President Kennedy, of course, got it right when it came to NASA. He established a big, bold goal for the nation’s new space agency, provided ample resources, and then let the engineers get to work. This led to one of humanity’s greatest achievements of all time—walking on another world.
Kennedy had ulterior motives, naturally. From a policy perspective, going to the Moon wasn’t really about human exploration so much as it was demonstrating the technical superiority of the United States to the rest of the world during the Cold War. As space exploration hasn’t quite aligned so neatly with national security goals since the 1960s, funding levels have shrunk. And this has led to NASA being confined to low-Earth orbit for human exploration, first with the space shuttle and now the International Space Station.
For a time, low-Earth orbit was enough. After Richard Nixon greenlighted NASA’s development of the space shuttle in 1972, Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter were content to let the space program play out more or less in the background of their administrations. Although Ronald Reagan set NASA on the course to what would eventually become the International Space Station, he too was content with staying near Earth. Yet since Reagan, most presidents have looked longingly, and fruitlessly, back toward deep space. In light of the Trump administration’s goal of returning to the Moon, we offer a review of other presidential space plans.
President George H.W. Bush took office in 1989, about three years after the space shuttleChallenger accident, amid a sense that NASA needed a bold new direction. In February of that year, he established the National Space Council and, like President Trump has done, installed his vice president (Dan Quayle) as its chairman. Quayle worked toward setting a new course for NASA.
By July 20, 1989—on the 20th anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon landing—Bush was ready to disclose those plans. He announced the Space Exploration Initiative, a long-range commitment toward the human exploration of deep space. Bush outlined the plans that would follow the completion of Space Station Freedom in the 1990s.