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

By frank_sietzen
January 17, 2004
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Beyond the Moon: Inside Bush’s space plan (Part 3 of 3)

The Bush administration’s new plan for America’s space program is the product of a year of difficult choices made behind the scenes, resulting in a comprehensive approach to human exploration of the solar system and a sweeping restructuring of the country’s space program.

United Press International interviewed senior administration sources for these articles, including participants at the relevant meetings. Based on those interviews, this how the president’s space plan was crafted.

WASHINGTON, Jan. 16 (UPI) — Even without the Columbia accident investigation, more than a few complaints from members of Congress addressed the purpose of the space program. What was it for? And where should it go?

Both Democrats and Republicans had been questioning NASA’s vision — or lack of one — and many looked to the Bush administration to come up with one.

At the same time, some members, who had been hearing rumors about the interagency review going on at the White House, were complaining the administration was making space policy in secret — much the way, they claimed, the president had done in formulating other policies. They demanded to be heard.

The only forward-looking House legislation to emerge in recent years was the Space Exploration Act, which was introduced in the 107th and again in the 108th Congress by Representative Nick Lampson, D-Texas. Though well intentioned, the bill was a smorgasbord of projects likely to cost hundreds of billions of dollars pegged against ill-conceived milestones. The bill was considered so unrealistic it often was ridiculed as the “Clear Lake Full-Employment Act” referring to a Houston suburb inside Lampson’s district that included the Johnson Space Center. To date, only Democrats have signed on as co-sponsors and the House Science Committee has shown no interest in taking it up soon.

As such, there was a vacuum of serious space policy legislation in the House, and the Senate harbored even less.

This is not to suggest a lack of interest in the topic — just focus and consensus. Whatever the process was going to be, members of Congress wanted to be involved. As such, they were less than pleased to learn the White House had been conducting a process for several months without their input.

Last Sept. 16, President Bush acknowledged the planning effort, but did not go into the specifics of its activities, other than to say, “We’ve got an interagency study going on now that will enlighten us as to the best recommendations necessary for NASA to proceed in a way that is a good use of taxpayer dollars.”

His statement prompted a series of congressional hearings, in both the House and Senate, where NASA chief Sean O’Keefe, Columbia Accident Investigation Board chairman, Adm. Hal Gehman, and a number of individuals representing themselves, their universities, agencies, or organizations testified. Everyone offered a different idea of where to go and, in many cases, where not to go. The only consistent theme to emerge was America’s space agency needed a clearly defined vision — and a plan to realize that vision. Most felt that the president needed to be firmly behind the vision as well.

On Oct. 20, a motorcade swept beneath the U.S. Capitol carrying Vice-President Dick Cheney and three White House aides. O’Keefe accompanied the group. They unloaded on the Senate side and convened in the offices of Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn. Cheney had come to hear views about the future of the space program. He was not about to tell them how far along the process had come, however. All he said was the administration was open to their ideas.

Indeed, the White House activity already had eliminated all of the radical concepts, as well as those which would require a large national commitment — and a commensurate expenditure of funds.

For example, they had eliminated Mars as a singular destination, although they retained the option of developing the ability to go at a later date.

Frist had summoned five senators for the meeting: three Democrats — Ernest Hollings of South Carolina, John Breaux of Louisiana and Bill Nelson of Florida — and two Republicans — John McCain of Arizona and Sam Brownback of Kansas, respectively, the chairman of the Commerce and Science committee and its space subcommittee.

Each senator was allowed to bring one staffer to the meeting. Hollings was the most critical — and loud. He told Cheney that O’Keefe was in essence a failure. “They put in charge of safety a guy who did not listen,” Hollings railed. “The space program over there is collapsing. They have this culture problem nobody can get at,” he added.

Nelson said NASA had been starved for funds for too long and it was time the nation’s top leadership got involved. “You have to lead NASA from the top down,” he said. “It was time OMB freed up more money” so NASA could do the job the country expected of it.

Breaux also worried about NASA’s lack of adequate funding. “There should be an alternate to the shuttle available now,” he said, complaining that NASA just keeps patching up the shuttles. “You need to get the resources to do it right,” Breaux told Cheney, looking at O’Keefe.

Brownback, in his quiet understated way, laid out four programs, from shuttle to station, where NASA had failed. “You are doing good with robotics, but not so good with manned,” he told Cheney. He also urged the administration to develop a new national space vision. “The (International Space Station) isn’t giving us a vision,” Brownback said. “Get your agencies together and let’s discuss going to the moon or Mars, or whatever.”

