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President George H.W. Bush at NASM
President George H.W. Bush proposed a grand space vision, the Space Exploration Initiative in 1989, but it went nowhere: what happened? (credit: NASA)

Aiming for Mars, grounded on Earth: part one

The failure of efforts to return to the Moon and send humans to Mars

On July 20, 1989, while marking the 20th anniversary of the Apollo 11 lunar landing, President George H.W. Bush stood in front of a giant American flag at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC and proposed a bold new program of human exploration of space. America should return to the moon to stay and send humans to Mars, Bush said, citing destiny and America’s need to lead the free world.

But just four years later, with a new President in the White House, NASA closed the Office of Exploration charged with carrying out Bush’s ambitious plans. This decision had little to do with the new administration or the fiscal-mindedness that briefly swept Congress, for Bush’s Space Exploration Initiative (SEI), as it was known, had been stillborn. In four years there had never been enough support to start even a series of modest precursor missions to map the surface and resources of the moon. Indeed, in fiscal year 1993, the Office of Exploration’s request for a mere $5 million was struck down by Congress and, as lunar scientist Dr. Wendell Mendell later noted, Congressional staffers had combed through NASA’s budget and deleted programs that even sounded as if they were part of SEI.

Two decades of study

The origins of SEI are open to interpretation, but high level proposals for further lunar exploration and a mission to Mars dated back two decades before Bush’s speech. In 1969 the Space Task Group, a special panel created by President Nixon consisting of Vice President Spiro Agnew, NASA Administrator Thomas Paine, and Secretary of the Air Force Robert Seamans, proposed that after Apollo the nation should pursue a broad-based space exploration program that included a space station, a lunar base, Mars exploration, and a space shuttle. In many ways this was a carbon copy of a vision first established by Wernher von Braun in a series of articles in Colliers’ magazine and a later series of Disney films in the mid-1950s. The von Braun vision was of a broad-based space program involving both lunar and Mars exploration and a space station serving as a jumping-off point. All of this would be serviced by a space shuttle.

By 1993 Congressional staffers had combed through NASA’s budget and deleted programs that even sounded as if they were part of SEI.

The Space Task Group’s final report had been watered down somewhat so that the proposal was not presented as a recommendation for the president, but merely an option. In fact, Paine had deliberately ignored the earlier report of Nixon’s transition team on space, which had recommended that NASA continue lunar exploration and specifically warned against setting a Mars goal. Instead of a cautious continuation of existing projects, Paine had lobbied Vice President Agnew to endorse the broad vision of an expanded human space effort in the view that Agnew could then convince Nixon. But how the STG’s report was presented ultimately did not matter: President Nixon was no space enthusiast and Agnew had no clout in the White House. While Nixon was enthusiastic about astronauts and their exploits, neither he nor his closest aides saw space as offering any real political value to his administration. Nixon only endorsed the station and shuttle goals—ignoring the moon and Mars—and later deferred the station indefinitely. Indeed, by 1970 the administration was looking at the possibility of canceling Apollos 15, 16 and 17. Nixon only reluctantly approved the space shuttle out of a belief that it served national security interests and would win him votes in California, where most of the money for the project would go. He also had a desire not to be the president who ended the American man-in-space program. Talk of returning humans to the moon and sending them to Mars disappeared for almost a decade as NASA concentrated on getting the shuttle flying.

In 1979 Jimmy Carter used the occasion of the tenth anniversary of the lunar landing to push his energy program. Carter, like his predecessors, was not interested in space and saw no value in an expanded space program.

In the early 1980s, a group of graduate students at the University of Colorado in Boulder, calling themselves the “Mars Underground,” held a series of conferences called The Case for Mars. These conferences brought together scientists, engineers and enthusiasts from all over the country to discuss the possibility of sending humans to the Red Planet. They managed to energize the space community and give human exploration of Mars a certain degree of visibility. Others, including Carl Sagan and the Planetary Society, and the late Senator Spark Matsunaga of Hawaii, endorsed the idea of a joint U.S.-Soviet mission to Mars as a means of ending the Cold War. During the same time, a group of scientists at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston started studying potential concepts for lunar bases.

Pioneering the Space Frontier

In 1984 President Ronald Reagan endorsed a new goal for NASA: the development of a space station in cooperation with American allies. Despite this plan, by the mid-80s the lack of clearly defined goals in the American space program was apparent to a number of key policy makers in Washington, and Congress created the National Commission on Space to address the issue. The Commission was originally to be chaired by former NASA Deputy Administrator George Low, well regarded as a level-headed pragmatist. Unfortunately Low died before he could chair the committee. Former NASA Administrator Paine was named in his place. Paine had been administrator during the Moon landing and had been instrumental in determining the shape of the Space Task Group.

