George H. W. Bush Remembered as Space Visionary

George H. W. Bush Remembered as Space Visionary

Many tributes are being paid to President George H.W. Bush, who passed away on November 30.   His influence on the space program is remembered mostly for the unsuccessful Space Exploration Initiative (SEI) to return astronauts to the Moon and go on to Mars, but he had a profound impact on NASA’s program in a different way — opening up cooperation with Russia as the Cold War ended. Today’s launch of a Russian-American-Canadian trio to the International Space Station on a Russian rocket is a tribute to his leadership.

Russian President Boris Yeltsin and U.S. President George H.W. Bush on the South Lawn of the White House, June 16, 1992. Credit: GPO

On June 17, 1992, Bush and Russian President Boris Yeltsin signed an agreement that set the stage for the first astronaut-cosmonaut exchanges since the 1975 Apollo-Soyuz Test Project (ASTP).  Their agreement was for a Russian cosmonaut to fly on a U.S. space shuttle mission, an American astronaut to visit the Russian space station Mir for an extended duration flight, and have a U.S. space shuttle dock with Mir to return the American and two Russian cosmonauts.

It was a resumption of space cooperation that had blossomed during the Nixon and Ford Administrations into ASTP, but plummeted after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979.  The Reagan Administration focused on the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), or “Star Wars,” to build a space-based ballistic missile defense system to deter Soviet aggression, not  cooperation.

The collapse of the Soviet Union (some say at least in part because of SDI) during Bush’s term offered the opportunity to reset the relationship between the two countries. Space cooperation once again became a visible symbol of how they could work together toward common goals.

Over time his initiative grew into the shuttle-Mir program of the 1990s, Russia joining the International Space Station partnership, and the close human spaceflight ties that continue today as evidenced by the Soyuz MS-11 launch this morning.

Bush encouraged the nascent commercial space sector as well.  Spurred by the Reagan Administration and policy changes after the 1986 space shuttle Challenger accident, U.S. commercial launch services were just getting underway when Bush was in office.  George Nield, until recently the head of the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation, pointed out via email that the first FAA-licensed launches took place during the Bush Administration — 31 in all.  Bush also worked with Congress to replace the 1984 law on commercial remote sensing satellites with a modernized version in 1992.  Although many see the need to substantially revise the 1992 law now, at the time it was a marked improvement.

Bush undoubtedly will be most remembered in space circles, however, for his advocacy of human spaceflight.  He announced SEI on July 20, 1989, the 20th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing, just six months into his presidency.  He fought for the space station program, then called Freedom, despite cost overruns and schedule delays that almost doomed the program in 1991 when the House Appropriations Committee recommended it be terminated.  (The House did not agree, but it remained troubled and escaped an even closer scrape with death in 1993 by a one-vote margin).

Vice Adm. Richard Truly (Ret.), a former astronaut, was NASA Administrator for most of the Bush presidency.  Via email, Truly characterized Bush as “a stalwart supporter of America’s space program and NASA in particular.”  During his Administration “the Space Station survived a bruising floor vote in the Congress, but the exploration initiative was simply not to be.  Nevertheless, America’s space program never had a more natural supporter than when George Bush was in the oval office.”

Truly also noted that when Bush was Vice President, he and his wife flew to the Kennedy Space Center to be with the families of the space shuttle Challenger (STS 51-L) crew after they were killed in the January 28, 1986 accident.

The Challenger families, led by June Scobee Rodgers, founded the Challenger Center for Space Science Education.  Today they issued a statement praising Bush for his kindness and compassion not just immediately after the accident, but in all the ensuing years.

“President and Mrs. Bush quickly became the first people to voice their steadfast support for our efforts to create Challenger Center. In the years following the tragedy, they continued to provide leadership and guidance…. Just prior to our organization’s 30th anniversary, we visited President Bush in Houston and asked him if he would consider being Challenger Center’s Honorary Chair. He graciously agreed and told us that we forever had his support.” — Families of Challenger 51-L

Space aficionados had longed for a president who would stand up and make a Kennedy-esque speech to galvanize an effort to return astronauts to the Moon and go on to Mars.  In 1989, Bush was the one, issuing a clarion call on the steps of the National Air and Space Museum as the Apollo 11 crew looked on:

Why the Moon?  Why Mars?
Because it is humanity’s destiny to strive, to seek, to find.
And it is America’s destiny to lead.  — President George H.W. Bush, July 20, 1989

Unfortunately, the timing was not right.

Congress gagged on the $400 billion pricetag cited by Office of Management and Budget (OMB) Director Dick Darman. Though the cost estimate covered 30 years, the dollar number, not the time period, resonated in the ears of appropriators who were in the midst of the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings years of deficit reduction.

NASA itself appeared tepid.  It was still recovering from Challenger and dealing with the space station cost overruns and other problems like discovering the Hubble Space Telescope was launched with defective optics.  In 1990, the White House strongly encouraged NASA to establish an independent commission to look into what was going on.  Chaired by Norm Augustine, it concluded that NASA needed a 10 percent budget increase and to conduct a balanced program, of which human exploration was the third of five priorities.

Under the circumstances, it was not surprising that SEI faced insurmountable hurdles.

John Logsdon, Professor Emeritus at George Washington University and founder of its Space Policy Institute said via email that Bush’s “enthusiasm for space exploration was undercut by NASA on one side and the Congress on the other, so it was stillborn.”

Bush had established the National Space Council as directed by the 1989 NASA Authorization Act, with Vice President Dan Quayle as its chairman.  Mark Albrecht was Executive Secretary of the Space Council for most of Bush’s term and wrote an insider’s account of those years in Falling Back to Earth: A First Hand Account of the Great Space Race and The End of the Cold War.

In an email yesterday, Albrecht remembered Bush as a “passionate space enthusiast” and a “visionary.”  “Today’s opportunity to return America to human spaceflight, to resume our essential exploration, to once again lead the world in space, is built on the selfless and principled stand of President George H.W. Bush.”

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