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Bush speech
President George H.W. Bush in July 1989 announcing a bold new plan to return humans to the Moon and send them on to Mars. It was not successful. (credit: NASA)

Aiming for the Moon, crashing on Earth: The rise and fall of the 1989 Space Exploration Initiative (part 1)

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NASA is currently planning on returning humans to the Moon this decade. This is not the first time the agency has had this goal. In fact, it is the third. In 2004, President George W. Bush announced the Vision for Space Exploration, which ended by 2010 and a new administration. Before that, 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.

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Early 1970s Boeing concept art of a large lunar cargo spacecraft. Post-Apollo plans to continue lunar missions and to send humans to Mars were rejected in favor of building the space shuttle. (credit: NASA)

Two decades of study

For two decades before Bush’s speech, there had been high-level proposals for post-Apollo human missions to the Moon as well as Mars. In 1969 ,the Space Task Group (STG), 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 echoed 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.

Pioneering the Space Frontier was an expansive—and expensive—view of the next 50 years in space, but it was more fiction than a realistic blueprint for current policy making.

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: as John Logsdon wrote in his 2015 book After Apollo? Richard Nixon and the American Space Program, 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 US-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.

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The National Commission on Space published its report in spring 1986, only a short time after the Challenger accident. The report recommended an extensive human spaceflight program, including a mission to Mars. It was ignored by political leadership.

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 Apollo 11 landing and had been instrumental in determining the shape of the Space Task Group.

If the American grassroots interplanetary movement had a leader at that time, 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 the Space Invaders video game 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 only served to highlight the fact that the American public felt that video games and junk food were higher priorities than space.

Paine was not adept at playing Washington politics, however. 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 50 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 also 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 the Challenger accident, 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.

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Leadership and America’s Future in Space, a report produced in August 1987 by astronaut Sally Ride while at NASA Headquarters, provided several different options to space policy-makers. It was a more realistic approach to space policy than the National Commission on Space report a year earlier.

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.

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.”

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 climate change 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 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 41st President of the United States.

The birth of the Space Exploration Initiative

Clearly there had been much talk about human space exploration both inside and outside the government throughout the second half of the 1980s. But none of these discussions had led to actual plans for spending more money on this goal.

This began to change with the new administration due to the actions of Vice President Quayle’s advisors and Budget Director Richard Darman. Quayle was chairman of the newly created National Space Council, which helped to boost his visibility, although several of his friends warned him of the dangers of becoming known as “Mr. Space.” His staff viewed this as an opportunity to improve the image of their much-maligned boss and convinced Quayle that the US should endorse a large space mission. Darman, who was an enthusiastic space advocate, also supported the idea. But the real work at developing a new space vision was done by Mark Albrecht, the executive secretary of the National Space Council.

Lyndon Johnson had created the first council as part of the law that established NASA, but President Eisenhower had ignored it. LBJ had later used his position as head of the council to push Kennedy toward the lunar goal. But the council had languished under both the Johnson and Nixon Administrations and was finally eliminated in 1973. The idea of re-creating the council had been endorsed by the National Commission on Space, which viewed it as a means of gaining high-level attention for space issues. It had also been a popular idea in Congress, where the Reagan Administration’s secretive space policy process, hidden in the National Security Council and heavily dominated by the Defense Department and intelligence community, was viewed with suspicion and resentment. The Space Council had not been a popular idea with Reagan, who went so far as to veto a NASA authorization bill which included language creating it. Reagan had objected to congressional intrusion in the executive policy-making process. By 1989 Reagan was leaving office, the language creating the council had been watered down, and President-elect George H.W. Bush indicated that he supported the idea, in part because it would give Quayle a visible role in policy-making.

Although the National Space Council was officially chaired by Vice President Dan Quayle and included many top cabinet officials, it was the council’s executive secretary and small staff that helped shape policy and define issues to be addressed by the full council. Albrecht was not the first choice for the job but was offered it after Henry Cooper was rejected out of fear that he might be unjustly linked to the innuendo and hearsay that had surrounded the nomination of Bush’s defense secretary John Tower. Vicious rumors about Cooper’s actions overseas had surfaced. The rumors proved to be totally unfounded, but the last thing that anyone in the White House wanted was another acrimonious nomination fight, and so Albrecht was quickly offered the job. Cooper later became the head of the Strategic Defense Initiative Organization, a far more powerful and visible position than head of a policy office in the White House.

