By John M. Logsdon
In NASA’s 50-year history, 10 men have held the office of president of the United States. Because the president and his staff set NASA’s agenda and request the budget resources needed to carry it out, the White House has had great influence over the content and pace of the nation’s civilian space efforts. Congress must approve or modify the president’s space initiatives and budget proposals, but historically lawmakers have made only minor changes to what the president has proposed.
The occupants of the White House since 1958 often have closely identified their offices with NASA, sometimes in very personal ways. John F. Kennedy and his brother Robert became friends with astronaut John Glenn, and Richard Nixon thought it was important for American society in a time of cultural tumult to have heroes such as astronauts. However, the main driver of presidential activity on space was national policy. From Dwight D. Eisenhower’s insistence that NASA be a civilian agency, to Kennedy’s challenge to Congress and the nation to fund the first human moon landing to enhance America’s global political standing, to George W. Bush’s proposal that America lead the way in setting up an outpost on the moon and send explorers to Mars, space has been an important, even if not central, element of the modern presidency. Each president has made his own contribution to that history.
Dwight D. Eisenhower, 1953-1961
Dwight D. Eisenhower approved the first U.S. space mission in 1955, a scientific satellite to be launched as part of the 1957-1958 International Geophysical Year. He also made the key decisions that led to the creation of NASA in 1958 as the United States debated how best to respond to the surprise Soviet launch of Sputnik on Oct. 4, 1957. Eisenhower initially dismissed the Soviet feat as “one small ball in the air.” While he was correct that Sputnik did not pose an imminent threat to U.S. security, he misjudged the short-term public reaction and was unable to calm American fears.
The president’s first inclination was to have all U.S. space efforts, including those of a civilian character, managed by the Department of Defense. He was convinced, however, by his science advisor James Killian and Vice President Richard M. Nixon that it made more sense to create a separate civilian space agency to carry out an open program of scientific activities and to engage in international cooperation. This would provide a contrast to the closed and secretive Soviet space effort. Eisenhower put a very high priority on initiating a highly classified reconnaissance satellite effort, and having a civilian agency active in space also could serve as a way of lessening attention on U.S. national security space efforts. Based on these considerations, Eisenhower in April 1958 proposed the creation of what became NASA and signed the legislation creating the new agency on July 29 of the same year.
Eisenhower wanted to limit the new agency’s ambitions; he did not want to create another large bureaucracy competing for a share of government funds. He agreed to transfer Department of Defense facilities and capabilities needed to carry out NASA’s missions. Most notable were the Army’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the German rocket team, led by Wernher von Braun and based at the Army Ballistic Missile Agency. He also gave NASA the assignment of carrying out what became Project Mercury, a research effort aiming at learning whether it was possible to send a human into orbit. It was Eisenhower who dictated that the first group of astronauts come from the ranks of military pilots, the group he felt best prepared to take on the rigors of spaceflight. But he refused various proposals to enter into a “space race” with the Soviet Union, stressing that while NASA could give priority to specific space efforts the United States could carry out before the Soviet Union, the primary justification for such efforts had to be their intrinsic military, scientific or technological value. When Eisenhower learned in the last months of his presidency that NASA was thinking about sending people to the moon as part of its long-range plan, he was strong in his view that such a use of public resources could not be justified. As Eisenhower left office in January 1961, NASA did not have a clear view of its future.
John F. Kennedy, 1961-1963
John F. Kennedy will no doubt be remembered as the U.S. leader who in 1961 asked the country to commit to sending Americans to the moon “before this decade is out.” But Kennedy’s attitude toward the space program was complex. He entered the White House thinking space could be an area for tension-reducing cooperation with the Soviet Union, and he never gave up that hope even as he approved the peaceful mobilization of the substantial human and financial resources needed to meet the lunar landing goal he had proposed. At his June 3-4, 1961 summit meeting in Vienna with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, Kennedy suggested, “Why don’t we do it together?” After first responding positively, the next day Khrushchev reportedly said “no,” on the grounds that an agreement on disarmament must come first. One positive development of the Vienna summit came when Jacqueline Kennedy talked to Khrushchev about the Soviet space effort at a state dinner. She innocently asked if the premier could send her one of the puppies of a dog that the Soviets had flown in orbit. According to Kennedy advisor Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., two months later “two nervous Russians came with Ambassador Menshikov into the Oval Office at the White House bearing a terrified small dog. The president said, “How did this dog get here?” His wife said, “I’m afraid I asked Khrushchev for it in Vienna. I was just running out of things to say.”
