Beyond the Moon: Inside Bush’s space plan (Part 1 of 3)

By frank_sietzen
January 14, 2004
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Beyond the Moon: Inside Bush’s space plan (Part 1 of 3)

The Bush administration’s new policy for America’s space program represents the product of a year of difficult choices and balanced risk, designed to create a comprehensive approach to human exploration of the solar system. Developing this policy — contrary to what some outside the process have suggested — took a careful, deliberate and quiet effort. It also is the result of the aftereffects of a crisis that struck at the very core of the space program. United Press International interviewed senior administration sources for these articles, including participants at meetings. Based on those interviews, this how the president’s space policy came to be.

WASHINGTON, Jan. 14 (UPI) — The morning had begun in the White House west wing in normal fashion — as if anything could be considered normal in the post-Sept. 11 world.

Every day at 9:45 a.m., senior administration staffers met with President George W. Bush to review the latest domestic consequences issues, as they are called — not only homeland security matters, but other concerns as well.

At 9:20 on this particular morning, Thursday, Nov. 12, 2001, less than two months after the terrorist attacks, Sean O’Keefe, then deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget, and Josh Bolton, deputy White House chief of staff, waited with others in the anteroom just off the Oval Office.

As they waited, news reports arrived that another commercial jet had crashed in New York City. This time, an American Airlines Airbus had fell on a neighborhood in Rockaway, Long Island, following takeoff. It was not yet clear whether this was another act of terror or an unfortunate accident. Based on this breaking event, O’Keefe and the others expected the morning’s meeting with the president to be canceled.

It was a surprise, then, when Andrew Card, the president’s chief of staff, walked in and said, “The man is ready for us.” The group entered the Oval Office, sat down and began briefing Bush on various issues.

The president was interrupted twice — by phone calls from New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and New York Gov. George Pataki regarding the plane crash — but otherwise the meeting proceeded without incident. When it ended, the attendees filed out, but Bush stopped O’Keefe and said, “Sean, I want a word with you.”

A few days earlier, Vice President Dick Cheney informed O’Keefe he had been chosen to head the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

“I’ve got a job for you,” Cheney had told O’Keefe.

Now Bush himself wanted to talk with him about NASA — in particular, about the space program. Card closed the door to the Oval Office and Bush turned to O’Keefe. “About this NASA job,” Bush said. “Here’s what I want you to do.”

Topping the president’s list was stopping the red ink that had been gushing from the International Space Station. Just days after Bush had taken office in January 2001, NASA chief Daniel Goldin, who had been appointed by Bush’s father and retained by the Clinton administration, dropped a bombshell: the space station had racked up a $4 billion cost overrun and Goldin claimed he did not know how it had happened or what could be done about it. It just appeared, seemingly out of nowhere.

O’Keefe’s views on this issue already were the stuff of inside-the-Beltway lore, based on hallway chats with reporters. He had fumed about Goldin’s timing of the announcement. “He had to have planned this,” O’Keefe had said.

Now Bush gave O’Keefe his marching orders. “This place (NASA) is messed up,” Bush said. “I want you to straighten it out.”

The president told O’Keefe to report back on what was needed to review and to fix NASA. “Go over there and straighten this out,” Bush repeated, as he opened the Oval Office door.

Three days later, on Nov. 15, 2001, Bush nominated O’Keefe to be NASA’s new administrator. On Dec. 21, the Senate confirmed his appointment. Over the following months, Bush and O’Keefe would interact on a regular — almost weekly — basis. Each time they met, Bush made a point of asking O’Keefe if he needed anything — and to let him know if he did.

In the months that followed, O’Keefe would launch a wide range of financial and managerial changes at NASA. More than just moving names around an organizational chart, he brought in a number of outsiders with expertise in areas such as financial management, information technology and engineering systems. Within a year, two external cost estimates for the space station program were in close agreement with NASA’s own figures, raising congressional confidence a notch. NASA’s internal bookkeeping system, which had been in chaos when O’Keefe arrived, was now set on a firm path toward coherence.

