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Kennedy
Sixty years after John F. Kennedy called for landing a man on the Moon by the end of the decade, the influence of presidents on space policy remains important, but alone is not sufficient. (credit: NASA)

Necessary but not sufficient: Presidents and space policy 60 years after Kennedy


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On May 25, 1961, still in the first months of his presidency but stung by recent failures at the Bay of Pigs and elsewhere, President John F. Kennedy prepared to address the Congress. Seeking a way to move the United States forward in the Cold War, Kennedy stated:

First, I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish.

While perhaps not as memorable as his later Rice University address, Kennedy’s call set a standard, not just for American actions in space in the 1960s but for later presidents and their relationship to space policy. It was audacious given the Soviet record of first accomplishments in space compared to America’s paltry 15 minutes in space with Alan Shepard’s suborbital flight. More broadly, though, it was a powerful example of the use of the presidential bully pulpit and how presidential initiatives can turn into actual public policy.

The failure of later presidents to be as successful in setting an aggressive course for human spaceflight has shown that Kennedy is an outlier. Nonetheless, 60 years later, an argument may be made that recent developments in human spaceflight are in fact due to strong presidential leadership.

Although Kennedy was unsure of congressional reaction to his proposal at the time, the Congress quickly agreed and Project Apollo was officially born. For Kennedy, the move was strictly about Cold War politics; recent scholarship has shown that Kennedy had little personal interest in space and, in fact, was later interested in pulling back on space spending and perhaps working more cooperatively with the Soviets. Regardless, Kennedy’s success in setting a goal for the United States in human spaceflight has since fed the belief that all that is needed for a more expansive space program is a president willing to throw their considerable support in favor of it.

However, failure of later presidents to be as successful in setting an aggressive course for human spaceflight has shown that Kennedy is an outlier. Nonetheless, 60 years later, an argument may be made that recent developments in human spaceflight are in fact due to strong presidential leadership, particularly from the Trump Administration. Under the Trump Administration, several significant space-related policies saw progress including Project Artemis at NASA and its associated Artemis Accords, the establishment of the United States Space Force, and a reinvigoration of the National Space Council. Additionally, several major space policy directives were issued to address gaps in US space policy, including space traffic management and space situation awareness and commercial launch regulations.

Making the argument that these milestones are due to strong presidential leadership akin to Kennedy, however, neglects the role of other political actors, such as Congress, the space industry, and global competition. While Trump’s support may have been necessary for these policies to come to fruition, there are other influences that are just as significant, if not more so. Members of Congress with parochial, local interests in space have supported programs like the Space Launch System (SLS) for well over a decade. Similarly, the growth of the commercial space industry has helped enabled many of these policy objectives, including Artemis. Finally, the new era of great power competition, not dissimilar to the Cold War’s geopolitical setting, has helped to sustain greater momentum for space. In this sense, presidents and their support for space are indeed necessary, but they are by no means sufficient for space policy success.

The domestic politics of space

Kennedy’s masterstroke of one-upsmanship with the Soviet Union obscures the fact that, even then, the legislative branch was necessary to making and enacting major public policies. The president’s success created a myth in the field of space policy that all that is needed for an aggressive national program of space exploration is a strong endorsement from the president and Congress will come along. While this does happen occasionally across policy areas, it is far from routine. What is it, then, that enabled presidential leadership in this one instance (Apollo) and forces executive-legislative cooperation in another? Political science is replete with potential explanations: the presence of unified or divided government; increasing polarization; or the difference between foreign and domestic policies among others. Space exploration, more often than not, lies in between these extremes. It is generally considered bipartisan in nature (thus negating the creeping influence of polarization), it straddles the line between foreign and domestic policy, and it is not typically a salient policy issue drawing broad national attention. As I’ve shown previously, the differences between Congress and the president as institutions helps to explain why the president is better able at times to drive policy change.

Space’s precedence on the national agenda has fallen and presidents have only a finite amount of time. As it became less important of a policy issue through the 1960s and into the 1970s, presidential attention also dwindled.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, space was a national concern. Not only was it a new policy area in which the United States had suffered significant setbacks, but the deep public shock in the US about these failures forced space to the top of the agenda. As such, it required national-level attention, particularly from the president, the only nationally-elected figure. Thus, presidents, in the form of both Eisenhower and then Kennedy, drove initial policymaking efforts in space. Further supporting the need for presidential attention, it was not clear where space policy would have an impact; there were no NASA centers located in politically important states and there were few clues as to where space industrial bases would be built. The importance of space geopolitically further drove the national-level interest.

Since then, a very different environment has developed. Space’s precedence on the national agenda has fallen and presidents have only a finite amount of time. As it became less important of a policy issue through the 1960s and into the 1970s, presidential attention also dwindled. However, this decline was matched by an increase in attention from members of Congress. The presence of NASA installations and major space contractors gave members of Congress from those states and districts (primarily in the South) a reason to be interested that they did not have at first. Further, compared to the president, they had more time in which to do something about that interest and vehicles through which to do that on a yearly basis. At the time, NASA authorization bills were passed yearly and appropriations provided an additional means of oversight and policymaking.