Near the end of his presidency, Kennedy returned to the idea of superpower cooperation in space. Speaking before the United Nations on Sept. 20, 1963, he proposed “a joint expedition to the moon” and asked, “why should man’s first flight to the moon be a matter of national competition?”
However much he might have wished to cooperate, Kennedy in 1961 had set the United States on a course to enter, and win, a race to the moon. This decision came in the aftermath of the huge global and domestic reaction to the April 12, 1961 Soviet launch of the first human to orbit Earth, Yuri Gagarin. Eight days later, Kennedy asked for a crash review to identify a “space program which promises dramatic results in which we could win.” As part of the crash review that the president had ordered, Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson met with, among others, Wernher von Braun. After that meeting, von Braun wrote a letter saying of a moon landing goal, “We have a sporting chance. With an all-out crash program I think we could accomplish this objective in 1967-68.” Johnson quickly reported this judgment to Kennedy, and in effect the die was cast.
On May 25, 1961, Kennedy addressed a joint session of Congress to announce his decision to go to the moon. He backed up this decision with remarkable financial commitments. In the immediate aftermath of his speech, NASA’s budget was increased by 89 percent, and by another 101 percent the following year. To carry out Apollo, NASA became the large engineering organization centered on developing capabilities for human space flight that it is today.
Kennedy was particularly drawn to the astronauts, who became popular symbols of an administration that embraced the New Frontier. John Glenn was a frequent visitor to the Kennedys' Hyannisport, Mass., compound, where he water skied with Jacqueline Kennedy and successfully lobbied the president on behalf of the astronauts' right to sell their exclusive stories to Life magazine. When Glenn’s Friendship Seven mission launched Feb. 20, 1962 on live national television Kennedy watched raptly along with millions of his fellow countrymen.
Kennedy had a deep commitment to the political goal of beating the Soviets, but privately lacked a visionary interest in space, despite his often stirring public rhetoric (“We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard”). This contradiction is apparent in a tape recording of a White House meeting that occurred Nov. 21, 1962. The recording, released in 2001 by the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston, documents Kennedy fending off the concerns of NASA Administrator James Webb that the United States risked a very public failure in its push to achieve the lunar landing goal. Webb asserted that we should have broader goals in space activities. “This is, whether we like it or not a race,” Kennedy said. "Everything we do [in space] ought to be tied into getting to the moon ahead of the Russians.” Kennedy told Webb that winning the moon race “is the top priority of the agency and except for defense, the top priority of the United States government. Otherwise, we shouldn’t be spending this kind of money, because I’m not that interested in space.”
After the United States forced the Soviet Union to remove nuclear missiles from Cuba, Kennedy started to believe there was a possibility of less tense relations between the two countries. His 1963 proposal for a joint mission to the moon was likely a product of that belief. With the possibility of superpower confrontation diminished, he could return to his original concept of space as an arena for enhanced cooperation between the superpowers.
That possibility quickly disappeared with Kennedy’s assassination on Nov. 22, 1963. What might have happened to Apollo and NASA overall, had Kennedy spent another five years in the White House, can only be a matter of speculation. We know the public’s association of the space program with Kennedy was so strong that six days after Kennedy was assassinated, the new president, Lyndon Johnson, announced in a nationwide television address that the NASA center from which our moon voyagers would launch would be named in Kennedy’s honor. (NASA’s Manned Spacecraft Center was named in Johnson’s honor in 1973, shortly after his death.) A less grand but very fitting tribute to the assassinated president took place on the evening of July 20, 1969, when an anonymous citizen placed a small bouquet of flowers on the Kennedy gravesite at Arlington National Cemetery with a note that read, “Mr. President, the Eagle has landed.”
Lyndon B. Johnson, 1963-1969
Lyndon Johnson remarked to journalist Walter Cronkite in a 1969 interview, “I think I spent more time in the space field … up to ’63 than I did after I became president.” As Senate majority leader, Johnson led the congressional push to quickly approve the legislation that brought NASA into being. As vice president, Johnson played an important role in defining and overseeing the lunar landing effort and other Kennedy space initiatives. He pushed hard for the decision to go to the moon, writing in a memo to the president, “This country should be realistic and recognize that other nations, regardless of their appreciation of our idealistic values, will tend to align themselves with the country which they believe will be the world leader – the winner in the long run. Dramatic accomplishments in space are being identified as a major indicator of world leadership.”
