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Review: Falling Back to Earth

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Falling Back To Earth: A First Hand Account Of The Great Space Race And The End Of The Cold War
by Mark Albrecht
New Media Books, 2011
softcover, 232 pp.
ISBN 978-0-615-44709-4

Many believe that the turmoil that NASA has encountered in the last couple of years is unique to the agency in its history. But while the recent debate has been particularly fierce (at least for space policy), it’s not the first time that the future of America’s space program has been at the heart of heated discussions within Washington. One need only go back a little over 20 years, when President George H. W. Bush unveiled what became known as the Space Exploration Initiative (SEI), a program that at times effectively pitted NASA against the White House. In Falling Back To Earth, one of the key players in space policy of that era, Mark Albrecht, recalls those debates, as well as the changing relationship in space between the United States and Russia.

A key theme in the book is the dysfunctional relationship the space council, and by extension the White House, had with NASA and its administrator at the time, Richard Truly.

The first two parts of Falling Back To Earth cover much of Albrecht’s time as executive secretary of the National Space Council, which was reconstituted by President Bush shortly after taking office in 1989. Albrecht quickly concludes that NASA is an agency without focus, having “no strategic vision, no compelling and central organizing mission to prioritize its plans and programs,” as he told Vice President Dan Quayle in a meeting shortly after taking the job. With the support of Quayle and others in the administration, Albrecht sets out to try to do just that, convening the space council’s staff in early May of 1989 to develop a proposal for a long-term exploration plan for NASA, which would become what Bush announced on the 20th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing.

A key theme in the book, particularly in the second part, is the dysfunctional relationship the space council, and by extension the White House, had with NASA and its administrator at the time, Richard Truly. Albrecht writes that he and others in the administration were seeking transformative changes for NASA, hoping to imbue the agency with the “faster, better, cheaper” philosophy that had taken root at the Space Defense Initiative Office (SDIO), from where some of the space council’s staff had come. Frustration grew when NASA instead proposed a business-as-usual approach in their 90-day study in response to the SEI announcement. “To this day,” he writes, “I remain mystified at the incredible misreading of the times, temperament, and trends that NASA stubbornly embraced with their secretive 90-day study.” Any doubts about Albrecht’s opinion on Truly as NASA administrator are erased in the book’s introduction, where he recounts a December 1991 meeting he had with Quayle’s chief of staff, Bill Kristol, and three former NASA administrators (one of whom, Jim Fletcher, called into the meeting literally on his deathbed; he would pass away several days later), where the former heads of NASA gave a vote of no confidence in the current administrator. Truly would resign—effectively, he was fired—two months later.

The second part of Falling Back To Earth also discusses the opening of cooperation between the American and then-Soviet space program at around the same time. Albrecht describes in the book the growing interest on both sides for cooperation in space exploration, and in particular human spaceflight, in early 1990. In one chapter, he discusses some confusion within the administration during Mikhail Gorbachev’s visit to Washington in June 1990 about whether the US and USSR would sign an agreement on space cooperation that could include a joint Shuttle-Mir mission. That agreement was not tabled during the meeting, though, because of a lack of time to discuss it with the Soviets, and was further delayed by Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait and then by the collapse of the USSR itself.

Albrecht calls the decision by the administration of George W. Bush to complete and operate the ISS as part of the Vision for Space Exploration a “financial millstone that soon sunk the new initiative.”

Given the details of this insider’s account of a turbulent period for NASA and space policy, one would hope that the book would offer more details about at least what happened through mid-1992, when Albrecht stepped down as executive secretary of the National Space Council. Instead, though, the third part of the book skips ahead to late 2000 and a trip to Russia by Albrecht, now president of International Launch Services (ILS), the American-Russian joint venture marketing the Atlas and Proton rockets for commercial customers. Albrecht describes meetings with Russian industry and government officials, and a trip to Baikonur to see a Proton launch; those events are not newsworthy in and of themselves, but instead allow him to describe the changes in Russia’s space efforts since the fall of the Soviet Union. This sudden shift, though, means that he provides no additional insights into the end of Truly’s tenure as NASA administrator or the slow demise of SEI. Near the end of the book, he states that recruiting Dan Goldin to succeed Truly as administrator “was probably my most lasting and consequential contribution to the space program”, yet he provides no other details about that effort.

Albrecht is clearly pessimistic about the future of the US space program in Falling Back To Earth. He writes in the introduction that the book is “a firsthand account of how the United States effectively abandoned its space exploration program after it won the Cold War.” That’s a curious statement, since shuttle flights and assembly of the International Space Station continued for nearly two decades since the fall of the Soviet Union, while robotic space exploration efforts have arguably been more robust in the last two decades than in the 1980s in particular. Late in the book, though, it’s clear his pessimism is rooted in the failure of SEI and, more recently, the collapse of the Vision for Space Exploration; in the case of the latter, he calls the decision by the administration of George W. Bush to complete and operate the ISS a “financial millstone that soon sunk the new initiative.”

“It is an open question whether a future President will take another bite at the human space exploration apple,” he concludes. “Frankly, it is hard to imagine.” While some may dismiss that finding as overly cynical, Falling Back To Earth does demonstrate the difficulties in winning support for radical new changes for NASA—a lesson that rings true today.