In 1983, Walter Cronkite greeted the returning crew of Ares I, the manned mission to Mars launched Nov. 12, 1981.
The Ares mission had followed the profile of Wernher von Braun's 1969 mission proposal to President Richard Nixon. Nixon, seeking to cut federal spending, which had sharply escalated due to the Vietnam War, had been wavering between Ares and the proposed Space Shuttle, which was being promoted as a way to make space flight much cheaper by dispensing with expendable boosters and capsules in favor of what was intended as a fully reusable spacecraft.
Moondoggle by Eric LippsThe President was won over by von Braun in a personal meeting at which the canny German expatriate scientist pointed out that under his proposal most components of the spacecraft (pictured) would be reusable and then went on to say, "Mr. President, your predecessor John Kennedy won praise for the moon program because it was seen as moving the nation forward. If you choose to go to Mars, you can win similar praise, except from those on the left who are against you anyway. But if instead, now that we have reached the moon, you choose the Shuttle, you will be seen as taking a step backward, perhaps even as being timid in this matter". Almost anyone else might have been subjected to one of Nixon's rages at that point, but the President had known the scientist since Eisenhower's administration and respected him personally.
"Mr. President, your predecessor John Kennedy won praise for the moon program because it was seen as moving the nation forward. If you choose to go to Mars, you can win similar praise, except from those on the left who are against you anyway. But if instead, now that we have reached the moon, you choose the Shuttle, you will be seen as taking a step backward, perhaps even as being timid in this matter". ~ Werner Von Braun.As von Braun had predicted, the Ares program was popular with many Americans, though liberals tended to oppose it. Among the loudest voices raised in opposition were that of Wisconsin Senator William Proxmire, who had earlier blasted Apollo as a "Moondoggle", and Minnesota's Sen. Walter Mondale. But the popular imagination was caught by the plan, to the point where, even after Nixon's resignation in the wake of Watergate, his successors found it expedient to continue support. Indeed, Mondale's opposition would cost him the vice-presidential slot on the Democratic ticket in 1976; Jimmy Carter, already facing an uphill struggle, decided he did not need the added burden of someone vocally against a highly popular program. Senator Henry "Scoop" Jackson, one of Carter's strongest rivals in that year's Democratic primaries, would get the nod instead.
By the time Ares I left Earth orbit on its way to the Red Planet, Ronald Reagan had been elected president. Reagan, who had promised to simultaneously build up the military, cut taxes and balance the federal budget, was eyeing a number of agencies, including NASA, for major funding cuts. Once again, however, von Braun had come to the rescue, forging a personal bond with Reagan by appealing to the latter's visionary optimism. As a result, Reagan agreed to maintain NASA's funding, allowing the Ares mission to go forward.