Two U.S. approaches to 21st-century space exploration have emerged in the past year. Reacting to criticisms that his new strategy for human spaceflight, unveiled on Feb. 1, 2010, contained no specific destinations for human missions beyond low Earth orbit, President Barack Obama last April 15 set a mission to a near-Earth asteroid by 2025 as the initial target for the next round of exploration. In contrast, the recent NASA planning study carried out by the space agency’s Human Exploration Framework Team proposed a “capability-driven framework with a ‘go-as-you-pay’ approach” as “the most viable approach given the cost, technical and political constraints.” If this framework were to be adopted, a mission to an asteroid would be just one possibility in an “incremental expansion of human space exploration capabilities” aimed at reaching a variety of destinations.

The tension between a destination- and schedule-driven approach to human spaceflight and one that focuses on capability development is not new, and lessons can be drawn from prior occasions when it has surfaced. The 1972 decision to develop the space shuttle stands as a prime example of a capability-based approach. Building the space program of the last 40 years around the shuttle’s multifold capabilities, high costs and inherent risks has had a profound impact on the character of U.S. space efforts over the past four decades. Many will assess that impact as the shuttle approaches its final flight.

Even earlier, the tension was present during Project Apollo. It surfaced as President John F. Kennedy and NASA Administrator James Webb debated space priorities during a Nov. 21, 1962, Cabinet Room meeting recorded by Kennedy’s secret taping system. It was Kennedy’s view that “everything we do [in space] ought really to be tied to getting on the Moon ahead of the Russians,” because doing so was “important for political reasons, international political reasons. This is, whether we like it or not, in a sense a race.” Webb’s response was, “Why can’t it be tied to pre-eminence in space?” He added, “The kinds of things I’m talking about that give you pre-eminence in space are what permit you to make … the advanced Saturn better than any other [launch vehicle].” Such booster capability, Webb suggested, would enable “a range of progress,” not only getting to the Moon first. In a Nov. 30 follow-up letter to Kennedy, Webb expanded on his position, saying that “the objective of our national space program is to become pre-eminent in all important aspects of this endeavor and to conduct the program in such a manner that our emerging scientific, technological, and operational competence in space is clearly evident.”

Webb seemingly won the argument, at least rhetorically. Kennedy, at a July 17, 1963, press conference, declared, “The point of the matter always has been not only of our excitement or interest of being on the Moon, but the capacity to dominate space, which would be demonstrated by a Moon flight, I believe is essential to the United States as a leading free world power.” Even so, the various hardware systems chosen to carry out Project Apollo — the Saturn 5 booster, the Apollo spacecraft and the Lunar Excursion Module — were optimized to achieve the earliest possible landing on the Moon, and Kennedy’s “before this decade is out” deadline dictated the pace of the program. In the case of Apollo, it was the destination (and deadline) that drove the capabilities.

Unfortunately, by couching the lunar landing effort as a race to reach a specific destination, President Kennedy did not provide a long-term vision for space exploration, and the hardware capabilities developed for Apollo were not well matched to any politically viable post-Apollo mission. NASA, through an “Apollo Applications Program,” attempted, without success, from the mid-1960s on to suggest various uses for the Apollo capabilities. As potential post-Apollo efforts were being reviewed in the summer of 1969 by a Space Task Group led by Vice President Spiro Agnew, task force member Robert Seamans, former NASA deputy administrator and in 1969 secretary of the Air Force, suggested that “we should capitalize on NASA’s great scientific and technical capability to the maximum extent possible” to “carry out work of direct relevance to man here on Earth.” This suggestion was rejected, and the Space Task Group proposed a destination-oriented approach, with a Mars mission in the 1980s as the next destination. This proposal was quickly rejected by the White House; the administration of President Richard Nixon decided to abandon the Apollo systems and to start over in human spaceflight with the space shuttle program.

The reality with respect to Project Apollo was that neither the destination-driven nor the capability-driven approach to developing U.S. space competence provided the basis for a sustainable post-Apollo exploration program; what was missing was a commitment to such a program by the country’s leaders.