After the council had developed the proposals, Quayle took them to Bush, who decided to pursue both the lunar and Mars goals simultaneously, rather than one or the other. Why Bush decided upon both is unknown, but this may have been a major early mistake.

Albrecht had little space experience, having primarily addressed national security and intelligence issues as a congressional staffer. Despite this, he proved himself capable very early on in the job by solving a funding dispute concerning the Landsat remote sensing satellite. From his appointment in March 1989, Albrecht began searching for a new project to galvanize the civilian space program. Quayle’s advisors were already talking about such a project and Albrecht and the National Space Council quickly fleshed out three proposals: a return to the Moon, a human mission to Mars, or a commitment to do both. But Albrecht and the council staff were apparently unaware that NASA’s leadership was opposed to a new human exploration plan and that the agency had severe management flaws.

Policy decisions in Washington rarely start with a presidential directive. Instead, staffers bring issues to the attention of senior leaders who then order further study and request information and recommendations. The role of the staff is to identify issues and problems for the decision makers, and then further study them if the decision makers agree that this is warranted. Albrecht’s campaigning for human space exploration is therefore nothing unusual. But it did not follow the Apollo model, where both Kennedy and Vice President Johnson, as chairman of the National Aeronautics and Space Council, were predisposed from the outset toward a major space project in response to Yuri Gagarin’s flight. Kennedy was also surrounded by a number of other enthusiastic space supporters. Neither Bush nor Quayle were very interested in space, but neither were they hostile to it.

The policy deliberation occurred during a short period of time—Albrecht became executive secretary of the council in March, and clearly pushed for a formal presidential decision by July, only four months later. Many comprehensive policy reviews can take six months to a year. The council kept the policy review secret from the press and Congress. After the council had developed the proposals, Quayle took them to Bush, who decided to pursue both the lunar and Mars goals simultaneously, rather than one or the other. Why Bush decided upon both is unknown, but this may have been a major early mistake, for it had the effect of dramatically increasing the cost of the new plan.

In early July, before any plan had been fully explored or endorsed by the president, NASA Headquarters produced a preliminary estimate of the costs of both a lunar base and a human mission to Mars. This estimate was produced by the Office of Exploration and included such things as modifications to the planned Space Station Freedom (predecessor to the International Space Station), and development of the Shuttle-C heavy lift launch vehicle. The 30-year plan had a price tag of nearly $400 billion, which also included robotic probes for lunar and Mars missions. Approximately half the cost was for the Mars mission ($172.9 billion) and assorted scientific probes ($13.85 billion), and the remainder for a lunar base ($209.46 billion). These numbers also included a 50% reserve—meaning that after all of the items were added up, the agency added an additional 50% on top. The totals were removed from the document, although anybody with a calculator could add them up.

This preliminary estimate included many programs that were not necessary for the exploration plan and could be eliminated if they were not desired, although they were not presented that way. The estimate was in essence an agency wish list. Nevertheless, it existed as a piece of paper with some very large dollar figures, which made it a dangerous piece of paper, for the numbers could be copied and leaked to the press and Congress and used to attack the plan. That is what happened.

Space as political liability

On the 20th anniversary of the Apollo 11 lunar landing at an extravagant and nationalistic ceremony on the steps of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, President George H.W. Bush praised the Apollo 11 astronauts in front of a giant American flag and models of the lunar lander and Saturn V rocket. “The US is the richest nation on Earth, with the most powerful economy in the world. And our goal is nothing less than to establish the United States as the preeminent spacefaring nation,” Bush said. He declared that the space station was the “critical next step in all our space endeavors.” Then he outlined the basic goals of what the White House called the Space Exploration Initiative, or SEI: “And next, for the new century, back to the Moon, back to the future, and this time back to stay.” But Bush did not stop there. “And then, a journey into tomorrow, a journey to another planet, a manned mission to Mars.” Those words would lead the evening news and major newspapers the next day.

Bush’s new policy had remained a secret right up until the day before he gave his speech. In fact, Washington Post reporter Kathy Sawyer had reported as recently as a week before his speech that Bush would not announce any bold new space initiatives. But this tight secrecy around the plan collapsed immediately upon its announcement.

