A tale of nuclear brinkmanship, backroom politics, and science fiction. Add ‘Moonrise’ to your podcast app.

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Want to uncover the real origin story behind the United States’ decision to go to the moon? In the 50 years since the moon landing, as presidential documents have been declassified and secret programs revealed, a wild story has begun to emerge. “Moonrise,” a Washington Post audio miniseries hosted by Lillian Cunningham, digs into the nuclear arms race of the Cold War, the transformation of American society and politics ⁠— and even the birth of science fiction ⁠— to unearth what really drove us to the moon. Come along with us on a fascinating journey from Earth to the moon.

Trailer: Introducing Moonrise

You’ve heard about how we landed on the moon, now find out why we went there. Host Lillian Cunningham introduces a new podcast that explores the real story behind the moonshot. Transcripts and more.

Listen to Moonrise on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts or Stitcher

“There can be no thought of finishing, for aiming at the stars, both literally and figuratively, is the work of generations.”

— Rocket scientist Robert Goddard

Since December 1972, no humans have returned to the moon. Will they again? Pioneering U.S. rocket engineer Robert Goddard wrote to “War of the Worlds” author H.G. Wells in 1932 — decades before the first rocket left Earth’s orbit — asserting that the efforts of space travel would continue for generations and “no matter how much progress one makes, there is always the thrill of just beginning.”

“The real climax of science fiction is the fact that on July 20th Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon.”

— Science-fiction writer Isaac Asimov

In 1969, Apollo 11 successfully landed on the lunar surface, and Isaac Asimov was among those who saw it as proof that his generation of science-fiction writers had shaped the future. He continued: “I was watching on television; and the appearance of Neil Armstrong in his spacesuit, the spaceship from which he descended, the quality of the terrain — everything about it was precisely what I had been reading about in the 1940s, precisely what I have seen in science fiction illustrations, precisely what I saw in Destination Moon. The world of the 1940s that I had been so immersed in had come to actual life exactly in 1969.”

“If we die, we want people to accept it. We’re in a risky business, and we hope that if anything happens to us, it will not delay the program. The conquest of space is worth the risk of life.”

— Apollo 1 astronaut Virgil Ivan “Gus” Grissom

In 1967, the crew of the first Apollo mission died when their capsule went up in flames during a training exercise. Further crewed space flights were delayed nearly two years while NASA and Congress conducted inquiries into the disaster.

“President Kennedy didn’t give a hoot about space exploration. We have him on tape...What he cared about was beating the Russians.”

— Bill Barry, chief historian for NASA

After John F. Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963, President Lyndon B. Johnson took over the presidency and played up his support of the Apollo program, saying: “The future of this country and the welfare of the free world depends upon our success in space.”

“I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth.”

— President John F. Kennedy

In 1961, Kennedy announced his directive to create the Apollo program in an address to the U.S. Congress, saying: “No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish.”

“The space race wouldn’t have happened without an audience. It was a competition between the United States and the Soviet Union, but they weren't just competing with each other. They were competing for global influence. That’s an essential part of what made the space race a race — why we were in it in the first place.”

— Teasel Muir-Harmony, a curator in the space history department of the National Air & Space Museum

By 1958, the U.S. Congress and President Dwight Eisenhower approved the formation of NASA, a new federal agency designed to house a non-military space program and research.

“There’s a lot of mythology associated with the Sputnik moment, so to speak. Sputnik was not a surprise — not to anybody who was paying attention.”

— Roger Launius, former chief historian for NASA

In 1957, the Soviet Union successfully launched the Sputnik satellite as part of the International Geophysical Year — a scientific effort to study the Earth that drew the participation of countries around the globe. Although often considered the starting shot of the space race, Sputnik was not initially a major concern for the Eisenhower administration.

“Considerable prestige and psychological benefits will accrue to the nation which first is successful in launching a satellite.”

— Classified memo on proposed U.S. scientific satellite program

In May 1955, a memo was sent to the National Security Council highlighting the political urgency for the U.S. government to invest in a non-military satellite program, warning that the Soviet Union was likely to draw attention on the world stage if it beat the United States to such a public display of technological advancement.

“By mid-1945, the Soviets had already captured and relocated about a hundred German physicists, whom they put to work on the Soviet A-bomb project.”

— Asif Siddiqui, in his 2010 book “The Red Rockets’ Glare”

In 1945, as World War II ended, there was an international race to get ahold of Germany’s advanced weapon designs and the people who engineered them. Those Nazi assets and scientists, swooped up by the United States and the Soviet Union, would help to power the Cold War nuclear arms race.

“It filled me with a romantic urge. Interplanetary travel! Here was a task worth dedicating one’s life to. Not just stare through a telescope at the moon and the planets, but to soar through the heavens and actually explore the mysterious universe.”

— Rocket engineer Wernher von Braun

In the 1930s and ’40s, many of the scientists interested in space travel put their efforts instead toward building rockets for military use during World War II. Wernher von Braun, the Nazis’ chief rocket engineer, developed the most advanced rocket technology of the time — the V2 ballistic missile — which would ultimately serve as the technological foundation for launching humans to the moon.

“American national identity is built on a set of myths that include the idea of Americans as explorers, as pioneers pushing back the boundaries and moving into new areas. And so, I think there are ways in which the dream of space flight dovetails very nicely with these deep-seeded ideas of American identity, rooted in a somewhat mythical frontier past.”

— Margaret Weitekamp, a curator in the space history department of the National Air & Space Museum

In the late 1920s, the first American science-fiction magazine appeared on newsstands, featuring space adventures that were modeled after the Wild West cowboy tales that were popular at the time.

“As for the Yankees, they had no other ambition than to take possession of this new continent of the sky, and to plant upon the summit of its highest elevation the star-spangled banner of the United States of America.”

— Jules Verne, “From the Earth to the Moon”

In 1865, a novel that shaped a generation of scientists, writers and dreamers was published. “From the Earth to the Moon” told the story of American weapons enthusiasts who launched humans to the moon from a giant cannon — and many science-fiction authors and rocket engineers of the early 20th century credited this book with igniting their interest in moon travel. It would take a century to accomplish, but that wild idea would become one of the largest U.S. government projects of all time.

Welcome to Earth! This is home, and currently the only place in the universe we know life exists. The “Moonrise” podcast traces the story of why we left this verdant planet to explore our closet cosmic neighbor, the moon. The tale doesn’t start with the launch of the Sputnik satellite, or with President Kennedy’s famous speech announcing the Apollo program. It starts more than 100 years and 238,900 miles from the first lunar landing...


The “Moonrise” podcast is written and hosted by Lillian Cunningham. Production and sound design by Bishop Sand. Editing by Dennis Funk. Project editing by Allison Michaels. Audio direction by Jessica Stahl. Logo design by Courtney Kan. Page design and development by Courtney Kan and Matthew Callahan. Thanks to the Adler Planetarium for hosting the “Moonrise” launch event. Originally published June 17, 2019.