When George W. Bush announced his intention to reestablish a human presence on the moon and send explorers to Mars, the usual criticisms followed behind like vapors in a jet stream.
The Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, claimed the mission couldn’t succeed unless NASA was privatized. Rep. John M. Spratt Jr. of South Carolina, the ranking Democrat on the House Budget Committee, said Bush’s vision “has an element of escapism about it.” Sen. Joe Lieberman, a Democratic presidential contender, expressed support for future space travel, but not until we’ve balanced the budget, eliminated our dependence on foreign oil -- and conquered disease.
This is not new thinking. Before Thomas Jefferson dispatched Lewis and Clark to explore the vast lands obtained in the Louisiana Purchase, critics protested the rationale of the expedition. “A great waste, a wilderness,” complained a Boston newspaper. “We are to give money of which we have too little, for land of which we already have too much.” Federalist politician Joshua Green added that the endeavor was “a shameful gross speculation, pretending to bring we knew not what, situated we knew not where, and [with] no more right to it than
Exploration of the moon and Mars will be more expensive than Bush predicts, will probably take longer to accomplish and may provide less in technological gains than he envisions. Likewise, the earthly problems described by critics are real enough. Yet it is Bush and a pantheon of previous presidents -- and not the naysayers -- who are on solid historical ground.
From the beginning, American presidents and the American people have consistently sought to go beyond the frontiers of nature and knowledge. This impulse is part of America’s national makeup, and key to our success as a people.
“I like the dreams of the future better than the history of the past,” said Jefferson, who in writing to John Adams once applied the word “Argonauts” -- the great voyagers of Greek mythology -- to describe the men of 1776. This is an apt reminder that the Wright brothers’ flight and the lunar landing were not historical accidents; they were imperatives of the American mind and the American identity.
“The hallmark of the American adventure has been a willingness -- even an eagerness -- to reach for the unknown,” Gerald Ford observed in a 1976 bicentennial speech. “In the early 17th century, a few fragile vessels -- like the Discovery in 1607 and the Mayflower in 1620 -- sailed across 3,000 miles of unfriendly sea. Their passengers and crew knew far less about their destination than the American astronauts knew at liftoff about the lunar landscape, a quarter-million miles away.”
If the resources required of such ventures are great, the courage is greater. Gus Grissom, one of the original seven Mercury astronauts, warned that his profession was dangerous. “If we die, we want people to accept it,” he said. “And we hope that if anything happens to us, it will not delay the program. The conquest of space is worth the risk.”
Brave words did not cushion the impact on Lyndon Johnson when Grissom and two other Apollo astronauts were killed in a launch pad fire. “The shock,” LBJ said later, “hit me like a physical blow.” American space travel continued, however, pushed by Johnson and future presidents despite the losses of the space shuttle crews.
John Kennedy had invoked a challenge to the Soviet Union in 1961 when announcing his goal of putting a man on the moon within a decade. But by the next year, he was appealing to loftier national instincts. Kennedy invoked the words of British explorer George Mallory, who, when asked why he wanted to climb Mt. Everest, replied, “because it is there.” “Well, space is there, and we’re going to climb it,” Kennedy said. “And the moon and the planets are there, and new hopes for knowledge and peace are there.”
Carl M. Cannon covers the White House for National Journal and is the author of “The Pursuit of Happiness in Times of War” (Rowman & Littlefield, 2003).