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Exclusive: Book details Bush moon decision

July 15, 2004 at 12:20 PM   |   Comments

Part 3 of 3

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WASHINGTON, July 15 (UPI) -- In their new book, "New Moon Rising: The making of America's new space vision and the remaking of NASA," authors Frank Sietzen Jr. and Keith L. Cowing detail how the National Aeronautics and Space Administration attempted to recover from the shuttle Columbia tragedy and prepare to fulfill President George W. Bush's new vision for the U.S. space program. Part 3 deals with how the White House set the content of and the date for the president's announcement.

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As fall 2003 changed into winter, the process of settling on the final policy and associated directives was well underway. Speculation grew. Word of an announcement that America would be going back to the moon surfaced in early December. These rumors soon contained a specific announcement venue in mind: the 100th anniversary of powered flight on Dec. 17 at Kitty Hawk, N.C. Few could argue that it was a natural place to make a major policy announcement about space.

Indeed, in a fall 2003 hearing, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., had suggested that this anniversary -- and perhaps Kitty Hawk -- might be an appropriate place to launch such a new policy. Few outside the White House/NASA inner circle knew the policy was more or less formalized, but was still in the final nip and tuck stage. While some thought was given to possibly announcing it at Kitty Hawk, this would only happen if it was ready to be announced. It soon became clear that the policy would not be completed, and the interest in aiming for Kitty Hawk evaporated.

Moreover, the administration simply did not see the need to rush its own deliberative processes to meet external venues regardless of the historic resonances they might offer.

Eventually, the speculation was so rampant that the White House saw the need to dampen the speculation. Some vocal enthusiasts would apparently only be satisfied if they saw Bush walk out on the dais at Kitty Hawk and make an announcement.

White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan addressed the issue. Several days later White House Chief of Staff Andy Card made mention on the Sunday talk shows, raising expectations a bit. In other words, "yes there is a policy. No it is not ready yet. When it is we will let you know." Anyone who watched this White House should have recognized the response.

It became clear that although the policy was now in the final editing phase that it would not be ready for announcement on the 17th at Kitty Hawk. No firm date for its release was yet known and it could be any time in the next few weeks leading up to Christmas, or the weeks after the New Year break. There was some urgency to get the policy announced as soon as it was ready so as to reduce the chance that it would leak.

On Dec. 11, 2003, Vice President Cheney spoke at the dedication of the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center -- the vast new annex to the National Air & Space Museum located adjacent to Dulles International Airport in Chantilly, Va.

People were listening for hints as Cheney spoke:

"It is not by chance that so much of this history played out in the United States of America. At our best, Americans are a confident and a resolute people. When we set our minds to great objectives, we see the work through. The Air and Space Museum, both here and on the Mall in Washington shows what can be accomplished with confidence, perseverance and unity of purpose. As the descendants of pioneers and immigrants, Americans are explorers by nature. And our native ingenuity and sense of adventure have been put to good purposes. Our air and space programs have been critical to the widespread prosperity of a continental nation. They've helped us explore space, not just for ourselves, but for the good of all nations. And in times of dangers, as in the war we're facing today, our mastery of aerospace technology has been essential to the success of our military and to the security of the American people."

As Dec. 17 arrived, the president did indeed travel to Kitty Hawk to commemorate the 100th anniversary of powered flight. Space was mentioned, but in a context far broader than space exploration:

"A great American journey that began at Kitty Hawk continues in ways unimaginable to the Wright brothers. One small piece of their Flyer traveled far beyond this field. It was carried by another flying machine, on Apollo 11, all the way to the Sea of Tranquillity on the moon. These past hundred years have brought supersonic flights, frequent space travel, the exploration of Mars, and the Voyager 1 spacecraft, which right now is moving at 39,000 miles per hour toward the outer edge of our solar system. By our skill and daring, America has excelled in every area of aviation and space travel. And our national commitment remains firm: By our skill and daring, we will continue to lead the world in flight."

