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Mars spacecraft illustration
Since Apollo there have been a number of grandiose proposals for human exploration of Mars. (credit: NASA)

Aiming for Mars, grounded on Earth: part one

<< page 1: the Ride report

The birth of the Space Exploration Initiative

Clearly there had been much talk about human space exploration both inside and outside the government throughout the second half of the 1980s. But none of these discussions had led to actual plans for spending more money on this goal.

This began to change with the new administration due to the actions of Vice President Quayle’s advisors and Budget Director Richard Darman. Quayle was chairman of the newly created National Space Council, which helped to boost his visibility, although several of his friends warned him of the dangers of becoming known as “Mr. Space.” His staff viewed this as an opportunity to improve the image of their much-maligned boss and convinced Quayle that the U.S. should endorse a large space mission. Darman, who was an enthusiastic space advocate, also supported the idea. But the real work at developing a new space vision was done by Mark Albrecht, the executive secretary of the National Space Council. (Today Albrecht is the president of International Launch Services, which provides launches to commercial and government customers aboard a fleet of American and Russian rockets.)

Lyndon Johnson had created the first council as part of the law that created NASA, but President Eisenhower had ignored it. LBJ had later used his position as head of the council to push Kennedy toward the lunar goal. But the Council had languished under both the Johnson and Nixon administrations and was finally eliminated in 1973. The idea of re-creating the council had been endorsed by the National Commission on Space, which viewed it as a means of gaining high-level attention for space issues. It had also been a popular idea in Congress, where the Reagan administration’s secretive space policy process, hidden in the National Security Council and heavily dominated by the Defense Department and intelligence community, was viewed with suspicion and resentment. The Space Council had not been a popular idea with Reagan, who went so far as to veto a NASA authorization bill which included language creating a space council. Reagan had objected to congressional intrusion in the policy-making process. By 1989 Reagan was leaving office, the language creating the council had been watered down, and President-elect George H.W. Bush indicated that he supported the idea, in part because it would give Quayle a visible role in policy-making.

Although the National Space Council was officially chaired by Vice President Dan Quayle and included many top cabinet officials, it was the council’s executive secretary and small staff that helped shape policy and define issues to be addressed by the full council. Albrecht was not the first choice for the slot but was offered it after Henry Cooper was rejected out of fear that he might be unjustly linked to the innuendo and hearsay that had surrounded the nomination of Bush’s defense secretary John Tower. Vicious rumors about Cooper’s actions overseas had surfaced. The rumors proved to be totally unfounded, but the last thing that anyone in the White House wanted was another acrimonious nomination fight, and so Albrecht was quickly offered the job. Cooper later became the head of the Strategic Defense Initiative Organization, a far more powerful and visible position than head of a policy office in the White House.

Albrecht had little space experience, having primarily addressed national security and intelligence issues as a congressional staffer. Despite this, he proved himself capable very early on in the job by solving a funding dispute concerning the Landsat remote sensing satellite. From his appointment in March 1989, Albrecht began searching for a new project to galvanize the civilian space program. Quayle’s advisors were already talking about such a project and Albrecht and the National Space Council quickly fleshed out three proposals: a return to the Moon, a human mission to Mars, or a commitment to do both. But Albrecht and the council staff were apparently unaware that NASA’s leadership was opposed to a new human exploration plan and that the agency had severe management flaws.

Policy decisions in Washington rarely start with a presidential directive. Instead, staffers bring issues to the attention of senior leaders who then order further study and request information and recommendations. The role of the staff is to identify issues and problems for the decision makers, and then further study them if the decision makers agree that this is warranted. Albrecht’s campaigning for human space exploration is therefore nothing unusual. But it did not follow the Apollo model, where both Kennedy and Vice President Johnson, as chairman of the National Aeronautics and Space Council, were predisposed from the outset toward a major space project in response to Yuri Gagarin’s flight. Kennedy was also surrounded by a number of other enthusiastic space supporters. Neither Bush nor Quayle were very interested in space, but neither were they hostile to it.

The degree of preparation and study that went into the proposal for a new human exploration effort is unclear—the unclassified documents concerning the deliberations of the National Space Council are protected by executive privilege and will not be eligible to become public until February 2005. However, it is clear that the policy deliberation occurred during a short period of time—Albrecht became executive secretary of the council in March, and clearly pushed for a formal presidential decision by July, only four months later. Many comprehensive policy reviews can take six months to a year. The council kept the policy review secret from the press and Congress. After the council had developed the proposals, Quayle took them to Bush, who decided to pursue both the lunar and Mars goals simultaneously, rather than one or the other. Why Bush decided upon both is unknown, but this may have been a major early mistake, for it had the effect of dramatically increasing the cost of the new plan.

In early July, before any plan had been fully explored or endorsed by the president, NASA Headquarters had produced a preliminary estimate of the costs of both a lunar base and a human mission to Mars. This estimate was produced by the Office of Exploration and included such things as modifications to Space Station Freedom and development of the Shuttle-C heavy lift launch vehicle. The 30-year plan had a price tag of nearly $400 billion, which also included robotic probes for lunar and Mars missions. Approximately half the cost was for the Mars mission ($172.9 billion) and assorted scientific probes ($13.85 billion), and the remainder for a lunar base ($209.46 billion). These numbers also included a 50% reserve—meaning that after all of the items were added up, the agency added an additional 50% on top. The totals were removed from the document, although anybody with a calculator could add them up.

This preliminary estimate included many programs that were not necessary for the exploration plan and could be eliminated if they were not desired, although they were not presented that way. The estimate was in essence an agency wish list. Nevertheless, it existed as a piece of paper with some very large dollar figures, which made it a dangerous piece of paper, for the numbers could be copied and leaked to the press and Congress and used to attack the plan. That is what happened.