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January 14 will mark one year since President George W. Bush stood before a packed audience at NASA headquarters in Washington and announced, to great fanfare, a new American space initiative.
What few have noticed or recognized since then is how the response to that proposal in the past year has illustrated a complete and fundamental change in the nature of the space exploration debate.
According to Bush’s proposal, once the shuttle fleet has returned to flight, it will be used to complete construction of the International Space Station and then be retired in 2010. To replace the shuttle, NASA will develop a new Crew Exploration Vehicle, with unmanned test flights flying in 2008 and manned missions in 2014. The CEV then will be used to establish a base on the moon – as early as 2015 and no later than 2020 – followed by later manned missions to Mars and beyond.
Not surprising, many experts have raised questions about the initiative. For one thing, Bush’s plan also did little to change the gist of the American space program. Rather than encourage the exploration of space by the private sector, the plan gave the job to NASA, a government agency whose track record for human spaceflight in the past few decades has been less than stellar.
For another, Bush gave NASA an incredibly long time – 10 years – to build the CEV. Compare that pace to the 1960s, when it took less than a decade to design, build and fly the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo capsules. This long planning schedule also leaves a four-year gap in the ability of the United States to put humans in orbit – from 2010 when the shuttle fleet is retired to 2014 when the CEV flies its first manned missions. During that time, the United States once again will be entirely beholden to Russia and its Soyuz and Progress freighters for resupplying its own space station, a situation NASA even now finds inadequate.
Unlike the ’60s space program, which began with a significant budget that only grew, Bush’s proposal provides NASA with relatively little money, limiting the initial spending increase to only $1 billion spread over the first five years. Considering the cost of such an endeavor, in particular when attempted by a government agency, many wonder whether this amount will be sufficient to build anything except more government offices.
Added to these questions are worries over the state of NASA’s manned program. When Bush made his announcement, it already had been a year since shuttle Columbia broke apart during its re-entry. Since then, another year has passed and still the shuttle has not flown.
During that time, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration has done very little to rectify its more fundamental management failures. The Columbia Accident Investigation Board found NASA’s internal “management culture” contributed to the shuttle loss, describing “flawed decision-making, self-deception, introversion and a diminished curiosity” as well as an “inadequate concern over deviations from expected performance.” That lack of concern led to an inability of NASA managers to recognize problems and fix them.
Changing this management culture suggested the need for a drastic shake-up, including a wholesale housecleaning. Unfortunately, that has not happened and so, two years after the Columbia accident, the same NASA agency with the same NASA management continues to run the American manned space program. Despite NASA’s repeated and sincere insistence it is trying to reorganize itself, the management changes have been minor, leaving many experts questioning whether the bureaucratic failures described by the CAIB have been faced and dealt with effectively.
How then, with all these doubts and criticisms, has the debate over the American space program changed? Put simply, it is what has not been argued that makes the discourse so fundamentally different.
Consider, for example, the response in 1989 when Bush’s father made an almost identical proposal, recommending the United States establish a base on the moon, send an expedition to Mars, and make “the permanent settlement of space” the nation’s goal. Not only did the Bush Sr. proposal garner zero support in Congress, his announcement also was given less press coverage than the rescue of a cat from a suburban tree. Moreover, what little attention it did attract was almost routinely negative.
The New York Times led the way, calling the plan “a giant step back in space,” and “a failure of imagination and fresh thought.” Columnist Flora Lewis added that “looking to the moon and Mars (for a grand purpose) is looking in the wrong direction. The time has come to find that vision on Earth.” Among elected officials, Sen. Al Gore, D-Tenn., was typical, calling the proposal “a daydream about as splashy as a George Lucas movie, with about as much connection to reality.”
Very quickly, the Bush Sr. proposal disappeared into the black hole of Washington politics. By the end of that year it was practically forgotten.
Nor was this situation unusual. Beginning shortly before the Apollo 11 landing on the moon in 1969 and continuing through the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s, the mantra by those who opposed spending government money on manned space exploration has been that it is inappropriate and wasteful. Better to spend the money solving human problems here on Earth. As Kurt Vonnegut wrote just one week before the lunar landing, “We have spent $33 billion on space so far. We should have spent it on cleaning up our filthy colonies here on Earth.”
Though this argument was never sufficient to shut down the American space program, it effectively stunted its growth. Over the next 30 years NASA was unable to do much more than go in circles around the Earth via the shuttle.
In 2004, however, when George W. Bush made a similar but far more detailed proposal than his father, no one made this argument. The chant about solving our problems here on Earth hardly has been mentioned. Though many reports have raised specific questions about Bush’s space vision, the press coverage has been extensive and generally exuberant. In fact, W’s proposal got more positive exposure than any space plan since John F. Kennedy’s moon initiative in the 1960s. Congress, in turn, responded by giving Bush all the funds he requested for NASA, leaving no doubt of their support for this ambitious space program.
Even those Democrat politicians who opposed Bush’s proposal were far less hostile than their counterparts in 1989. Consider, for example, Sen. John F. Kerry, D-Mass., whose space platform during his recent presidential campaign was hardly as enthusiastic as Bush’s for the human exploration of the solar system. Nevertheless, Kerry included it in his overall platform, suggesting the U.S. space program must balance human exploration with the need to do astronomical, planetary and aeronautical research. As stated by Lori Garver, a member of Kerry’s Science and Technology advisory team, “We will support solar system exploration as an important goal for our human and robotic programs … but only as one goal among several.”
Nor was Kerry’s campaign position unusual. Though many people – from academics to politicians to aerospace experts – strongly disagreed with Bush’s specific proposal, few adopted the position that space exploration is unnecessary, as many had in the past. Instead, they simply have argued the nation must do it differently.
What this means for the American space program is profound. After more than 40 years of debate, the argument is over and the supporters of manned spaceflight have won.
Whether or not Bush’s space initiative is right, one year after he proposed it Americans have decided the nation has no choice but to go to the stars.
Robert Zimmerman is an independent space historian. His most recent book, “Leaving Earth: Space Stations, Rival Superpowers, and the Quest for Interplanetary Travel,” was awarded the Eugene M. Emme Award by the American Astronautical Society for the best popular space history in 2003.