Exclusive: Book details space plan's birth

July 15, 2004 at 12:23 PM

Part 2 of 3

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WASHINGTON, July 14 (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 2 deals with how the space plan developed at the grassroots level within the administration in 2003.

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When George W. Bush took office, there were some largely overlooked staffers in the White House that formed the corporate memory for space policy, and whose work served as the foundation for much of what was to come.

Two staffers played important if not crucial roles in this space policy activity. Gil Klinger, of the National Security Council, and Brett Alexander, of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, were largely responsible for these early Bush space efforts.

Klinger and Alexander were little known outside the Washington space community, but their influence on shaping policy was substantial. And Klinger in particular would come to play an even larger role in helping to advance the space policy-making process as the fall of 2003 drew to a close. It would be a role that would be largely overshadowed by NASA and Sean O'Keefe. But even some at NASA were envious of their White House roles in space matters.

While O'Keefe would soon begin to forge the idea of extending NASA's responsibilities with an infusion of new presidential space support, the path that would lead to a new space policy being accepted by President Bush actually began without either his or NASA's participation.

Soon after the Columbia accident (on Feb. 1, 2003), a series of meetings began in the Executive Office of the President that sought to address the future of the human spaceflight program. These meetings were at the lowest possible level -- the staff level. People were basically getting together, on their own initiative, to kick around ideas.

The Columbia accident had happened, of course, and the future of space exploration appeared uncertain. They wanted to see if some clarity of purpose for space could be defined, and if they themselves could come to an agreement about it.

The largely young staffers came from a wide variety of EOP agencies. The Office of Management and Budget, National Security Council, OSTP and other agencies were represented.

Who were these White House employees? None of the participants interviewed for this book wanted to be identified. But what they all had in common was their love of space. Some had impressive technical educations; these were engineers who could talk the technical side of space flight as well as any geeks. Ironically, they weren't in engineering jobs in the White House; they were there to work in space, space planning and space policy. Anything to be "doing" space stuff.

They lived and breathed the stuff. When they went on trips, it was to space museums or launches. When they got together for lunch or on their own time, it was to talk space, or attend lectures about space. And, unlike many in Washington, they actually knew what they were talking about.

Together, they now sat down in the aftermath of the shuttle disaster to think; what was America going to do now? Was there something, they thought, that the administration could do, something that could possibly be elevated to the presidential level that could the basis of a presidential announcement, or an acknowledgment by the president about the importance of space?

As they continued their talks -- unstructured and without any formal agenda -- their meetings took on a name. They began to be called the "Splinter Group."

Several attendees thought that the upcoming Centennial of Flight anniversary of Dec. 17, 2003, might serve as the perfect venue for Bush to say something about supporting the human spaceflight program. But the staffers had no real process going, not hoping or expecting to create any new policy. And they all agreed on one other thing: They had to keep things quiet, under the radar, so as not to arouse NASA in any way. As such they kept it to just a discussion.

Each time they got together, everyone in the room felt strongly that something needed to be done about the space program. Nobody wanted to entertain the thought of ending the human exploration of space because of Columbia.

These "roundtables" went on through April 2003. As O'Keefe continued to brief Bush on the progress in the Columbia investigation, the ideas generated by the Splinter Group began to accumulate. Some brought or referred to white papers on various space topics written years before.

Then there was a subtle shift in the Splinter meetings. They became just a bit more formal. In addition to the original members, invitations were extended to other EOP officials and staff. These included staff of Vice President Dick Cheney, some from other elements of the Domestic Policy Council and other cabinet representatives.

The attendees started to look across the material that had been generated since the winter and ask hard questions. Where should human spaceflight go? Should America be doing it at all? Should the country be going all out?

Many flat-out said the country should finally get going out beyond low-Earth orbit, as it had during Apollo.

Together, the ideas were drafted on paper into a "strawman" draft policy document. But they weren't yet sure if there was anything there that could eventually rise to the presidential level. They were asking each other the same questions that their predecessors had raised decades ago: "What was the justification and rationale for human spaceflight?"

The CAIB investigations were underway, too, and the staffers meeting in the Splinter Group talked about what they were hearing from watching those activities as well. They all assumed that the space shuttle would be, and could be, fixed and would fly again. But there was also a consensus that was forming up that looked at the shuttle as holding the space program back, in a sense.

