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The Space Exploration Initiative: Its Brief Life and Bitter Death

President George H. W. Bush announces Space Exploration Initiative
President George H. W. Bush announces Space Exploration Initiative
White House (public domain)

The optics could not have been better in front of the Air and Space Museum in Washington D. C. on July 20, 1989, the 20th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. President George H. W. Bush shared the stage with the three men who had made that voyage, Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins. The president's remarks were, naturally, a lyrical recounting of the day men landing on the moon. But then he proposed a new endeavor.

"In 1961 it took a crisis -- the space race -- to speed things up. Today we don't have a crisis; we have an opportunity. To seize this opportunity, I'm not proposing a 10-year plan like Apollo; I'm proposing a long-range, continuing commitment. First, for the coming decade, for the 1990's: Space Station Freedom, our critical next step in all our space endeavors. And next, for the new century: Back to the Moon; back to the future. And this time, back to stay. And then a journey into tomorrow, a journey to another planet: a manned mission to Mars."

To Bush it seemed to be the perfect occasion to announce a new push for space exploration. The Cold War was winding down, though the extent of the collapse of the Soviet Union would not be apparent for several months. That meant that there would be both a peace dividend and a need to America's aerospace industry to have something to do besides build the weapons that might be needed to fight the USSR.

Bush was also personally supportive of space exploration. Partly this was because he called Texas home, having been a United States congressman from that state in the late 1960s. Partly because space exploration appealed to a both a sense of patriotism and a sense of adventure. It did not pass notice that just as Kennedy was identified with the first moon landing, Bush might be identified with the first Mars landing.

The Bush Space Exploration Initiative had its origins in the reports of two government commissions that took place during the administration of his predecessor, President Ronald Reagan.

The National Commission on Space was appointed by Reagan in the wake of the Challenger explosion to map out a new direction for the United States space program. Its report, Pioneering the Space Frontier, mapped out a coherent program that included a lunar base and human expeditions to Mars.

NASA created its own task force, chaired by Dr. Sally Ride, to respond to the Pioneering the Space Frontier report. Its report, entitled Leadership and America's Future in Space, also known as the Ride Report, mapped out four options for NASA's next great project.

"Mission to Planet Earth: a program designed to obtain a comprehensive scientific understanding of the entire Earth system-particularly emphasizing the impact of environmental changes on humanity

"Exploration of the Solar System: a robotic exploration program designed to continue the quest to understand our planetary system (including a comet rendezvous, a mission to Saturn, and three sample return missions to Mars)

"Outpost on the Moon: a program designed to build upon the Apollo legacy with a new phase of lunar exploration and development, concluding with the establishment of a permanent moon base by 2010

"Humans to Mars: a program designed to land a crew of astronauts early in the 21st century and eventually develop an outpost on the red planet."

It was clear that the Bush administration was on solid policy grounds when it decided to develop and propose what became the Space Exploration Initiative. Pursuing a large scale space exploration program would give America's aerospace sector something to do as the Cold War began to wind down. It would also have a great many diplomatic, scientific, and economic benefits that were seen as having come from the Apollo program.

But a number of policy and political mistakes conspired to throttle SEI in the crib. Congress never seriously funded the effort. When the Clinton administration came into office four years later, it quietly killed what was left of the second big effort to explore space beyond low Earth orbit.

Why did SEI, so enthusiastically begun, die such a miserable death? A number of theories abound, but Thor Hogan, in his study "The Mars Wars," suggest that one of the crucial mistakes made by the Bush White House was to not vet the proposal with the various aerospace stakeholders, especially Congress, which would be expected to appropriate the extra money to pay for it. It was only inevitable that the Bush administration was blindsided by the vehement and angry opposition that the exploration initiative got in the democratically controlled Congress.

Furthermore NASA, in the now infamous 90 Day Study, developed a plan that would take 30 years to implement and would cost $500 billion. This had the effect of poisoning the well for space exploration beyond low Earth orbit for decades. It empowered congressional appropriators such as Rep Bob Traxler and Sen. Barbara Mikulski to in effect kill Bush's space exploration program before it had a chance to be born. Indeed Traxler went through NASA's budget and excised existing programs, small scale as they were, that had anything to do with sending humans to the moon or Mars.

The Bush administration tried to jump start the SEI, even going so far as to convene its own blue ribbon panel chaired by Thomas Stafford, a former NASA astronaut. The report, America at the Threshold, offered a number of options for carrying out Bush's initiative for slightly less money than the NASA 90 Study suggested, but still numbering in the hundreds of billions of dollars.

Another report, issued by the so-called Augustine Commission, the first to go by that name, covered the entire space program, but insofar as what it termed "Mission from Planet Earth," recommended a go as you pay approach, that the pace of space exploration be measured by the availability of funding. It also reaffirmed the goals of a lunar base and expeditions to Mars.

In the spring of 1992, Richard Truly, deemed to be insufficiently enthused about the Space Exploration Initiative, was replaced by Dan Goldin, an executive at TRW. Goldin's mandate was to overhaul NASA and salvage the Space Exploration Initiative. Goldin was unable to do the second task, mainly because the author of SEI, President George H. W. Bush, lost his bid for reelection to Bill Clinton, a man with a profound disinterest in space exploration. Nevertheless Goldin would up being the longest serving NASA administrator, lasting throughout both of Clinton's terms and well into the first term of President George W, Bush, the son of the president who appointed him. Despite a mercurial management style Goldin was able to reform the way unmanned space probes were developed, under the "faster, better, cheaper" doctrine, resulting in numerous robotic expeditions starting in the 1990s.

In the end, the Space Exploration Initiative represented a lost opportunity to jump start human space exploration at the conclusion of the Cold War. It is pregnant with wistful what ifs. What if Bush has been more politically adroit and vetted SEI with congressional and other stakeholders in advance? What if Bush had pushed harder for his program, especially in the afterglow of his popularity in the wake of the Gulf War? What if Bush had won a second term, with a mandate to pursue space exploration, among other policies?

To be sure, some but sadly not all of the lessons of the brief life and bitter death were learned and taken to heart by Bush's son, the second President George Bush. But for over a decade, human space exploration beyond low Earth orbit was all but dead at NASA, representing lost time and a dream deferred once again.

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