georgia, I was prowling the history stacks on the 4th floor of the Main Library and came across the sixth volume of Douglas Southall Freeman’s George Washington: A Biography.

Freeman died while the volume was in production, and Jefferson biographer Dumas Malone paid elegant tribute to Freeman in the Preface, entitled “The Pen of Douglas Southall Freeman.”

Here I first learned about Freeman’s Spartan schedule–rising at 2:30 in the morning, slavishly following the same routine every day, writing in the third-floor study of his home “Westbourne,” and tracking in a notebook every hour he spent working.

Mesmerized, I searched for every newspaper and magazine article I could find in those pre-Google days about this strange man who, by his own reckoning, spent 15,693 hours working on his biography of Washington. (Needless to say, I devoured David Johnson’s biography Douglas Southall Freeman when it was published in 2002.)

Robert Caro is in the midst of writing–as he puts it–the fifth of a projected four-volume biography of The Years of Lyndon Johnson, and he has paused in that task to produce this little gem about why he wrote and how he researched his lives of Robert Moses and LBJ. As fascinating as this book is, I have to wonder why at age 83 and needing about a dozen years to write each of the Johnson volumes, Caro decided to steal precious hours away from that book to write this one. And yes, he knows the clock is ticking.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s well worth it: Caro gives us a behind-the-scenes peek at his process, beginning with the advice proffered by his editor at Newsday, Alan Hathaway. He advised the young Caro that in his investigative reporting he should “turn every page. Never assume anything. Turn every goddamned page.”

Caro followed that advice through his massive study of New York commissioner Robert Moses and his four-volumes on LBJ–though he admits there aren’t enough lifetimes to turn every page in the LBJ Presidential Library, totaling 40,000 archival boxes and thirty-two million pages.

Caro is interested in power–where it comes from, how it works, and what people do with it. The famous mantra is that power corrupts but Caro insists that “power reveals.”

Robert Moses, the powerful NYC commissioner who, over the course of 40 years, built 627 miles of highways through New York’s five boroughs that uprooted hundreds of thousands of people (mostly the poor and minorities), had more power than any elected official, more power than the governor or the mayor, and he was never elected to anything. 

How did he amass that kind of power? Caro was determined to find out, and he explains how he surmounted roadblocks placed by Moses himself, stonewalling by other Moses cronies, and the near-poverty he and his wife Ina endured as the book advance ran out and the research and writing stretched out into years. The story of what became the Pulitzer-Prize winning book The Power Broker (1973) is a tale of perseverance, dogged determination, and plain hard work. President Obama called it the most influential book he’s ever read.

To research LBJ, Caro and Ina moved to Austin, Texas (“why can’t you do a biography of Napoleon?” she pleaded). When they weren’t both trying to “turn every page” in the archive, he spent hundreds of hours driving hundreds of miles, interviewing LBJ connections in far-flung places to give his readers not just a sense of LBJ, but a far deeper understanding than anyone ever had of this paranoid, insecure, nakedly ambitious Texas Hill Country native and his relentless quest for power.

After reading Working, you’ll want to dive in to The Power Broker and not come out till you’ve finished the most recent LBJ offering, which I reviewed elsewhere on this blog. Have your calls held and your food sent in.

To return where we began: what is Caro’s process? After the research is done, and the writing begins, he wakes every morning at 7 a.m., puts on a coat and tie, and walks across Central Park to a small office he rents (he lost the one he had for 22 years on Columbus Circle to a Nordstrom). Sitting at an unadorned desk, with a vast outline tacked to a cork board on the wall, he writes three or four drafts in long-hand on narrow-lined white legal pads. He types up the next draft on a Smith-Corona Electra 210, triple-spaced, leaving plenty of room to re-write in pencil. Work stops in mid to late afternoon because he found that most of what he wrote in the evening didn’t pass inspection later. The next day he comes in, reads what he wrote the previous day, edits, and begins the process all over again.

Does he know the title of this last volume? He does. Will he tell us? He won’t.

The aforementioned Dumas Malone spent 33 years on his 6-volume Jefferson bio, not counting the years of research before the first volume appeared in 1947. He was 56 when that first volume was published, 89 and nearly blind at the last, and he died at 94.

We can only hope that Robert Caro has that many years left because we need him to finish this monumental task, and, who knows, maybe there will be enough years to spare to write the full-length memoir that he promises in these pages. Caro says that he will finish the 5th and final volume of LBJ in about 3-4 years, which would put him at 87.

As much fun and informative as this slim volume is, speaking on behalf of his legion of fans (including Conan O’Brien), we can only hope that Robert Caro doesn’t take on any more side projects that will delay, even for a day, the last LBJ volume.

The finish line is near, and the clock is ticking. Write, Mr. Caro, write.