NASA’s detailed preliminary cost estimate of the plan, which was never a legitimate cost accounting based upon an approved architecture for achieving these goals, had been produced two weeks before Bush’s speech. It was leaked to Congress and the media the day of his speech and appeared in many of the articles reporting the new initiative.

Many years later, Bush apparently told NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe that he felt he had been poorly served by his advisors when he endorsed the space policy.

Bush’s speech was widely criticized on Capitol Hill, where both houses of Congress were controlled by the Democrats. House Majority Leader Richard Gephardt quipped, “Mr. President, there’s no such thing as a free launch,” and others blasted the reported $400 billion price tag for such an undertaking. At the time, Bush had been enjoying an extended honeymoon period after his inauguration. The high costs of this bold plan provided a means for his critics to try and bring the positive press to an end and portray Bush as someone unconcerned about serious problems on Earth.

Once the goal had been outlined in Bush’s July speech, it had to be further defined and translated into actual programs and spending plans. Presidents also cannot simply endorse large projects and then expect the executive branch to enact them. The president must be a strong advocate of the program. Occasionally, his intervention is necessary at key decision points and during major congressional votes. The president must also be willing to expend finite political capital to achieve the goals he values. However, Bush’s plan had immediately become a political liability, providing fuel for his critics. As time went on, the situation did not get better.

Congress reacted to the new plan by immediately zeroing-out parts of NASA’s budget that would develop enabling technologies for future exploration. These efforts, known as Project Pathfinder, had been initiated by the earlier Reagan administration, and their cancellation was a shot across the bow warning Bush that he would not have an easy time funding even small parts of this new plan.

Many years later, Bush apparently told NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe that he felt he had been poorly served by his advisors when he endorsed the space policy. Although what Bush meant by this is unknown, the planning process had clearly been rushed, and nobody on the National Space Council had apparently warned him about NASA’s willingness or ability to conduct such an ambitious project, although it is hard to believe that Bush was not told about NASA’s $400 billion preliminary cost estimate.

In addition, the White House’s Space Council never had very good relations either on Capitol Hill or with NASA. It was viewed by both, correctly, as an attempt to reassert the White House’s role in developing space policy at the expense of both NASA and Congress. While the concept of a space council had been appealing to members of Congress in the abstract, in reality it proved little different than the process it replaced, for it still wrapped civilian space policy formulation in greater secrecy than members of Congress liked. Furthermore, council staffers reportedly had an antagonistic relationship with congressional staffers, who often complained that they could not even get their phone calls returned.

If Bush had problems with the National Space Council, though, they were nothing compared to the ones he faced with NASA.

The 90-Day disaster

NASA’s immediate response to Bush’s speech was the “90-Day Study,” which was conducted primarily at Johnson Space Center and presented to the National Space Council in November 1989. It was intended to serve as a roadmap for SEI—a list of what to do and when to do it.

It is unclear just how much guidance the council gave NASA. In his speech, Bush called for the council to establish realistic timetables and milestones for the next phase of exploration. But all indications are that NASA took Bush’s words about establishing a permanent presence on the Moon to mean that this was the immediate goal. This was a key point, because there was a major difference between starting with simple extended stay missions to the Moon and starting with the construction of a base.

One of the major problems facing NASA was a cultural one, an inability to think of new human spaceflight projects in terms other than the Apollo paradigm. During Apollo, NASA had gotten a huge amount of money and a great deal of autonomy and many at the agency still thought they would conduct SEI in the same manner. They therefore felt no pressure to keep costs under control.

In addition to the cultural inability of agency personnel to stop thinking in terms of Apollo budgets, NASA, like all government agencies, had to deal with different internal and external constituencies, each clamoring for its own priorities. The space agency’s facilities are spread throughout the country at various field centers, each of which represents different interests such as human spaceflight and robotic exploration, and each having advocates in Congress. In addition, NASA has also had a less obvious rivalry between its scientists, who want to collect data, and its engineers, who want to build equipment. The 90-Day Study was a reflection of all of these conflicts within the agency, combined with an unwillingness by NASA headquarters to clearly establish priorities, starting by saying no to some of its constituencies.

