The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Pence vows America will return to the moon. The history of such promises suggests otherwise.

“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," JFK said to a cheering crowd. (Video: NASA, Photo: Anonymous/NASA)

The oratory was lofty, the setting, before the space shuttle Discovery, was fitting. Guests included the secretaries of state, transportation and commerce, and the chief executives of some of the largest aerospace companies in the world, including Lockheed Martin and Boeing.

During the first meeting of the reconstituted National Space Council last week, Vice President Pence vowed in soaring rhetoric that the United States would not only return astronauts to the moon, but that “we will push the boundaries of human knowledge. We will blaze new trails into the great frontier. And we will once again astonish the world as we boldly go to meet our future in the skies and stars.”

Although he did not include a timeline, a budget or a commitment of resources, his words evoked the pair of speeches that John F. Kennedy gave in the early 1960s.

In the first, to a joint session of Congress in 1961, he said 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.”

Then, in 1962, he gave the famous “because-it-is-hard” speech at Rice University: “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.”

Since then, presidents have given their own version of the space speech, an attempt to rally the country and recapture the national pride that came with the 1960s-era Apollo program. It has become something of a rite of passage. And last week, at the National Air and Space Museum’s Udvar-Hazy Center, it was the Trump administration’s turn to make the space speech, with Pence at the podium.

And yet, for all the talk, there has been little progress over the past four decades. The United States has not returned astronauts to the moon, or gone to Mars — or met any of the lofty promises wafting out of the White House, as one administration aims for the moon, the next for Mars, then the next for the moon again.

Instead, NASA’s astronauts go to the International Space Station. The orbiting laboratory is a marvel, but at 250 miles above the Earth, is not near the accomplishment of the moon, which is about 250,000 miles away. And NASA doesn’t fly them there. It hasn’t been able to since the space shuttle retired in 2011, forcing the United States to rely on Russia for rides to the station.

So, as the Trump administration makes it promises of returning to the moon, here’s a look at the pantheon of White House space speeches Pence’s joins.

President Reagan: Jan. 25, 1984

Over the advice of many of his advisers, Ronald Reagan resurrected the idea for a space station. The Gipper stood at the same podium where Kennedy had announced the nation’s lunar ambitions, and his lofty tone matched Kennedy’s, tying national pride to its prowess in space. Reagan gave the announcement prominent placement in his State of the Union address.

“America has always been greatest when we dared to be great,” he said. “We can reach for greatness again. We can follow our dreams to distant stars, living and working in space for peaceful, economic and scientific gain. Tonight, I am directing NASA to develop a permanently manned space station and to do it within a decade.”

The space station would be named Freedom.

Two years later, however, as Reagan prepared to give another State of the Union address, Vice President Bush and Pat Buchanan, a communications aide, burst into the Oval Office. Bush started to inform the president of the news, but Buchanan couldn’t contain himself. “Sir, the Challenger just blew up!” he said.

Until then, the shuttle program had been hitting its stride. The first two years it had launched 10 astronauts into space. Then in 1983, 25 had gone up. Another 23 the following year. In 1985, 58 astronauts had flown into orbit, and now NASA had grand plans to open up space with a special program that would grant everyday Americans a chance to hitch on ride on the shuttle. The first of those would be a bright, beaming high school social studies teacher named Christa McAuliffe, who was chosen from more than 11,000 applicants. But now she was dead, along with six NASA astronauts.

Reagan delayed his State of the Union until a few days later. That night, his voice caught for just a moment as he said, “We will never forget those brave seven, but we shall go forward.”

The Challenger disaster grounded the shuttle for more than two years and delayed the increasingly complicated space station program, which was running over budget and facing design challenges.

President George H.W. Bush: July 20, 1989

On the 20th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing, President George H.W. Bush went to the National Air and Space Museum to announce he would continue plans to build a space station, and then direct a mission back not just to the moon but to Mars, as well.

