The moon landing is a matter of public memory, which is another way of saying that it’s contested history. In 1971, Collins became the director of the Smithsonian’s National Air Museum, overseeing the addition of “Space” to its name in 1976, and he provides the introduction to APOLLO TO THE MOON: A History in 50 Objects (National Geographic, $35), by the curator Teasel Muir-Harmony. Included is an artifact borrowed from the Smithsonian Museum of African-American History, a tin can plastered with a photograph of the Reverends Martin Luther King Jr. and Ralph Abernathy, King’s successor as the head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. The S.C.L.C. used that sort of can to collect donations at rallies, like the one Abernathy led at the Kennedy Space Center on July 15, 1969, the day before the launch of Apollo 11. Abernathy carried a sign that read: “$12 a day to feed an astronaut. We could feed a starving child for $8.” Muir-Harmony quotes Abernathy as saying, “On the eve of man’s noblest venture, I am profoundly moved by the nation’s achievements in space,” but weirdly leaves out the meaningful part of that speech, which you can see Abernathy deliver in the opening scenes of an ambitious and affecting three-part PBS/American Experience documentary, “Chasing the Moon,” scheduled to be released in July, along with an accompanying book, CHASING THE MOON: The People, the Politics, and the Promise That Launched America Into the Space Age (Ballantine, $32), by the film’s director, Robert Stone, and one of its producers, Alan Andres. “We may go on from this day to Mars and to Jupiter and even to the heavens beyond,” Abernathy said, “but as long as racism, poverty and hunger and war prevail on the Earth we as a civilized nation have failed.” By this measure, the last 50 years is a history of defeat heaped upon defeat.
In AMERICAN MOONSHOT: John F. Kennedy and the Great Space Race (Harper/HarperCollins, $35), the best new study of the American mission to space, rich in research and revelation, the historian Douglas Brinkley carefully considers this and other attacks launched by civil rights activists, like the National Urban League’s Whitney Young. “It will cost $35 billion to put two men on the moon,” Young complained. “It would take $10 billion to lift every poor person in this country above the official poverty standard this year. Something is wrong somewhere.” But Brinkley concludes that, as a purely economic matter, the mission was worth it, given the gains that extended to matters of public health. He writes, “The technology that America reaped from the federal investment in 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.”
In ONE GIANT LEAP: The Impossible Mission That Flew Us to the Moon (Simon & Schuster, $29.99) Charles Fishman suggests that criticisms of the program were forgotten because in the summer of 1969, almost overnight, Apollo came to stand for the very opposite of Vietnam: one the nation at its best, the other the nation at its worst. Fishman isn’t especially interested in this point; instead, most of his book is a long argument that the mission was worth it, for reasons many readers will wonder at. “The race to the moon didn’t usher in the Space Age,” he insists, “it ushered in the Digital Age.” He points, specifically, to the development of integrated circuits and real-time computing. But there’s something else, something bigger, that Fishman wants the shot at the moon to get credit for: “In 1961, when the race to the moon kicked off, there was no sense in popular culture of ‘technology’ as a force in the everyday lives of consumers as we think of it now.” His argument goes like this: Apollo didn’t bring us to Mars, at least not yet, but, hey, it brought you Alexa. A counterargument goes something like this: My country went to the moon and all I got was this lousy surveillance state.
The race for the moon began as a race to the White House. On Oct. 4, 1957, the Soviet Union launched into orbit the first satellite, Sputnik. The American public began to panic, and Democrats decided to put that panic to political use. “People will soon imagine some Russian sitting in Sputnik with a pair of binoculars and reading their mail over their shoulders,” the Democratic strategist George Reedy wrote to Lyndon Baines Johnson on Oct. 17. “The issue is one which, if properly handled, would blast the Republicans out of the water, unify the Democratic Party and elect you as president.” Even before Sputnik, the Massachusetts senator John F. Kennedy had been attacking President Eisenhower, accusing him of failing to devote adequate funds to the missile program, leading to the United States falling behind the Soviet Union in the arms race and leading to what Kennedy dubbed a “missile gap.” In November 1957, Johnson, as Senate majority leader, opened Senate hearings into why the United States was lagging and warned Americans, “Soon, the Russians will be dropping bombs on us from space like kids dropping rocks onto cars from freeway overpasses.”