Because of the improvements, by January 2003 morale at NASA was greatly improved, according to a source who participated in reviews of the agency. The precise financial management represented quite a departure from the runaway costs NASA had witnessed just a year earlier. Things were looking better than they had in many years.

As January came to a close, O’Keefe and several aides traveled across the Potomac River to Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia for a memorial ceremony for the crew of shuttle Challenger. He was accompanied by Fred Gregory, NASA’s deputy administrator; Bill Readdy, Office of Space Flight associate administrator, and Bryan O’Connor, Office of Safety and Mission Assurance associate administrator — all three veteran astronauts — as well as an agency photographer.

On that day, the crew of Columbia was orbiting overhead. Though the mission had captured some media attention because one crew member was the first Israeli astronaut, shuttle coverage had fallen into an all-too-familiar slump. Among the more visible accomplishments, from a public relations perspective, were several rather stunning photos of the moon rising up through Earth’s atmosphere, taken as the shuttle sped around the globe.

A few days later, on the morning of Feb. 1, O’Keefe and Readdy stood on a warm, sunny tarmac at Cape Canaveral, Fla., waiting for the shuttle to arrive. At one point, Readdy looked at his watch, then at a notebook in his hand that contained the vehicle’s schedule. “This is not right,” he said to O’Keefe. Shortly thereafter, the whole world knew disaster had struck the shuttle program for the second time in its history.

Columbia had disintegrated at the edge of space above Texas, its left wing fatally damaged by a piece of insulating foam that struck its leading edge a few moments after launch on Jan. 16. The disaster would expose major faults in NASA’s most popular program.

The shattered shuttle destroyed much of NASA’s sense of rebuilding and plunged the agency into a bureaucratic version of public mourning. At the agency’s headquarters building on E Street SW, near the U.S. Capitol, staffers were immersed in an around-the-clock effort to learn the cause of the disaster. The work exposed layer after layer of NASA indifference or outright hostility to safety issues raised by low level engineers.

Widespread acrimony and introspection accompanied the inquiry by the Columbia Accident Investigation Board. A long summer of numerous hearings, private interviews, news releases, graphics and excruciating technical detail would proceed before the CAIB issued its report.

O’Keefe and his top team were outraged. How could people — good people with the best of intentions — be so close-minded? How could they have ignored the obvious disaster waiting in the wings?

It became obvious early on that the CAIB was going to judge shuttle operations within a context of America’s overall space policy. The board’s chairman, Adm. Harold W. Gehman Jr., had made that very clear from the onset.

O’Keefe and Readdy knew the CAIB would hit NASA hard for many shortcomings. In addition to causes related to the accident, it now had become clear the CAIB was going to issue pronouncements about the very way in which the agency was run. O’Keefe made a point of speaking in short, declarative sentences when he brought up the issue of NASA’s compliance with the CAIB’s recommendations, stating there would “be no discussion” and that all recommendations would be implemented “to the letter.”

Initial interactions between NASA and the White House first took the form of regular exchanges between the president and O’Keefe as the CAIB’s work commenced. Over time it became clear to both the accident had made the need to re-examine, revise and recommit the nation’s space agenda all the more urgent.

Bush felt it was an essential part of the response to the accident.

What had started as a regular but routine series of discussions among O’Keefe, the president and White House staff grew into something much more formal and determined. They needed a more structured approach, otherwise ideas would simply continue to float around without a way to translate them into recommendations and action.

Late in the spring, O’Keefe spoke with Cheney and Bolton about how to proceed. The decision was to seek additional perspectives. In early June, they brought in John Marburger, the president’s science adviser, to the discussions. Soon others joined, from agencies such as the Department of Defense and the State Department.