If the American grass roots interplanetary movement had a leader it was certainly Thomas Paine. Paine was well-liked by the Mars Underground and other space activists because his passion was Mars and he made no attempts to conceal that fact, either as NASA Administrator or in private life. Paine was smart, personable, and had a sly sense of humor. He was fond of pointing out that the nation spent more on Space Invaders than the space shuttle, that it spent more on pizza than the entire space program. But while true, these figures were largely irrelevant. In themselves they were not justifications for spending more money on space exploration and in fact only served to highlight the fact that the American public felt that video games and junk food were higher priorities than space.

If the American grass roots interplanetary movement had a leader it was certainly Thomas Paine. Paine was well-liked by the Mars Underground and other space activists because his passion was Mars and he made no attempts to conceal that fact.

Paine was not adept at playing Washington politics, however, and, as many Washington policy makers later confided, his selection to chair the committee all but determined the outcome of the National Commission’s report. The report, Pioneering the Space Frontier, was more of a broad-based endorsement of the extensive human exploration of space than an evaluation of the options available to the nation. It depicted lunar bases, Mars missions, a large space station, nuclear spacecraft and aerospace planes. It was lavishly illustrated by space artist Robert McCall and endorsed increased spending on space exploration through effectively doubling NASA’s budget. It was an expansive—and expensive—view of the next fifty years in space, but it was more fiction than a realistic blueprint for current policy making.

Pioneering the Space Frontier was also released soon after the space shuttle Challenger exploded. The accident not only damaged NASA’s credibility, but undercut the vision in the National Commission’s report as well, for it was clear to policy makers that it would be impossible to achieve the Commission’s vision with the NASA that then existed.

In the wake of Challenger, the White House initiated a series of broad policy changes to the space shuttle program. National security and commercial payloads were removed from the space shuttle, and a private expendable launch industry was created to launch future satellites. But although commercial and military space launch were removed from NASA and the shuttle program was overhauled, the agency was not fundamentally reorganized or reoriented. The presidential commission that investigated the Challenger accident did not call for a new goal for the civilian space effort.

The Ride report

Congress recognized the lack of focus in the National Commission on Space report and charged the new NASA administrator, James Fletcher, with responding to it with a more realistic vision. Fletcher understood the political workings of Washington better than Paine and gave the task to former astronaut Sally Ride, who had recently worked on the Challenger accident commission. Ride responded with another report, Leadership and America’s Future in Space, which acknowledged that there was a wide gap between the vision of Pioneering the Space Frontier and the reality of the Challenger explosion. Ride’s report outlined four possible directions for the United States: a human mission to Mars, a lunar base, extensive robotic planetary exploration, and “Mission to Planet Earth,” a study of the Earth’s changing climate.

While Reagan in 1988 called for the “expansion of human presence beyond Earth orbit,” he made no effort to initiate any new Moon or Mars programs in his final year in office.

Although Ride in some ways had merely repeated some of the same themes present in the earlier studies, she was astute enough to note that these could be separate paths and that they could be pursued to different degrees—neither the President nor the Congress had to endorse the entire framework. The one idea that did receive broad support in Washington was the Mission to Planet Earth proposal, which occurred at a time of increasing concern with such environmental issues as global warming and the ozone hole over Antarctica. Many in Congress viewed this as a more relevant proposal capable of having an impact on the way people on Earth lived.

Ride did not write her report alone. It was actually partly the product of the Office of Exploration, created by Administrator Fletcher three months earlier at NASA headquarters. But the office was not very large and consisted of little more than Ride and some support staff. She soon retired to private life and Aaron Cohen took over the operation of the office. Cohen came to headquarters from Johnson Space Center in Houston, where a group had been conducting lunar base studies for several years. Johnson, as the astronaut training center and site of Mission Control, had a vested stake in human spaceflight, particularly involving the shuttle. For the next two years the office, known as “Code Z” and under the authority of an assistant administrator, conducted several studies of lunar and Mars exploration missions, labeling them part of the “Human Exploration Initiative.” Code Z’s studies involved the use of a large new booster based on the shuttle, known as “Shuttle Z.” The Shuttle Z would not be cheap to operate, but NASA engineers were not concerned about costs.

In February 1988, the Reagan administration issued a national space policy document that called for the “expansion of human presence beyond Earth orbit,” tacitly endorsing human missions to the Moon and Mars. But Reagan had less than a year left in office and made no effort to initiate any new moon or Mars programs in NASA’s budget during that time. Other than continued studies by NASA’s Code Z, nothing further came of this new space policy. In November 1988, George H.W. Bush defeated Michael Dukakis to become the forty-first President of the United States.

page 2: the birth of the Space Exploration Initiative >>