The 90-Day Study

"We are going to return to the Moon and journey to Mars because we must, because the United States needs to challenge itself in order to be ready for the new world of the 21st century, now just over ten

years away. ”

NASA Administrator Richard Truly, 26 October 1989

The public reaction to President Bush’s announcement of SEI was swift, and not altogether positive. The following day, the headline on the front page of The New York Times read, “President Calls for Mars Mission and a Moon Base: Critics Cite High Costs—Bush Offers No Timetable or Budget for Plan, Leaving That to Space Council.” The article stated the speech set the stage for “the first full-scale debate in years on the nation’s troubled space program.” The piece cited expert opinions predicting the initiative would cost at least $100 billion, and could rise to as much as $400 billion.1 The reaction from the Democrat-controlled Congress was largely critical. Senator Al Gore of Tennessee, Chairman of the Subcommittee on Space, Science, and Technology, stated that “by proposing a return to the Moon and a manned base on Mars, with no money, no timetable, and no plan, President Bush offers the country not a challenge to inspire us, but a daydream.” His fellow senator from Tennessee, James Sasser, concurred, stating “the President took one giant leap for starry-eyed political rhetoric, and not even a small step for fiscal responsibility. The hard fact is this administration doesn’t even have its space priorities established for next year, much less for the next century. We have numerous space and science – [173] related programs already on the table, all of them worthy, all of them high-ticket and all of them competing for scarce dollars.”[174] House Budget Committee Chair­man Leon Panetta was quoted saying, “The budget deficit is stealing the resources we need to…resume our nation’s mission in space. When this President is ready to recognize that we can’t do all he would like to do even on this planet without new revenues, then perhaps we can talk about Mars.”[175] Even fellow Republicans were wary. Representative Bill Green of New York, the ranking minority member on the subcommittee with oversight of the NASA budget, stated that “given the federal budget deficit and earthly demands, I don’t see how we can afford expensive manned programs in space in the near future.”[176]

The Baltimore Sun captured the mood very well, writing that the announcement of a human mission to Mars “was tempered by the financial worries that took much of the thrill out of America’s romance with outer space after the historic flight of Apollo 11 .”[177] For this very reason, the American public was not terribly supportive of the new initiative. A Gallup Poll released shortly after the announcement suggested that only 27% of Americans believed space spending should be increased, and only 51% thought being the first nation to land a human on Mars was a meaningful goal.[178] [179] Not surprisingly, The Wall Street Journal reported support from the aerospace industry for SEI, although many executives believed a strong lobbying effort would be required to get Congressional approval for the expensive undertaking. In a pre­pared response, Martin Marietta Chairman Norman Augustine stated, “we applaud the president’s call for renewed vigor in pursuit of the space frontier and the many benefits it implies.” Despite similar supportive statements flowing from other aero­space giants, there remained a sense of pessimism within most corners of the indus­try—the result of looming questions regarding the source of the billions of dollars needed to carry out the ambitious plan. “It’s not the same clarion call that President Kennedy gave when he set a moon-landing [goal],” said aerospace analyst Wolfgang Demisch.

There were somewhat diverse opinions regarding President Bush’s speech amongst NASA’s senior leaders. On one hand, many were impressed that Bush was able to depart from the written text during his speech, which they felt proved that Vice President Quayle really understood NASA’s plan and had effectively briefed the president. Douglas O’Handley recalls that this was probably the most positive thing ever said about Quayle by NASA officials.[180] On the other hand, some agency officials believed the address laid the foundation for a ruinous relationship between the Space Council and NASA. Aaron Cohen felt this was the case because neither organiza­tion was paying attention to what the other was saying. Top NASA leaders thought the speech was a Kennedyesque declaration calling for a large-scale national effort to build a lunar base and send humans to Mars. Quayle and Albrecht, in contrast, wanted to introduce a new way of doing business within the space program—one that involved smaller budgets and more aggressive technology development (which they believed would lead to large cost efficiencies). Cohen recalled, “the day that the initiative was announced was a day of great elation [at NASA]. It took everyone back to the days of Apollo.”[181] For a White House that wanted to change the Apollo paradigm, this was not the desired reaction from the space agency.

