Another look: Falling Back to Earth
by Lou Friedman
|All of this history is important because it helps understand the NASA culture, the political dynamics in which NASA operates, and what happens when change is proposed in the space agency.|
Albrecht’s book primarily focuses on the formation and events of the National Space Council during its short life in the Bush/Quayle Administration. He grappled with NASA, which, despite a large and growing budget, was drifting without a sense of purpose or mission. Much of his tenure would focus on international affairs as the Soviet Union began a transition from Cold War enemy to space partner. His leadership, influence and political acumen were great assets to the space program.
Albrecht describes having to overcome NASA’s opposition to a space exploration initiative announced by the then first President Bush, “back to the Moon… this time to stay…and then… a manned mission to Mars.” Opposition?! Indeed, opposition was the initial reaction, but the later reaction was worse: the initiative was undermined.
All of this history is important because it helps understand the NASA culture, the political dynamics in which NASA operates, and what happens when change is proposed in the space agency. This is important and Albrecht has done a good job in presenting it. I was overwhelmed with a sense of déjà vu while reading the book—all the policy questions are still with us and we are replaying all the issues about what to do for the future of human spaceflight. Yet, as important as reading what Albrecht discusses, we are let down by the author—not by what he says, but by what he doesn’t say. He does not give us enough on the lessons learned, and except for some brief generalities at the end of the book he does not deal much with the end of the shuttle era nor does he draw conclusions that might help steer us out of the present human space flight program morass. In fairness to him, however, that is perhaps another book—one for which I would be anxious to read.
Reagan and Bush searched for grand space initiatives and lofty visions, but they failed to connect them either to realpolitik or geopolitics. Hence their proposals sat on the ground. Clinton had no interest in space or space initiatives and in fact his administration ruled out thinking about Mars or back to the Moon. Yet it was his administration that got the space station built and focused robotic space exploration on Mars. In the former case, it was because of the connection to post-Soviet geopolitics and, in the latter case, it was because of Goldin (helped by a tantalizing, albeit unlikely, hint of Mars life in a meteorite).
|Space is a weak political issue and a strong national and international symbol. That dichotomy has created uncertainty for every president since the beginning of the Space Age.|
Albrecht played a dominant role in the launching of the Goldin revolution that would dominate NASA throughout the ’90s, but he didn’t participate in it. He left government service in mid-1992 motivated by another big change he helped initiate: Russian-American cooperation. He went to work in industry launching a Russian-American joint launch vehicle venture. The last third of the book is devoted to this and initially I found it a diversion from the political insider stuff which is the main subject of the book. But here again that feeling was overtaken by déjà vu, as I try to relate it to the current commercial space launch vehicle situation and to the issues of American reliance on Russian access to space. Thus, Albrecht’s tenure at International Launch Systems (ILS) is not a diversion, yet once again it is not what Albrecht says about it that is most noticeable but rather what he doesn’t say. Where are the important lessons and conclusions about the current human access to space, launch vehicle issues?
Space is a weak political issue and a strong national and international symbol. That dichotomy has created uncertainty for every president since the beginning of the Space Age. That clearly remains true for the Obama Administration, who followed the first Presidential road trip to support a new program for humans into the solar system with complete acquiescence to its replacement with a Congressional jobs program. Albrecht’s book gives us some valuable history applicable to today’s problems of space policy, but we need to move out of the déjà vu feeling and find the inspiration.