One of the requirements for the lunar base was a crane for lifting cargo off the landers and depositing it on carts to be wheeled to the base. The price of the crane was $10 billion, or approximately the same as a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier and its escorts.

Without strong leadership from NASA headquarters to establish clear priorities, the 90-Day Study essentially became a shopping list of every program that various NASA constituencies wanted, regardless of whether they were necessary to achieve the new space policy and regardless of how much they would cost. Furthermore, the study did not indicate which parts of the shopping list were necessary and which were merely desirable. As a result, the report contained everything from a robotic lunar probe named Lunar Observer ($700+ million), to a Mars rover/sample return mission ($5–10 billion). It included an early version of MESUR (Mars Environmental SURvey), a distributed network of probes on the Martian surface, using two expensive Titan IV boosters. But the truly big-ticket items were a permanently occupied lunar base and a Mars base, using both the shuttle and a shuttle-derived heavy lift booster labeled the Shuttle-C (the Shuttle-Z was a bigger alternative vehicle briefly discussed at this time.) They would use the space station as a jumping-off point, even though there were many station supporters who warned that this was unnecessary and could jeopardize other station missions. But at the time, the space station also needed political justification, so some viewed connecting the station to interplanetary exploration as a positive.

Some of those involved in the 90-Day Study found the whole planning and costing process bizarre. One of the requirements for the lunar base was a crane for lifting cargo off the landers and depositing it on carts to be wheeled to the base. The price of the crane was $10 billion, or approximately the same as a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier and its escorts. One of the more astounding projections in the report called for 14 shuttle flights a year in support of the program, which was greater than the maximum flight rate of nine shuttle flights in a year. In addition, at its peak NASA would launch six or more shuttle-derived vehicles per year. This would have required the construction of an additional large launch pad at Cape Canaveral.

The study also included new cost estimates. The initial cost of establishing a permanent lunar base was $100 billion between 1991 and 2001, with the Mars expedition costing $158 billion between 1991 and 2016, for a total cost of $258 billion. In order to continue operations on the Moon and Mars to 2025, NASA would need an additional $208 billion for the lunar portion and $75 billion for Mars. This was actually a longer timeframe than the original preliminary cost estimate produced in July 1989—34 years as opposed to 30—and would bring the total up to $541 billion. These estimates included a 55% reserve (up from the 50% reserve in the July 1989 preliminary estimate). All of these actions—increasing the number of years in the plan, increasing the complexity, and increasing the reserve—drove the costs ever higher and created the impression within NASA and the White House that the study’s authors were deliberately inflating the costs of achieving the president’s goals.

Journalists referred to the 1989 estimates as running from approximately $400 billion (the preliminary cost estimate, which was widely reported in July 1989) to $550 billion (the 90-Day Study estimate). What they failed to mention, however, is that the assumptions behind all of these figures were questionable at the time and that the costs may have been deliberately inflated by NASA. They also often erroneously reported that these large figures were for the Mars effort alone, rather than 30–34 years of both lunar and Mars operations. But details were ignored and considered immaterial when the numbers were so staggering.

The problems with NASA’s response to Bush’s challenge did not stop with the massive price tag. A well-balanced program plan should have offered the president multiple options with varying price tags and timelines, and clear priorities for projects. Cost should have been one of the primary criteria for the different options. The price could have been substantially reduced by proposing limited stays on the lunar surface and possibly even skipping some steps, like Mars sample return. This would have required somebody at NASA Headquarters to make tough choices about priorities.

Instead of a menu of policy options and alternatives the 90-Day Study only offered the president timeline options, not cost or objective options. It offered five different ways of doing essentially the same massive and expensive mission—like selecting five ways of paying for a Rolls Royce, rather than looking at cheaper cars. In fact, the only real cost alternative was known as Reference Approach E, which still had a price tag of $471 billion.

The new plan would require doubling NASA’s budget immediately, from about $11 billion a year to $22 billion a year, and maintaining it for the next three decades. These were essentially Apollo spending levels without the external threat of a space race to justify them.

With the 90-Day Study NASA had given Bush an ultimatum: conduct SEI like Apollo or not at all. To staffers on the National Space Council, this was unacceptable.

Next: The Space Council and NASA go to war

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