Written by Peter Baker
At his star-spangled Independence Day extravaganza this month, President Donald Trump singled out Gene Kranz, the legendary Apollo flight director. “Gene,” the president said, “I want you to know that we’re going to be back on the moon very soon — and someday soon, we will plant the American flag on Mars.”
What could be more American than vowing to go to the moon and beyond on the Fourth of July? For Trump, it was a chance to channel his inner John F. Kennedy, who first made the moon the nation’s goal — to make the sort of bold promise that appeals to his own sense of greatness and to wrap himself in a part of Americana akin to baseball and apple pie.
But Trump is the 10th president since Kennedy to put his stamp on the space program and the latest to aim for the stars with more brio than blueprint. After the Apollo program ended, other presidents promised to go back to the moon — or send humans to Mars or even land astronauts on asteroids. None did, unwilling or unable to obtain the financing necessary, and it remains uncertain whether Trump will, either.
As the nation on Saturday celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing, the story of presidents and space exploration in the subsequent five decades is one of fascination, frustration and futility, an unrequited romance as star-struck chief executives dreamed of recapturing the magic of Kennedy’s moonshot without summoning the resources or the national will that made it possible in 1969, almost six years after his death.
The presidents who followed Kennedy accomplished remarkable things in space, including the development of the reusable space shuttle, the launch of the Hubble Space Telescope and its offspring, the robot exploration of the solar system and the construction of the International Space Station along with Russia and other partners. Yet none of it ever fired the national imagination as did humans traveling to other worlds.
“There was a time when science and space exploration just captured the soul of America,” said Douglas Brinkley, presidential historian at Rice University and author of “American Moonshot,” a new book on Kennedy and the space race. “The problem is it’s easy to say, ‘Let’s go back to the moon and to Mars,’ but as they used to say in NASA — ‘No bucks, no Buck Rogers.’”
Indeed, other presidents never made it the priority Kennedy did, regardless of their sweeping words. “The key factor is they’re not willing to pay for it,” said John M. Logsdon, a prominent space historian and professor emeritus at George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute. “Kennedy not only talked the talk, but walked the walk. None of the presidents since then have been willing to do anything like that.”
Advocates of space exploration hope Trump will succeed with his moon program, called Artemis, for the mythical Apollo’s goddess sister, if for no other reason than his relentlessness when he applies himself to a project or a cause. Being the president who returned humanity to the moon on the way to Mars would be the sort of splashy, high-profile spectacle that excites him.
Trump hosted Buzz Aldrin, Michael Collins and the family of Neil Armstrong on Friday in the Oval Office to mark what the president called “one of the great achievements ever.” Vice President Mike Pence, who heads a reconstituted National Space Council, plans to visit the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Saturday.
“NASA is back,” Trump boasted.
The hurdles, however, remain sky-high. Pence told NASA in March to accelerate its schedule to reach the moon by 2024, the end of Trump’s second term if he wins reelection. NASA shook up its management to meet that goal. But Congress has shown less interest in financing it, and the technical obstacles to such a timetable remain formidable.
Kranz himself highlighted the challenge in an appearance this week at Purdue University, saying the national environment had changed. “Today, you have this marvelous technology — the books have been written, the kids are educated,” he said. “What we need is leadership that says, ‘Let’s go,’ and then you need unity within the nation that’s going to make it happen.”
Kennedy was “not that interested in space.” He was keen to compete.
Kennedy’s moon mission was born not out of the explorer spirit but a desperation to catch up in a space race the United States was losing. The Soviets had beaten the Americans by launching the first satellite into orbit in 1957 and, just three months after Kennedy’s inauguration in 1961, the first man. In a memo a week later, Kennedy demanded any space initiative that “promises dramatic results in which we could win.”
The answer was the moon. Six weeks after Yuri Gagarin’s orbit, Kennedy addressed Congress to set a goal, “before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth.” He followed up a year later in a landmark speech at Rice University: “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.”
For Kennedy, it was all about Cold War competition. “I’m not that interested in space,” he told his NASA administrator in a private meeting, where he made clear that space priorities other than a lunar landing meant little to him — as did arriving on the moon second.
Because of an assassin’s bullet, though, it fell to his successor, Lyndon B. Johnson — who unlike Kennedy was genuinely invested in space — to build the moon program into what it would be. While the space project enjoyed only shallow public support given its cost, the assassination made it a moral imperative to fulfill the martyred leader’s vision.
But it would be their mutual rival, Richard M. Nixon, who would preside over the landing on July 20, 1969. Nixon relished making what he called the “most historic phone call ever made from the White House” to speak with Armstrong and Aldrin on the moon. But beyond that, Nixon was not especially engaged in the space program, which was seen as a Kennedy legacy.
In March 1970, less than a year after the first landing, Nixon signed a directive making space just another program that would compete for funding along with every other, the turning point to Logsdon. As interest and television ratings for subsequent Apollo launches dwindled, the final three moon missions were scrapped, ending the program with Apollo 17 in 1972.
Nixon did authorize the development of the space shuttle, the principal path to space for Americans for decades to come, and he sealed a cooperation agreement with the Soviet Union that would lead to the docking of Apollo and Soyuz capsules in orbit in 1975 under his successor, Gerald R. Ford.
