The 50-Year Quest: Has the Time Come for an Annual American Space Exploration Day of Commemoration?

                             By Ron Jones, National Space Society                                     Director, Central North American Region

The Apollo lunar landings are generally regarded as among the great technological achievements of the modern era.  Historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. once wrote “The 20th Century will be remembered, when all else is forgotten, as the century when man burst his terrestrial bonds and began the exploration of space.”  The U.S. news media voted the Apollo 11 Moon landing as the second most important event of the 20th Century.  The first event was the bombing of Hiroshima that led to the end of World War II.  Even the Reader’s Digest listed the Moon landing among the top milestones in human history.  So it is completely understandable that space activists and enthusiasts have been commemorating the lunar landing anniversary date and trying to make it a universally recognized national holiday since shortly after it happened.  The only question is, why hasn’t it happened yet?

Law makers and bill crafters have been understandably hesitant to introduce any legislation recognizing another holiday that gives the federal workforce time off, with pay, resulting in a net negative impact to productivity.  Holidays are expensive and we’ve already established ten official holidays in our relatively short history and congressional opposition to additional holidays has been great.  An Act of Congress can, however, establish an annual “non-paid commemorative holiday” that recognizes an event of particular national significance without the downside of a negative productivity impact.  In fact, if Congress approves an associated “Observance” with the Space Commemorative Day, such an Observance period could be used to garner or enhance political favor for the space program by enlightening and inspiring the populace by allowing  key industry stakeholders a period to demonstrate (show off) and display their considerable capabilities and vision for the future.  Parades or perhaps a yearly high tech summertime “futures” exposition in the Washington D.C. Mall could create a new favorite family holiday tradition.  From a historic perspective, no other event in the past 50 years, with the possible exception of 9/11, has had such a profound impact on the American psyche, our national pride, the growth of our technological society, and even the evolution of culture globalization as the first human landing on another celestial body.  Today, most agree that a way should be found to nationally recognize this unparalleled “human” achievement as we prepare to celebrate its golden anniversary with the 20/20 hindsight of a half Century.    

Pre-millennial efforts to commemorate the moon landing anniversary were spearheaded by Utah’s J. David Baxter and Ken Randle.  These efforts started in the early 1970’s and focused on the nation’s Governors to sign Space Day and Space Week proclamations commemorating July 20th, the Apollo 11 landing date, and the week in which that date fell as Space Week.  These efforts resulted in numerous well-crafted proclamations signed by many state governors but were in effect for only the year that they were signed, in the state they were signed, and demanded a labor intensive lobby effort for each new proclamation every year.  A detailed history of those and related activities can be found at:

The problem of having to re-issue a new proclamation each year within each state drove some warranted attention to federally focused solutions during the Nixon, Ford and Carter Administrations.  President Nixon signed the first Presidential Proclamation for “United States Space Week” on the fifth anniversary on the first moon landing in 1974.  The following year, Senator Frank Moss (D-UT) and Representative Olin Teague (D-TX) came up with the idea of calling the nine-day period, 16-24 July, the “United States Space Observance,” which coincides with the liftoff and return dates of the Apollo 11 mission.  The Space Observance period was to stress the benefits of the space program to all humanity, encourage increased public interest in U.S. space efforts, and to celebrate the achievements of the American space program on the anniversary of the first historic lunar landing.  It also “fixed” the dates of the celebratory time period where previously the dates of Space Week were fluid depending on which day of the week July 20th fell.  During the Bicentennial, President Ford issued the first “Space Exploration Day” Proclamation for July 20th the day before on the 19th.  This was done by executive order since a resolution hadn’t yet passed.  Also that year, Senator Moss and Rep. Teague introduced Resolutions in the Senate and House for a permanent U.S. Space Observance but, because of the politics of the day, the Observance was only in effect for the Bicentennial year.  In 1977 however, President Carter signed the first “United States Space Observance” Proclamation based on the Concurrent Resolutions sponsored by Moss and Teague the year prior.  And in 1979, President Carter signed the “United States Space Observance” for the tenth anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission after a concerted effort was made to pass Concurrent Resolutions in the House and Senate. 

