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President John F. Kennedy giving his famous speech at Rice University in September 1962. (credit: NASA)

Presidential space leadership depends on the enabling context (part 1)

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Some in the space policy community look to the Apollo era, and President Kennedy’s role in directing us to the Moon, as the norm for true space policy leadership. “If only,” they reason, “we had Presidential leadership like Kennedy’s, we would have a vastly improved [fill in the blank] program.” This line of thinking vastly oversimplifies the extremely complex set of interests that determine national priorities, overestimates the efficacy of presidential power, and ignores the larger political, economic, and social context that enabled Apollo.

The question of whether JFK-style leadership is possible or preferable depends heavily on how you define Kennedy’s leadership role.

Kennedy’s leadership was significant and laudable. However, it should be viewed as a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for any new major space initiative. Presidential leadership for such initiatives occurs in an increasingly dynamic domestic and international environment that can stymie even the best-intentioned efforts. JFK-style leadership for the space program is possible and desirable, but ultimately will be constrained by the context in which it arises.

JFK-style leadership

The question of whether JFK-style leadership is possible or preferable depends heavily on how you define Kennedy’s leadership role. A simplistic view would attribute Kennedy’s success with Apollo to the power of the presidency, which allowed him to run roughshod over Congress. However, this view ignores the fact that Congress declined to fund many of Kennedy’s other initiatives, including non-Apollo space initiatives. A more nuanced examination of Kennedy’s leadership reveals a president with a finely tuned political sense for the broader social, political, fiscal and international context.

Kennedy knew what the country needed to ensure national security and demonstrate superiority over the Soviets. He had a firm grasp of what was reasonably possible with the Apollo program and sought no more than necessary to accomplish his goals. Kennedy had the political ability to sell a compelling vision and the managerial acumen to energize the bureaucracy behind the program. It is through these facets that we should examine Kennedy’s leadership, as well as the space program leadership of other presidents.

Kennedy was opportunistic. He knew how the Bay of Pigs debacle jeopardized his political viability and saw how the Sputnik launch (and perceived missile gap) motivated the public and Congress. Kennedy knew he needed a major political win (or distraction, if one is cynical), and the United States needed to demonstrate technological superiority over the Soviets. The Moon landing was a huge risk, but it was Kennedy’s opportunity to salvage his political legacy and address a core national security concern.

Kennedy was pragmatic. He challenged the space community to craft a mission goal that was achievable and would stretch the Soviets past their capabilities. The Moon was an engineering problem, not a science problem, and could be accomplished in a reasonable amount of time. Kennedy didn’t target broad initiatives or missions that were outside the bounds of US capabilities, like a space station or a mission to Mars. He kept his objectives for Apollo focused and practical.

Kennedy was a skilled executive. He sought an amendment to the National Aeronautics and Space Act that would enable Lyndon Johnson to chair the National Aeronautics and Space Council, placing a forceful and experienced ally in charge of interagency efforts and Congressional wrangling. He also named James Webb as NASA administrator, placing Apollo in the hands of a man with a highly refined bureaucratic and program management skill set.

Kennedy communicated a vision. His addresses to Congress in May 1961 and at Rice University in September 1962 are lauded as the seminal events that rallied the legislature and the public behind a massive investment of public treasure and political capital. In those speeches he combined highly effective prose analogizing space exploration with western expansion (and implied Manifest Destiny) and comparing a Moon mission to the full expression of humankind’s best virtues. He cast the space race as a battle between freedom and tyranny and invoked a call for liberty in space. The Moon landing wasn’t just an engineering challenge—it was a tipping point between the free world and the Communist empire.

The context for JFK-style leadership was critical

Strong presidential leadership is necessary for any significant space initiative, but it is not sufficient. It must be highly attuned to the context or presidents risk overreach and failure. The international and domestic context matters as much or more than the actions of any president—for space and all other national programs. The unique political and fiscal circumstances of the early 1960s provided an enabling context within which Kennedy’s leadership found full expression.

An analysis of Kennedy’s leadership requires an examination of the broader domestic and international context, but would not be complete without discussion of Apollo’s greatest shortcoming: its lack of sustainability.

The political environment was uniquely suited to a large program like Apollo. The Soviet Union launched Sputnik in 1957, triggering the space race and alarming the American public with the possibility of a missile gap that ultimately proved to be non-existent. Nevertheless, the possibility of a missile gap posed a perceived existential threat to the United States and provided public support for the space program.

