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Biden Mars 2020
President Joe Biden watching the landing of NASA’s Mars Perseverance rover from the White House in February. (credit: White House)

A Moonshot to inspire: Building back better in space


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Recent Democratic presidents have supported and initiated important, bold, and sustainable robotic and commercial space efforts. But no Democrat since John F. Kennedy has set this nation onto a bold course that resulted in humans exploring new worlds.

I can say with authority that no robotic space exploration mission has ever had such a powerful and pervasive impact as Kennedy sending Americans to explore another world.

Kennedy, of course, famously charged the country to put humans on the Moon during the 1960s, and made it a prominent part of the messaging of his “New Frontier” administration. As Ingrid Ockert recently wrote in a book review about Apollo, Kennedy used space for “defining his presidency in opposition to the perceived failures of the Eisenhower administration. He believed that success in the space race would position the Democrats as the party of vision and imagination.” And it worked.

JFK did not live to see his Moonshot realized. But it was, and in doing so it enthralled the world. It also accomplished a masterful feat of soft power projection, and it inspired a generation at home to STEM careers that fueled the PC and Internet revolutions of the 1980s and ’90s, in turn launching much of our modern economy.

I am a scientist whose career has been organized around and benefited tremendously from robotic space exploration. Yet I can say with authority that no robotic space exploration mission has ever had such a powerful and pervasive impact as Kennedy sending Americans to explore another world.

Kennedy’s bold vision also propelled science greatly, for example by determining how and when the Earth-Moon system was formed. Of even greater impact, it produced the first pictures of our fragile, blue marble Earth hanging in the deep blackness of space, launching an ecological awareness of our planet that still powerfully speaks to us, six long decades later.

President Biden was first elected to the Senate during Apollo. For him, it is a first-hand memory. To his credit, the president has already affirmed that his administration will continue NASA’s international Artemis program to send the first women and the next men to the Moon. Moreover, President Biden has signaled his innate grasp of what JFK’s Apollo accomplished and how space exploration can inspire on a larger scale, by exhibiting an Apollo lunar sample in the Oval Office and by very publically celebrating the recent accomplishment of NASA’s Perseverance rover’s landing on Mars.

But where will President Biden take this nation in human space exploration? How can he brand his administration to be both as bold and effective in space as Kennedy’s administration was?

As with other Biden initiatives, like his Cancer Moonshot as vice president and his presidential campaign’s green energy future, he can use space to inspire. In this daunting, more pessimistic, and more divided time, we may actually need this more today than even in the darkest days of the Cold War.

In this time when science and the scientific method is often under public attack, President Biden can build space exploration back better, infusing it into this nation’s sense of its 21st century self.

President Biden should also craft our human space exploration to project bold US global leadership, sending men and women to do more than just visit, but also to establish bases on these new frontiers. In doing so, he would no doubt launch a powerful new wave of science and engineering careers to fuel the nation’s tech economy for decades to come.

In this time when science and the scientific method is often under public attack, President Biden can build space exploration back better, infusing it into this nation’s sense of its 21st century self, and its progress to a brighter future that is both science-based and larger than life. He can show the world an America leading an historic pathway to the planets and even to the stars with a revitalized NASA and a whole-of-government approach that leverages what human space exploration and the scientific method can tangibly deliver, and how they can intangibly inspire.

Such an approach would dovetail well with other administration goals, showcasing the diverse workforce creating our future in space and leveraging the innovation of the private sector in partnership with the government to send humans to far-away worlds in ways that no other nation can.

In this time of pandemic despair, President Biden has an historic opportunity to light a candle of hope for a brighter future both in space and here on Earth. President Kennedy saw that connection between people here on Earth and people exploring space, and he was right. That brighter future for human space exploration that President Biden can launch could hold even greater economic, scientific, global domestic leadership, and inspirational benefits than Apollo did, and for all humankind.


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