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Review: Origins of 21st-Century Space Travel

Origins of 21st-Century Space Travel: A History of NASA’s Decadal Planning Team and the Vision for Space Exploration 1999–2004
by Glen R. Asner and Stephen J. Garber
NASA, 2019
258 pp., illus.

For the moment, things have quieted down in the space policy world, at least on the surface. Congress started its August recess last week after passing a budget deal that avoids another rewound of automatic budget cuts, instead lifting spending caps on defense and non-defense discretionary spending. Work is now underway among Senate appropriators to craft spending bills for fiscal year 2020 that fit within those spending caps, which will be debated when senators return after Labor Day and then be reconciled with House bills passed earlier this summer. NASA, meanwhile, is on the hunt for a new leader of its human spaceflight division after the unexpected reassignment last month of Bill Gerstenmaier, and the agency is pressing ahead with various initiatives related to its Artemis program, like procurement of a lunar lander through a public-private partnership.

That makes now an ideal time to read a new history of NASA’s previous effort to return to the Moon under the Vision for Space Exploration. While what happened after President George W. Bush announced the Vision in a January 2004 speech is well known, the development of the vision, and the efforts in years prior that provided a foundation for those efforts, is far more obscure. Origins of 21st-Century Space Travel by historians Glen R. Asner and Stephen J. Garber, and published by NASA’s History Office, offers by far the most comprehensive look yet at how the Vision was developed, lessons that can shed light on this latest effort to return to the Moon.

The first part of the book provides an overview of previous initiatives for human space exploration in the post-Apollo era, most notably the Space Exploration Initiative. Once SEI collapsed in the early ’90s, NASA turned its attention away from such bold human exploration visions, focusing instead on faster-better-cheaper robotic missions and developing the International Space Station. Only in the late 1990s did the situation change, when the Office of Management and Budget added $5 million to NASA’s fiscal year 2000 budget proposal “to explore and refine concepts and technologies” to support NASA’s plans for the next decade. “The budget officers were seeking concrete ideas for NASA’s mission after the completion of the International Space Station,” Asner and Garber explain.

That led NASA to quietly start a study by a small group, called the Decadal Planning Team (DPT), to explore various options for future programs, including human exploration beyond Earth orbit. That team and its successor, the NASA Exploration Team (NEXT), looked at a broad range of potential missions, architectures, and technologies, what some termed “sneaking up on Mars.” That effort survived a change in presidential administrations, and then a change in NASA administrators. But, by the end of 2002, that work had not yet led to a major new human spaceflight initiative, and interest in the White House in space policy had been limited to work on updating policies in areas like commercial remote sensing and space transportation.

The Challenger accident on February 1, 2003, changed all that. Even as the investigation into the accident was ramping up, both NASA and the White House took a renewed interest in the future of human spaceflight at NASA. Sean O’Keefe, the NASA administrator at the time, worried not just about the future of human spaceflight but the entire civilian space program. Some within NASA saw the accident as an opportunity to rethink human spaceflight and come up with new goals and programs, and started work on concepts that included a human return to the Moon, informed by the DPT/NEXT studies. (Among them was the agency’s comptroller, Steve Isakowitz, who earlier, while working at OMB, inserted the budget provision that led to the formation of the DPT.) The White House had its own efforts, including the Splinter Group and Rump Group.

The book closely follows the policy that emerged in the second half of 2003 in meetings led by the National Security Council and Domestic Policy Council. Thanks to records and interviews, Asner and Garber trace the debates about destinations and budgets and programs that took place that led to the policy that was announced by Bush in January 2004. One example is the debate about whether there should be a gap between the retirement of the shuttle and the introduction of a Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV). During meetings in the fall of 2003, the officials in those meetings opposed any kind of gap, fearing the policy implications of being dependent on Russia for access to the station. But changing budgets ultimately led to the decision to push back the CEV to 2014 while retiring the shuttle in 2010. The shuttle, of course, was ultimately retired in 2011, and the gap in American human orbital spaceflight is now more than eight years old.

The resulting Vision, of course, encountered its problems, notably insufficient budgets and a lack of support, particularly from the White House. But, they argue, it “succeeded in helping the Agency move past the Columbia accident to place the human spaceflight program on a more stable foundation” and freed “the human space program from what many considered the shackles of the Shuttle and ISS.” But that would not have been possible, or at least likely, without the triggering event of the accident, since the DPT and NEXT work had been focused on studies and planning, and O’Keefe “appears not to have had intentions of implementing anything so ambitious” before it.

Origins of 21st-Century Space Travel is an excellent examination of that period of transition for NASA and national space policy. The timing of the book is such that it’s distant enough from the events that most of the principals involved have moved on from government service, but recent enough that they are still available to talk about the events, supporting the various records and documentation supporting this study.

It can also serve as a reminder of the challenges of shaping space policy that we’re seeing today in this latest effort to send humans beyond low Earth orbit and back to the Moon. “Those who dream of affecting national policy need to know the dense policy and organizational thickets they will encounter as surely as they will struggle against gravity,” states a passage in the book’s foreword—written by Bill Gerstenmaier.

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