America’s race to the moon was like the competition with Nazi Germany to make the atomic bomb: the “race” mobilized immense resources while the opponent failed to compete. In the case of the A-bomb, this became evident only after Germany surrendered. Not so in the race to the moon, when the absence of competition became apparent just a few years after President Kennedy’s stirring declaration of intent to land a man there and return him safely within a decade.

John Logsdon’s book, John F. Kennedy and the Race to the Moon (Palgrave Macmillan, 2010) brought back memories of being transfixed to the television during manned space missions. John also reminded me of things I had forgotten, or never knew, like Kennedy’s interest in a cooperative moon venture with the Kremlin both before and after his speech, and how Congressional budget cutters started paring back appropriations as early as 1964. Kennedy himself had second thoughts about these expenditures, but his enthusiasm revived whenever he met with the astronauts or visited the facilities engaged in making the wondrous machines needed for their voyages.

Why race to the moon? After the space flight of Yuri Gagarin and the Bay of Pigs fiasco, national prestige was on the line. President Kennedy was looking for a “win.” The moonshots were a mix of noble vision and pork-barrel politics. The Strategic Defense Initiative was also launched with this high-octane fuel, but the moon shots, unlike SDI, were not divisive and could deliver glorious, visible successes. These vast expenditures ($25.4 billion back then, $151 billion in 2010 dollars) couldn’t be defended on the basis of national security or science, as Kennedy’s advisers repeatedly noted. But rarely, if ever, has budgetary extravagance produced such lasting, positive impressions. U. Alexis Johnson, then a high-ranking State Department official, was amply justified in concluding that Apollo 11 “did more to bolster [US] prestige abroad than any single event since the termination of the Pacific War in 1945.”

John characterizes Kennedy as “a true space pioneer,” but not a visionary. JFK was instead a pragmatic Cold Warrior who was interested in restoring the national psyche. In John’s recounting, Project Apollo was “the twentieth century archetype of a successful, large-scale, government-led program.” This feat represented the confluence of unique circumstances: “a conviction of American exceptionalism and a mission derived from that conviction, the geopolitical situation of early 1961, and the individual values and style that Kennedy brought to the White House.”

John writes that, “Apollo 11 was the first great exploratory voyage that was a shared human experience – what historian Daniel Boorstin called ‘public discovery.’” The US space program continues to generate extraordinary discoveries, but they lack the profound public impact that derives from human exploration. John now reluctantly concludes that Apollo’s “grand, costly unilateral effort racing against a firm deadline to reach a distant and challenging goal” is not replicable.

Contraction has followed expansion. Subsequent chapters of the space program — the shuttle and the International Space Station – marked a retreat to low earth orbit. As John notes, “Apollo turned out to be a dead-end undertaking.” As a result, “NASA entered a four-decade identity crisis from which it has yet to emerge” – the subject of John’s next book.

As China gears up for its rendezvous with the moon, applause will be due, as well as a sense of wistfulness – but please, fellow US citizens, hold the envy. Envy is unwarranted from the country that accomplished this feat half a century earlier. In “The Case for Space,” an article in the March/April 2012 issue of Foreign Affairs based on his new book, Space Chronicles: Facing the Ultimate Frontier, Neil deGrasse Tyson hopes that China’s space spectaculars will prompt another “Sputnik moment.” This projection rests on Tyson’s faulty assumption that NASA’s woes are a result of partisanship on Capitol Hill. In actuality, the ambitious space pronouncements of President George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush and Barack Obama all met the same fate because Republicans and Democrats alike weren’t buying.

Kennedy challenged Capitol Hill to come up with big bucks or not bother to go for the ride to the moon. Another Sputnik moment is very hard to re-create when the mission is a long way off, does not feel compelling, and when the United States is deeply in debt. A fitting next act in human spaceflight continues to be elusive. Extravagant costs for great adventures could be justified in the America of the early 1960s, but not now. Newt Gingrich discovered this on the campaign trail when he promised Space Coast Floridians that, in his second presidential term, he would colonize the moon. This promise greased Gingrich’s steep slide in the polls.

Some argue that the “malaise” of the US space program constitutes a failure of imagination. I disagree: it’s about being unable to match up a compelling vision for human space flight at a cost that doesn’t feel exorbitant. The United States is not ready to do this just yet. In the meantime, extraordinary missions are underway and are being planned to learn more about the cosmos. In this realm, modest additional funding can yield significant rewards in terms of discovery and collaborative US leadership. In my imagination, the folks who conceive of and execute these plans are wearing flight suits and astronaut gear.