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Bush and O'Keefe
President Bush and Administrator O’Keefe have learned some of the lessons of SEI, but still have encountered problems during the rollout of the Vision for Space Exploration. (credit: White House)

Not quite exactly déjà vu all over again

The Vision for Space Exploration and learning from history

Humorist P.J. O’Rourke once said that those who fail to learn from history are probably failing algebra as well. It was a joke, but one with a certain degree of truth. People and organizations rarely seem to learn from history, and those who don’t often have other problems to worry about that are more important. But the corollary to this saying is that even if they do learn from history, it is no guarantee of success.

The current Vision for Space Exploration has inevitably been compared to the Space Exploration Initiative of 1989, often unfavorably. In both cases a Bush administration endorsed a long-term exploration plan for the civilian space program and gave it to NASA to implement. And in both cases the plan had a high price tag and gathered immediate criticism from Congress and the press. We have yet to see if this space plan, like the last one, will ultimately go nowhere and be canceled.

However, there are also key differences between the two programs that indicate that both this administration and NASA have learned some of the lessons of the past and tried to compensate for them. They have clearly not learned all of the lessons, and have made some major early stumbles on the way toward implementing the Vision.

NASA and the administration have clearly not learned all of the lessons, and have made some major early stumbles on the way toward implementing the Vision.

Even if they had learned all the right lessons—assuming that they could have identified the right lessons from the wrong ones—it is not clear that it would have mattered. A passing grade in history will not compensate for failing English, mathematics or even gym.

Rush to decision

The Space Exploration Initiative was developed in the early summer of 1989 within the White House’s relatively young National Space Council. The degree of NASA involvement is still unclear. The agency’s own Office of Exploration obviously had some input into the plan, but the problems that quickly followed President Bush’s announcement on July 20, 1989 strongly imply that coordination between NASA and the Space Council was not as good as it should have been. Within only a few months the Space Council realized that NASA was going to be a major impediment to enacting the new policy.

The biggest problem was that NASA’s senior leadership soon demonstrated that it was opposed to the policy. Presumably better coordination between NASA and the Space Council before the formal announcement of the program would have revealed some of these problems and possibly made the Space Council more wary of recommending a bold policy that was opposed by the agency leadership that would have to implement it. Perhaps the real lesson of this early interaction was that such an ambitious exploration policy was impossible with the NASA that then existed and the Space Council should have focused instead on reforming the agency, rather than giving it a new mission. But management reorganizations are not the kind of bold initiatives that presidents are remembered for. The Space Council clearly wanted an exciting new space plan and wanted to announce the policy by the Apollo 11 anniversary.

Admittedly, the Space Council cannot be totally blamed for this mistake. There were hints, but no clear evidence that agency managers were incapable of conceiving of human or robotic spacecraft as anything other than large and expensive programs. Although this seems obvious today, it was not as obvious in summer 1989 and there were few demonstration proofs that space projects could be done considerably cheaper than NASA claimed. However, the Space Council did have early warning of the immense costs that NASA attached to space exploration—the $400 billion cost figure for SEI was generated over two weeks before Bush gave his speech—and for some reason the Space Council chose to ignore this warning sign.

The lessons of SEI

The people involved in developing the Vision for Space Exploration in late 2003 did pay some attention to the SEI experience. They do seem to have learned some important lessons from the earlier experience. The first lesson they learned was apparently that a new space policy and management changes at NASA go hand in hand. NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe has conducted several reorganizations at the space agency, starting with creating Code T, the Office of Exploration Systems (since renamed), and continuing with the most recent NASA “Transformation Plan.” Another lesson the White House learned was the importance of ensuring that the agency’s leadership supported the policy and that it had people capable of conducting it. O’Keefe has made a concerted effort to bring people with substantial procurement experience from the Department of Defense into NASA to run the big programs that the agency will have to accomplish to return humans to the moon.

O’Keefe was apparently involved in drafting the new Vision, although his objections and contributions to the plan remain unknown. O’Keefe appears to be an enthusiastic supporter of the new policy. Even if his enthusiasm is partially an act, it could hardly be worse than the Space Exploration Initiative experience, where then NASA Administrator Dick Truly was widely reported to be completely opposed to the new policy.

If Bush loses the election in November, the Vision is almost certainly dead.

There are also key differences between now and 1989, and these split both ways, helping and hurting the current effort. Currently the United States has a Republican President and a Republican Congress inclined to support the president’s policies, or at least not publicly undercut him. In contrast, President George H.W. Bush faced a Democratic-controlled Congress inclined to oppose his policies no matter what they were. That is certainly a positive for the Exploration Vision’s prospects in Congress.

But one different aspect that works against the current policy is that Bush proposed the Vision in his third year in office, not the beginning of his term. This has had two effects, one obvious and one that remains murky. The obvious problem is that Bush’s plan emerged in an election year. Space is low on the priorities list anyway, and election-year politics have undoubtedly helped push it even lower. It has now been six months since Bush unveiled the Vision and he has not spoken about it once, not even at the release of the Aldridge Commission report. This lack of presidential attention is a pretty strong indication that it is no longer on the administration’s active agenda.