"Should we be putting our resources into something else?" some were asking. And if so, what should that something else be?

Summer was now upon Washington, and the Splinter attendees were picking up indications that NASA was interested in an expanded mission. It wasn't clear how that word filtered down to them, for none knew about O'Keefe and Bush's talks during the spring and early summer.

NASA, for its part, apparently was interested in going on its own way -- "it's own trajectory." O'Keefe and NASA Comptroller Steve Isakowitz had their own ideas. But what they wanted appeared, as far as some in the White House heard, to be everything imaginable. O'Keefe wanted the new Orbital Space Plane proposal of his accelerated. He needed to pay for the Columbia investigation, keeping the shuttles flying at least until the space station was completed, and maybe longer. New cargo vehicle studies. Advanced rocket engine and launch vehicle technology. But what they didn't hear was O'Keefe attempting to sell a specific exploration proposal. He didn't want the moon. He didn't seem to want Mars. All he seemed to want was a pot of new money for NASA and some new mission.

With the space agency growing more active in the search for a new vision and mission for itself, the Splinterees decided it was time to let NASA into their deliberations, if they were ever to amount to anything.

"It was clear it was going to be hard to do this without them."

Thus the "Rump Group" was born -- a more structured version of the Splinter meetings, and with a more formal agenda and somewhat more senior staff in attendance.

NASA was now represented, by three designees sent over by O'Keefe and sworn to secrecy. Steve Isakowitz, Office of Biological and Physical Research Associate Administrator Mary Kicza, and NASA Chief of Staff John Schumacher joined in. Not every meeting was attended by all three. Other senior staff from the same suite of White House agencies joined the discussion.

The options on the table ranged from everything NASA was currently doing, as well as more. Now, as summer's end approached, the Rump Group started, for the first time, to attach cost estimates to the scenarios that they were tinkering with.

Oh, you want to do that? When? Let's run the numbers and see what will it cost. Immediately, it was clear that cost would rapidly constrain some ideas. So they asked that question, too: Are we going to be constrained by cost in what we do? How can we work this?

For NASA's part, the answer was obvious: Give us more money, a lot more money, and we can go really far out there.

The ideas quickly got ranked by complexity and cost. And it was now time to take these studies, ideas, and projections and see if the White House of George W. Bush could fold them -- or parts of the Rump scenarios -- into a policy construct.

The policy construction process would follow a traditional form. A Deputies Committee was formed up, administered by the President's Domestic Policy Council and the National Security Council. NSC, as usual, chaired this policy effort.

The attendees were usually the deputy secretaries of the cabinet-level departments, although sometimes O'Keefe was present and sometimes Schumacher. The level of interest by these officials quickly became apparent, for not all of the deputies attended these meetings, or even sent representatives.

One surprising deputy, who quickly grasped the importance of a new space exploration agenda, was Colin Powell's Deputy Secretary of State, Richard Armitage. To the surprise of many, Armitage not only came out for NASA, he came out loudly and never missed any of the meetings.

Of course, some should not have been surprised, because Armitage was a long time friend and colleague of O'Keefe. So was another attendee, Deputy National Security Adviser Steve Hadley. Hadley had often attempted to explain to the attendees Bush's active view of the reason for space exploration -- exploration. It just made sense to the president to look at it that way, he said.

Meanwhile, O'Keefe was pushing for a powerful budget boost to pay for any new initiative. O'Keefe would soon collide with the White House. It had set a clear limit for budget growth that domestic agencies could follow. But

NASA had two sets of numbers it was following. One was an "in-guide" budget, and the other was an "out of guide" budget, which basically included everything O'Keefe could think of for his agency.

This didn't sit well with some at the White House, so Hadley decided to reconstitute the Rump Group -- a sort of Rump Group II. It was made up, once again, of just staff, but this time they had specific instructions. They were to look at some options that could be afforded that would give President Bush a new space plan without needing a massive budget increase, the kind O'Keefe was trying to get.

First, the Rump team developed detailed "vision" options. Then they were required to run the budget numbers out through completion of the particular vision.

The White House was sending O'Keefe a message: Keep all of this "budget neutral" -- that is, no new money. At the time, O'Keefe had been told his agency's funding for the period between fiscal year 2005 and FY 2009 was flat, and after that a moderate rate of growth.

