An Overall Perspective On The Reagan Space Legacy

A couple weeks ago I published a eulogy to Ronald Reagan at National Review on line, with respect to his legacy for space. It wasn’t the original piece I submitted–the original submission was longer and more comprehensive in terms of his overall space policy.

The piece that they published was better, partly because it was tighter and more succinct, and partly because, in the interests of the old saying of de mortuis nil nisi bonum, it was uncritical of his failures in space policy.

Now that he’s been interred, and it’s time to reflect on his presidency in its entirety, I’m republishing the original piece here. It will follow when you click on the “read the rest” link (unless you’re coming directly to the permalinked post, in which case it follows after the next couple paragraphs).

I’m prompted to do this for two reasons. First, because it has some perspective on the Reagan space policy that is relevant today, but also because Dwayne Day had a piece at The Space Review today that I think is too kind to Bill Clinton in that regard (and by the way, there are a lot of interesting pieces at that site today, so don’t restrict yourself to that one).

Thus, I’m providing what I hope is a relatively objective perspective of Reagan’s space policy, which was by no means completely laudatory, in anticipation of a similar one on Mr. Clinton’s, which was yet another decade-long setback, and one that the current administration is not addressing in many important ways.

One of the most memorable of Ronald Reagan’s many notable speeches was the comfort he offered the nation on the evening of January 28, 1986. That was the day that the Space Shuttle Challenger was lost with its crew of seven, in front of a national audience including millions of schoolchildren watching the first teacher in space on her way to orbit. When most people are asked to associate his presidency with space, that’s probably the most immediate, visceral connection that jumps to mind.

But what was his legacy for current space activities? Are we more, or less advanced into the high frontier today than otherwise because he was president then?

Back in the early eighties, there were two recognized aspects to federal space policy: military, and civil. In at least the first one, the military one, the Strategic Defense Initiative (almost immediately dubbed “Star Wars” by its detractors), announced on March 23rd, 1983, was, in the most essential sense, a resounding success. This was despite the fact that it never became operational (though it may finally be on the verge of doing so in the next few years). To paraphrase Lady Thatcher, he won the Cold War without shooting down a single missile, or even launching a system capable of doing so. By many accounts (including Soviet accounts), it was a key element in persuading the Soviets that they couldn’t keep up with us in technology or military spending, ultimately contributing to their collapse.

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