Early in his presidency, on March 23, 1965, in a private phone conversation with Senator John McClellan (D-AR), Johnson spoke of his continued commitment to the lunar goal:
McClellan responded, “We should keep up.” Johnson added, “Oh, this research is the most important thing we can do. John, 75 percent of the things we will be making 25 years from now we have never heard of now. That’s how fast the world changes.”
In addition to recognizing the benefits of our space efforts, Johnson deftly worked to obtain passage of the U.N. Outer Space Treaty, which was based on principles first enunciated by the United States while Kennedy was president. The treaty bars the placement of nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction in space, limits the use of the moon and other celestial bodies to peaceful purposes, and forbids any government from claiming a celestial body, because they are the common heritage of mankind. The treaty was ready for signature in Washington, D.C., London and Moscow on Jan. 27, 1967, the evening the Apollo 1 fire took the lives of astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee.
As his presidency progressed, Johnson’s administration became focused on his Great Society programs, dealing with urban violence, and most of all, the growing involvement in the Vietnam War, which ultimately would drive Johnson from office. Feeling shackled by the growing costs and unpopularity of the U.S. commitment to the war, Johnson once visited the Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans, where the Saturn boosters were assembled; while there, he told astronaut Wally Schirra, “It’s too bad. We have this great capability, but instead of taking advantage of it, we’ll probably just piss it away.”
Johnson did, however, remain committed to meeting the goal of landing on the moon before 1970, and provided the budgetary and political support needed. When the Apollo 1 accident occurred in January 1967, his support for NASA never wavered. He allowed the space agency to lead the accident investigation and to take the steps needed to get Apollo back on track.
However, Johnson was unwilling to approve significant funding of any major programs to follow Apollo. As a result, the NASA budget during the final years of his presidency began a precipitous downward slide, and decisions were made not to order additional Apollo hardware, such as the Saturn V moon rocket. By the time he left office in January 1969, NASA was on the brink of accomplishing the goal set out for it almost eight years earlier, but the agency had no sense of what it would be asked to do once it had taken Americans to the moon.
In a final ironic footnote to the Johnson presidency, he sent, as a goodwill gesture to all world leaders, the famous Earthrise photo taken on Christmas Eve 1968 from lunar orbit by Apollo 8 astronaut William Anders. To his great surprise, Johnson received back a small thank-you card written in French from the leader who had most tormented the aspirations of his presidency, North Vietnamese president Ho Chi Minh.
Richard M. Nixon, 1969-1974
Richard Nixon was in the White House, sitting with Chief of Staff Robert Haldeman and astronaut Frank Borman, when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon on July 20, 1969. History records that he simply clapped and said, “Hooray,” when Armstrong stepped on to the lunar surface.
Nixon was acutely aware of the importance of the moon landing to U.S. prestige in the world. He made remarks via a phone hookup to the moon-walking astronauts, saying, “As you talk to us from the Sea of Tranquility, it inspires us to redouble our efforts to bring peace and tranquility to Earth.” These words underscored his view that U.S. leadership in space was part of U.S. leadership in global diplomacy.
Following the moon walk, Nixon flew to the Pacific to greet the Apollo 11 astronauts aboard the USS Hornet after their return to Earth on July 24, 1969. That November, Nixon became the first president to attend a space launch, the successful liftoff of the Apollo 12 crew, which began inauspiciously when the Saturn V rocket was struck by lightning shortly after liftoff.
The tremendous feeling of national triumph following the first moon landings was fleeting, however, and Nixon rejected NASA’s ambitious post-Apollo plans, which included developing a series of large space stations, continued missions to the moon, and an initial mission to Mars in the 1980s. In a March 7, 1970 statement, he set out a policy for space that has been in effect ever since: “We must think of [space activities] as part of a continuing process and not as a series of separate leaps, each requiring a massive concentration of energy. Space expenditures must take their proper place within a rigorous system of national priorities.
” Less than two months later, however, Nixon joined Americans in praying for the safe return of the Apollo 13 astronauts. He flew to Hawaii to greet the returning crew and awarded astronauts James Lovell, Fred Haise and Jack Swigert the Medal of Freedom. “Greatness comes not simply in triumph but in adversity,” Nixon said. “It has been said that adversity introduces a man to himself.”
