The question as to why no one has been back to the moon since December, 1972 is a vexing one. Certainly the United States has both the technical wherewithal and the economic strength to send astronauts back. But two American presidents, both coincidentally named George Bush, attempted to start long term space exploration efforts that would have included a return to the moon. Both efforts were ended prematurely.
Why was it that President Kennedy succeeded in getting a lunar program started, and subsequent presidents failed to replicate that feat? The conventional wisdom is that the early 1960s were ripe for a space race to the moon, with the Cold War going full bore and fears that the Soviet Union would demonstrate its superiority in the heavens. That incentive did not exist either in 1989 or 2004. Like most conventional wisdom, this analysis is true, up to a point.
The reasons for the failures of the Space Exploration Initiative that was announced by President George H. W. Bush in 1989 and the Vision for Space Exploration that was announced by President George W. Bush in 2004 included political and leadership failures which, had they been avoided, might well have saved those programs from cancellation. To be sure, both space exploration programs were cancelled by Democratic presidents who succeeded the presidents named Bush. But Clinton in the first instance and Obama in the second were able to get away with because of structural problems the two programs had run into.
Many historians have concluded that the Apollo program survived as long as it did because it had become a memorial to the slain President John F. Kennedy. Kennedy’s death certainly stopped attempts to throttle Apollo in its crib. The question of whether JFK could have fended off attempts to cut the program had he lived is best left to alternate history. The answer depends on how much political capital he would have willing to spend to fend off the budget cutters to keep the program going.
The one thing that is clear is that starting and maintaining a large scale space program is dependent on two things.
First, it is helpful if the political zeitgeist lends itself to such a program. The Cold War served to sustain the Apollo program. The need to keep NASA a functioning agency saved the space shuttle in the 1970s. The space station almost failed until President Bill Clinton used it to help transition Russia from its Soviet superpower status peacefully.
It can also be argued that President George H. W. Bush proposed the Space Exploration Initiative too soon. The space station project was still controversial in 1989 when Bush made his big speech. However, the International Space Station was a going concern in 2004 when the younger Bush rolled out the Vision for Space Exploration. With the death of the Columbia space shuttle and her crew, a feeling had arisen that astronauts should risk their lives for grander things than going in circles around the Earth,
Second, presidential leadership, strong, consistent, and long lasting has to be present. Bush the elder made the mistake of not vetting the Space Exploration Initiative before announcing it just months into his administration. He was blindsided by the hostile reception it got in Congress, in the media, and even inside NASA. Had the elder Bush had gotten a second term, he might have gotten his initiative off the ground. But that is another what if scenario.
Bush the younger avoided some of the mistakes his father and namesake made. His administration spent nearly a year between the Columbia accident and his big speech developing what became the Vision for Space Exploration and vetted it with Congress and various other aerospace stakeholders. Furthermore, Bush paid attention to his initiative for the first year after it was announced, even going so far as to issue his first veto threat to ensure that it was properly funded during its first year.
Unfortunately, President Bush’s attention wandered. This is understandable as his administration was dealing with a grinding stalemate in Iraq and an impending economic calamity that burst on the scene in the fall of 2008, just in time for the election of Bush’s successor. The funding that was promised for the VSE was cut back, the program suffered some technical challenges, the milestones became delayed, and the criticism arose to a crescendo.
The VSE was also snake bit by the election of Barack Obama to the presidency. Obama, protestations aside, is a man who is implacably hostile to the idea of space exploration. Despite the options offered by the Augustine Committee to fix some of the problems surrounding Project Constellation, Obama choose to terminate funding for it. It took heroic efforts in the Congress to preserve some parts of it and to compel the president to propose the asteroid mission some months later.
If VSE and Project Constellation had been better funded and had been seen as making more progress, it is possible that President Obama would not have dared to cancel it or, having attempted to do so, would have been stopped by the program’s supporters in Congress. As it is, two crucial pieces of hardware, the Orion spacecraft and the heavy-lift Space Launch System, for a return to the moon are in development.
The question now arises, giving those facts, how does an American president set in motion a return to the moon program and successfully take it to a conclusion?
Mark R. Whittington is the author of The Man from Mars: The Asteroid Mining Caper, The Last Moonwalker and Other Stories and the Children of Apollo trilogy .