After the euphoria of the announcement died down, Douglas O’Handley argues “Frank Martin and Admiral Truly realized that they needed to back up the skel­etal AHWG studies.”[182] This effort would include validating data that had been presented to the Space Council and assessing the technology readiness levels for the equipment needed to carry out the initiative—this review became known as the 90-Day Study. Mark Albrecht remembered later that NASA “stepped forward and almost demanded to lead this effort, which indicated the beginnings of a little friction” between the space agency and the Space Council staff. From the NASA perspective, however, the study was initiated because President Bush’s speech had provided the agency with a charter to develop a plan for a lunar base and human mission to Mars. There was a fundamental belief among senior leaders at the agency that this was exactly what the Space Council wanted. In fact, some of Albrecht’s public statements at the time seemed to indicate this was the case. He was quoted in Government Executive magazine saying that now that a national space policy goal had been set, the council would “leave it to the departments and agencies to decide how they’re going to achieve that. Once they’ve made that determination, we’ll review that to see whether or not it comports with national policy, or whether it’s realistic or plausible. But in terms of getting into their programs and plans for the purposes of ‘We know a better way,’ that’s just not what we’re here to do.”11 Later in the process, however, the White House had changed its tune, and both Albrecht and Vice President Quayle were arguing that they never wanted NASA to conduct the 90-Day Study. Aaron Cohen argues this problem arose because the Council didn’t have its own ideas regarding how to start the process. Although it had announced the initiative, the administration didn’t have a good sense regarding how to proceed after the speech. He contends this was the main reason problems emerged between the two organizations.[183] [184]

In the end, Albrecht asked NASA to provide “a variety of different approaches… we want a variety of time frames, we want a variety of cost profiles, we want a variety of technologies, so the President can choose among different options rather than being told ‘this is how to do it.’”[185] This was not the method, however, that Admi­ral Truly favored. The Administrator simply wanted to pull together the wealth of data that had been generated during the preceding five years and draft a report that would be ready within three months.[186] Over the coming months, Truly was warned during two meetings of the full Space Council that his plan “was not the approach most members wanted to pursue.”[187] The Council members wanted NASA to develop options based on innovative new technologies that could potentially offer reduced long-term costs.[188] Admiral Truly essentially disregarded this direction from the Council. At the same time, by allowing the space agency to pursue its own course, the Council in effect delegated the authority granted to it by President Bush to conduct a review of options for implementing SEI.

A week after President Bush’s speech, Admiral Truly assigned Aaron Cohen to lead an agency-wide effort to fashion a plan for establishing a lunar base and explor­ing Mars, drawing upon existing NASA planning documents. During the remain­der of the year, the space agency never wavered from this approach.[189] Although he was asked to examine both technical and management issues, Cohen chose to ignore questions regarding changes in NASA’s management culture. Some believed this decision was fueled by his view that the new initiative was laying out another Apollo program—in essence, a reinstitution of Kennedy’s mandate.”[190] As a result, there was no need to change the management culture that had successfully landed humans on the Moon. The only task was to define an aggressive program to meet President Bush’s new mandate. In his book Dragonfly: NASA and the Crisis Aboard Mir, author Bryan Burrough detailed a revealing conversation between Albrecht and Cohen after the latter had been named to lead the 90-Day Study:

“Most of all we want alternatives, plenty of alternatives,” Albrecht told Cohen.

“What do you mean, alternatives?” Cohen asked. From the blank look on the JSC director’s face, Albrecht could tell he wasn’t getting through.

“Alternatives,” Albrecht repeated. “I mean, there has to be more than one way to do this. Give us a Cadillac option, then give us the El Cheapo alter­native, with the incumbent risks. Talk about all the different technologies that could be learned.”[191]

Albrecht believed this interaction, and NASA’s reaction over the coming months, was the beginning of a never healed rift between the Space Council staff and NASA.[192] Cohen later recalled the conversation differently. Although he remembered Albre­cht asking for several options, he has no recollection of being asked to provide alternatives with significantly different cost profiles. Without this direction, mission planners at JSC felt the only course of action was to develop a program plan based on the President’s speech.[193]

Frank Martin believed the cause of this burgeoning conflict was the differing approaches of the two organizations. The Space Council staff, with backgrounds largely in the national security space sector, wanted NASA to develop alternatives starting “with a clean sheet of paper.” The JSC view was that it would be a shame not to take advantage of the research that had been conducted during recent years. In fact, Mark Craig remembered later that “there were never any debates about using a clean sheet.’ Our goal was to find the best approach to meet a set of requirements, not to just find something new for its own sake.”[194] In the end, NASA employed the JSC methodology and began developing an SEI strategy that was highly dependent on past studies and didn’t consider multiple alternatives with different budgetary requirements.[195] Douglas O’Handley contends, “this is where the initiative fell apart, when it was taken over by the Johnson Space Center.”[196]

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