Jimmy Carter: Earth Orbit
In 1979, when the Space Shuttle program ran into technical challenges, President Carter considered shutting it down, though he ultimately decided not to. Human spaceflight fell by the wayside during Carter’s administration. Privately, though, Jimmy was a dreamer: according to multiple accounts he expressed abstractly a belief that human civilization would one day extend beyond Earth.
Ronald Reagan: Earth Orbit
President Reagan energetically supported human spaceflight and enjoyed the grandiosity of space shuttle launches. He wanted commercial interests involved in spacefaring, with satellite placements and other innovations. But even reaching Earth orbit started to seem fraught after the Challenger disaster in 1986, which left the administration shaken and hesitant to push other planned launches forward.
George Bush: The Moon and Mars
Bush took office ready to champion NASA into a new era of human spaceflight. On the 20th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing, he announced an ambitious Space Exploration Initiative with two clear goals: put a man back on the moon, and put a man on Mars. Bush talked a big game, but his far-reaching plans were dead on arrival: NASA’s resources were already stretched thin by the Space Shuttle program and the creation of a space station.
Bill Clinton: Earth Orbit, Again
Clinton had none of his predecessor’s starry-eyed ambitions for space exploration. Though he kept the space station program alive against the advice of his budget director, Clinton said that a crewed mission to Mars was too expensive to even consider. He was keen to search evidence of life there—but only if robots were doing the work.
George W. Bush: The Moon and Mars
Once again, a new president meant a pivot for the executive branch’s aspirations beyond Earth. In 2004, Bush laid out his Vision for Space Exploration, which, much like his father’s preferred plan, imagined a moon landing—this time for 2020—as a stepping-stone for a future Mars mission. Work was to begin after the completion of the Space Station and the subsequent retirement of the Space Shuttle fleet in 2010—after Bush’s term.
Barack Obama: Mars
Less than a year after being sworn in, President Obama canceled the plans Bush had set in motion for a crewed moon mission. Instead, the president began to push the idea of skipping the moon altogether and instead allocating funds to begin construction on landers for a 2030s trip to Mars.
Donald Trump: The Moon—Or, Maybe, Mars?
When he first came into office, Donald Trump knew he wanted to send astronauts to some other spot in the solar system—he didn’t seem too hung up on the exact destination. But, perhaps because he wants to witness a NASA milestone before leaving office, soon he was talking about reaching the moon before 2024. Putting together a crewed lunar mission in the next few years was always going to be hard; perhaps the President now understands that NASA might as well be dreaming bigger and on longer timelines.
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