While Bush had nothing overtly new to say, two people already in space did let drift a few tempting tidbits. Speaking from orbit in a live interview with CNN, Expedition 8 astronaut Mike Foale was asked about possible new space policy initiatives and whether the space station might be passed by for a direct push to send humans to Mars. Foale replied that he and crewmate Sasha Kaleri had spent "a lot of time looking down at Earth" and that "mountain-climbing analogies came to mind." Foale noted that when attempts were made to climb peaks such as Everest and K2, "a base camp was established along the way." He continued, "I see the ISS as a base camp to get to the moon and the moon as a base camp on the way to Mars."


When he arrived at the White House to meet with the president on the afternoon of Dec. 19, 2003, Sean O'Keefe knew where the policy stood. Nonetheless, he would be surprised by what transpired during the next hour. That Friday's meeting was the space planner's final review with the president and, if he so chose, the moment of his decision to proceed.

The plan set before him that day had been built piece by piece in the methodical march towards consensus. It had started with the young space staffers thinking about space policy after the disaster in the skies above Texas. That moment had set in motion a chance alignment that so many in the space community had dreamed of for decades. The meeting had grown so large, and so many had been involved at the end, that it required a larger room than normal.

Those attending included Bush, Cheney, McClellan, the president's political adviser Karl Rove, Card and his special assistant Joel Kaplan, the president's science adviser John Marburger, Hadley and O'Keefe.

Rove had not been a big supporter of the idea and maintained a cautious attitude, although he did not criticize it. His silence was interpreted as support, for any critical word from Bush's most trusted political adviser would have sunk the plan or delayed it until after the 2004 presidential election.

The plan called for granting NASA an immediate -- though relatively modest -- budget increase, as well as an additional boost spread over several years. As Bush looked at the numbers, the others wondered if he would agree to them, given that only two other agencies -- the departments of Defense and Homeland Security -- were marked for increases in fiscal year 2005. Would the president agree and put his political capital behind the plan?

As the discussions moved toward a final choice -- the moon and then perhaps onward to Mars and beyond, too -- Bush turned to Cheney. "This is more than just the moon, isn't it?" the president asked. It wasn't so much a question as a statement.

Bush said he saw the policy as being more than picking a destination in space and then going there. Rather, it was about going out into the solar system to accomplish a broader set of objectives. It should put to rest once and for all the decades-old and what one attendee called the "somewhat tired argument" that space exploration was best performed by robots, not people. The new policy should embrace a mix of human and robotic missions -- all focused toward a common goal: Explore the vast reaches of the solar system; make that the centerpiece of American civil space policy.

There was a minute or two of silence. Then the vice president spoke up: "Then this is really about going to these other destinations, isn't it?" he asked. All agreed. One other item emerged: the president expressed a preference for inviting other nations to participate in the effort.

O'Keefe would later recall of this day: "The president was willing to put his prestige, standing, capital and reputation on this task, even if it means there are critics, and that we are singled out as the one domestic agency with an increase in these challenging budget times. That instinct, frankly, has blown me away. It is a pleasure to serve in such an administration for such a man. These are the moments when this is all worth while ... t'was a historic day."

Now that there was agreement on all the major points, Bush ended the discussion. "Let's do it", he said.

The more the president had thought about the policy, the more he wanted to "make a big deal about it," said one source who had attended the meeting.

That decision was a surprise, since all assumed Bush would make a quiet rollout next Monday morning, Dec. 22, 2003. Instead, he asked Hadley to find the next suitable date at which he could make a major space announcement. Jan. 6, 2004, was open and was first chosen as the day to release the policy.

Contrary to speculation by the media and people professing to have inside knowledge of what was going on, as soon as the final go-ahead was given to the policy, the next open date was selected. On Dec. 30, 2003, the date changed again to Jan. 14, 2004. This date was not chosen because it was after a Mars rover landing date. Nor was there actually any delay in coming to a decision -- this despite speculation that missing one anniversary or another was indicative of indecision.

Now, as the year 2003 came to a close, the president was preparing to announce the new vision for space to the nation. It had been 10 months and three weeks since Columbia had been destroyed. The civil space agency had moved from tragedy to renewal in the span of a single year.

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("New Moon Rising: The making of America's new space vision and the remaking of NASA." Apogee Books. 2004. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission. apogeebooks.com)

© 2004 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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