The result has been that presidents have generally receded in importance to human spaceflight. In times of crisis or change their profile is raised, but, for the most part, the House and Senate are the political arenas in which policy fights are held. Take, for example, the SLS. When Barack Obama entered office, he faced a human spaceflight program that would soon lose its means of access to space (the shuttle) and a Bush-era program, Constellation, that was behind schedule and over budget. Without giving adequate notice to the Congress, Obama proposed cutting it entirely, only to face swift pushback from members, particularly in the Senate, whose states and districts would stand to lose from its cancellation. The result was a compromise: while Constellation as a whole was shelved, including the Ares rocket, the Orion crew vehicle was continued and commercial spaceflight prioritized. The SLS arose in its place and quickly took on the moniker of “Senate Launch System” not just because of its Senate-centered support but because of the jobs it would bring to the states of members who supported it.

This episode shows two important factors in the amount of influence presidents can have on space exploration. One, in a political system that includes separated institutions sharing power, presidents are not the be all and end all. Even when policy pronouncements are made, Congress, as an equally powerful branch, must either acquiesce or actively participate in a compromise with the executive branch. To be sure, there are exceptions, as we have seen in the past few years, but for a policy area like space that is not a salient political issue in which many presidents seek to spend their precious political capital, working with Congress is necessary. Two, Congress’s continuous influence is all the more significant given changes in presidential administrations every four to eight years. As we saw in the transition from Bush to Obama and from Obama to Trump, new presidents are liable to change policy in any given number of areas, including space exploration. Congress, on the other hand, has remarkably little turnover with reelection rates consistently between 75 and 90%. This lasting power adds to the influence that members of Congress have in terms of space policy.

The development of the SLS is also telling in terms of the influence of the space industry. Research has shown that economic and industry interests tend to influence space policy more than public opinion; because space falls so low on most people’s radar, economic drivers send more signals to members of Congress about how to vote. Industry influence has continued to be important with the SLS as traditional aerospace contractors, like Boeing, continue to be prominent. These contractors have a vested interest in seeing programs like SLS continue as it all but guarantees them a continued payday. In turn, they wage extensive lobbying campaigns and give large sums of money to politicians to help ensure the continuation of major contracts. In 2020 alone, Boeing spent $12.63 million on federal lobbying across a variety of issues; included in them, however, were several space-related bills, such as the NASA Authorization Act of 2020. On the NASA Authorization Act alone, 40 different organizations reported lobbying activity including traditional contractors like Boeing, Aerojet Rocketdyne, and Northrop Grumman, but also new space companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin. It is the advances of these innovative players that have enabled recent developments in human spaceflight policy that the Trump Administration took advantage of.

In looking solely at the domestic politics for human spaceflight, the Trump Administration’s achievements become not so much a story of a single visionary leader initiating a major policy program but instead an administration that built on political and economic dynamics.

Practically unimaginable just 20 years ago, America’s human spaceflight program is now reaping the benefits of commercial space companies like SpaceX. The approach of these companies has been to reduce launch costs, primarily through reusable rocket technology. The drastically reduced costs, in turn, have enabled NASA to depend on industry for access to space and the International Space Station. The Trump Administration, far from initiating such developments, took advantage of them in designing Artemis (it was the Obama Administration, in fact, that supported greater usage of the commercial sector which began in the Bush Administration). Rather than leading design and construction efforts for all components, NASA is contracting out for major systems including the Human Landing System (HLS) for taking astronauts down to the Moon. With both costs and time required reduced, greater political support across both sides of the aisle is enabled.

In looking solely at the domestic politics for human spaceflight, the Trump Administration’s achievements become not so much a story of a single visionary leader initiating a major policy program but instead an administration that built on political and economic dynamics. While this is a significant departure from the political situation Kennedy faced at the time (there was no established industry or political framework through which to consider and sustain space policy), it does demonstrate how necessary it is for all parts of the system to work together in enabling and enacting space policy; one part does not go it alone and different institutions have differing motivations.

The international politics of space

If the domestic arena of space did not exist during the Kennedy Administration, the global one certainly did. The extraordinary conflict that was the Cold War was key in spurring Kennedy’s May 25 commitment and sustaining it. Scholars have consistently concluded that the Cold War was vital in sustaining the Apollo program for several reasons. First, achievements in space, science, and technology were intrinsically important to demonstrate the preeminence and prestige of the United States on a global scale. Apollo helped to prove that the American system was superior to communism, something that was even more important after the Soviet Union’s stunning achievements. Second, competition with the Soviets in the relatively peaceful area of human spaceflight siphoned off energy that might have otherwise been put to more dangerous purposes. Its importance contributed to arms agreements that were developed later in the 1960s as it became important to restrict nuclear testing in space and acknowledge principles of peaceful use. While Kennedy, towards the end of his life, entertained the notion of cooperation with the Soviets in space, the Cold War provided a solid foundation on which the United States could support an expensive endeavor like Apollo.

