Aiming for Mars, grounded on Earth: part two
The Space Council and NASA go to war
Some members of the National Space Council were shocked by NASA’s response to Bush’s challenge. The council convened a special blue-ribbon panel to review this and several other proposed plans. The committee consisted both of space experts like Carl Sagan, Buzz Aldrin and policy analyst John Logsdon, as well as others brought on to add intellectual diversity to the panel, such as Edward Teller and Tom Clancy. Clancy later boasted to the Washington Post about his influence over Quayle and his dislike of NASA, and claimed that he had talked Quayle out of allowing NASA to conduct the mission.
One of the alternative plans that the panel heard about came from Lowell Wood, a scientist at Lawrence Livermore and protégé of Edward Teller who was known as the creator of Brilliant Pebbles, a plan for a fleet of space-based missile interceptors that had produced much artwork but little hardware. Wood had previously pitched a radical space exploration plan at an academic conference a year before. Wood’s proposal involved inflatable spacecraft and the use of other unconventional techniques. It would have bypassed NASA completely and relied on ignoring traditional government procurement procedures. Wood’s estimate was that a program using his approach and including both Moon and Mars missions could be done for around $10 billion in 10 years, albeit with substantially increased risk. One calculation was that there was a 10% chance of a fatality during the flights, which Wood considered acceptable, although observers noted that he would not be flying on the mission. One critic in NASA labeled Wood’s inflatable spacecraft plan “Brilliant Condoms.”
Faced with NASA’s $541 billion proposal on the one hand and Wood’s significantly cheaper proposal on the other, the panel determined that more study was needed. Many members were also critical of NASA for what they viewed as the totally unrealistic approach in the 90-Day Study. The panel recommended that the National Academy of Sciences study the issue further.
Wood had no established track record at producing affordable space hardware, and his approach was radical and totally unprecedented. There is no reason to believe that it would have cost as little as he claimed or even been workable. But his proposal did demonstrate that there were ideas other than the ones NASA was considering, and that costs might not have to be as high as the agency claimed. A former council staff member later admitted that they used Wood’s proposal to “scare the pants off of NASA,” not because it was necessarily realistic.
In fact, Wood had a small group of ideological followers who circulated between the National Space Council and the Strategic Defense Initiative Organization (SDIO). They felt that space exploration did not have to be nearly as expensive as NASA claimed. They soon began looking for innovative ways of making this point.
By early 1990 Bush submitted a new NASA budget to Congress which called for a 24% increase in funding, much of it to pay for space station development. NASA was one of the few agencies to actually receive an increase in funds. In the same budget, the Office of Management and Budget projected a $100 billion federal deficit. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, however, projected a $138 billion federal budget deficit.
Despite the strong criticism Bush faced from both the Congress and the press after he proposed his plan, and despite the fact that NASA continued to demonstrate an unwillingness both to establish clear priorities and search for innovative ways of achieving Bush’s goals, the president did not back away from SEI immediately. Bush made a speech in May 1990 at Texas A&M University in support of his new initiative, establishing 2019 as the goal for a human landing on Mars. When faced with a funding setback in the House in early June 1990, Bush indicated that he intended to fight for SEI. He declared that SEI was important to him, which in many ways made it a bigger target for his opponents.
By late June 1990 Congress zeroed out NASA’s SEI budget.
Outreach and the search for lower costs
In May 1990, at the impetus of the National Space Council, NASA created Project Outreach to appeal for suggestions from outside the agency about how best to conduct SEI. The RAND Corporation was hired to gather the materials from the public. The panel appointed to collate the proposals was known as the Synthesis Group and was chaired by former astronaut and retired Air Force Lieutenant General Thomas Stafford. Project Outreach was a clear indication of the council’s total lack of confidence in NASA’s approach to SEI. NASA Administrator Truly was opposed to Project Outreach and feared that it undercut his authority.
Other factors also intervened to damage SEI. One of the major problems reportedly was that Truly actively campaigned in private against a program that his boss, the President of the United States, had endorsed in public. Truly was motivated by concern that SEI posed a threat to both the space shuttle and the space station. Rumors soon surfaced that Truly regularly told members of Congress behind closed doors that he did not support the new space goals.
In addition, other factors damaged NASA’s image. In the summer of 1990 the agency suffered a series of setbacks, including hydrogen leaks on the space shuttle and the Hubble Space Telescope’s flawed mirror. The press began to ask how NASA could explore the Moon and Mars if the agency could not properly check a telescope mirror or get its shuttles off the ground. These problems prompted Mark Albrecht, the council’s executive secretary, to urge Quayle to call for an outside review of the space program. The review, the Advisory Committee on the Future of the U.S. Space Program, was headed by the Chairman of Martin Marietta, Norman Augustine. The Augustine Committee issued its report in December 1990, concluding that the civilian space program was not in such bad shape as its critics charged, but did urge that the space program be refocused to make science the center of NASA’s mission.
