This is a perennial topic so I thought it appropriate to raise in once again. In reviewing the Kennedy decision to go to the Moon, announced on May 25, 1961, in a speech to a joint session of Congress, it soon becomes clear that the Apollo program was overwhelmingly successful in accomplishing the immediate political goals for which it had been created but in doing little else. Kennedy had been dealing with a cold war crisis in 1961 brought on by several separate factors—the Soviet orbiting of Yuri Gagarin and the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion only two of them—that Apollo was designed to combat.
In large measure because of its very appropriate response to cold war problems, Apollo captured the American imagination and was met with consistent if not always enthusiastic political support. Like many political decisions, at least in the U.S. experience, the decision to carry out Project Apollo was an effort to deal with an unsatisfactory situation (world perception of Soviet leadership in space and technology). As such, Apollo was a remedial action ministering to a variety of political and emotional needs floating in the ether of world opinion.
In the end a unique confluence of political necessity, scientific and technological ability, economic prosperity, and public mood made possible the lunar landing program. What perhaps should be suggested is that a complex web or system of ties among various people, institutions, and interests allowed the Apollo decision.
Therefore, JFK’s political decision to go to the Moon in 1961 was an anomaly in science and technology policy making in Washington. Something most space exploration enthusiasts did not understand , however, was that the Moon landings had not been conducted under normal political circumstances, and that the exceptional circumstances surrounding Apollo would not necessarily be repeated.
In some respects, Apollo reflected the peak of what some have called the “imperial presidency.” This is the term often given to the aggrandizement of presidential power that came during the administrations of John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, and Richard M. Nixon, and was reborn in the George W. Bush era. It also prompted a number of commentators to criticize the ease with which chief executives overwhelmed other centers of power in the United States. By the time of the Watergate affair, the expansion and abuse of presidential power relative to the Congress and courts had created a full-blown governmental crisis. Historians such as Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. decried the creation of the “imperial presidency” and warned that deference to the president had upset the traditional system of checks and balances.
Spaceflight and the Myth of Presidential Leadership (University of Illinois Press, 1997), that I co-edited with Howard E. McCurdy, contains essays on presidential leadership in space that demark the contours of presidential power and its erosion as the “imperial presidency” shrank after Vietnam and Watergate. JFK seized the unique situation in early 1961 to announce the Apollo decision. Perhaps the 1989 bold Space Exploration Initiative of President George H.W. Bush to go back to the Moon and on to Mars represented the trough of the “imperial presidency,” when that proposal was rejected by political leaders and the American public. We don’t yet know the fate of the “Vision for Space Exploration” announced by President George W. Bush in January 2004, but it appears that the Moon landing portion of it may well be modified or dropped in the coming years.
Accordingly, does this mean that those interested in a return to the Moon or human flights to Mars should look to other means for generating public interest and support? The answer is, not entirely. Presidential leadership remains critical to any major public undertaking, but much more than that is needed. Very little can be accomplished in the public sector without at least the acquiescence of the White House, especially since the president is so effective in shaping policy agendas. So clearly that person must believe that whatever is proposed is a positive objective.
I once heard a senior staffer on Capitol Hill explain that the White House always shapes the national agenda, perhaps most effectively in the budget process, since any public undertaking requires funding. Congress may tinker around the edges, individual members may alter certain parts of the budget to reflect their priorities, outside organizations may convince policy makers to take away from one program or give to another; but except in rare situations in the end what results is a budget within a few percentage points of what the president originally proposed. Absent some major crisis, recognized as such by leaders of all political persuasions, this process will be the norm. As a result, advocates of an aggressive public effort in space must have presidential support for their initiatives.
Clearly, a return to the Moon might be a comparatively straightforward task at this stage in the space age. We have already done it with the Apollo program, and we know how to go about doing it again. Such a program would require a national commitment to return to the Moon with humans, of course, but with the state of technology it might be possible to accomplish the task in only a few years with an increase in the NASA budget of only a few billion. There would also have to be a sustainment of that political decision over a period of many years in the face of changing priorities and unforeseen difficulties.
Concerning this possibility, however, one must appreciate the historical issues at play with the JFK decision to move forward with Apollo. And using Apollo as a model—addressed as it was to a very specific political crisis relating to U.S./Soviet competition—my question for those seeking a major commitment to undertake an aggressive, time-consuming, expansive, and costly program to mount a human expedition to the Moon in the 21st century is quite simple: Why? The answer to that question will go far toward shaping the public debate and a national commitment to any future aggressive space exploration effort to go back to the Moon. What do you think. Why should we go back to the Moon?