By the time Nixon left the White House, the NASA budget had fallen from its peak of almost 4 percent of the total federal budget to less than 1 percent. It has remained at that lower level for the last 30 plus years. At that level, NASA decided it could not continue to operate the systems it had developed for Apollo and closed down the production lines for the Apollo spacecraft and Saturn V rocket while also cancelling three lunar missions – Apollo 18, 19 and 20.
Nixon rejected, however, ending the U.S. human spaceflight program, and against the advice of many of his technical and budgetary advisers in January 1972, approved the development of a new crew-carrying vehicle, the space shuttle. Some in Nixon’s Office of Management and Budget sought to make design changes for cost-cutting reasons. There also were Air Force requirements that the shuttle be able to launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., and be able to maneuver upon reentry so that it could land at or near the same location from which it had been launched; these requirements added technical complexity to the shuttle design. Politics also played a part, with Nixon wanting to boost his reelection prospects in 1972 by reassuring aerospace workers, especially in electoral vote-rich California, that the new shuttle program would protect their jobs. NASA told the president the shuttle would be capable of routine and affordable space launches and operations. He replied, “Men are flying in space now and will continue to fly in space, and we’d best be a part of it.” Nixon met on Jan. 5, 1972 with NASA Administrator James Fletcher and Deputy Administrator George Low to announce the final shuttle decision at his western White House in San Clemente, Calif. At that meeting, according to one account, Nixon “stated that NASA should stress civilian applications but should not hesitate to note the military uses as well. He showed interest in the possibility of routine operations and quick reaction times, for he saw that these could allow the shuttle to help in disasters such as earthquakes or floods. He also liked the idea of using the shuttle to dispose of nuclear waste by launching it into space. Fletcher mentioned that it might become possible to collect solar power in orbit and beam it to Earth in the form of electricity. Nixon replied that such developments tend to happen much more quickly than people expect, and that they should not hesitate to talk about them. He liked the fact that ordinary people, who would not be highly-trained astronauts, would be able to fly in the shuttle.”
By deciding the priority of space efforts had to be considered along other demands on the federal budget, and by approving of space shuttle development, Nixon laid the foundation for NASA’s efforts for the next three decades, a period characterized by the Columbia Accident Investigation Board as “straining to do too much with too little.”
Gerald R. Ford, 1974-1977
During his three years as president following Nixon’s resignation, Gerald Ford gave limited attention to space issues. He was a supporter of NASA, hailing all the way back to his congressional service on the House Select Committee on Astronautics and Space Exploration, which helped draft the 1958 Space Act. In July 1975, Ford celebrated the successful Apollo-Soyuz Test Project mission, predicting “the day is not far off when space missions made possible by this first joint effort will be more or less commonplace.” He also saluted the landings of the twin Viking robotic explorers on Mars, saying on the occasion of the first landing on July 20, 1976, “Our achievements in space represent not only the height of technological skill, they also reflect the best in our country – our character, the capacity for creativity and sacrifice, and a willingness to reach into the unknown.” Later in 1976, he approved the simultaneous development of the two large space science missions that became the Hubble Space Telescope and the Galileo mission to Jupiter.
Jimmy Carter, 1977-1981
Jimmy Carter was perhaps the least supportive of U.S. human space efforts of any president in the last half-century, but as a trained engineer, he took a strong interest in the developments in planetary exploration that occurred on his watch. A presidential statement of space policy issued in October 1978 said, “Our space policy will become more evolutionary rather than centering around a single, massive engineering feat. Pluralistic objectives and needs of our society will set the course for future space efforts.”
One issue that persisted throughout the Carter administration was the appropriate number of space shuttle orbiters to build, and the future of the shuttle program overall. NASA argued five orbiters were needed to provide enough capability for the many missions it anticipated. Carter decided to approve construction of only four along with “structural spares” for a fifth vehicle. (Those spare parts were used a decade later to build a replacement orbiter after the Challenger accident.) In 1979, Carter considered terminating the Space Shuttle Program, given its technical and schedule problems. He was advised, however, that the program was too far along to make such a move productive and the shuttle was needed to launch reconnaissance satellites required to verify arms control agreements – a top Carter priority. Based on these considerations, he decided to continue the program. Carter had hoped the first shuttle launch would occur during his term in office, but it slipped to April 1981.
