After succeeding spectacularly by landing astronauts on the lunar surface and welcoming them home, what do you do for an encore? This question has vexed Washington ever since 1969. Subsequent national choices in the form of the space shuttle and the international space station absorbed large sums and turned out to be confining – not exactly what Americans expect or deserve from their space ventures. Next comes the long wait, until China produces similar headlines to the ones on yellowing newspapers that I treasure in my attic.

Momentum is to geopolitics as possession is to the law. A rare commodity for the United States at present, in space as on terra firma. It’s hard to pursue bold new visions when cleaning up big messes from the previous ones.

I’m eagerly anticipating John Logsdon’s book on JFK’s space policies. Here, for old times’ sake, are a few key passages from President Kennedy’s famous man on the moon speech before Congress, May 25, 1961:

I believe 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. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish… In a very real sense, it will not be one man going to the Moon—if we make this judgment affirmatively, it will be an entire nation. For all of us must work to put him there….

Let it be clear—and this is a judgment which the Members of the Congress must finally make—let it be clear that I am asking the Congress and the country to accept a firm commitment to a new course of action—a course which will last for many years and carry very heavy costs… If we are to go only half way, of reduce our sights in the face of difficulty, in my judgment it would be better not to go at all.

One speech does not a space policy make. Kennedy’s encore (view it here), at Rice University on September 12, 1962, was perfectly pitched):

Those who came before us made certain that this country rode the first waves of the industrial revolution, the first waves of modern invention, and the first wave of nuclear power, and this generation does not intend to founder in the backwash of the coming age of space. We mean to be a part of it—we mean to lead it. For the eyes of the world now look into space, to the moon and to the planets beyond, and we have vowed that we shall not see it governed by a hostile flag of conquest, but by a banner of freedom and peace. We have vowed that we shall not see space filled with weapons of mass destruction, but with instruments of knowledge and understanding.

Yet the vows of this Nation can only be fulfilled if we in this Nation are first, and, therefore, we intend to be first. In short, our leadership in science and industry, our hopes for peace and security, our obligations to ourselves as well as others, all require us to make this effort, to solve these mysteries, to solve them for the good of all men, and to become the world’s leading space-faring nation.

We set sail on this new sea because there is new knowledge to be gained, and new rights to be won, and they must be won and used for the progress of all people… But why, some say, the moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? …

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, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win… “

Fast forward to NASA Administrator Charles F. Bolden, Jr., as reported by Space News, January 11, 2010:

We cannot do big things very much any more.