Introduction

“Why Mars? Because it is humanity’s destiny to strive, to seek, to
find. And because it is America’s destiny to lead. ”

President George Bush, 20 July 19891

Sitting on the steps of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum on 20 July 2004, it was difficult to imagine that fifteen years earlier at this place the fiercest domestic political conflict of the first space age commenced. Bright-eyed children poured off tour buses and hurried to examine the museum’s wonders, teachers and parents close behind with digital cameras ready. They lined up to touch a four billion year-old lunar rock, clamored around the Apollo 11 Com­mand Module Columbia, and gazed up at an ungainly Lunar Module— monuments to past American triumphs in space. It was on a similarly hot and muggy Washing­ton morning that President George Bush had used this location to announce a renewed commitment to human exploration beyond Earth orbit. Even before this declaration, however, the winds of war had been swirling in the nation’s capital.

On the 20th anniversary of the first human landing on the Moon, President Bush had stood atop these very steps and proposed a long-range exploration plan that included the successful construction of an orbital space station, a permanent return to the Moon, and a human mission to Mars—this enterprise became known as the Space Exploration Initiative (SEI). The president charged the newly rees­tablished National Space Council with providing concrete alternatives for meeting these objectives. To provide overall focus for the new initiative, Bush later set a 30- year goal for a crewed landing on Mars. If met, humans would be walking on the red [1] planet by 2019, which would be the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 lunar land­ing. Within a few short years after President Bush’s Kennedyesque announcement, however, the initiative had faded into history—the victim of a flawed policy process and a political war fought on several different fronts. The failure of SEI, combined with problems ranging from the Hubble Space Telescope’s flawed mirror to space shuttle fuel leaks to space station budget problems, badly damaged the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) image and prompted dramatic changes in the American space program.

The rise of SEI and its eventual demise represents one of the landmark episodes in the history of the American space program—ranking with the creation of NASA, the decision to go to the Moon, the post-Apollo planning process, and the space station decision. The story of this failed initiative is one shaped by key protagonists and critical battles. It is a tale of organizational, cultural, and personal confron­tation. Organizational skirmishes involved the Space Council versus NASA, the White House versus congressional appropriators, and the Johnson Space Center versus the rest of the space agency—all seeking control of the national space policy process. Cultural struggles pitted the increasingly conservative engineering ethos of NASA against the “faster, better, cheaper” philosophy of a Space Council looking for innovative solutions to technical problems. Personality clashes matched Vice President Dan Quayle and Space Council Executive Secretary Mark Albrecht against NASA Administrator Dick Truly and Johnson Space Center Director Aaron Cohen. In the final analysis, the demise of SEI was a classic example of a defective deci­sion-making process—one that lacked adequate high-level policy guidance, failed to address critical fiscal constraints, developed inadequate programmatic alternatives, and garnered no congressional support. Some space policy experts have argued that SEI was doomed to fail, due primarily to the immense budgetary pressures facing the nation during the early 1990s.[2] This book will argue, however, that the failure of the initiative was not predetermined; instead, it was the result of a deeply flawed policy process that failed to develop (or even consider) policy options that may have been politically acceptable given the existing political environment.

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