April 1961 was a devastating time for Kennedy politically, but further developed the enabling environment. The Soviets launched Yuri Gagarin into orbit on April 12, and the Bay of Pigs invasion failed the following week. By the time Kennedy gave his “Moon Speech” at Rice University in September 1962, the Soviets had amassed a series of notable firsts in space, including the first satellite, the first man in space, the first orbital flight and the first dual crewed spacecraft. US firsts were primarily accomplishments in satellites and science, not human space travel.

The public held the perception that the USSR held a technological and scientific advantage over the United States and the West. This was especially troubling in the context of aggressive actions initiated by Soviet Premier Nikita Krushchev. The USSR was pushing to bring West Berlin under Soviet control and, by 1962, began deploying nuclear weapons to Cuba. This threat of Soviet technological and military dominance, and the possibility that perceived Soviet strength might push unaligned countries into the Communist sphere of influence, fueled the enabling political context for Kennedy’s space leadership. Apollo wasn’t a simple prestige project or expression of man’s desire to explore. It was a key response to a perceived existential national security threat.

Other elements of the domestic environment supported an enabling context for Kennedy’s leadership. The government was unified, with the Democrats controlling Congress and the White House. Kennedy’s vice president, Lyndon Johnson, had significant experience with the space program from his time as Senate Majority Leader, where he led criticism of President Eisenhower for the perceived shortcomings of his space program. Johnson also chaired the National Aeronautics and Space Council and was the de facto political leader of Kennedy’s space efforts. Johnson’s deep experience in Congress—and forcefully persuasive demeanor—was critical for driving Apollo through the bureaucracy and obtaining Congressional support and funding for the program.

Kennedy also operated in a favorable fiscal environment. GDP growth in the United States was 6.1 percent in 1962 and the United States averaged a healthy 4.95 percent GDP growth per year from 1962-1969.1 National debt to GDP ratios during this period declined from 40 percent to under 35 percent.2 (Contrast this to 2008–2015, where the United States averaged 1.19 percent GDP growth and the debt to GDP ratio grew from 73 percent to 105 percent.) Kennedy was lucky enough to have a favorable economy that could afford to spend 4.4 percent of the federal budget on a single program.

The failures of Apollo

An analysis of Kennedy’s leadership requires an examination of the broader domestic and international context, but would not be complete without discussion of Apollo’s greatest shortcoming: its lack of sustainability. John Logsdon pointed out this failing, noting: “The Apollo spacecraft and the magnificent Saturn 5 launcher proved not to be relevant to any post-Apollo mission that could gain political support in the early 1970s, and were quickly discarded.”3 In short, Apollo was a dead end. It accomplished its goal of landing men on the Moon and no more. The Saturn V launch vehicles and Apollo spacecraft were not adapted to further push the bounds of human space exploration. Mankind retreated back into low-Earth orbit and hasn’t ventured further in over forty years.

Kennedy’s success at rallying the nation to support a massive investment in a lunar landing magnifies the apparent power of the presidency in driving programs and spending, and obscures the crucial enabling context.

One could argue that Apollo as “a great leap forward” rather than a “bridge to new frontiers” was dictated more by the context cited above rather than any failures in Kennedy’s leadership. And of course, Kennedy was killed was 1963, six years before man landed on the Moon. Had he fulfilled two terms in office, might he have used his final years as president to chart a sustainable path for human spaceflight? Could he have rallied the country to build on Apollo’s technology and successes and maintain relatively high levels of spending? I argue that domestic and international realities would have steered the space program in exactly the same direction, and attempts by Kennedy, Johnson, or Nixon to continue Apollo-level funding would have been defeated by the realities of the enabling context.

Ultimately, while Kennedy was effective at presenting a vision, it would be hard to argue he was a space visionary. He would likely have agreed with Johnson’s and Nixon’s “normalization” of NASA’s budget. Kennedy’s goals for the Moon landing were political, practical, and driven by Cold War national security concerns. When NASA administrator James Webb warned of the risks of a failed Moon landing and argued for broader goals in space, Kennedy demurred, stating: "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.”4

Does presidential leadership matter?

Kennedy’s success at rallying the nation to support a massive investment in a lunar landing magnifies the apparent power of the presidency in driving programs and spending, and obscures the crucial enabling context. Other presidents have made ambitious proposals for space, with varying levels of success and failure. An examination of contrasting leadership approaches to the space program under Richard Nixon and George H.W. Bush demonstrates hidden successes, spectacular disappointments, the power of leadership and the failings of muddled vision.

Nixon assesses the context

President Nixon received criticism from space supporters for not supporting the high levels of spending for NASA after the conclusion of the Apollo program. Nixon said, “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… What we do in space from here on in must become a normal and regular part of our national life and must therefore be planned in conjunction with all of the other undertakings which are important to us.”5 These kinds of statements were the antithesis of Kennedy’s New Frontier exceptionalism messages, which rallied the nation behind the Apollo program. They led space advocates to believe Nixon didn’t care about the space program. This further cemented the myth of the power of the president in driving major space initiatives.

