Monday, April 26, 2010

When Bush Cancelled the Space Shuttle

January 14, 2004 — President Bush cancels the Space Shuttle program.

Back on March 2, I published an article titled, “Why Bush Cancelled the Space Shuttle.” It was in response to the false claims at the time that President Obama had cancelled the Space Shuttle program. The truth was that President Bush cancelled Shuttle on January 14, 2004.

The article wasn't a criticism of Bush's decision. It was made in the wake of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board report the August before which found that Shuttle had a fatal design flaw — the crew vehicle mounted on the side, where it was exposed to flame and falling debris — and should be replaced with a system that featured the crew vehicle on top, such as the rockets of the 1960s.

Bush's proposal embraced that recommendation, but also addressed the CAIB observation of “the lack, over the past three decades, of any national mandate providing NASA a compelling mission requiring human presence in space.”

You can click here to read Bush's speech.

In the weeks following my last blog on Bush's speech, I've wondered if his proposal faced the same outrage and distortions now hurled at Obama's proposed FY 2011 NASA budget.

Two major criticisms of Obama's proposal have been (1) the loss of jobs in the Space Coast, and (2) the "gap" created after Shuttle's retirement in which the United States would have to rely on the Russians to send astronauts to the International Space Station.

My earlier blog documented that both complaints should have been directed six years ago to Bush's proposal, because that's where both decisions were made. So I decided to find out whether anyone actually complained all those years ago when these policy decisions were set into motion.

I went to the Central Brevard Library in Cocoa to read through microfilms of Florida Today published between January 12 and February 10, 2004 — nearly a month after Bush's speech.

As I suspected, pretty much nobody complained about the "gap" — even though it was there in plain sight — nobody complained about relying on the Russians, and almost no one raised a concern about the job loss.

The day before the speech, Florida Today published as its headline story on Page 1 an article titled, “Poll: U.S. Tepid on Bush Space Plans.” When asked “on the whole, do you think our investment in space research is worthwhile or do you think it would be better spent on domestic programs such as health care and education,” 55% preferred domestic programs, 42% chose space research, and 3% were not sure.

The AP-Ipsos poll also asked about using less expensive robotic missions than human flights. 57% preferred exploring the Moon and Mars with robots, while only 38% preferred humans.

These polls reflected the general sentiment in three polls I've published this year from various sources showing more people want space spending reduced than not — meaning that, outside of space center districts with a vested interest in the status quo, the public nationwide won't support a return to the budget-busting NASA program of the 1960s.

The January 15, 2004 edition of Florida Today reported on Bush's speech and the reaction. An article on Page 1 titled “Hiatus Won't Hurt KSC” began:

President Bush's new vision for NASA could result in a four-year hiatus in human space flights from Florida, but the Space Coast is well-positioned to remain the nation's primary launch site.

There it was, right on Page 1. “A four-year hiatus.”

But in the subsequent month of letters published by Florida Today not one complained about a “gap.”

Continuing on Page 4:

... Bush's plan also includes a gap in human space flights departing from the Cape between the shuttle's retirement in 2010 and the new ship's maiden voyage in 2014. And the order to overhaul the agency and shift money to the moon project indicates existing programs could be canceled and some NASA centers could be closed.

That was one finding of the Augustine Panel report in 2009 — Constellation was not only behind schedule and over budget, but would continue to siphon away money from other projects. To fund Constellation, the International Space Station was scheduled to be shut down and splashed into the ocean in 2016. Ares I, the Low Earth Orbit vehicle replacing Shuttle, would have nowhere to go.

Some editorial cartoons in the days following President Bush's Moon-Mars proposal lampooned the cost.

A sidebar article on Page 4 was titled, “Congress Backs Space Vision,” but that wasn't entirely true.

It's highly unlikely Congress is going to appropriate this kind of money, considering the budget situation today,” said Sen. Mike DeWine, R-Ohio, a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee.

DeWine and others said that with so much pressure on the federal budget, space exploration will have to take a back seat.

An article on Page 5 was titled, “Exploration Project May Boost Jobs”:

Local business and tourism leaders said President Bush's plans for space exploration could mean a huge infusion of revenue and jobs into Brevard County if his plans ever come to fruition — a big “if” at this stage.

The article cited a 2002 University of Central Florida study which concluded that “the space program in Brevard is directly — and indirectly — responsible for 36,000 jobs ... The average salary for NASA and space-contract workers is $70,000, more than double that earned by the average Brevard worker.”

Again, not one quote from anyone regarding the four-year gap or potential job loss. Apparently everyone assumed that all the Shuttle employees would be absorbed into Constellation. An editorial column in that day's paper didn't mention job concerns either, or worry about the gap, although it did comment:

... Even if Bush wins reelection in November, his successors will have to find hundreds of billions of dollars to pay for the plan's completion — and that's a serious political longshot.

Which turned out to be true, and one main reason why Obama proposes to cancel Constellation.

An April 16 Florida Today warned, “About $11 billion will be shifted within NASA's budget in the next five years to free up money to execute the agency's new charter. Programs not relevant to the Bush plan could be canceled or curtailed. NASA field centers could be shut down.”

In retrospect, no space center was shut down, undoubtedly because no member of Congress would tolerate closing a space center in their district.

Letters published by Florida Today ranged from the usual blind zeal for human space flight regardless of cost to those who thought the money was better spent at home to those who distrusted anything Bush said. The only letter I could find addressing potential job losses accused Bush of wanting to ship American jobs overseas.