McCain expressed frustration with the costs of returning the shuttle to flight. “We’ve got to know what the real costs are, Sean,” McCain told the NASA chief. Not well known outside Congress, but the fiery Arizonian and the Irishman in charge of NASA were friends. McCain respected O’Keefe’s management skills, but he also maintained a deep suspicion of NASA itself. Still, McCain said there was some reason for optimism. “If that Mars probe finds ice, it will be exciting for the country,” he said.

All senators expressed doubt about the underlying rationale for developing the orbital space plane — and how NASA would be able to both operate it and the shuttle fleet at the same time.

“NASA still isn’t listening,” Hollings said, looking directly at O’Keefe. The others were silent.

“We will finish the station,” O’Keefe replied. “All of the elements are ready when the shuttle starts flying again. We need your help in the ’04 budget.”

As the meeting closed, Cheney thanked everyone for their input. “We’ll keep you advised as we work through this,” he told them. Of course, that was exactly what the Bush administration was wary of doing. “If we had told them what was going on,” one source said later, “they would have torn this thing apart by now.”

Hollings remained frustrated with the process. Days later, he introduced a bill to create a National Space Commission, but the bill never moved.

NASA’s challenges and capabilities had been topics of frequent conversation — both within and outside the agency. Some within NASA questioned whether, given the agency’s loss of manned mission capability, and the diminished U.S. aerospace industry — shrunk by one consolidation after another — could even mount a lunar mission again, much less a program that sought to push out farther into the solar system.

Such missions would be dangerous, far more risky than the Earth-circling space shuttles, the last of which ended in disaster with Columbia’s loss and seven deaths. A disaster on the moon would be even more damaging to America’s prestige than shuttles falling from the sky.

At least, that was the thinking. In the 1960s, America was not the risk-adverse society it had since become. NASA could make mistakes back then, pick itself up and move on. Indeed, people expected the agency to do so. Today, such bravura is no longer possible.

During the internal White House discussions, some officials had openly questioned whether NASA was even the right agency to lead a stronger space program. Supporters of military space programs petitioned the vice president — who was in charge of the overall space plan development — to consider another way return to space. A new commercial operation, perhaps? Or, the Pentagon establishing a military base on the moon?

Other discussions considered transferring some of NASA’s current responsibilities to other agencies, as well as bringing some into NASA for consolidation. The options were thought to have some merit, but they would not necessarily result benefits commensurate with the headaches that emerge from such an interagency shuffle. Some wondered if NASA should get out of human space missions altogether, sticking to robotic probes, many of which had achieved spectacular successes in recent years, and whose loss could not trigger national periods of mourning.

Few, however, thought Bush or Cheney would ever support such a notion. Americans long ago had equated space exploration with human endeavors. Popular culture had cemented this notion. It would not make sense to challenge that. What was more likely, as autumn 2003 came to a close and the discussions reached a resolution point, was some combination of human and robotic spacecraft and missions.

Yet this was about more than hardware choices. As Steve Hadley, the deputy national security adviser — who chaired the regular meetings of the space mission planners — had remarked, the rationale for the human exploration of space was “existential.”

It had become apparent to all the participants the space plan would be more than just throwing more government money at contractors. At a gathering of space professionals in Washington on Dec. 18, both Boeing and Lockheed Martin presented PowerPoint slides showing nearly identical plans for future space missions. The presentations were so similar that either company’s representative could have used the other’s with no confusion whatsoever.

Conveniently left off the slides, however, was the notion of cost. Given that the estimates for the orbital space plane fell into the $12 billion-to-$15 billion range, one could imagine what something much more ambitious would cost.

It would break the bank, thereby also breaking one of Bush’s initial ground rules.
One thing that emerged from the year-long discussions was an intense interest in recruiting new players to explore and develop space. America’s civilian and military space capabilities had evolved in parallel over the decades with a large shared heritage in the form of rockets and other space hardware, virtually all of which provided by commercial vendors. Yet military participation had been limited, in a way. Indeed, many feared military participation in space activities would somehow cheapen the otherwise noble goal of exploration.

The notion of overt military activities, beyond what was deemed necessary for credible national defense, would not go over well in Congress or the general public. So the space planners limited the military’s role to providing launch services in the form of the evolved expendable launch vehicles, or EELVs, built by Boeing and Lockheed Martin. Contrary to rumors from quasi-informed sources, there would be no military bases on the moon.

The commercial industry could be a different story, however. Aerospace companies might be able to supply small communications satellites orbiting the moon, for example, keeping landing parties in touch with Earth, even if they traveled to the moon’s far side. In fact, the issue of how to leverage commercial space entrepreneurs or companies — even universities — into a new attempt at moon landings was taken seriously.

