America's civil space program has been shattered by a lack of vision and leadership, according to Mark Albrecht, who served as executive secretary of the National Space Council for President George H. W. Bush, as the Cold War drew to a close.
In remarks Wednesday at Rice University's James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy in Houston, Albrecht pointed to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the absence of a Communist threat at the Cold War's end for precipitating a decline within U.S. civil space. The fall was most recently exhibited by the retirement of NASA's shuttle program and congressional direction to develop the Space Launch System, a heavy lift rocket and crew capsule fashioned for vague deep space destinations.
"This program is already stalemated. It's a space equivalent of a bridge to nowhere, not selected by a competitive process and not focused on new technologies," said Albrecht of the SLS. "It was designed and essentially forced on NASA by members of Congress and staff that kludged together pieces from the aging space shuttle infrastructure and without compelling mission rationale that would provide a sustaining sense of urgency. In all likelihood, it will be another contested, overrun, late and ultimately cancelled program."
The harsh assessment is based on Albrecht's professional journey through congressional as well as White House politics, and a post-Cold War career in the aerospace industry, including executive positions at SAIC, Lockheed Martin and International Launch Services, the Russian/American joint venture.
The saga became the basis of his book, Falling Back to Earth: A firsthand Account of the Great Space Race and the End of the Cold War, published earlier this year. In his remarks at Rice, Albrecht said the U. S. does not need another global crisis to rise to Apollo-era achievements that win the admiration of other nations and fuel innovation, while spurring strides in education. During his space council tenure, from 1989 to 1992, the Bush administration offered the Space Exploration Initiative as an alternative, he noted.
But the proposal for a sustained U.S. led international effort to leverage the space station into a human lunar base and expeditions to Mars met resistance in an unexpected place -- NASA, and its own contractor partners.
"We thought we would be met with an enthusiastic response and aggressive action to bring the space station, the space shuttle all the existing pieces into a conformity of meeting this new goal and aggressively looking for new technologies. We did not get that response," Albrecht recalled.
SEI was cancelled. The Iraqi invasion of Kuwait triggered a war that soon had the U.S. government spending again on a familiar priority, national security. Interest in post Cold War space initiatives faded.
Albrecht's prescription for reversing the course calls for drastic action.
"The performance of the organization needs to be elevated, and much of the institution needs to be flattened," he said. The former space council secretary would focus NASA's mission on space exploration, reduce the number of field centers and cut the duplication of non-core activities.
"We have become all flour and no yeast. Young engineers should come to NASA because it's the most innovative and exciting place to work, and they should leave and start or join space enterprises that will build the future," said Albrecht. "As the election of 2012 comes closer, I will look less at who offers to spend the most on space and more to what they promise about leadership and management."