By Dr. Gary L. Deel, Ph.D., J.D.
Faculty Director, School of Business, American Military University
Note: This is the second article in a four-part series on the creation and evolution of U.S. space policy. This article covers the history of American space policy up to the presidential administrations of the 21st century.
To understand U.S. space policy, it is important to provide the context for modern challenges and future recommendations by reviewing the history of national space policy in the United States.
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Dwight D. Eisenhower was the first U.S. president to grapple with the reality of the nation’s space program potential. At the time of Eisenhower’s administration, the Cold War had already begun, but it was not yet at its peak in terms of tension and hostility.
The Soviet Union launched the first-ever space probe, Sputnik, during Eisenhower’s presidency, and the American public became immediately concerned about the potential for Soviet control of outer space. However, Eisenhower refused to engage in any kind of space “race,” preferring instead to move slowly and methodically with the space program.
Kennedy Moved the US Space Presence Significantly Forward
John F. Kennedy was Eisenhower’s successor and is largely remembered as having been the catalyst for the modern American space presence. After all, it was Kennedy who pushed forward with the Gemini, Mercury and Apollo missions.
But despite the enormous progress our space program made during the Kennedy years — tragically cut short as they were — Kennedy’s motivations were far more political than they were scientific or exploratory.
Space program development wasn’t a significant part of Kennedy’s administrative agenda until the conflicts with Cuba began, and Yuri Gagarin made the first successful human flight. Winning the Cold War was the clear driver for NASA’s progress in the 1960s and 1970s.
Johnson Promoted Cooperation between Spacefaring Nations
Lyndon Johnson took the reins following Kennedy’s assassination, and he largely rejected the premise that space exploration should continue to be a contest with foreign nations. Instead, Johnson encouraged a culture of cooperation for the betterment of all spacefaring countries. Following the de-escalation of the Cold War, he spent very little time or resources on space policy or space program development.
Nixon and Ford Did Not Give Space Exploration a High Priority
Richard Nixon was an instrumental part of Eisenhower’s administration and the strategic response — or lack thereof — to the Sputnik launch. It was no surprise that when Nixon took office as President, the space program was not an awfully high priority for him.
To be fair, Nixon was responsible for approving the development of the Space Shuttle program that would carry nearly all of NASA’s missions for decades to follow. But for Nixon, this move was a more political response to public opinion and economic opportunity than a reflection of genuine interest in space exploration.
Gerald Ford succeeded Nixon following Nixon’s impeachment, and Ford is regarded by many as one of the least impactful presidents as far as America’s space program is concerned. Ford spent much of his presidency trying to move the country beyond the crisis of the Watergate scandal, and his lack of experience in areas like space development meant that he paid these kinds of programs very little attention.
Carter’s Support of the Space Program Lacked Ambition and Vision
Jimmy Carter came into office as an unconventional politician with a new and different approach to governing. He campaigned with an aim of promoting unmanned exploratory missions and practical agendas for the space program. Carter also supported the space shuttle missions.
However, Carter lacked an ambitious vision for space development. Consequently, what was once a source of wonder and excitement for American citizens eventually became a routine, utilitarian function of the federal government.
Reagan: Passionate about Space, but Didn’t Provide Funding
When Ronald Reagan was elected, it was hoped that his proclaimed passion for the space program during his campaign would revitalize the nation’s support for NASA’s missions. Unfortunately, Reagan didn’t exactly put the level of funding and support behind his space policy that his visionary proclamations suggested.
To be fair, Reagan was supportive of the Space Shuttle program and even catalyzed the beginnings of American space station development. But Reagan’s biggest contribution was to restore the image of the national space program as a source of wonderment and ambition for the American people, rather than a boring government agency that simply coordinates logistics to and from low-Earth orbit.
Bush Sr. and the Beginnings of the International Space Station
George H.W. Bush, Sr. (“Bush Sr.”) served as the head of Reagan’s Space Council before being elected to the Presidency. So when Bush Sr. took office, it was generally hoped that NASA initiatives would be a priority for him.
Bush Sr. did indeed make a major space policy proposal that he called the Space Exploration Initiative (SEI), which included plans for “Space Station Freedom” and manned missions to return to the Moon and to visit Mars. “Space Station Freedom” eventually culminated in the International Space Station (ISS), but obviously the other two items on Bush Sr.’s agenda never came to fruition. It is suspected that this was not sincerely a major priority for him as he put little effort into the space program after his initial policy declaration.
Clinton: A Mild Interest in the Space Program
Finally, Clinton seemed only mildly interested in the space program. For him, it served an economic benefit for the country, as economic growth and development were Clinton’s primary administrative focus.
Clinton carried the pursuit of space station construction over criticism from political opponents that the mission was a waste of American taxpayer dollars. He countered that the space station would bring high-paying jobs to the country, new technologies for consumer markets and a host of other economic benefits.
And Clinton was right. The ISS has been a hugely successful — and hugely expensive — space science and exploration effort. The ISS has brought huge returns to the global economy in terms of space industry expansion, tech spinoffs, and other economic and technological.
In the next part of this article, we’ll look at the 21st-century space policies of the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations.
About the Author
Dr. Gary Deel is a Faculty Director with the School of Business at American Military University. He holds a J.D. in Law and a Ph.D. in Hospitality/Business Management. Gary teaches human resources and employment law classes for American Military University, the University of Central Florida, Colorado State University and others.
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