Many human spaceflight advocates consider the imminent termination of the space shuttle and the lack of commitment to a future human space exploration program as U.S. abdication of its leadership in space. Mark Albrecht, former Executive Director of the White House's National Space Council under President George H. W. Bush, is one of them.
In his new book, Falling Back to Earth: A First Hand Account of the Great Space Race and the End of the Cold War, Albrecht provides a very personal account of his years in the Bush Administration - that's the first Bush Administration, not the more recent George W. Bush presidency - working with Vice President Dan Quayle as they tried their hand at getting American astronauts out of Earth orbit.
A fixture in Washington space policy circles, Albrecht has shared many of these stories verbally throughout the years, but now they are in print. It is a valuable addition to the historical record.
The book is an insider's view of the domestic and international politics that shaped the civil space program during the years Albrecht ran the National Space Council (1989-1992). He also has several chapters about his later tenure as President of International Launch Services (ILS), a joint venture between Lockheed Martin and Russia's Khrunichev to commercialize Russia's Proton rocket. At the end, he offers an assessment of the challenges facing NASA today and his prescription for fixing them.
The book is not an academic treatise. Only 45 endnotes underpin the over 200 page book. Albrecht says in his introduction that he relied on his "personal notes and records of meetings and conversations" and public documents from the George H.W. Bush presidential library. He quotes high ranking Administration officials at length throughout the book. Indicating which quotes came from his personal notes and which from public documents would have substantially added to the gravitas of the book.
Instead, it is an entertaining, fast-paced recounting of a White House staffer's view of that period in U.S. space policy. Most of the book deals with the decision early in the Bush presidency to put America on the road to returning humans to the Moon and someday sending them to Mars, and why, in Albrecht's opinion, the effort collapsed over the ensuing years. It also recounts the Bush Administration's aspirations to increase U.S.-Russian space cooperation as the Cold War ended. Albrecht was center stage in those deliberations, which started the ball rolling for the Shuttle-Mir missions in the mid-1990s that led to the International Space Station (ISS) cooperation of today. Scholars researching the history of U.S.-Russian space cooperation will find interesting tales of why it took as long as it did to open those floodgates.
Albrecht displays his loyalty to Vice President Quayle throughout the book, portraying him as a strong leader completely unlike the image painted by the media. As much as he tries to make the reader admire Quayle, he pulls no punches in his withering assessment of Richard Truly, then NASA Administrator. Truly is a constant presence in the book starting with the Introduction where Albrecht details a December 1991 White House meeting where three of the four living former NASA Administrators tell the White House what it clearly wanted to hear - that Truly needed to be replaced.
Albrecht puts the blame for the collapse of the Moon/Mars initiative squarely on Truly's shoulders. From resisting the idea in the first place, to undermining it with Congress thereafter, Dick Truly is portrayed as an entrenched defender of NASA's status quo - the space shuttle and space station programs - who refused to follow White House direction. Not everyone will agree NASA is entirely to blame, of course, but they will have to write their own memoirs.
Albrecht's opinion of NASA as an agency is no higher than his assessment of Truly. In his last chapter, he drives home that he believes now as he did 20 years ago that NASA needs to be completely restructured. He specifically calls for closing NASA field centers through a BRAC-like process, transferring some NASA programs (like aeronautics, education, and earth science - anything that isn't "exploration") to other agencies, and expanding its commercial partnerships.
In fact, it is eerie to read many passages in the book about the 1989-1992 period - a trip back in time only to discover that you are where you started. One exception is that, from outside appearances at least, Truly's successors have carefully hewed to White House direction, but in many other cases there are close similarities to what Albrecht had in mind in 1989 and what has developed more recently and also turned to dust.
Albrecht wanted to replace the shuttle and space station programs with a new human space exploration program, not overlay exploration on top of the existing programs (other than using the space station for requisite life sciences research). That was the path George W. Bush took, calling for termination of the shuttle in 2010 and ISS in 2015. Albrecht wanted to take a long term view of human exploration - no crash program - and invest in new technologies to make it more affordable. That was President Obama's proposal in his FY2011 NASA budget request, although he simultaneously cancelled Bush's Moon/Mars program and gave the ISS a reprieve. The Obama Administration's dreadful roll-out of its NASA proposal doomed robust technology investment once again and left the human spaceflight program adrift. One can't help but wonder if Obama had created a National Space Council as he promised during his campaign, headed by an experienced and effective insider like Albrecht (albeit Democrat instead of Republican), whether that episode in U.S. space policy would have turned out better.
The misgivings Albrecht expresses about the future of today's human spaceflight program are widely shared in the space community. NASA may insist that the U.S. human spaceflight program is doing just fine with flights of U.S. astronauts to the ISS via Russian Soyuz spacecraft for the indefinite future, but most of us are uneasy at best. One can agree or not with Albrecht's prescription for fixing today's problems - overhauling NASA and incentivizing private industry - but his cautionary final paragraph rings all too true. Human exploration of space will continue, the only question is what role we will have in it: "The United States may well lead that venture, or participate in it, or, most sadly of all, simply watch it. It's up to all of us."
Albrecht is donating the proceeds from book sales to the California State Summer School for Mathematics and Science (COSMOS). Buying a copy will not only offer insights into the inner workings of the George H.W. Bush Administration and its National Space Council, but through its sales will also help get younger kids engaged in science and math.
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