Douglas Brinkley's "American Moonshot: John F. Kennedy and the Great Space Race" is a look back at the days when American presidents and politicians believed in and promoted science — days when there was a world to win, along with the heavens.

Prolific historian Brinkley avers that his latest is a contribution to “U.S. presidential history (not space studies).” However, in his customarily thorough way, it’s clear that he’s mastered a great deal of the facts and lore surrounding the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo projects that landed American astronauts on the moon 50 years ago. As his account unfolds, two themes emerge. One is that fiscal conservatives, exemplified by President Dwight Eisenhower, were reluctant to fuel the emerging military-industrial complex, affording John F. Kennedy a campaign issue that revolved around the “missile gap” between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. As Brinkley writes, “having been raised in a family obsessed with winning at every level, (Kennedy) reduced the complexities of Cold War statesmanship to a simple contest.” The second theme is that the space race was very much an extension of the wider Cold War. In both matters, notes the author, NASA became the beneficiary of both federal largess and the advantages of “unfettered capitalism,” tapping into a fast-growing network of military contractors and spinning off basic research into an array of technological products. Even during the Bay of Pigs crisis, Kennedy kept his eye on the lunar prize, tasking his vice president, Lyndon B. Johnson, with determining whether the American parties involved in the space race were “making maximum effort.” With JFK’s assassination, the moon program seemed in danger of losing impetus and funding, but thanks to a vigorous NASA administrator and political allies in Congress and the executive branch, the Kennedy-inspired effort was realized. In fact, writes the author, it became a “marvelous alternative to all-out war with the USSR or future proxy wars such as Korea."

A highly engaging history not just for space-race enthusiasts, but also students of Cold War politics.

(Brinkley will speak and sign copies of his book at 5 p.m. Sunday at BookPeople, 603 N. Lamar Blvd. Information: bookpeople.com)

Established essayist tackles middle age

The latest collection from Manhattan-based essayist Sloane Crosley, "Look Alive Out There," suggests she can write engagingly about nearly anything.

A decade after establishing herself with her best-selling debut, "I Was Told There’d Be Cake," Crosley now finds herself addressing concerns and issues bordering on middle age, and she doesn’t like it. An early example of how many thematic levels she builds into an essay comes with “Outside Voices,” which seems, early on, to be about living in proximity to others, and then, more specifically, about “living on the most densely populated slip of land in America.” A lesser essayist would mine this for all it’s worth, but for Crosley, this is merely context for what comes to obsess her — the teenage boy next door and the family that entitles him to disturb the author’s personal space with his noisy outdoor social life. What really bothers her about him is his youth, which shows her how old she has become. So while the essay addresses the challenges and annoyances of overcrowded Manhattan, to the voyeuristic delight of readers who haven’t chosen to live there, it goes deeper into the universal ambivalence of realizing that you are no longer young and must seek out some type of second act as 40 approaches. As is typical in such collections, some essays are more ambitious and fully realized than others, but all work on multiple levels and all are sharply written, as Crosley continues to extend her impressive range. A writer writing about the writing life would not seem promising until she stumbles into a coven of pot-growing swingers who take the essay in an entirely different direction. An appearance on the canceled "Gossip Girl" might seem dated if it weren’t so perceptive on various levels of celebrity and the stereotypes that public figures adopt. The author’s closing essay on preserving her eggs is a marvel of ambivalence on ticking clocks and motherhood.

A smart, droll essay collection that is all over the map but focused by Crosley’s consistently sharp eye.

(Crosley will speak and sign copies of her book at 7 p.m. Thursday at BookPeople, 603 N. Lamar Blvd. Information: bookpeople.com)