As we approach the 50th anniversary of the U.S. moon landing, we’re not only going to reminisce about one of humanity’s greatest achievements, but also wonder when we’re ever going to go back, or go beyond the moon to Mars, and perhaps further into space.
President Donald Trump has shown that he is very eager to relaunch the U.S. space program, and reach those goals. But so were the politicians of the 1950s and 1960s, and they faced similar seemingly insurmountable odds of pulling it off.
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Here are several lessons Trump can get from one of his predecessors: President John F. Kennedy.
Provide the American People With a Good Reason to Go
Believe it or not, when Kennedy was in the Senate, he wasn’t as pro-space as one might think. That all changed when Sputnik was launched. Suddenly, the Massachusetts senator went on the attack, concerned that this would lead to a “missile gap” with our enemy, the Soviet Union. Our space failures during the 1950s put noted anti-Communist Richard Nixon on the defensive, helping JFK secure a narrow victory in 1960.
As he stated on the campaign trail: “I have premised my campaign for the presidency on the single assumption that the American people are uneasy at the present drift in our national course, that they are disturbed by the relative decline in our vitality and prestige, and that they have the will and the strength to start the United States moving again.”
If Donald Trump wants to get the country energized about returning to space, by wide margins, he’s got to find a strong rationale. It was more than just the prestige of being first that motived JFK and Americans in the 1960s. It was ensuring peace and security. Just saying, “we want to beat China and Russia in space” alone will not work. Kennedy was able to tie space to the new generation of weapons poised to strike Americans the way that Nazis peppered London with V2 rockets. Trump must make the concern and need tangible.
Perhaps fear of a foreign foe may not do the trick this time. A more plausible concern might be the power we need to get there. Promising that the race to the moon and Mars will unleash an energy revolution, providing accessible fuel for the future, will motivate Americans, concerned that our nonrenewable sources won’t always be able to provide the American economy with the juice it needs. And I can see Trump getting behind such an initiative.
A Big Name for Big Plans
Throughout American history, certain presidents have been able to rally many to their side by an effective label that could sum up their vision and a host of connected programs. From William McKinley’s “Full Dinner Pail” and Teddy Roosevelt’s “Square Deal” to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “New Deal” and Harry Truman’s “Fair Deal,” these presidents were able to accomplish more than, let’s say, Grover Cleveland, Calvin Coolidge, George H. W. Bush or Gerald Ford, who may have been good men but lacked that ability to transmit their ideas and policies to the American people.
John F. Kennedy had one of the most successful labels in history, “the New Frontier,” which not only encapsulated his space vision, but could also be applied to a variety of discoveries and connected to the American ethos of opportunity, risk-taking, hard work, sacrifice, being proud of achievements and the chance for rewards from such accomplishments (from our taming the frontier with rugged and risky determination).
As Kennedy stated on July 15, 1960: “But the New Frontier of which I speak is not a set of promises—it is a set of challenges. It sums up not what I intend to offer the American people, but what I intend to ask of them. It appeals to their pride, not to their pocketbook—it holds out the promise of more sacrifice instead of more security.”
Trump should subsume this link of abstract imagination and concrete initiatives to achieve his space goals. Something like “Future Venture” or “Modern Mission” would make a good name. Its programs would focus on the energy to get there, a policy to capture and share the scientific knowledge and lessons developed from the process, and perhaps a plan to make it a joint private-public sharing that could be applied to so many other sectors: military, economy, infrastructure and politics, which fits with the American support for free enterprise and demand for good accountable government.
Such a Flight Must Be Led by Our Best
President Dwight D. Eisenhower was not a fan of manned spaceflight. Many of Kennedy’s advisors were against it. These groups claimed that we would learn plenty from flights in space, which could reach the moon, and collect data. But the amount of time and effort needed to keep an astronaut alive in space would take away from the mission, and the costs in potential casualties from our dangerous efforts wouldn’t be worth any possible benefits, they argued.
President Kennedy disagreed. He found that man was “the most extraordinary computer of them all…[whose] judgment, nerve, and… [ability to] learn from experience still make him unique.”
Such astronauts would be heroes, as would be the mission control experts, scientists and everyone in government and/or the private sector who put them there. We should utilize our best, and not prejudge who could be those people by gender, race, ethnicity or anything about who the people are, focusing instead on what they can do.
It’s Time to Set a Tangible Goal
“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 the earth,” Kennedy told Congress on May 25, 1961.
Kennedy made a point of setting a target date, but one that could realistically be met. As those in the space program have pointed out, it had to be a certain time for expectations (several decades would be too long), but realistic enough so that an unachievable time frame would not lead to cynicism that would dry up public support. Witness President George W. Bush’s promise to go to the moon and Mars in the 2000s, which fell flat, never seriously backed up, even by the president himself.
Kennedy’s goal kept in mind that he might not be in office when the event eventually took place. Yet he’s the U.S. president most associated with the moon landing, not Eisenhower, Johnson or Nixon. Trump should recognize that Mars will likely be out of reach by 2024, barring a miracle, but other goals can be achieved, or put into motion, within a satisfactory date.
The Benefits of Overcoming a Big Challenge
It will be a challenge for our president. But Kennedy knew that it would be the same for his era, as he put forth this argument for a Houston crowd at Rice Stadium: “But why, some say, the moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask why climb the highest mountain. Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? Why does Rice play Texas? We choose to go to the moon. 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, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.”
Let’s see if Trump can win space back for the U.S., the way JFK did so many years ago.
John A. Tures is a professor of political science at LaGrange College in LaGrange, Georgia—read his full bio here.