Although not to the extent of the Cold War, there is once again a rising level of global competition between the United States, China, and, to an extent, Russia. While this pressure is not as overwhelming, the drumbeat is consistently increasing. This type of rhetoric was often used in the Trump Administration to support more expansive space efforts including both Artemis and the establishment of the Space Force. For example, then-Vice President Mike Pence in a speech in March 2019 stated,

Now, make no mistake about it: We’re in a space race today, just as we were in the 1960s, and the stakes are even higher. Last December, China became the first nation to land on the far side of the Moon and revealed their ambition to seize the lunar strategic high ground and become the world’s preeminent spacefaring nation. And for more than seven years, without a viable human space launch program of our own, Russia has been charging the United States more than $80 million a seat every time an American astronaut travels to the International Space Station. But it’s not just competition against our adversaries; we’re also racing against our own worst enemy: complacency. And the truth is, we’ve been here before.

Going on to reference the Soviet space firsts, Pence was clearly drawing parallels between the great power competition today and the great power competition of the past.

Perhaps just as importantly, the Biden Administration continues to see Chinese actions in space as potentially aggressive and concerning. Citing China’s plans to construct a space station in low Earth orbit and to conduct additional lunar missions, the 2021 Annual Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community concluded that “Beijing is working to match or exceed US capabilities in space to gain the military, economic, and prestige benefits that Washington has accrued from space leadership.” Despite the fact that the US has undertaken similar activities for decades with peaceful intent, the Biden Administration appears content to seize the rhetoric of global competition to continue to support the Trump Administration’s initiatives in space.

But it is in its audacity and ability to meet the moment that the speech must be considered worthy, and not as a model for space policymaking. In that sense, recognizing and understanding the limits of presidential influence contribute as much to our understanding of the dynamics of space policy today.

Because space exploration is so often seen as discretionary and therefore not an absolute national requirement, its connection with something like national security is important. In being associated with countering threats from abroad, greater political and public support for expensive policies can be maintained. Apollo is not the only space policy that has benefited from this: then-NASA administrator Dan Goldin successfully connected the International Space Station to support for Russia’s space industry in the post-Cold War environment, thereby sustaining it politically. While connecting space to national security concerns does not make support absolute (support and spending for Apollo did decrease as early as the mid-1960s), an element of threat and international competition appears to be important in sustaining human spaceflight in particular.

Conclusion

Presidential support for human spaceflight is no doubt necessary. Upon taking office in January, the Biden Administration quickly became inundated with questions about whether they support NASA’s Artemis program or the establishment of the US Space Force. When press secretary Jen Psaki scoffed at a question about the Space Force, the furor caused her to clarify the administration’s position as supporting both. Since then, the administration has also announced that it intends to continue the National Space Council and has requested increases in NASA’s budget for Artemis. Both the president and vice president have made several mentions of space issues, including on the occasion of the landing of Perseverance on Mars. Despite space policies being carried out as they were under the Trump Administration, the political classes still desired to know where the president stood on these issues.

But with presidential support assumed, the political and global environments are just as important as enablers of space policy. Consider George H.W. Bush’s Space Exploration Initiative. On the 20th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission in 1989, Bush proposed a new effort to return to the Moon and go onto Mars. The SEI failed spectacularly; not only did NASA not support it, the high cost estimates doomed it in Congress. Further, with the end of the Cold War looming, there was no longer a global threat driver on which to support a new effort.

On the other hand, we might also ask why Artemis might succeed. Continuing bipartisan political support will be necessary, driven in part by members who have a specific interest in their state or district. Additionally, the success of the commercial space industry has further enabled NASA to undertake Artemis at a lower cost and perhaps a quicker timetable. Finally, the fact that global competition has returned sustains political support and gives an underlying reason for the general public to support it as well. Recent public polling is suggestive of this—while only 33% of the respondents said that sending astronauts to the Moon or Mars was important, almost half, 47%, said it was important the US maintains its superiority in space. Just as Bush’s failure was not due to a lack of presidential interest, Artemis’s success will not be due to Trump’s interest but rather a confluence of trends that tend to support greater space exploration.

Sixty years on, Kennedy’s speech to Congress proposing the Apollo program remains monumental both in the history of the presidency and the history of spaceflight. Its goal was seemingly out of reach for a country whose sum total of human experience in space was less than 15 minutes and who had consistently come in second to the Soviets in space. The fact that the goal was met only contributes to its importance. But it is in its audacity and ability to meet the moment that the speech must be considered worthy, and not as a model for space policymaking. In that sense, recognizing and understanding the limits of presidential influence contribute as much to our understanding of the dynamics of space policy today.


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