The Augustine Committee relabeled SEI “Mission From Planet Earth,” and did not strongly endorse it. In fact, as Quayle later revealed in his memoirs, the Augustine Committee initially placed human exploration last on the list of missions that NASA should conduct, which would have been a stunning slap at Bush and the National Space Council. Quayle, Albrecht and others objected and so the listing was eliminated from the final report. What the Augustine committee did do was to propose that NASA adopt a “go as you pay” approach to human exploration of the solar system rather than an open-ended 30- or 34-year plan, and only propose projects that could reasonably expect to be funded. The committee also recommended that NASA consolidate its exploration efforts into a single program-level Office of Exploration (replacing the previous Office of Exploration that served merely as an advisory office under the Administrator). This new office would be headed by an Associate Administrator for Exploration.
In early 1991 Truly named Michael Griffin as the new Associate Administrator for Exploration. Griffin came to NASA after a successful stint in SDIO, which for a period during the late 1980s and early 1990s had essentially been running its own small space program. But although Griffin brought a new approach to SEI, a “smaller, faster, cheaper” approach, he had a hard time selling that approach to Congress for numerous reasons, including the fact that by 1991 Congress no longer trusted NASA or the White House with anything having to do with further human space exploration beyond the projects already funded. Griffin also failed to communicate well with the head of NASA’s Office of Space Science and Applications, Leonard Fisk, and they both ended up proposing redundant programs on Capitol Hill.
In the summer of 1991—two years after Bush had initiated the Space Exploration Initiative—Stafford’s Synthesis Group issued its report which in some ways was a further disappointment to SEI proponents. America at the Threshold was another glossy study illustrated by Robert McCall. It was focused more upon architecture and infrastructure—the ways of conducting exploration missions—rather than the why, or the ways of significantly reducing the costs.
Because they considered Earth-orbit construction too risky, the Synthesis Group stated that both Mars and lunar missions required a heavy lift launch vehicle on the order of the Saturn V—an expensive undertaking. Furthermore, the report strongly favored the use of nuclear propulsion to send humans to Mars. In essence, what the Synthesis Group said was that although the original, highly unrealistic SEI plan did not need to be followed, and less ambitious goals could be substituted at first, there still were no inexpensive routes either back to the Moon or Mars. NASA did not have the right approach to SEI, but there were no truly groundbreaking technologies even outside of NASA that would make human exploration of the Moon and Mars possible at low cost.
The release of the Synthesis Group’s report in summer 1991 led Space Council Chairman Dan Quayle to state that the end of the shuttle program was in sight. This resulted in a minor public spat with Truly, who was still advocating purchasing a fifth space shuttle in addition to the one already on order to replace the Challenger. Truly refuted the Vice President and claimed that NASA had no plans to end the shuttle program.
The public dispute between Truly and Quayle was only the tip of the iceberg, because by this time Space Council staffers had determined that Truly was a major obstacle to transforming the agency into a bureaucracy capable of achieving future space exploration. They were now actively attempting, apparently without Quayle’s knowledge, to get President Bush to fire him. Several of these efforts failed, primarily because Truly was skilled at playing the Washington political game.
Furthermore, the reputation of the space agency worsened at this time. There were problems with both the Galileo space probe and a NASA-managed project to build the United States’ next generation of weather satellites, not to mention continued management and design problems with the space station. In the spring of 1992 Bush finally did fire Truly in a messy and embarrassing way. The person the National Space Council got to replace him was Dan Goldin, who also brought the new “smaller faster better” management approach to the agency. By this time, though, the point was moot. SEI was totally discredited. Even small lunar probes conducting legitimate science about the Moon were canceled by Congress.
Some at the Space Council had also begun their own efforts to shake up the NASA establishment, often through backdoor channels. In early 1992 several former Space Council staffers initiated the Clementine spacecraft under the sponsorship of SDIO. Although officially intended to demonstrate technologies necessary for space-based missile defense, the spacecraft’s proponents had ulterior motives, intending to use the inexpensive probe to embarrass NASA officials by gathering science data from lunar orbit at a fraction of the cost of a typical NASA mission. In 1994 Clementine did exactly this. That existence proof and the new philosophy of “faster better cheaper” initiated by Dan Goldin, led to a substantial reform of NASA’s robotic spaceflight effort. But by this time the Republicans had lost the White House and future human space exploration plans were dead.