March 8, 2007

Bushes in Space: the Rhetoric of Two Presidents

Bushes in Space: the Rhetoric of Two Presidents

While researching past presidential speeches about space exploration, in connection with our show about what to do in space, I came across references to a book on the subject — Presidential Perspectives on Space Exploration: Guiding Metaphors from Eisenhower to Bush, by Dr. Linda Krug. I contacted Dr. Krug and asked if she had any thoughts about President Bush’s 2004 speech and how it fits into the spectrum of presidential space rhetoric.

She was kind enought to reply with an analysis of some of Bush’s rhetorical strategies. In her email, she points out the similarities between President Bush’s language about space and the language used by his father more than fifteen years ago; she also argues that President George W. Bush may have succeeded where President George H.W. Bush failed.

For the full text of Dr. Krug’s email you can download a pdf here.

Bush 43 engages a strategy that few president have been able to accomplish: marrying the “awe” of space exploration with the “so what” of space use. In other words, Bush 43’s speech contains a vision of what our space program should be and why. It is a speech that puts human space exploration back within our sights (and grasp) because it grounds space exploration in practical, definable, results. Notice that every time Bush 43 makes a reference to the raison d’etre of space exploration, he follows it with a comment about what space exploration produces. Consider these examples:

  • NASA folks are “risk-takers and visionaries” who “have expanded human knowledge, have revolutionized our understanding of the universe” and who, at the same time “have “produced technological advances that have benefited all of humanity.”
  • “Desire to explore and understand is part of our character.” “And that quest has brought tangible benefits that improve our lives in countless ways.” (gives examples of successes)
  • “Establishing an extended human presence on the moon could vastly reduce the cost of further space exploration, …”
  • “And the fascination generated by further exploration will inspire our young people to study math, and science, and engineering, and create a new generation of innovators and pioneers”
Linda Krug, in an email to Open Source, February 26, 2007.

Much has been said about the father-son relationship between Bush 41 and Bush 43; some critics have argued, for instance, that Bush 43 went back to Iraq to finish what Bush 41 had begun. It strikes me that this is also the case when looking at Bush 43’s space speech of January 14, 2004. In Bush 41’s July 20, 1989 speech, 41 calls for “Space Station Freedom, our critical next step in all our space endeavors … then “back to the moon …. And then a journey into tomorrow, a journey to another planet, a manned mission to Mars. Each mission should and will lay the groundwork for the next.” Although much more complete and specific than his father’s, Bush 43’s speech follows the same game plan: completion of the space station, then … “We will build new ships to carry man forward into the universe, to gain a new foothold on the moon and to prepare for new journeys to the worlds beyond our own.”

Linda Krug, in an email to Open Source, February 26, 2007.

While it does provide a tidy vision of what “could be” if we dream and work hard, this speech, like his father’s, is limited by its unmistakable “back to the future” aura. Unfortunately for Bush 43, the “future” of the space program is grounded in returning to a place we have already been, the moon. For all of its movement forward, Bush 43’s speech takes us back. What it gives us in vision (a bold “new” vision), in other words, it takes back in practicality (“back to the moon”). Bush does attempt to cast the return to the moon as a necessary but momentary endeavor “to establish a foothold” for further journeys. But the reality of his speech is that after completing the Space Station, after building a new space vehicle, then and only then will we return to the moon. For space enthusiasts who want the US space program to do much more, returning to the moon is a disappointment.

Linda Krug, in an email to Open Source, February 26, 2007.

There is also more to be said about Bush’s insistence that “this is a journey not a race.” I suspect this may have something to do with trying to downplay the significance of the Chinese space program. It may also have something to do with the new line of thinking about “space tourism”, what I have heard called “the new space race.” There is clearly much more to be culled from Bush 43’s speech.

Linda Krug, in an email to Open Source, February 26, 2007.

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  • Lumière

    should it be ‘Bushs’?

    😉

  • But the reality of his speech is that after completing the Space Station, after building a new space vehicle, then and only then will we return to the moon. For space enthusiasts who want the US space program to do much more, returning to the moon is a disappointment.

    Speaking only for myself, no, returning to the moon is not a disappointment.

    It is, rather, correcting a mistake made. We went, we allowed ourselves to get distracted and .. thirty years went by. It’s like waking up from a lazy Sunday afternoon nap and realizing that it’s not sunset but sunrise – where did the day go?

  • tbrucia

    Living near NASA and regularly meeting people who work or have worked there (or for NASA contractors), the nitty-gritty seems so much less romantic, mythical, and wonderous than the Space Program seen from afar. (I imagine Congressional staffers in DC have the same feeling about ‘Our Nation’ and the ‘statesmen’ they work among…). Nonetheless, it’s surprising how sincerely many engineers dream of those far off lands without food or water or air or forests or animals or people. Perhaps myths need to be fed and watered with a lot of day-dreaming, peppered by reading science fiction novels, and imagining engineering marvels that make folks say, ‘Wow!’

  • I’ve been involved – and granted our humble effort isn’t NASA but it keeps us busy – with the space launch biz for going on four years.

    The day-to-day does keep us busy and it is, really, a lot like working for any other company. Ups, downs, triumphs, the failures, bad coffee in the pot, fax machine on the fritz …

    But you step back for a moment of self-reflection and … it’s an amazing world we live in that has dogs, children and space flight. You gotta love what you do or there is just no point to it.

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