JFK and the Limits of Presidential Leadership in Space

This proposed Ares I launcher with the Orion spacecraft atop is intended to enable, when paired with the larger Ares V heavy lift launcher, astronauts to return to the Moon in the second decade of the 21st century.

This proposed Ares I launcher with the Orion spacecraft atop is intended to enable, when paired with a larger Ares V heavy lifter, astronauts to return to the Moon in the 21st century.y, I have been reconsidering the place of Apollo in our nation’s recent history. I have often heard from space advocates something like: “If we just had a president with the vision and foresight of John F. Kennedy to announce a bold space initiative, and to support that initiative, all would be well with NASA.” The assumption is that JFK’s Apollo decision in 1961 was the normative process in policy formulation and could and should be replicated by succeeding presidents.

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.

An artist's conception of the proposed Orion spacecraft and Altair lander in lunar orbit.

An artist’s conception of a proposed Orion spacecraft and Altair lander in lunar orbit.

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.

Perhaps the core reason we have not returned to the Moon since Apollo is depicted in this image from Apollo 17: we failed to find anything of a compelling nature that drew us to return.

Perhaps the core reason we have not returned to the Moon is depicted in this image from Apollo 17; as this vast expanse of rock-strewn nothingness attests we failed to find anything of a compelling nature that drew us to return.

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?

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7 Responses to JFK and the Limits of Presidential Leadership in Space

  1. Gary L. Harris says:

    Hello Roger, long time no see. As concerns your articles: Limits of Presidential Power and also the recent article: Exploding Myth of Popular Support for Apollo, I would like to add a comment. About 15 years ago I was attending the paper sessions at the old Space Congress on Cocoa Beach. One of the speakers, an obviously insightfull young man, noted in his paper that his father had told him what motivates most people are six things: love, lust, hate, fear, greed and envy. The Apollo Program fulfilled, at least in part, many of those base requirements. That is, Love of one’s country, lust for power on the part of American political leaders (Kennedy, Johnson), hate of the Communist/Russians, fear of Russian military power and their ideology, greed on the part of aerospace businesses, and envy of the Russian’s accomplishments in space. This young man further commented that we would never return to the moon, or go to Mars unless most of the same base human emotions were again fulfilled. The fellows name was Mike Griffin.

    Liked by 1 person

    • launiusr says:

      Thanks Gary. An interesting observation.


      • Albie says:

        Thanks, Roger Launius, for providing this ongoing way of reflecting upon the past, present and future of humankind’s reaching out to space. My interest has grown since I began exploring the role that Mary Parker Follett (1868-1933) had in influencing James E. Webb, second administrator, and by most accounts, the anchor that allowed us to dream big, while paying attention to the politics, economics and varying types of folks needed to make it to the moon. In my research I came across a talk that Webb gave in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on May 26, 1961, the day after Kennedy laid his cards on the table for Congress and the public. “Go all the way, or don’t start at all,” if I were to paraphrase JFK. While Webb had a reputation of being long-winded, I like this talk because it reveals what a good sense of politics and policy he had. He more than gave Kennedy his due in this talk, yet, he also did something very powerful and bold, for he and Kennedy had honest discussions about the ways they differed. He called for “open science, openly arrived at, by spreading these new examples of the puzzles and problems which every great scientific advance generates, to the largest possible number of able minds for interpretation and solution.” (He was referenced that data we had gathered from our (USA) satellites.) That spirit still seems alive in today’s NASA, as seen from an observer who has only been checking on the topic for two years. Again, THANKS!


  2. I will make a personal comment about this. When I entered Rutgers in 1963 I was a freshman physics major. My interest in physics was in good part due to the growing attention being paid to space exploration back in the 1950s and extending into the 1960s. I still have memories of Apollo triumphs. I remember watching Neil Armstrong step onto the Moon in July 1969. I don’t remember Apollo 12, though. The weekend it was launched I was in DC with hundreds of thousands of people protesting the Vietnam War. By Apollo 17 I had decided to leave physics.

    What got me interested again in space? In 1977 I read Gerard k. O’Neill’s The HIgh Frontier: Human Colonies in Space. That book made the case that the human race was about to be able to return to the Moon to stay and build giant space colonies that would do things to benefit the human race. What kinds of things? Build solar power satellites, for instance. Imagine cheap, clean solar power satellites supplying energy to the human race. Think doing something very profitable that would benefit the human race.

    Moving to an outer space utopia was also attractive. The Vietnam War had helped turned me into a rebel. In some ways the interest of California Flower Children (think Stewart Brand for example) and 2001: A Space Odyssey and Star Trek and Star Wars helped build interest for me and few others.

    As the 1980s progressed, we found out that the human race was not on the brink of building space colonies. The space shuttle did not fly every few weeks at a low cost. One month only there were two shuttle launches. The month was January 1986. The first flight carried now NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden into space as a shuttle pilot and Congressman Bill Nelson as a specialist. The second flight? A very sleep deprived NASA team decided to launch Challenger. It was a few years before there was another shuttle launch.

    Back in the 1980s a slogan of the L5 Society was “L5 by 95.” That’s 1995. These days I sometimes say “L5 by 95 — 2495.”

    I am optimistic in the long run. But we have much to learn and much to do. It is going to take a long time.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. mike shupp says:

    Hmmm…. can’t we have some Presidential leadership (and funding) without all the Apollo drama?
    For example, now and then the US Navy decides to build an aircraft carrier, or the Air Force decides to build a F-35. These are multi-billion dollar programs extending over years. Granted there’s usually some debate and controversy about program details, but basically these programs get announced without much hoopla, and then get funded for a decade or more, without riling up the public or most political partisans.