S2E10: Steve Oney

Stan’s guest this week is prize-winning author and journalist Steve Oney, talking about his latest book, A Man’s World: A Gallery of Fighters, Creators, Actors, and Desperadoes (UGA Press) and his interviews with Greg Allman, Harrison Ford, Nick Nolte, Herschel Walker, and many others.

Face Down in the Mud, A Life Redeemed

Charles Van Doren (right) with his father Mark

Charles Van Doren, who died April 9 at age 93, will forever be known as the man at the center of the quiz show scandals of the 1950s, the subject of the 1994 motion picture Quiz Show. Humiliated and ostracized when the truth emerged that Van Doren and other contestants of the brainy shows had been supplied the answers beforehand, Van Doren spent the rest of his life atoning for his betrayal of the public’s trust in a way that seems unimaginable now.

As Bret Stephens reminds us, the whole notion of “shame,” and in particular public shame, has radically changed over the course of the last 60 years. These days celebrities caught lying disappear from the public eye briefly and then reappear 6 months later for a teary “apology” interview and a lucrative tell-all memoir.

For Van Doren, his shame brought pariah-like status for the rest of his life, much of it self-imposed. Long after most of the world stopped caring about his sins, he still did. He declined to appear on camera talking about his mistakes, and 35 years after his appearance on “Twenty-One” he turned down an offer to be a consultant for the movie, refusing to profit from his lies. Who in the world would do that now? Not until 50 years after the scandal did he write about it.

Van Doren made amends in a more remarkable way, the only way that he knew how: by writing books about literature and the life of the mind.  Before appearing on “Twenty-One,” Van Doren had been a literature professor at Columbia University, like his father Mark before him. After the scandal broke, his nascent academic career in ruins, Van Doren accepted an offer from family friend Mortimer Adler and went to work for Encyclopedia Britannica at its Chicago offices.

It was a gesture, one friend said, “that saved Charlie’s life.” Van Doren acknowledged it at Adler’s funeral in 2001: “There came the time when I fell down, face down in the mud, and he picked me up, brushed me off, and gave me a job.” Van Doren labored in relative obscurity for 20 years at Britannica, editing articles and contributing reviews to The Great Ideas Today, an annual companion volume to EB’s Great Books of the Western World.

In 1972, Van Doren co-wrote with Adler the completely revised and updated addition of Adler’s 1940 masterpiece, How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading, which has never gone out of print. The book’s title has lent itself to jokes through the years, but as Clifton Fadiman pointed out, Van Doren and Adler don’t teach us “how to decipher words. That is merely a useful trick, just slightly above the capacity of a chimpanzee.” What this book teaches is how to read “books of some weight and density, into which went hard mental work and out which comes real mental change. Such reading involves a complex, often intense activity, not the passive reception of the author’s message. The result is not ‘finishing the book’ but starting something in the readers’ mind.”

A decade later Van Doren wrote in the 1983 edition of The Great Ideas Today a brilliant appreciation and review of Fernand Braudel’s pathbreaking The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II. It deserved a far wider audience than it received.

Charles Van Doren wrote many other books, and they are delightful to read. Pick up his 1991 volume, A History of Knowledge: Past, Present, and Future, which covers everything from Ancient Egypt to the Renaissance to AIDs and the computer revolution, and you’ll find many examples of gems like this one: “I have not met its author, but I have engaged Professor Berman in many silent conversations in the watches of the night.” Here is a sentiment every reader can share.

The Joy of Reading: A Passionate Guide to 189 of the World’s Best Authors and Their Works, first published in 1985 and revised in 2008, is even better. “Reading is my favorite thing to do,” he declares (that line was enough to hook me), and through a literary feast that doubles as a history of literature he proves it, writing knowledgeably and lovingly of books and authors from Homer to Harry Potter. It was Van Doren in this book who steered me toward Robert Fagles’ translations of Homer’s two great epics.

Unfortunately, Van Doren’s literary work received short shrift in the obituaries that appeared last week following his death, as I’m sure he always knew it would. He had no illusion about the fact that he would always be remembered for his part in one of the great shams of 20th-century popular culture.

But Charles Van Doren deserves more than to be remembered for his worst moment. His legacy is not to be found in the bad judgment of a 32-year-old who appeared on a long-forgotten TV show. Van Doren left something far more valuable: After falling face down in the mud, he spent his remaining 60+ years teaching and writing, hoping to inspire others to share his love of words, ideas, and books. His was the dignified example of a shamed man who made a very public mistake and thereafter lived a quiet life of redemption, a good and honorable and worthy life that should be remembered in its totality.

Van Doren wrote in his review of Braudel’s masterpiece, “It is a great historian who, when old, still is capable of making such an effort for the truth. And it is a great man who confesses the mistake that drove him to undertake it.”

It’s clear now that Charles Van Doren was writing about himself. May he rest in peace and his words–and example–live on.