While federal legislation was just beginning to gain traction as the 1980’s ushered in, national pride and appreciation for NASA’s greatest accomplishment was taking hold in the individual states thanks to the ongoing efforts of Baxter, Randle and others.  1981 became the first of nine consecutive years that all fifty state Governors plus Puerto Rico issued Proclamations, Declarations or Statements of Support for a U.S. Space Observance and Space Exploration Day.  This was unprecedented for an unofficial commemoration.  Around the same time, Dennis Stone was forming “Spaceweek National Headquarters” in Houston, Texas to begin coordinating national community participation programs.  Dennis, with his team that included David Koch, Troy Welch, and Ernie Hillje, initially focused on organizing celebrations in the U.S. but, by 1999, Spaceweek’s popularity had spread to over 15 nations.  Of note, it was becoming increasingly apparent that the organizer’s desire to use the excitement of space exploration to inspire children was made more challenging because most children were out of school during Spaceweek’s mid-July scheduled activities.  So, much to the chagrin of many in the U.S., including many in the NASA astronaut office, the school problem was solved when the United Nations General Assembly, to the delight of the Chinese delegation, declared “World Space Week” in 1999 which would be held every year from 4-10 October, in recognition of the launch of the world’s first satellite, Sputnik, by the United States’ former Cold War adversary, the Soviet Union.  It was the launch of Sputnik which ignited the Space Race between the two superpowers, began the Space Age, and added considerable heat to the superpower’s Cold War of the time.  The Spaceweek organization quickly offered to serve as “global coordinators” of UN World Space Week events.  The UN accepted and the first such global celebration was held in 2000.   World Space Week is now the largest space event in the world with over 4,000 events in 82 nations in 2017.

Adding insult to injury to those who saw the success of Apollo 11 as the official triumphant conclusion of the Space Race and the defining event in the 20th century, also in 2000, Loretta Hidaldo and George Whitesides created Yuri’s Night, an international celebration to commemorate humankind’s milestones in space exploration. Of course, Yuri’s Night is named for, and celebrated on, the date that the first human entered space, the Soviet Union’s Yuri Gagarin, who flew his Vostok 1 spacecraft for a single earth orbit on April 12, 1961.  To further solidify the day as one to celebrate space activities, the UN General Assembly declared April 12th as the “International Day of Human Space Flight” in 2011.

On the federal scene, from 1984 through 1999, there were three Space Exploration Day Proclamations and a single Apollo Anniversary Observance Proclamation commemorating the Apollo 11 mission’s 15th, 20th, 25th and 30th anniversaries during the Reagan, Bush (41) and Clinton administrations.  By design, these proclamations were only in effect during the year they were signed.  Of particular note was Ronald Reagan’s 1984 Space Exploration Day Proclamation.  Besides all of the hoopla and festivities surrounding the White House event and the Proclamation signing, the style, scope, and tone of the document, in the opinion of the author, made it stand out among the many proclamations that had been written over the years.

The back story on the 2018 Space Exploration Day legislation actually begins in the summer of 1988.  For reasons only tangentially related to this topic, the author’s long-term working relationship with Dr. Buzz Aldrin, the Apollo 11 mission Lunar Module Pilot, began then and continues to this day.  During the late 1990s, I was a founder and first executive director of Buzz’s ShareSpace Foundation in Washington, D.C.  And over the years, in conversations with Buzz, the topic of why July 20th is not a national holiday came up numerous times.  And, over the years, the answer always seemed to revolve around the fact that summertime was not an ideal time for the holiday because children were out of school and since 1999, kids and schools have had a time to celebrate and learn about “space,” in the classroom, during Spaceweek in October and the United Nations declared April 12th Gagarin annual observance.  As it would any American space hero, this always caused a certain amount of frustration within Buzz, as it did again when it came up in a telephone conversation in mid-April, 2018.  But, unlike with past conversations, a new President (Trump) had just reestablished the National Space Council (and Buzz has been named a member of its advisory group), which is headed by the Vice-President and this administration was again emphasizing the importance of American space leadership.  And with the current discussion addressing activities around the fact that 2019 will be the 50th anniversary of the moon landing, the thought occurred (to the author) that if we can’t make the Space Holiday happen now, in time for the 50th anniversary, it likely will not happen in our lifetime.