Potential private partners could contribute in various ways. A Global Positioning System or GPS satellite system in lunar orbit could guide all incoming craft to precision lunar landings. If operational, such a system could allow smaller space vehicles with crews to land near cargos previously dropped down from orbit nearby. In that way, mission planners could simplify the complexity of the moon lander’s electronics, keeping costs down.

The navigational approach would allow somewhat smaller ships to be built, because more accurate positioning cuts down on fuel requirements and hence size. Smaller spacecraft need smaller rockets — and existing space launchers could be procured from existing launch companies in place of the massive, Saturn-type rockets used during the Apollo landings of the 1960s and ’70s.

The lunar GPS idea also could be applied to Mars exploration. Indeed, NASA’s current plans for missions to the red planet include the Mars Telecommunications Orbiter. Scheduled for launch in 2009, the MTO will act as the telecommunications center for missions to the red planet for years to come. It would seem an ideal candidate for navigational data relays as well.

As winter 2003 approached, speculation began to swirl. Word of a presidential announcement that America would be going back to the moon surfaced in early December. There was a specific venue considered for the moment: the 100th anniversary of powered flight on Dec. 17. It seemed a national occasion to give a major speech about a new space program.

There was one problem: The space plan had not been finalized, so the White House decided to quell the rumors.

Scott McClellan, the presidential press secretary, addressed the issue the week before the flight centennial, saying nothing was imminent. Several days later, White House Chief of Staff Andy Card mentioned the issue on the Sunday TV political talk shows, raising expectations a bit. His message: “Yes, there is a plan. No, it is not ready yet. When it is, we will let you know.”

At a space policy meeting in Washington on Dec. 18, a similar theme was replayed: Everyone was expecting an announcement but they left the meeting hearing none.

Many in attendance suggested that a lack of a space policy announcement the previous day at Kitty Hawk was evidence either of indecision on the part of the administration or cold feet. Quite the contrary. As those events transpired, the policy was being presented to the president.

On the afternoon of Dec. 19, the space planners held their final meeting with President Bush. The plan itself had been developed as the result of a methodical march towards consensus. So many people had become involved that the meeting required a larger room than normal.

Those attending included Bush, Cheney, McClellan, the president’s political adviser Karl Rove, Card and his special assistant Joel Kaplan, the president’s science adviser John Marburger, Steve Hadley and Sean O’Keefe.

Rove had not been a big supporter of the idea and maintained a cautious attitude, although he did not criticize it. His silence was interpreted as support.

The plan called for granting NASA an immediate — though relatively modest — budget increase, as well as an additional boost spread over several years. As Bush looked at the numbers, the others wondered if he would agree to them, given that only two other agencies — the departments of Defense and Homeland Security — were marked for increases in fiscal year 2005. Would the president agree and put his political capital behind the plan?

As the discussions moved toward a final choice — the moon and then perhaps onward — Bush turned to Cheney. “This is more than just the Moon, isn’t it?” he asked.

Bush said he saw the policy as being more than picking a destination in space and then going there. Rather, it was more about going out into the solar system to accomplish a broader set of objectives. It should put to rest once and for all the decades-old and somewhat tired argument that space exploration was best performed by robots, not people. The new policy should embrace an intermix of human and robotic missions — all focused toward a common goal of exploration.

Then the vice president spoke up: “Then this is really about going to these other destinations, isn’t it?” he asked. All agreed.

One other item emerged: the president expressed a preference for inviting other nations to participate in the effort.

Agreed on all the major points, Bush ended the discussion. “Let’s do it,” he said.
The more Bush had thought about the policy, the more he wanted to “make a big deal about it,” according to an administration source. The decision was a surprise, since all assumed Bush would make a quiet rollout on the morning of Dec. 22. Instead, he asked Hadley to find the next suitable date for a major space announcement. Jan. 6, 2004 was open and was first chosen as the day to release the policy. But a scheduling conflict eventually pushed it back to Jan. 14.

In September 1962, President John F. Kennedy made a major space policy address before a crowded Rice University stadium in Houston. “Why some say the moon?” Kennedy asked. “Why choose this as our goal? And you may well ask, why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, cross the Atlantic? We choose to go to the moon and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”

Now, 42 years later, another U.S. President would call on the nation to return to the moon. This time, the effort would not represent an endpoint for the nation in space, but a stepping stone for even more ambitious explorations to come.

What remains to be seen, as 2004 begins, is whether Congress and the country will follow.

Part 1|2|3

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

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