In 1977, Carter contributed a message to the golden phonograph records placed on the twin Voyager spacecraft, which now are traveling in interstellar space. The message stated:
Journalist Hugh Sidey wrote in 1978 that while being briefed by the late astronomer Carl Sagan about planetary exploration, Carter, “eyes bright with the sense of adventure, urged that any new missions to Mars seek out mountains and valleys and old volcanoes instead of staying on the more level or gently rolling surfaces.”
Carter took the occasion of NASA’s 20th birthday on Oct. 1, 1978, to visit the Kennedy Space Center and bestow the first Congressional Space Medals of Honor on astronauts Neil Armstrong, Frank Borman, Pete Conrad, John Glenn, Alan Shepard and Betty Grissom, the wife of astronaut Gus Grissom. In his remarks that day, Carter said, “Like the sea, the land, and the air, space will become an environment in which human beings can live and work for the welfare of their species.” Carter concluded his remarks by stating, “In the last analysis, the challenge of space takes us very close to the heart of things. It brings us face to face with the mysteries of creation, matter, energy, and life. The men we honor today met that challenge, and were equal to it. Our nation met that challenge, and was equal to it. And in the final two decades of the 20th century, America will reach out once more to the beauty and mystery of space. And, once more, America will be equal to the task.”
Ronald W. Reagan, 1981-1989
Ronald Reagan, throughout his eight years in office, gave NASA and the civilian space program strong rhetorical support, and his words comforted a distraught nation in the aftermath of the Jan. 28, 1986 Challenger accident. Following the tragedy, Reagan authorized a presidential commission, chaired by former Secretary of State William Rogers, to investigate the disaster.
There were 24 space shuttle flights prior to the Challenger accident. For the first flight of Columbia, designated STS-1 (April 12-14, 1981), and piloted by astronauts John Young and Robert Crippen, Reagan watched the launch from the Lincoln Bedroom in the White House, where he had just returned the previous day after recovering from an assassination attempt. According to author Richard Reeves, “Reagan was thrilled, and he loved seeing NASA scientists and technicians at Houston Control waving small American flags when the launch was declared a success.” On the Fourth of July, 1982, Reagan was at Edwards Air Force Base in California to watch the landing of the fourth shuttle mission; he greeted Columbia crew members Thomas Mattingly and Henry Hartsfield and watched as the second shuttle orbiter Challenger, on top of its carrier aircraft, took off on its initial journey to the Kennedy Space Center for a launch later in 1982.
The president overruled most of his advisers and gave NASA his approval to develop a space station. NASA had sought that approval 15 years earlier and been forced to wait until the space shuttle was flying on a regular basis. Reagan announced his approval in the most public way possible, during his Jan. 25, 1984 State of the Union address. “A space station will permit quantum leaps in our research in science, communications, in metals, and in lifesaving medicines which could be manufactured only in space,” Reagan said. In the same speech, he also indicated the United States would invite its allies to participate in the space station program.
International cooperation in space had been given a boost during the Nixon administration, and Europe and Canada had made useful contributions to the Space Shuttle Program. But by inviting others to participate from the start in defining, developing, and using the space station, Reagan made U.S. leadership through cooperation a central feature of NASA’s activities. In the early years of his administration, he had characterized the Soviet Union as an “evil empire,” but in his final years in office, Reagan discussed large-scale space cooperation with Soviet President Mikail Gorbachev.
During the Reagan administration, there was a great deal of emphasis on space as an arena for commercial activities. In response, NASA created an Office of Commercial Programs and intensified its efforts to assist those who saw profit-making potential in various forms of space activities.
Reagan was slated to give another State of the Union address on Jan. 28, 1986, the day that the Challenger accident occurred. As reported by author Richard Reeves, he was in the Oval Office, talking with his press aide Larry Speakes, about an upcoming lunch with network news anchors. “Suddenly, his door burst open, and Vice President Bush came in, followed closely by the new National Security Council director, John Poindexter, and Pat Buchanan [communications aide]. Bush began to speak, but he was interrupted by Buchanan saying: ‘Sir, the Challenger just blew up!’ ‘Oh, no!’ the president said, dropping his face into his right hand.” As Reagan watched the news coverage, wrote Reeves, “Somebody asked whether it had been wise to have a citizen, the teacher, Christa McAuliffe, on board. ‘They’re all citizens,’ [National Security Council] spokesperson Karna Small wrote as Reagan talked. ‘That is the last frontier, the most important, the space program has been most successful. We’ve become so confident that this comes as such a shock.’” Reagan then was asked, ‘what can we tell the children?’ He responded, ‘Pioneers have always given their lives on the frontier. The problem is that it’s more of a shock to all as we see it happening, not just hear something miles away – but we must make it clear that life goes on.’ Reagan’s thoughts were translated into the speech he gave to the nation that afternoon, in which he said, “We’re still pioneers. The Challenger crew were pulling us into the future, and we’ll continue to follow them … We’ll continue our quest in space. There will be more shuttle flights and more shuttle crews and, yes, more volunteers, more civilians, more teachers in space. Nothing ends here.”