Immediately following that telephone conversation with Buzz, I started an Internet “deep dive” into the history of pervious Space Day Proclamation efforts and quickly identified the name J. David Baxter, a former National Space Society (NSS) board member, as a key player in early state-level efforts.  As fate would have it, the NSS Board of Directors (BOD) seat once held by Baxter, I would be assuming in the fall, 2018 and I was looking for a worthy project to work on in the new position.  Armed with some basic history on efforts to date, a call was made to the leadership of the National Space Society and an inquiry was made as to the position of NSS on such a holiday effort and the status of any related activities.   Mark Hopkins, Chairman of the Executive Committee of NSS, went into some detail on previous state efforts by Baxter and others and the obstacles and pitfalls that could be expected in any national effort.  He said there was currently no effort in work but that NSS would be fully supportive of an effort to make July 20th a national “unpaid” holiday.  He also agreed to contact J. David Baxter, now retired in the Utah, and forward his contact information.

With authority to proceed from NSS leadership, research continued on the early efforts and assessment of the individual proclamations.  Fortunately, J. David Baxter had documented most all of the early (pre-2000) efforts on a website (referenced above) that contains an outstanding archive of old Proclamations, Declarations, and Statements of Support for U.S. Space Observances and Space Exploration Days.  After reviewing them all, the 1984 Ronald Reagan Proclamation stood out as the best model for a new effort.  It took a couple of weeks to finally make contact with J. David Baxter.  He was such a wealth of knowledge on the early efforts that I asked him to join the team, now the two of us.  J. David supplied a draft Mission Statement for the new effort which we tweaked to help focus our activity.  He also had a rough cut of a Presidential Executive Order which will likely be required as we close in on the anniversary date.  I asked J. David which of the many proclamations he like best and he agreed that the 1984 Reagan proclamation was the best of the bunch.  That locked-in the decision as to which document to use as a model.  J. David brought in Janet Ivey, of Janet’s Planet fame to help with the effort.  Janet had played a key role in garnering support for earlier Baxter state-focused Space Exploration Day Proclamation efforts.  She is also a wealth of space related information and she created the “new” Space Exploration Day web site.  Our small team was now complete.

I spent most of the last week of April and first three weeks of May producing a draft that everyone could be happy with.  Each word was scrutinized by the team.  Fortunately, we were all in agreement that the need to honor this anniversary date, July 20th, far out-weighed the summertime school issue of the nation’s kids, and it was more important to Americans as a whole, and the aerospace community in particular, to finally get to celebrate this immense human accomplishment for which they were responsible.  And after all, America’s children now have the April and October educational opportunities (and Janet’s Planet) to get exposed to the wonders of space exploration and the potential it offers to the human future.  Getting into the bill, we found that the Reagan era bill model, while desirably structured, was understandably out dated and lacked the passion of true space enthusiasts.  I believe we fixed that in the current Joint Resolution.  And as hard as we tried to hold the number of paragraphs to eleven, (for purely romantic reasons) the final product has twelve, the last being added to honor the aerospace pioneers that made the early space program and Project Apollo happen.

Our goal was to have a draft ready to show Buzz during the 2018 International Space Development Conference (ISDC) in Los Angeles which began on May 24th.  As it turned out, before I had a chance to meet with Buzz at the conference, I had an opportunity to meet with my former Congressman, Dana Rohrabacher.  Congressman Rohrabacher, one of our country’s most “space savvy” congressmen (and a GREAT space supporter), is now a ranking member of the House Science, Space and Technology committee, (and will shortly assume its leadership position assuming he is victorious with his upcoming November re-election bid), and was speaking at the conference.  And as good fortune would have it, he was having a private fundraiser at the hotel during the second evening of the conference, and Buzz was going to be the prime attraction.  This seemed like a great opportunity to get maximum mileage out of a political donation, so I attended… early. 

