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    When JFK started us on a race that maybe wasn’t

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    This is regarded as common knowledge: Consumed with Cold War anxiety, worried the Soviet Union was ahead of the United States in space exploration, and peculiarly attuned to the symbolism inherent in big-power politics, John F. Kennedy set the country, its scientists, and its aviators a formidable challenge: Land an American on the moon before the 1960s were out and return him safely to earth.

    This is what is widely unknown, and what Douglas Brinkley brings vividly to life in “American Moonshot,’’ his chronicle of the 1960s space race: Maniacally determined that a US astronaut walk on the lunar surface before a Soviet cosmonaut did, Kennedy prodded and badgered top administration officials and congressional chieftains to adopt his sense of urgency, batted away skepticism from scientists and lawmakers, turned aside repeated entreaties to devote the billions required instead to domestic programs, and by force of will assured that the nation would win a space race that may have been mostly in his head.

    The nation won that race, unless of course you are one of those who believe the entire enterprise was a hoax perpetrated in an underwater tank. Neil Armstrong took that giant lunar leap, and the irony was that he did it during the presidency of Richard Nixon, JFK’s rival in the 1960 election. But the greater irony may be that it may never be known for sure whether the Soviets wanted to get to the moon at all — they never did reach it, nor did anyone else — or whether they abandoned their effort for technological, economic, or maybe even ideological reasons.

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    One way or another, Brinkley’s story is a gripping one, matching the passion and idealism of the New Frontier with the technological, engineering, and physics challenges inherent in converting rudimentary rockets into space boosters for Project Mercury and then, with an eye on the main prize, developing the giant Saturn V rocket and concocting the notion of sending a lunar-excursion module to the lunar surface while a command module orbited above the moon waiting to ferry the astronauts (and their cache of moon rocks) home to a breathless Earth.

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    A Rice University scholar and an agile and prolific historian and biographer, Brinkley is well- situated to tell this story. His Rice office, after all, sits close to where Kennedy made his landmark moon-landing speech:

    “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.’’

    Brinkley writes with an eye to the main narrative but with ample digressions to explain the political and, often, technical challenges Kennedy faced. And as someone who was only 2 years old when Kennedy was assassinated, Brinkley’s vision is fresh, not affected by, nor infected with, the lost-promise romanticism dating to Nov. 22, 1963, that so many writers of that period possess.

    Nor does Brinkley turn a blind eye to the dark side of the moon effort, the indisputable fact that the American space program rested on the shoulders of Nazi scientists who may have been war criminals or, in the best case, knew about, tolerated, and benefited from the slave labor of the time and received and gloried in the approbation of the Nazi high command. Brinkley sees an important poignancy, and he renders it with real power:

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    “Though Hitler had no expressed interest in reaching the moon, the uncomfortable fact is that the darkest shafts and foulest backwater of human savagery helped bring this loftiest of human dreams to reality.’’

    It is easy to forget today, as we approach the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11, that the lunar landing — lauded by Nixon as “the greatest week in the history of the world since the creation’’ — came after substantial government and scientific opposition to the Kennedy space effort and amid the broader question of the utility of astronauts, rather than unmanned vehicles, in space.

    Dwight Eisenhower derided the Kennedy plan as “a mad effort to win a stunt race.’’ Kennedy regarded Apollo as a “mission into the most unknown sea.’’ But many of his scientific advisers worried that US technology wasn’t sufficiently seaworthy for the voyage. Chris Craft, NASA’s first flight director thought: “[M]en on the moon, has he lost his mind?’’

    In the end, it wasn’t what the United States lost in terms of economic opportunity costs that mattered, but what it found in this project.

    Brinkley reminds us that the space effort wasn’t justified by the development of earthbound bounty like Teflon, Velcro, or the powdered-orange-drink Tang — which, despite constant invocations at the time and after, he tells us didn’t grow out of NASA after all — but was instead justified by an important, elusive element of American life: national purpose.

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    “Throughout the United States there is a hunger today for another ‘moonshot,’ some shared national endeavor that will transcend partisan politics,’’ he writes at the outset of the reader’s trip back to this time of challenge and achievement, adding, “The answer is that it takes a rare combination of leadership, luck, timing, and public will to pull off something as sensational as Kennedy’s Apollo moonshot.’’ Brinkley’s book returns us to a place when we had all three, and only makes us want them even more, especially now.

    AMERICAN MOONSHOT:

    John F. Kennedy and the Great American Space Race

    By Douglas Brinkley

    Harper, 576 pp., illustrated, $35

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    David M. Shribman, for a decade the Globe’s Washington bureau chief, is a nationally syndicated columnist.