After the Challenger accident, however, Reagan decided to prohibit the use of the space shuttle to launch commercial communication satellites. The shuttle returned to flight with the STS-26 mission of Discovery (Sept. 29-Oct. 3, 1988), as the Reagan administration wound to a close.
George H.W. Bush, 1989-1993
As George Bush took office in January 1989, there was a widespread sense in the space community that NASA needed a new, challenging goal to complete its recovery from the Challenger accident and put it on a positive path for the future. Bush agreed with this belief, and asked his vice president, Dan Quayle, to prepare a major new space initiative. Bush announced what became known as the Space Exploration Initiative in a speech on July 20, 1989, the 20th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing. He called for “a long-range, continuing commitment. First, for the coming decade, for the 1990s: Space Station Freedom, our critical next step in all our space endeavors. And next, for the new century: Back to the moon; back to the future. And this time, back to stay. And then a journey into tomorrow, a journey to another planet: a manned mission to Mars.” Added Bush: “Why the moon? Why Mars? Because it is humanity’s destiny to strive, to seek, to find. And because it is America’s destiny to lead. From the voyages of Columbus – to the Oregon Trail – to the journey to the moon itself – history proves that we have never lost by pressing the limits of our frontiers.”
The Bush administration spent much of its remaining time in office trying to find a way to get this space exploration proposal accepted by the Democratic majority in Congress and by the general public. Even some in the NASA leadership were skeptical of adding a program to return to the moon to NASA’s existing tasks of flying the space shuttle and developing a space station. By the time that Bush left the White House, the Space Exploration Initiative was dead. Another presidential initiative, the Mission to Planet Earth – to use a network of Earth observing satellites to understand the dynamics of global climate change -- has proved to be a more lasting legacy.
Disappointed by NASA’s reaction to the president’s 1989 exploration proposals and by the launch of the Hubble Space Telescope with a misshapen mirror, the White House in 1990 commissioned a searching overall assessment of NASA that was headed by aerospace industry executive Norman Augustine. It concluded that “NASA is currently overcommitted in terms of program obligations relative to resources available – in short, it is trying to do too much.”
The Bush administration proposed significant budget increases for NASA in response to this observation. However, Bush was persuaded NASA would not change for the better under its current management, and in early 1992, he replaced NASA Administrator Richard Truly with Daniel Goldin, who had spent most of his career working on national security space programs. Goldin vowed to bring a “faster, better, cheaper” approach to NASA’s programs.
Bill Clinton, 1993-2001
Space was not a high priority during the eight years of the Clinton administration. While other areas of government activity saw significant increases in budget over those eight years, NASA’s budget actually decreased during the time that Bill Clinton was president, and NASA struggled to carry out the missions assigned to it.
When he entered the White House in January 1993, President Clinton was advised by his budget director that he should cancel the space station program, which was well behind schedule and over budget. Instead, Clinton accepted a proposal from NASA Administrator Dan Goldin, who had been kept on during the change in administrations, and his Russian counterparts. Goldin proposed the existing space station, named Freedom during the Reagan administration, be redesigned in a way that would combine U.S. and Russian-built elements. Goldin promised schedule and budget savings from the redesign. But what was of more interest to Clinton and his vice president, Al Gore, were the positive political and non-proliferation impacts of a joint Russian-U.S. space project. By the end of 1993, Russia had become a full partner in a renamed International Space Station, together with Europe, Japan and Canada. In his Jan. 25, 1994 State of the Union address, Clinton emphasized the subject of international space cooperation, saying, “This is a promising moment. Instead of building weapons in space, Russian scientists will help us build the International Space Station.” As the space station was being developed, U.S. space shuttles flew to the Russian space station Mir. This cooperation had begun during the final year of the Bush administration, but was greatly expanded after 1993. Clinton was on hand in Houston to greet astronaut Shannon Lucid after she returned from 179 days aboard Mir. Clinton also was present on Oct. 29, 1998 at NASA's Kennedy Space Center to watch John Glenn’s return to space with the launch of the space shuttle Discovery. In November 2000, after several years of schedule delays, a joint Russian-American crew began living on the International Space Station, and there have been people aboard the station ever since.
