The Grim Reaper Goes to Mars

George W. Bush’s NASA chief, Sean O’Keefe, came into office with some serious problems to solve. The International Space Station had a cost overrun of billions. O’Keefe brought an accounting eye to the agency; in a previous job at the Defense Department, he’d been known as the “Grim Reaper.” Several years after cutting costs at NASA, O’Keefe received another directive from the President: restructure further to prioritize a mission to Mars.

In 2004, President Bush himself came to headquarters to announce the mission. This was the only time a president came to NASA to speak to us during my entire career at the agency. Ever since President Nixon cancelled the Apollo Program, condemning us to the bottom of the Gravity Well, NASA has had to lower its sights for human exploration. With Bush, it looked to us at NASA that we were finally seeing a positive change in direction. Here was a president willing to take us beyond the Well, matching the ambition that the last Texan president had shown for space. The Bush policy sought to achieve NASA’s potential—inspiring the nation, pulling young people into STEM, and enhancing America’s international reputation. Congress, in a bipartisan move, actually authorized Bush’s vision, but the budget never caught up. Congress failed to appropriate the money to match the mission. Unfortunately, we never saw Bush at NASA again. In any case, his program, though well thought out, was not part of a broader national policy. Nor did he properly explain the Mars mission to the wider public, or make much of an attempt to garner its support.

Sean O’Keefe’s successor, Michael Griffin—an engineer and NASA veteran—tried to shift the existing budget to focus on getting to the Moon, the first step toward Mars. He took flak from the scientific community for pulling funds from the science mission to pay for human flight.

Then along came a new administration with different ideas.

President Barack Obama aimed to foster a new market for space transportation, just as NACA helped birth air transportation a century before. The new deputy administrator, Lori Garver, had previously worked for NASA in policy positions before joining a space lobbying group. She was a passionate advocate for commercial spaceflight, and brought that view with her when she joined Obama’s transition team before the inauguration. Technology and growth of a commercial space industry became the priorities. The goal was not just to enrich government contractors but to form a real market.

Despite this new emphasis, NASA continued to promise a Moon base by 2024. The Obama vision didn’t replace the Bush vision; the Republican Congress assured that wouldn’t happen. Instead, the new ambitions were simply added onto the old ones, without the budget to go with them.

That changed in 2010, when Obama cancelled the Moon base mission, announcing instead that NASA would send a mission to a nearby asteroid by 2025. The problem was that the deadline was nearly impossible; a spacecraft could not physically reach any suitable asteroid by that time.

In short, Congress handed NASA one set of priorities, and the administration gave it another. The President’s priority on the commercial crew program offered a national benefit different from the congressional priority—to build a massive rocket and new spacecraft. The White House’s commercial approach would create the next market and catalyze the next economy. Congress’s big-rocket approach would let us lead the world into space, while assuming incalculable risks that no company, or any other country, would take.

The choice never got made. Congress and the White House simply acted as if it were possible to get both the international leadership and the economic growth benefits without paying for both. Because the budget did not increase, the agency came under unprecedented criticism for failing to manage it properly. The fighting outside the agency resulted in wasted internal efforts. Schedules slipped, morale dropped. To critics of government, NASA seemed a prime example of bureaucrats gone wild.

Which would you choose: international influence through pre-eminence in space, or the next new economic market and the associated industries, companies, and jobs?

Now here’s a better question: why should we have to choose? Aren’t both worth the money? The previous chapters have sought to prove that they are. We want the leadership for our security, and we want to catalyze the commercial space program for our future prosperity. Does security outrank prosperity? Or would you choose the economy over safety? To my mind, both remain top national priorities. We should not rob Peter to pay Paul. To say we have to give one up in order to keep NASA’s budget level: that’s a false choice.

If we agree to keep all the programs with sufficient funding, then the next step is to build a program across those visions so that they mutually support each other. We need science to feed the knowledge ore and advance humanity. We need human exploration to inspire the world, and to create options to settle new worlds. We need aeronautics to help create the next aircraft, rockets, and control systems. And we need space technology to catalyze the next space economy. Fund them appropriately, and their sum is far greater than their parts.

And don’t just fund them over one congressional term, or one administration. We must fund them for a generation. If I were king, I would increase the overall NASA budget by about $1.2 billion each year for eight years and then sustain that level of investment.