In 1961, the country was motivated by the Cold War space race to “speed things up,” he said. “Today we don’t have a crisis; we have an opportunity. To seize this opportunity, I’m not proposing a 10-year plan like Apollo; I’m proposing a long-range continuing commitment…

“Why the moon? Why Mars? Because it is humanity’s destiny to strive, to seek, to find. And because it’s America’s destiny to lead.”

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But at the White House, the new NASA administrator was fumbling the rollout, buckling under intense questions by the media.

How much would it cost? He didn’t know.

What was the specific timetable? He didn’t know.

Would Congress go along? He couldn’t answer that, either. And at one point he seemed so flustered that when he was asked when the first astronauts might land on Mars, he stammered, “I just frankly learned this morning what [Bush’s] direction was.”

There was so much pressure to make the announcement on the 20th anniversary of the lunar landing that many details had yet to be sorted out.

When Congress did finally become aware of the total program cost — about $500 billion — it choked. NASA wasn’t going to the moon, and it certainly wasn’t going to Mars.

President George W. Bush: Jan. 14, 2004

Gene Cernan, the last man to walk on the moon, was in the audience at NASA headquarters when President George W. Bush took the stage and said that the country needed to strike out more boldly, going further than the space station in low Earth orbit. Bush recited what Cernan had said as he departed the lunar surface in 1972, promising, “We shall return.” In his speech, Bush promised that “America will make those words come true.”

By 2008, he said, “We will send a series of robotic missions to the lunar surface to research and prepare for future human exploration.” By as early as 2015, manned missions would begin “with the goal of living and working there for an increasingly extended period of time.”

Meanwhile, Bush’s plan became fodder for late-night television, which mocked an ambition for space exploration that a generation earlier had been venerated for achieving the impossible. Not that long ago the United States had reached the moon, but America’s space program had since had so many false starts and been subject to so many unfulfilled political promises that the critics were quick to pierce the soaring rhetoric and bring it back to ground.

“He wants to build like a space station on the moon, and then from the moon, he wants to launch people to Mars,” David Letterman said in one of his monologues. “You know what this means, ladies and gentlemen? He’s been drinking again.”

President Barack Obama: April 15, 2010

By the time President Barack Obama was elected, Bush’s moon program was so over budget and behind schedule that it was an easy target for the new administration. During a speech at the Kennedy Space Center, with Buzz Aldrin in the audience, Obama outlined his plan for space.

“Now, I understand that some believe we should attempt a return to the surface of the Moon first, as previously planned,” he said. “But I just have to say pretty bluntly here: We’ve been there before. Buzz has been there. There’s a lot more space to explore, and a lot more to learn when we do. So I believe it’s more important to ramp up our capabilities to reach — and operate at — a series of increasingly demanding targets, while advancing our technological capabilities with each step forward.”

Those targets would include first an asteroid, and then by the mid-2030s NASA would send astronauts to orbit Mars. But NASA’s “Journey to Mars” never got much momentum. Then a new administration took office, and with it a new space speech—and a new destination.

Vice President Pence: Oct. 5, 2017

"We will win the 21st century in space," Vice President Pence said at the first meeting of the National Space Council on Oct. 5. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: NASA/Joel Kowsky/The Washington Post)

During his speech last week, Pence scuttled the Mars first mission, vowing to direct NASA back to the moon.

Why the Trump administration wants to return to the moon in partnership with industry

After Apollo, “sending Americans to the moon was treated as a triumph to be remembered, but not repeated,” he said. Every passing year that the moon remained squarely in the rearview mirror further eroded our ability to return to the lunar domain and made it more likely that we would forget why we ever wanted to go in the first place.

“And now we find ourselves in a position where the United States has not sent an American astronaut beyond low Earth orbit in 45 years. Across the board, our space program has suffered from apathy and neglect.”

Like other administrations, the Trump White House would do something about it, he vowed.

“The president has charged us with laying the foundation for America to maintain a constant commercial, human presence in low Earth orbit. There, we will turn our attention back toward our celestial neighbors. We will return American astronauts to the moon, not only to leave behind footprints and flags, but to build the foundation we need to send Americans to Mars and beyond.”

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