In the late 1980s, when Congress Rohrabacher was a first term congressman, Buzz and I lived in the Congressman’s home district in Southern California.  During those early days we often visited the Congressman’s office and little later his Washington, D.C. office while lobbying for ShareSpace Foundation concerns, mostly focused on commercial space, reusable space transportation, and emergent space tourism issues.  I believe it’s safe to say that, because of our early association with the congressman and his sincere interest in the subject matter, over the years we probably spent more time in the congressman’s office discussing space issues than with any other member.  So when the opportunity came to get with the congressman and show him the Joint Resolution draft, I knew there was no better potential bill sponsor than Dana Rohrabacher. 

“Dana, I think you’ll love this.  I’ve been working on it all month.  You’re the first (non-team member) to see it and it needs a sponsor.”  Standing together in the back of a largely empty room, the congressman took a few minutes to read the Joint Resolution.  He smiled, tuned, looked at me and grabbed my shoulders and said, “Ron, this is fantastic!  I’m going to take it to the Vice President next week!” 

It took a few weeks but the Vice President was told of our Space Exploration Day plan.  We’ve heard from Congressman Rohrabacher’s office that the White House is aware of and “excited” about the holiday idea.  We were hopeful that an Executive Order (EO) declaring this July 20th (2018) a holiday, giving momentum to the legislative effort over the next year, could have been enacted but we were simply too late in the planning process.  And as it turned out, the President was meeting with our NATO allies in Europe and President Putin in Moscow and the NASA administrator was at the Farnborough Air Show the week of July 20th

So that’s where we are as off early August, 2018.  A lot must happen in the next eleven months.  We are now waiting for notification that the bill has been introduced on the House floor and number assigned.  Then we have an election in November that our 15-term sponsor must win.  Assuming Congressman Rohrabacher comes through unscathed, he will assume the leadership of the most powerful committee in Congress with NASA oversight.  It is possible that further progress on the Joint Resolution will wait until then.  But, once it begins to move forward, we are anticipating an EO to be signed prior to next July 20th.  The EO would declare the upcoming holiday prior to the Bills actual signing in an Oval Office ceremony on July 20th, Apollo 11’s 50th anniversary, and all that assumes the Bill gets through both houses in time.  Depending on how the political environment evolves, the most likely dates for a Presidential EO signing ceremony revolve around the upcoming 50th anniversary launch dates of either Apollo 8 on December 21, 2018, Apollo 9 on March 3, 2019, or Apollo 10 on May 18, 2019.  We should also see the first commercial crewed mission to ISS in the June through August time frame.

It is important however, to keep the overall effort in perspective.  The politics of the day may obscure a clear path to success.  The fact that July 20th isn’t a federally recognized holiday now, doesn’t mean it will never happen.  But it also doesn’t mean it will happen in time for the 50th anniversary date.  It is important to remember that Memorial Day was initially created to honor the fallen soldiers of the Civil War and it was not declared a federal holiday until 1967.  And Thanksgiving, whose roots dated back to the 1600s and the early colonial settlers who landed at Plymouth Rock, wasn’t declared a federal holiday until President Abraham Lincoln recognized a need to invoke prayer, thanks, and humility while a civil war raged across the land.  Will the current president recognize an analogous need to address a contemporary societal shortfall?  Perhaps a forward-looking aerospace industry parade to celebrate America’s greatness, extraordinary technical prowess and unrelenting spirit of adventure to bolster national morale?  Only time and the sweep of history will tell but, the current holiday anniversary Bill is now in the hands of the tidal-scale political forces that shape daily events.  Anything can happen.  Stay tuned, it could be a milestone year for America’s space enthusiasts!

Ad astra!

August 2018

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