    Couldn’t we run space programs this way? We do, of course. We run Landsat programs over multiple years, we launch spacecraft to the Outer Planets now and then, we have military intelligence gathering satellites sprinkled right and left, and it’s never much of a big deal. We probably could run a manned space program — even a bigger manned program than we do at present — without much difficulty if we could settle for progress rather than drama.

    Suppose for arguments sake that the Obama administration had initiated half a dozen NASA programs with ten billion dollar runoff costs each, running over a dozen years, to lay out the initial segments of what could become a moon base. And suppose this was just something that happened, without big televised speeches about American exceptionalism and Space Leadership, and continual NASA press releases and self-congratulatory websites. Suppose we just built the damned thing? Wouldn’t this be better than the Fun And Excitement we have now with our manned program, which gets so much of our attention and seems to do so little.

    I begin to think the real problem with Presidential Leadership is not that space buffs are ignorantly clamoring for a President to behave like JFK and give us more moon landing-style triumphs. It’s that the Presidents themselves can’t imagine manned space programs that don’t replicate Apollo.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Marsha Freeman says:

    It’s important to look further back in American history than 1961, to understand the American system, as seen in the instances where national leadership moved the country forward in leaps. This includes Alexander Hamilton’s establishment of the First National Bank to fund infrastructure projects and the first industrial park in New Jersey, to establish the U.S.as an independent, industrially developing nation. It continues through John Quincy Adams’ activities–from establishing a national astronomical observatory, to saving the Smithsonian Institution. It is seen in Lincoln’s overall mobilization to save the Union, as well as his formation of the National Academy of Sciences. And so on. No president has been a scientist, but some, with the future of the nation uppermost in their minds, have provided executive support to the initiatives of others to push the nation forward. Each had to deal with some crisis in his time, and that was certainly true of Kennedy. How you deal with the crisis is the measure of the man, and the presidency.

    You have, in the past, attacked James Webb for having an “alternative agenda” in promoting space exploration, that being the up-lifting of the population and the “promotion of the general welfare” (which, in fact, is in the preamble to the Constitution). When a president is committed to “promote the general welfare,” whether in militarily defending the nation, ensuring the economic advancement of society, securing the future for our posterity, or other national goals, that is leadership. It is not the case that there are not enough crises today to require bold initiatives. Carrying out great projects is the direction the BRICS nations (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa, with 45% of the world’s population) are going in. The U.S. has been invited to join in an array of Asia-initiated great projects, including an emerging “space silk road.” There is no lack of crises, but of the leadership to solve them in a way that benefits future generations.

    It is not true that Apollo accomplished Kennedy’s stated goal, but “little else.” Even if the program had failed to achieve the lunar landing goal, it still would have created a generation of scientists and engineers, pushed forward the frontiers of science, and “spun out” the technology that was the basis of nearly two decades of the growth of productivity in the American economy. I do not agree that it was “in large measure” the response to the cold war that “captured the American imagination” in the Apollo program. Ask anyone whether fighting the cold war is what inspired them in the 1960s to became a scientist or engineer, as opposed to firing off rockets and sending men to the Moon.

    Marsha Freeman


  5. mike shupp says:

    What do you think. Why should we go back to the Moon?

    Well, I’ve come back here to this post, checking on my Levels of Love — so disappointing! — and it occurred to me that I might actually try to answer your question, since nobody else was really tackling it.

    We are a species of about 7 billion individuals currently, which has existed for about 200 thousand years in an evolutionary history of 4 billion years, occupying a planet with a mediocre 8 thousand mile diameter. About 30 million mile away on either side, we find other planets of roughly comparable size. Going out 3 or 4 billion miles, we find another half dozen or so (Pluto being the “or so” by astronomers’ definitions). A bit further out, just over the Oort Cloud horizon so to speak, is another star and apparently another solar system at 25 trillion miles. And there’s more to see, with about 400 billion stars and unguessable numbers of planets and asteroids spread in a roughly disk-shaped formation, 125 thousand light years across. which has endured for over ten billion years. that we call the Milky Way Galaxy. And beyond it yet other galaxies, and great collections of galaxies, termed Clusters, that date back almost to the very beginnings of our Universe over 13 billion years ago, which will endure for trillions — quadrillions! quintillions! — of years to come.

    Space is Big. We’re small. We’re tiny. We’re insignificant as a species, not in terms of individual scale, but in the sense that we’re not spread over a larger portion of the Universe, that we can not
    possibly endure more than a tiny fraction of Eternity while confined to a single world, that the limits of our desires and ambitions reduce to petty squabbles between “the 1%” and the many over command of limited resources — nuclear reactors, oil wells, art museums, coal mines, water wheels, flint spear-tips. How can we free ourselves of such limits? How can we transcend material and social and temporal constraints and actually obtain for our descendants for many years to come the life and adventures and satisfactions than we can only dream of today?

    Well … Philosophy is a way, I can see. We can all learn to be Confucius’s. Religion. Maybe we can build societies centered about Christianity or Greek Gods or Buddhism or Islam and they will endure for ages satisfying us all … unlike the societies we’ve already known petrified about Christianity or Greek Gods or Buddhism or Islam. Or maybe for us crude material beings, the only real command of our personal emotional universes lies in the command of the actual universe. That we actually want and demand STUFF in other words — not just another iPad app that will lead us to better dry-cleaning establishments, but worlds in which all those who wish such vistas can gaze on open landscapes sweeping far over distant horizons, listen to symphonies composed by aliens thousands of parsecs distant, view dramas created in the last week in the nearest town or recreated versions of productions based on the pseudo-mythological Shakespeare and Albee and Hitchcock, shiver to 21st century virtual reality and 22nd century sensoria, or travel to distant worlds and distant stars and distant ages and distant loves and forms of consciousness.

    And the very first step into such an existence can only come from returning to the Moon.


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