The other, more serious problem is that if Bush loses the election in November, the Vision is almost certainly dead. It will have gained no momentum in its ten months of existence, and Senator John Kerry has announced his opposition to the plan. Everybody, including the Vision’s supporters, is currently performing this political calculus. One gets the distinct sense that Republicans, Democrats and America’s potential international space partners are all marking time, waiting for the election, before they will invest much energy into the new policy.

In fact, even within NASA there is less incentive to work hard at implementing a new policy that may be dead the day after the November elections. There are plenty of historical examples of this. For instance, before and after the 1992 presidential election several NASA managers resisted making changes ordered by Dan Goldin because they figured that Goldin would be replaced. There are no signs that the space agency is experiencing similar open revolt now, but it is a natural bureaucratic impulse for people to slow down until they have greater clarity about the future.

The lesson of sticker shock

The administration appears to have only partially learned one of the major lessons of the Space Exploration Initiative, which is that high costs can kill the program. NASA has emphasized repeatedly that it can achieve the Vision without any increases in its overall budget by retiring the Space Shuttle and reducing involvement in the International Space Station program. The agency even released a by-now notorious “sand chart” that showed the agency’s budget tracking with inflation over the next fifteen years.

The problem is that nobody really believes that an ambitious new program can be crammed into a non-ambitious budget. NASA has had to face a contradiction in its policy that has led to at least one testy exchange on Capitol Hill. The agency legitimately insists that it is too early to provide detailed budget figures on how much the different parts of the Vision will cost, but critics ask how, without knowing this information, NASA and the administration can assert that these unknown costs will not exceed the agency’s planned budget. However, it is certainly a positive sign that the agency’s leadership tacitly accepts that constrained budgets are inevitable.

NASA has emphasized repeatedly that it can achieve the Vision without any increases in its overall budget by retiring the Space Shuttle and reducing involvement in the International Space Station program. The problem is that nobody really believes that an ambitious new program can be crammed into a non-ambitious budget.

Where NASA and the administration failed to learn a lesson from the Space Exploration Initiative experience is the fact that perceived sticker shock can be more important than actual estimated costs. A week before the Vision was unveiled, dozens of news stories appeared citing an erroneous and fictional one trillion dollar cost estimate for the plan. That number was then quoted by many politicians and critics. (See “Whispers in the echo chamber: Why the media says the space plan costs a trillion dollars”, the Space Review, March 22, 2004) This figure could have been debunked with a few hours of research, starting in NASA’s own history office. Yet neither White House nor NASA officials did anything to refute it until two weeks later, by which time nobody noticed. As a result, news articles still appear with the trillion-dollar cost estimate. Anybody familiar with the Space Exploration Initiative, or who had done a simple media search for summer 1989, should have known that a $400-500 billion price tag had widely circulated for that plan and was a major reason for its unpopularity. They should have been prepared to aggressively refute claims that the new plan would cost anywhere near as much.

This is a lesson that anybody who works in Washington should know by heart—never let your critics control the agenda or the debate. It is Politics 101, not History 101.

A stumbling rollout

Although one would have hoped that the Vision’s architects had learned a few more lessons from the Space Exploration Initiative history, perhaps the biggest problems have had little to do with past experience and more to do with implementation.

There is a wide perception both inside and outside the space community that the rollout of the Vision was poorly handled. The administration and NASA stumbled in both big and little ways. For instance, the policy had no formal name for months and was widely referred to as “the President’s Vision,” rather than as national policy. It was therefore immediately tossed into the partisan political arena. Democrats instantly attacked it, and the press, and public, perceived it as election-year politics. It was hard for critics of the administration to lend their support to something that was called “the President’s Vision” in the current polarized political environment. Only a few months later did NASA finally declare that the policy was to be called the “Vision for Space Exploration.”

More importantly, as John Hamre, president of the Center for Strategic and International Studies recently said at a conference on international space cooperation, the administration did a poor job of “preparing the battlefield” for the new policy. Hamre is no space insider, but he considered the implementation of the policy to be sloppy. The new space policy was developed in secrecy, and then sprung on Congress and the public simultaneously, followed only a few days later with the bad news about the Hubble Space Telescope—arguably NASA’s most popular project. Had the administration waited several months until it had more concrete budget figures, or had it rolled out the policy in stages—perhaps first announcing plans to retire the Space Shuttle upon completion of the ISS, then waiting several months to release the remaining plans—the Vision might not have debuted to such criticism.

John Hamre, president of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, recently said that the administration did a poor job of “preparing the battlefield” for the new policy.

It also appears that for at least the first few months the administration thought that NASA should carry all of the responsibility for the new policy. It was not until April or May that White House science advisor John Marburger also began lobbying for the policy, speaking about it publicly to various audiences as well as meeting with members of Congress. This was not a coordinated support effort from the start.

Not quite déjà vu

The administration and NASA get a mixed grade for learning from the SEI experience. But even so, we must still acknowledge that one of the problems of learning from history is that the present is not the same as the past. NASA is a different organization than it was in 1989 and the administration—and Congress—face a different political environment. Even getting an “A” in history—or in all your subjects, for that matter—is no guarantee of success. You can still walk out the school door and fall down the stairs.