However, Nixon gets far too little credit for his signature space program, the space shuttle. In fact, the shuttle reflected perfectly Nixon’s vision for a regularization of the space program within the broader pool of national priorities. The vision for the Shuttle was a regularization of space travel: essentially a reusable bus that would ferry people and materials into space on a routine basis.

One could reasonably argue that this regularization was compelled by the domestic and international context. While the shuttle never fulfilled all of Nixon’s ambitious objectives, within the larger domestic and international context, Nixon’s vision for the shuttle and his efforts in obtaining support for it compare well to Kennedy’s Apollo-era leadership.

Nixon proposed an ambitious but practical and achievable program, and then sold it to Congress and the American public.

Unlike Kennedy, Nixon did not operate in the context of any overriding national security priorities that demanded an irregular political or financial commitment to space. The United States “won” the space race when Apollo 11 landed on the Moon in July 1969 and thereby demonstrated the scientific and technical superiority of the Western, democratic, capitalist model over Soviet communism. The US public quickly lost interest. The war in Vietnam was consuming national treasure as well as significant government and public attention. Additionally, Nixon intended to pursue detente with the Soviet Union and China, and a new space race could have interfered with those efforts.

Nixon also faced an opposition Democratic House and Senate that were increasingly impatient with the war in Vietnam. Economic growth was slowing and social unrest was prevalent. Congress was unlikely to hand Nixon a major political victory an Apollo-scale program would provide, nor were they willing to expend money for such an effort while US involvement in the Vietnam War was expanding. While NASA generated ambitious proposals for post-Apollo space stations, their vision was never grounded in political and economic realities. Space enthusiasts thought the success of Apollo would be rewarded with increased or continued funding. Instead NASA’s budget was slashed back to the historical average of one percent of federal spending.

Space enthusiasts saw this as a failure of presidential leadership. But Nixon correctly read the international landscape and the appetites of the public and Congress. He proposed an ambitious but practical and achievable program, and then sold it to Congress and the American public. When we review the elements of Kennedy’s Apollo leadership, we find many similarities to Nixon’s efforts.

Nixon was opportunistic, yet pragmatic. He saw an opening for a major new space program in the shuttle, but rejected more ambitious efforts like space stations and permanent bases on the Moon that were not grounded in fiscal and political realities. Nixon correctly read public and congressional sentiment and chose a longer, regularized path rather than a great leap forward. He also pivoted from a space race based on direct competition, to collaborative efforts with the Soviets, like the Apollo-Soyuz test project.

Like Kennedy, Nixon also effectively communicated a vision for his program. He said:

Economy in space will be further served by the Space Shuttle, which is presently under development. It will enable us to ferry space research hardware into orbit without requiring the full expenditure of a launch vehicle as is necessary today. It will permit us to place that hardware in space accurately, and to service or retrieve it when necessary instead of simply writing it off in the event it malfunctions or fails. In addition, the Shuttle will provide such routine access to space that for the first time personnel other than trained astronauts will be able to participate and contribute in space as will nations once excluded for economic reasons.6

Nixon, though, failed to live up to Kennedy’s executive leadership benchmark. Nixon was not directly involved in budgetary and programmatic decisions for the Shuttle, nor did he have a capable vice president to manage the effort for the White House (Spiro Agnew did not have the President’s ear or trust.) Thomas Paine, the NASA administrator from March 1969 to September 1970, was completely out of sync with Nixon. Paine led NASA’s efforts to secure support for ambitious post-Apollo programs for a Moon base, missions to Mars, a space station, and a space shuttle. Nixon provided him insufficient access or guidance, which resulted in NASA grasping far beyond that which the White House would support. Paine resigned, and his replacement James Fletcher worked to redesign the agency, and the space shuttle program, for the new reality. Perhaps due to this failure of executive leadership, the Shuttle wound up with a collection of capabilities designed through compromises and fiscal necessities mandated by the Office of Management and Budget, but never had a clear mission and under-delivered on it’s over-ambitious goals.

Bush leads but misreads the context

On July 20, 1989, President George H.W. Bush laid out an ambitious plan to construct Space Station Freedom, return to the Moon and establish a permanent base there, and eventually send people to Mars. This Space Exploration Initiative (SEI) was estimated to cost $400 billion dollars during its 30-year lifetime. SEI was a profound political failure and provides an excellent example of how presidential leadership must be attuned to the enabling context to ensure success.