There were several unsuccessful initiatives during the Clinton administration to develop a replacement for the space shuttle as a way of carrying humans and cargo into space. Most notable was the X-33 single-stage-to-orbit program, which pushed the limits of technological readiness and ultimately was canceled without a test flight.
In August 1996, several NASA scientists announced that they had found what might be traces of primitive bacterial life in a meteorite of Martian origin. In reaction to this announcement, Clinton held an impromptu press conference on the White House south lawn and said, “I am determined that the American space program will put its full intellectual power and technological prowess behind the search for further evidence of life on Mars.” He added, “I have asked the vice president to convene at the White House before the end of the year a bipartisan space summit on the future of America’s space program. A significant purpose of this summit will be to discuss how America should pursue answers to the scientific questions raised by this finding.” This summit was indeed held in December 1996, but it resulted in little change to either NASA’s programs or its budget.
George W. Bush, 2001-present
In the years since the first astronaut crew has lived aboard it, the International Space Station has continued to have budget and management problems. The Bush administration entered office in January 2001, and by midyear, the White House had put the program on probation, with no guarantee its assembly would proceed as planned. This decision angered the station partners. Rather than being a foreign policy asset, the space station program was in danger of becoming a foreign policy problem. Dan Goldin, who had stayed on during the first year of the Bush administration, thereby becoming the longest-serving NASA administrator, left the job in November 2001. The White House replaced him with one of its top budget officials, Sean O’Keefe.
O’Keefe was working to restore effective management control over the space station program and set out a new vision for the rest of NASA when the space shuttle orbiter Columbia broke apart during reentry on Feb. 1, 2003, killing the seven astronauts aboard. In his memorial speech for the astronauts given at the Johnson Space Center, Bush said, “The cause of exploration and discovery is not an option we choose; it is a desire written in the human heart. We are that part of creation which seeks to understand all creation. We find the best among us, send them forth into unmapped darkness, and pray they will return. They go in peace for all mankind, and all mankind is in their debt.” In contrast to the Challenger tragedy, the White House did not establish a presidential commission to investigate the accident. Instead, the Columbia Accident Investigation Board was chartered by NASA, but operated independently of the agency.
In its August 2003 report, the board noted that there had been “a failure of national leadership” in not replacing the aging space shuttle and, more fundamentally, in not providing a “strategic vision” to guide U.S. civilian space activities. This observation served as a catalyst for Bush and his advisers. By the end of September, the White House had decided to put forth just the kind of strategic vision the board had suggested.
Bush announced new space exploration plans in a speech at NASA Headquarters on Jan. 14, 2004. Key to the new vision was the intent to “implement a sustained and affordable human and robotic program to explore the solar system and beyond,” with the goal of extending our “human presence across the solar system, starting with a human return to the moon by the year 2020, in preparation for human exploration of Mars and other destinations.” The president also announced the space shuttle would not fly after 2010, at which time the assembly of the International Space Station would be completed, and a new spacecraft, named the crew exploration vehicle, would be developed to take people into orbit and eventually to the moon.
Sean O’Keefe left the job of NASA administrator in March 2005. The White House selected as his replacement Michael Griffin, a multi-degreed engineer committed to implementing the vision laid out by Bush. In choosing Griffin for the job, the president sent to NASA a talented individual perhaps uniquely qualified to lead the agency toward the new exploration vision.
The 10 presidents who have led the United States since NASA was created each have had an impact on the nation’s civilian space efforts. With the new emphasis on space exploration as the overriding goal for NASA, the question is whether future presidents will agree with that emphasis.
When Kennedy set a lunar landing “before this decade is out” as a national goal in 1961, he was advised there was a reasonable possibility the first landing could happen in 1967 or 1968, when he planned to still be president. By contrast, the exploration plan set out in 2004 by George W. Bush is fundamentally open-ended. Even its first major goal, a return to the moon by 2020, will not occur until at least two more presidents have followed Bush to the Oval Office. His plan presents both a challenge and an opportunity to those presidents yet to be chosen. Will they agree with the long term goal of extending human presence across the solar system? Or will they ask NASA to go in a different direction? Only time will tell.