O'Keefe was frustrated. How could NASA get a new space vision with no money to pay for it? Everything was on the table: continue the shuttle and station, orbital space plane, space launch initiative, new generation launch technology program -- you name it. NASA wanted it all, and a new exploration project of undetermined origin, too.

O'Keefe didn't say the moon, and didn't say Mars. He wanted something on that scale, however. But he was, according to some on the Rump II staff, in a fighting mood.

"This will make us (NASA) look ridiculous," he was quoted as saying in one meeting. "If we have to stay within these guidelines, there is no way our vision will get picked."

He was right about that. Oddly enough, when each of the Rump II attendees sent back their own vision for NASA, all fit in the existing NASA budget plan. In their words, they were all budget neutral -- except the budget proposed by NASA.

The deputies took this data, and came back with a compromise approach. Do an analysis, they told the Rump II team, using a 5 percent increase to NASA and a 5 percent decrease. The 5 percent decrease was called a disaster.

"Why don't we just go out of business?" one deputy is alleged to have said. Some on the president's staff had enough of NASA's whining. They were unreasonable about this budget issue, some thought.

O'Keefe thought that time was running out. So he began to lobby, hard.

Halloween was fast approaching. He called Presidential Science Adviser John Marburger for support. He called in other agencies. Some thought he called Bush. In the end, it began to be clear to O'Keefe that he wasn't getting any new money.

It looked bleak for NASA. He called in every chit he was owed. The bean-counting administrator whom many had dismissed as being uninterested in space was now fighting -- and fighting hard -- for space exploration after all. He went to OMB, and the agency ran scenario after scenario.

O'Keefe, who was the previous Deputy Director of OMB, pleaded his case to his former boss, Mitch Daniels. NASA was fighting for its very existence, he said. They had to get some budget relief to achieve the goals O'Keefe knew Bush would support. He begged. He pleaded. He argued. And, finally, he won.

When some staffers heard that he had wrangled new money out of OMB, many were astonished. The previous orders from Bush had been clear: No domestic agency would be getting any budget increase starting in 2005. No agency that is, except NASA. But it was a very small victory. NASA could get some new money after all, but not a lot; maybe $1 billion across the next five years. After that, nothing but flat funding, perhaps indexed for inflation.

But how would that work? Answer: only if NASA reprogrammed some of its own, previously planned budget money. Doing this would mean that wholesale cuts to existing NASA programs would be needed to free up funding for new exploration

initiatives. And that initiative appeared, as Halloween came to the capital, to be the moon.

A strong consensus was forming up in the Deputies Group that the return to the moon by American astronauts should be the new national space goal.

By November 2003, it was conceived that NASA would pay for it, barely, by basically cannibalizing itself. But how?

For starters, it would save billions by retiring the space shuttle fleet as soon as the International Space Station could be finished. Billions more could be freed by killing the space plane, Space Launch Initiative, and various launch technology programs. After all, if NASA was going to the moon, why did they need to spend billions on a new launch vehicle for the space station? And since the purpose of the space agency would become manned lunar flights, why did NASA need to be the main user of that space station?

More billions were saved by canceling or drastically reducing research into microgravity science. O'Keefe would have to impose a vast set of changes upon his agency. But by Thanksgiving, it appeared that he could pull it off after all.

The Deputies Committee looked at that plan, and thought it could work. OMB was now on board. There was just one problem. When a preliminary version of the space policy reached Bush, he wasn't happy. It wasn't about the moon, he said. It was about exploring. The solar system. A broader set of exploration objectives. Maybe Mars in the future. Go back and make sure that's what the policy would say, he said.

So a shift was made that used the lunar surface as a sort of test bed. The technologies developed there could sustain a moon base or help plan a Mars mission. The Deputies Committee drew up its final recommendations. The choice of Dec. 17, 2003, (the centennial of the Wright brothers first flights) as an announcement date could not be met, thanks to the budget battle delays that had raged. But the space plan was coming together and the Deputies Committee

was about to go out of business, having produced a space policy recommendation that had unanimous support from the federal departments that had participated.

By then, the space staffers had long since returned to their duties. They had learned much about space policy -- and space politics, too. The process by which that policy had been created didn't follow what some had been taught in school. The actual process by which policy had been made was untidy, at the beginning unformed, and wound up being pushed forward by an unusual and unlikely cast of characters, at a pace that surprised them all.

In other words, more like real life.

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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)

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