For decades, outer space has been described by U.S. leaders as the final frontier, and so it has been infused with the characteristics that are often said to have defined other frontiers in American history: wilderness, lawlessness, unknowable perils but ample opportunity, and the stubborn, pioneering will to conquer it all. “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,” John F. Kennedy said in 1962, as he declared that the United States would send a man to the moon by the end of the decade.
Then there was Lyndon B. Johnson, in 1967, two years before the country followed through on that plan:
We are all the descendants of those voyagers who found and settled the New World … Today we stand here at the gateway to another and a more glorious New World … We must be the space pioneers who lead the way to the stars.
And George H. W. Bush, in 1989:
Why the moon? Why Mars? Because it is humanity’s destiny to strive, to seek, to find. And because it is America’s destiny to lead. From the voyages of Columbus to the Oregon Trail to the journey to the moon itself, history proves that we have never lost by pressing the limits of our frontiers.
And George W. Bush, in 2004:
Two centuries ago, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark left St. Louis to explore the new lands acquired in the Louisiana Purchase. They made that journey in the spirit of discovery, to learn the potential of vast new territory, and to chart a way for others to follow. America has ventured forth into space for the same reasons.
This kind of language, the invocation of past conquests to promote future ones, persists to this day, and the current White House has described the aspirations of the American space program in similar terms. But it has added an extra layer to the rhetoric, courtesy of the vice president. Since the Trump administration was sworn in, Mike Pence has been the unofficial spokesperson for the U.S. space program, touring NASA centers and delivering remarks about the country’s ambitions on behalf of the president. Even now that NASA finally has an administrator—it took nearly 15 months after the inauguration to get a Donald Trump nominee into the job—Pence remains the headliner at space-related events.