What does this greatly abbreviated slice of history reveal that is relevant to the current uncertainty about the future of the U.S. human exploration program? The leading lesson is that neither a focus on reaching particular destinations, particularly on a preset schedule, nor an approach driven by the step-by-step development of enabling capabilities is in itself a sufficient basis for a sustainable exploration effort. They are, in fact, secondary to a national decision, expressed through the country’s leaders and implemented on a continuing basis, that it is in the U.S. interest to decide on a program of human space exploration that is, as the 2009 Augustine committee suggested, “worthy of a great nation,” and then, perhaps even more important, to make available the resources needed to implement such an effort.

No one aware of today’s government deficits and the overall economic situation can suggest that the United States in 2011 commit the type of financial support to future space efforts that John Kennedy made available to carry out Apollo. After he announced the decision to go to the Moon, the NASA budget was quickly increased by 89 percent, and by another 101 percent the next year. (By the way, it was that 1961-1963 commitment of resources, rather than a “Sputnik moment” four years earlier, that led to what President Barack Obama in his recent State of the Union address characterized as the “wave of innovation” flowing from the U.S. space effort of the 1960s.)

From 1969 to 1972, the Nixon administration was more interested in reducing the NASA budget than supporting a leadership-oriented post-Apollo space effort, even though Nixon was warned by his confidant Caspar Weinberger that ending Apollo missions and failing to continue a high-profile human spaceflight program would be “confirming in some respects” that the United States was “voluntarily starting to give up our super-power status, and our desire to maintain world superiority.” Nixon rejected this advice and approved, primarily on domestic political grounds, a space program built around developing the space shuttle, without also committing to provide the resources necessary for program success.

This was the first step in a 40-plus-year pattern of asking NASA “to do too much with too little.” It is getting out of that pattern that is the key to a high-quality U.S. space program, not choosing any particular destination or developing a suite of exploration capabilities.

Perhaps in the current fiscal situation the United States cannot afford adequate funding for a discretionary activity like human space exploration, and continuing the pattern of the past 40 years is the best that space advocates can hope for. If so, there is little to be learned from this history. Certainly both the president’s proposal to freeze domestic discretionary spending for five years and Republican threats to drastically reduce the federal budget do not bode well for the future in space. The muddled debate over NASA’s future direction during the past year and the failure of Congress to provide the agency with an approved 2011 budget call into question the reality of a national commitment to leadership in human spaceflight, despite all the rhetoric to the contrary. The White House and the Congress can “talk the talk” about such leadership; what happens over the next weeks and months with respect to the NASA 2011 and 2012 budgets will show whether they are willing to “walk the walk.”

John F. Kennedy made and sustained his commitment to developing the capabilities needed to reach the Moon before the Soviet Union because doing so was clearly linked to enhancing U.S. power in the Cold War setting of the 1960s. Today, there most certainly is no pressing national security question for which the answer is “go to an asteroid,” or indeed anywhere else beyond Earth orbit. Twenty-first century space exploration is a discretionary activity, not a national imperative. This country’s leaders need to decide, under very difficult circumstances, whether their image of the U.S. future includes continued leadership in space exploration, and then make the even harder choice to provide on a continuing basis resources adequate to achieving that leading position. Until there is a much clearer sense of whether this country, through its leaders, actually wants a robust space exploration program, the debate regarding destinations versus capabilities will remain rather empty.

What faces the country today is a more challenging decision than that which faced John Kennedy a half-century ago, but continuing forward with the same approach to space that has been pursued over the past four decades, driven primarily by narrow political interests, would surely not result in a space effort “worthy of a great nation.” Can’t we do better?


John M. Logsdon is professor emeritus at George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute and author of the just-published “John F. Kennedy and the Race to the Moon.”

John M. Logsdon is the founder and former director of the Space Policy Institute at the George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs, where he remains professor emeritus. His book “After Apollo? Richard Nixon and the American...