At one time or another, Richard Russell and Brett Alexander from the Office of Science and Technology Policy; Gil Klinger from the National Security Council; Mary Kicza, NASA’s associate administrator for biological and physical research; John Schumacher, its chief of staff; Steve Isakowitz, its comptroller; Paul Pastorek, general counsel; and, Gary Martin, the agency’s space architect, all participated in the discussions — including some at the White House.

The group also consulted at least two outside space experts.

All summer long, they hashed over a wide range of new policy ideas: replacing the aging shuttle fleet, building new robotic space probes, attempting a return to the moon and launching human missions to Mars. Some administration officials were not thrilled at the prospect of NASA, still reeling from the Columbia accident, being given a new, high-profile assignment from Bush. It was viewed as a weak and dysfunctional agency. Why reward NASA now, while the shuttles were still grounded, some asked.

A few unexpected supporters for the new space plan idea emerged. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage became a believer. Not only did he take time to attend all of the meetings, he gave NASA his agency’s full support. Other players were coming around to the idea and, to the surprise of many, OMB joined NASA’s side, supporting a budget boost to pay for the return to the moon.

While the term “vision” had been used from the earliest stages, Bush and his advisers became utterly determined to avoid repeating the mistakes made with the shuttle and space station, which they considered problem-plagued efforts lavished with funds.

Instead, they devised a strategy to keep NASA focused on its existing resources, requesting additional funds from Congress only when absolutely necessary. In fact, Bush would restrict the amount of new funds for NASA.

“You need to restore your reputation, but don’t break the bank in the process,” Bush told O’Keefe at one point.

Bush’s emerging vision would call for sacrifice from NASA and new ways of doing business. He would require agency officials to make some very difficult decisions. The plan, however, also was crafted to try to re-energize NASA and give it a chance to redeem its reputation.

Discussions even reached beyond practical and immediate issues. At one point, the president said the issue of space exploration should involve more than just people and hardware. According to Steve Hadley, a deputy national security adviser who participated in one of the meetings, the president deemed the rationale for the effort “existential.” Some close to the president urged the new space program be about exploring, not just avoiding another accident.

As the process matured, Bush’s interest in the ethos of exploration became more apparent: how it resonated not only with NASA, but with the country.

Bush told his aides the outcome of the processes needed to mean something. It could not be just a stunt or some large spending effort. His new space vision had to emphasize scientific, technological, economic and social importance. It also needed to be a task that NASA was capable of accomplishing, as well as something that would challenge the space community to pick itself up from the Columbia tragedy and move on to reclaim some of the vitality it had lost over the years.

The challenge involved several difficult decisions. To free up funds to begin the new effort, NASA would have to retire the aging shuttle program as soon as it finished building the International Space Station, as well as halt upgrades to the shuttles.

In addition, NASA would have to transform the proposed orbital space plane into a new spacecraft that would include all of the plane’s capabilities plus be able to land on the moon and spend long periods in space. The craft would be called the crew exploration vehicle or CEV.

NASA also would have to stop work on its X-37 space demonstrator and next generation launch vehicle programs.

Meanwhile, Bush would ask Congress for a 5 percent annual increase in NASA’s budget from fiscal year 2005 to FY 2010, and for $800 million in FY 2005 to fund the first stage of the new exploration effort.

In a time of tight budgets and close congressional scrutiny, such an increase is significant. With the exception of the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security, no other agencies would achieve budget increases above inflation in the FY 2005.

O’Keefe’s painful actions also would include trimming or canceling outright projects that were not part of the new space plan. He might even have to close one or more NASA installations to free up new money, and terminate space station science that did not relate specifically to human exploration. By the time America began to tread the lunar soil again, participation in the space station would be ending.

Part 1|2|3

Frank Sietzen Jr. covers aerospace for UPI Science News. Keith L. Cowing is editor of nasawatch.com. E-mail sciencemail@upi.com

Copyright © 2001-2004 United Press International. Reprinted with permission.