One could reasonably argue that Kennedy and Nixon succeeded because they were much more astute students of the social, political, economic, and international environment, and advocated for exactly what that context was willing to offer.

SEI had strong support from the president, so why did it fail? An examination of the elements of Kennedy’s leadership reveals shortcomings in Bush’s approach. There is no evidence of either pragmatic or opportunistic elements in SEI. By all accounts, Bush’s SEI announcement was rushed, and there was little preparatory work done to sell the concept to Congress or properly scope its feasibility with NASA. Prior to Bush’s speech, when NASA administrator Richard Truly was asked if NASA could return to the Moon by the year 2000, his response was, “don’t do it. NASA can not handle this.”7 When the National Space Council briefed congressional staffers on the plan, responses ranged from concerned to incredulous.8 Nevertheless, Bush chose to move forward with his announcement. There was little pragmatism evident and, if there was opportunism, it bordered on the reckless. As then-Senator Al Gore noted, “by proposing a return to the Moon and a manned base on Mars, with no money, no timetable, and no plan, President Bush offers the country not a challenge to inspire us, but a daydream.”9

President Bush did lay out a reasonable vision for his program. In his speech announcing SEI, President Bush mentions a number of justifications including human destiny, the urge to explore, and national prestige. But he never adequately explained “why”: Why go back to the Moon and establish a permanent base? Why go to Mars? The failure to explain why America needed to undertake these costly programs was indicative of SEIs disconnect from the domestic and international context that provides answers to such questions.

President Bush’s efforts lacked executive leadership, which ultimately killed any chance for SEI to succeed. Bush completely misread the domestic and international context and his key lieutenants, NASA administrator Richard Truly and vice president Dan Quayle, were roiled by personality conflicts. Bush also failed to provide adequate policy guidance before his announcement, during SEI’s development, or after the 90-day study exposed vast cleavages between the National Space Council and NASA on goals, means, and expected costs. Bush also failed miserably at selling the plan to Congress, a shortfall that ultimately doomed the program due to lack of funds.

These failures in leadership are due to President Bush misreading or ignoring the domestic and international context, which was not conducive to an initiative of this scale and cost. The Democrats controlled Congress and would be reluctant to provide a Republican president a political victory. The US budget was under pressure for across-the-board cuts, and the country would enter a recession in 1990. It was unclear how the United States could or would fund a doubling of NASA’s budget from $15 billion per year to $30 billion per year by the year 2000.

Public support for the space program didn’t justify a massive new effort. The initial failure of the Hubble Space Telescope in 1990 made NASA seem incompetent. If they couldn’t successfully launch a telescope, how could they possibly return to the Moon, much less travel to Mars? There was no pressing international need for such an ambitious program: the USSR was disintegrating, leaving the United States as the world’s sole superpower, one which was peerless in space. In short, the context was not supportive for such an ambitious program. SEI was a vast overreach beyond what the context indicated was possible, and that is a crushing indictment of Bush’s leadership.

Bush and Quayle did manage to repel House attempts to kill Space Station Freedom in 1991 and 1992. While the space station was eventually built as the recast International Space Station, efforts under the Bush administration did not secure this outcome. Despite intense lobbying for the station by Bush and Quayle, the station was almost killed by the House in 1993, despite Clinton Administration support and a unified government under the Democrats.

Nixon succeeded while Bush failed on nearly all counts, yet Nixon’s vision for the space shuttle was unquestionably more modest than Bush’s vision for the Space Exploration Initiative. Kennedy’s vision for Apollo was much grander than Nixon’s, but not as ambitious as Bush’s. This deflates the myth that presidential leadership alone is a determining factor for the success of space programs. One could reasonably argue that Kennedy and Nixon succeeded because they were much more astute students of the social, political, economic, and international environment, and advocated for exactly what that context was willing to offer. Bush’s ambition exceeded the support an enabling context would justify and resulted in a major political failure.


  1. “The World Bank Economic Indicators.” Accessed December 7, 2016.
  2. “Federal Reserve: Total Public Debt as Percent of Gross Domestic Product.” Accessed December 9, 2016.
  3. John M. Logsdon, “The End of the Apollo Era Finally?” SpaceNews, June 30, 2010
  4. John Logsdon, “Ten Presidents and NASA.” Accessed December 5, 2016.
  5. Chris Barber, “The Dawn of the Space Shuttle,” The Nixon Foundation, January 6, 2015.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Thor Hogan, Mars Wars – The Rise and Fall of the Space Exploration Initiative, (2007), NASA History Series, NASA SP-2007-4410, 57
  8. Ibid 66
  9. Ibid 77