For 50 Years Since Apollo 11, Presidents Have Tried to Take That Next Giant Leap

Hoping to reinvigorate the program, President George Bush announced on the 20th anniversary of Apollo 11, in 1989, an initiative to return to the moon and then to go to Mars. “Why the moon? Why Mars?” Bush asked. “Because it is humanity’s destiny to strive, to seek, to find. And because it is America’s destiny to lead.”

Mr. Logsdon, the historian, who has written several books on presidents and the space program — most recently one on Reagan, published this year — said Bush came the closest any president has come to matching Kennedy’s vision and budget commitment, but the price tag caused sticker shock in Congress, and the idea went nowhere.

When Bill Clinton took office, he revamped the program. “We had concluded that there was little point in putting astronauts on the moon again” unless it was done with a crewed base, recalled John Holdren, his science adviser. But as before, the estimated cost was enormous. “We saw no prospect of such a sum materializing.”

Instead, Mr. Clinton cut NASA’s budget and reimagined the program as a vehicle for international cooperation, converting Reagan’s envisioned space station into a joint venture with Russia as it emerged from the collapse of the Soviet Union. By the time Mr. Clinton left office, Americans and Russians were living together on the International Space Station, and have since.

George W. Bush found himself repeating history. Like Reagan, it fell to him to pick NASA back up after a shuttle disaster when the Columbia broke apart on re-entry in 2003, killing all seven on board. A year later, Mr. Bush set in motion plans to retire the aging shuttles in favor of a new set of powerful rockets and a crew capsule.

And like his father, Mr. Bush aimed to return to the moon by 2020, followed by a mission to Mars. But even though Congress signed on and financed the start of the program, impatient politicians gave up when progress was slower and costlier than predicted.