But the Apollo-Soyuz rendezvous, while momentous geopolitically, also effectively ended the space race. If astronauts and cosmonauts could meet in space, there hardly seemed an urgent need to spend huge amounts of money on an antiquated competition. At its peak, NASA commanded more than 4% of the federal budget; today it receives about half of 1%.
“None of the administrations since Johnson were facing a proposition that what hung in the balance here was nothing less than the beginning of the end of the Cold War,” said Sean O’Keefe, a NASA administrator under George W. Bush. “This was a very dominant theme.”
Story Musgrave, a retired astronaut who flew six shuttle missions, said the original rationale for the space program proved to be its inescapable burden. “The trouble if you make it about winning is that when you win, you may not have” a reason to continue, he said. “Kennedy really did set us up for the total lack of vision that occurred after ’69 because we won.”
Presidential visions are undone by financial realities.
After a six-year hiatus, Americans returned to space in 1981 with the launch of the space shuttle Columbia only three months after Ronald Reagan took office.
Reagan embraced the program as a symbol of American optimism and ambition and, echoing Kennedy, announced to Congress in 1984 that he was directing NASA to build a permanently manned space station “and to do it within a decade.”
But Reagan was most remembered for his moving speech after the Challenger blew up in 1986, killing all seven on board, including teacher Christa McAuliffe. “Nothing ends here; our hopes and our journeys continue,” he told a television audience, concluding with a tribute to the crew. “We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and slipped the surly bonds of Earth to touch the face of God.”
Hoping to reinvigorate the program, President George H.W. Bush announced on the 20th anniversary of Apollo 11, in 1989, an initiative to return to the moon and then to go to Mars. “Why the moon? Why Mars?” Bush asked. “Because it is humanity’s destiny to strive, to seek, to find. And because it is America’s destiny to lead.”
Logsdon, the historian, who has written several books on presidents and the space program — most recently one on Reagan, published this year — said Bush came the closest any president has come to matching Kennedy’s vision and budget commitment, but the price tag caused sticker shock in Congress, and the idea went nowhere.
When Bill Clinton took office, he revamped the program. “We had concluded that there was little point in putting astronauts on the moon again” unless it was done with a crewed base, recalled John Holdren, his science adviser. But as before, the estimated cost was enormous. “We saw no prospect of such a sum materializing.”
Instead, Clinton cut NASA’s budget and re-imagined the program as a vehicle for international cooperation, converting Reagan’s envisioned space station into a joint venture with Russia as it emerged from the collapse of the Soviet Union. By the time Clinton left office, Americans and Russians were living together on the International Space Station, and have since.
George W. Bush found himself repeating history. Like Reagan, it fell to him to pick NASA back up after a shuttle disaster when the Columbia broke apart on re-entry in 2003, killing all seven on board. A year later, Bush set in motion plans to retire the aging shuttles in favor of a new set of powerful rockets and a crew capsule.
And like his father, Bush aimed to return to the moon by 2020, followed by a mission to Mars. But even though Congress signed on and financed the start of the program, impatient politicians gave up when progress was slower and costlier than predicted.
Trump sends mixed signals about his moon plan.
Barack Obama seemed less interested in space and killed Bush’s Constellation program to build the Ares rockets and Orion capsule even after it had begun test launches, calling instead for outsourcing manned spaceflight to commercial companies. As a result, since the shuttles were retired in 2011, Americans have had to rely on paid rides to the space station on Russian rockets.
Obama saw no need to return to the moon, proposing instead to land astronauts on an asteroid by 2025 and then send them to Mars in the 2030s. Congressional Republicans scoffed and rejected the idea.
Trump came to office determined to reverse course, re-establishing the National Space Council abolished by Clinton. The president has relished surrounding himself with Apollo-era heroes like Kranz, Aldrin and moonwalker Harrison H. Schmitt.
But Trump seems more enchanted with his plan to create a military Space Force and sends mixed signals about his own exploration program. Just last month, he wrote on Twitter that “NASA should NOT be talking about going to the Moon,” but instead be focusing on Mars.
Even during Friday’s visit with the Apollo 11 crew, he began grilling Jim Bridenstine, his NASA administrator, on why the agency was not simply heading directly to Mars. “We need to learn how to live and work on another world,” Bridenstine explained.
Plenty of space program veterans doubt Trump will succeed. “I don’t think that whoever has opted for this goal has any idea about its cost or practicality,” Holdren said. “Sending humans to Mars would be such a complex and expensive proposition that I don’t believe it will be done at all unless major nations agree to do it together.”
Michael Foale, a retired astronaut who made extended stays on both the Russian space station Mir and the International Space Station, said the 2024 deadline “is highly unlikely to be achieved.” But he said he would “fully support” the idea of returning to the moon for a sustained stay, not just another one-off visit.
“The danger of a Kennedy-Trump-style ‘go to the moon’ — and then leave — is that it will disenchant another two generations of the world population with traveling to the moon even if it is successful, and much worse if an accident occurs,” Foale said.
Still, some past officials see reasons for optimism. “There’s a lot more going for this period of time and this initiative to make this a more possible event than what we’ve seen in the past,” O’Keefe said. “The technology has developed at an absolutely staggering pace that has made this an achievable objective. We know a lot more about what it will take to achieve it.”
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