Presidential Pronouncements on Space: Some 50th Anniversary Thoughts

Tomorrow is the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s special address to Congress

President John F. Kennedy, May 25, 1961: “I believe that this nation should commit itself…..”

Tomorrow is the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s special address to Congress – a request for supplemental appropriation for a variety of projects but most famously remembered for the announcement of his Man-Moon-Decade goal of Project Apollo.  That event, cited by space advocates and excerpted in space and history documentaries, is remembered as the pinnacle of American leadership in space policy.

When President Kennedy announced his Moon landing goal for America, no world power was capable of accomplishing such a feat.  By winning the “Moon race,” America would demonstrate to the non-aligned (and supposedly undecided) world that a free, democratic system could win against the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics’ repressive, communist regime. The Soviet’s then-advantage in rocketry did not give them a leg up on a manned race to the Moon as both countries would have to develop and build a new system to deliver men to the lunar surface.  Congress and enthusiastic Americans accepted this audacious challenge, winning not only the race to the Moon (within the decade) but also developing a strong economy through technological and scientific breakthroughs.

The subsequent forty-year span since Apollo ended has seen space enthusiasts and policy makers searching for the “holy grail” of renewed greatness, believing (because of events following President Kennedy’s bold direction) that presidential statements can make it happen again.  The most recent articulation of this belief comes from one of the most insightful students of the JFK decision, Prof. John Logsdon, whose new book (John F. Kennedy and the Race to the Moon) focuses on the Apollo decision and its subsequent impact on space policy.  Logsdon places particular emphasis on a supposed change of heart by Kennedy after the Moon race was well underway.  In citing two occasions where Kennedy publicly proposed to the Soviets that we go to the Moon together, Logsdon believes that had he lived, Kennedy would have retooled the race away from a nationalistic competition to joined hands with the Soviets in a cosmic Kumbaya reach for the Moon.

Though Logsdon recognizes that the unique aspect of Apollo came about as a manifestation of Cold War competition (something he believes does not prevail today), he sees JFK’s later comments regarding cooperation as providing us with the “holy grail” of continued space exploration going forward.  “I kind of fall back on presidential leadership,” he said. “I doubt this is going to happen, but I would hope that on the 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s own speech, next Wednesday, President Obama has something positive to say about working together internationally to find a global strategy for exploration… I would not hold my breath on that happening, but something like that needs to be done.”

After years of reminding space students that the Apollo decision is not a good historical guide for setting a space agenda, Logsdon wants President Obama to resurrect space using the force of a Kennedyesque pronouncement – not as a national challenge, but as he believes Apollo would have developed had Kennedy lived to redirect it:  an international project of cooperation that will financially support space exploration.  By passing the JFK space leadership “torch” to President Obama, Logsdon envisions the Apollo presidential challenge resurrected and revitalized (this time to Mars, the long-held and sought after dream of many space advocates).  But this vision rewrites history:  Apollo wasn’t about space, it was about war, where presidential leadership is needed and required.

The problem with applying Logsdon’s reasoning to the current U.S. space policy morass is that, as with our endless debate about heavy lift vs. other launch vehicle options, it confuses means with ends.  Whether we go into space with or without a bold presidential declaration is secondary to WHY we are doing it.  Because we have not stated what we are trying to achieve, arguments about how we go about it, whether in terms of rockets, destinations, declarations or participants, leave us still sitting on the launch pad (soon, only on a Russian launch pad).  Without an agreed upon national purpose, space has become a political toy, vulnerable to changes in direction with each new administration.

On the 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s rightly famous speech, the real question before us remains unaddressed and in some respects, unasked.  I ask it now:  What are we trying to accomplish with our national civil space program?  By answering that question and establishing a realistic and reachable national goal, America will establish a lasting space industry and presence, one undeterred or hobbled by changing political winds.

I have my own answer to this question, which I have discussed here and elsewhere in detail.  Space development is an essential, irreplaceable part of everyday life in 21st Century America; we have charted a course whereby we must learn the skills of creating more capability in space, including the building and maintenance of larger, more capable space assets (as well as protecting existing ones).  To proceed, we need a reusable and extensible Earth-Moon space transportation system.  I believe that one can be created through the production and use of the material and energy resources of the Moon.

Such a transportation system will extend human reach into the Solar System beyond low Earth orbit.  By demonstrating the viability of resource extraction off planet, individual and joint investments will materialize in many forms and from many sectors, spurring on a new and burgeoning space industry.  This template contrasts significantly with an elitist, academic exercise in scientific data collection wrapped in the worn out mantra of “exciting” the public.  Our national interests will be best served through cislunar development and space resource utilization.

If these are desirable goals, then how we go about achieving it can be the subject of legitimate debate.  Until we address the objective of a large-scale national expenditure for space, presidential announcements will never possess the power or the effect Kennedy’s words had in bringing about a great era of American productivity and pride. The United States is at a critical crossroads. Will we lead or will we be content to follow?

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