Jobs in the space industry might be next. China and Russia have expressed an interest in joining the United States in its conquest of space. Well, they can build them and launch them cheaper.

When those of you in the space industry vote for President Bush, it may not be a vote for your jobs.

I wonder how the author felt when the lead story on Page 1 of the January 30 Florida Today reported that the Bush Administration was looking at shifting astronaut flights from Shuttle to Soyuz, the Russian spacecraft.

NASA's space station astronauts could continue hitching rides on Russian rockets even after America's space shuttles return to flight, three agency officials said ...

During a private meeting in Houston last week, [NASA Administrator Sean] O'Keefe told U.S. astronauts that he is considering flying all future station crews on the Soyuz rather than shuttles. [Flight crew operations director Bob] Cabana and two other NASA managers confirmed to Florida Today and a change is under consideration ...

Some U.S. astronauts, including current space station commander Michael Foale, said they prefer flying on the Soyuz because it has a crew escape system not present on the shuttles.

I looked through the Opinion pages of subsequent Florida Today editions through February 10. I found not one letter or editorial column criticizing the Bush Administration for wanting to rely on the Russians. No article considered the likelihood that NASA would have to rely on Soyuz to reach the ISS after Shuttle retired in 2010 to fill the "gap."

O'Keefe appeared before the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee on January 28 to discuss details of Bush's plan. The question of potential job loss was mentioned near the end of the Florida Today article titled, “Panel Wary of Space Plan”:

Lawmakers ... asked O'Keefe to explain what would happen to thousands of government and civilian workers dedicated to the shuttle program once the reusable space planes are retired in 2010, as called for in the Bush initiative.

“We'll have to work out those challenges at that time,” he said.

So there it was. The job meter had started running, everyone knew it, yet no one was willing to do anything about it.

Dr. Alex Roland. Image source:

On February 1, Florida Today published an opinion article by Dr. Alex Roland, a former NASA historian known for his criticism of human space flight. Titled “Bush's Space Plan a Political Hoax,” the article warned that the Moon-Mars program would inevitably balloon in cost as had NASA's predecessor human flight programs, taking money away from other NASA projects such as robotic exploration and the Hubble Space Telescope. In fact, the Bush administration had just announced they would cancel the next HST servicing mission.

The problem, of course, is that his successor will inherit a gutted agency, with the failed detritus of the shuttle and space station visions still limping toward some unspecified denouement, and public expectations of mission impossible on the moon and Mars barely begun.

The space program, in short, will be in a shambles.

That will be the legacy of this cynical, political hoax.


  1. Thank for your superb research. I hope everyone will take notice.

  2. In fact, I think you should consider turning this blog posting into an editorial for Space News or a local newspaper. You could call it, "Who killed the Space Shuttle?"

  3. Thank you for your comments. I've been out of town for a few days so sorry I couldn't respond sooner.

    Regarding Space News and a local paper, they're pretty much aware of the facts. The problem is there are people with a vested interest in the status quo, e.g. labor unions and members of Congress, who don't want people to know the truth. I've already had letters published in Florida Today. That's about all I can do.

  4. Thank you.

    Now, if my lovable but A.D.D. father in law could stay focused long enough to read and comprehend. We almost came to blows the other night at dinner when he proudly announced "That d*mn Obama is killing the Space Program" and I suggested he take a look at his old KSC bulletins (Yes, he works at KSC) and do a little history research.

  5. I agree that no one spoke out at the time. I raised the issue privately but was informed correctly, by friends, that nothing I said would change the administration decision. It may have been cowardice on my part, but my family depended on me and I was afraid that speaking out could put my job in jeopardy. I personally spoke briefly to Mike Griffin when he toured KSC, and he obviously wasn't a person to consider differing opinions. I argued interminably on blogs with hundreds of anonymous comments arguing against the administration decision, but even there it was without much effect. That more than anything else convince me of the hopelessness of my position. I asked an ESA visitor what they thought about the US dumping Shuttle, which the ISS obviously depended on, and he threw up his hands. I brought up the issue with co-workers but most supported Mr. Bush and looked back at Apollo with rose-colored glasses. They were a little bored with Shuttle and ISS and not interested in my technoid arguments as to how the reliability of launch vehicles improves with time, assuming adequate QC and sustaining engineering, or why a moon race with China was pointless.

    Some of us knew it was wrong, in both an engineering and a geopolitical sense, to end the Shuttle program. I think many of us knew Constellation would not succeed, and would unfortunately expend billions of tax dollars without any productive goals. In spite of this I worked as hard as I knew how to support Constellation because that was my job.

    I hoped that Obama would reverse the decision, submitted an opinion to the Augustine Commission, and repeatedly called Senator Nelson. None of it made any difference. Even today I respectfully disagree with the NASA management directio to the Obama administration that the Shuttle program should not be extended.

    So yes, I agree, we could have done more, and I am sorry I did not. But it would not have helped.

    Today, now that at least some understand that the VSE was unaffordable, something can still be salvaged if we argue that expendable vehicles can never achieve human spaceflight at a practical cost, and that fully reusable systems are the only way this can be achieved. The logical sucessor tot he Shuttle will be a more practical and reliable RLV. We are about to lose the most precious thing in the space program, the one thing that gives us the ability to achieve this, the only workforce in the world with person-centuries of experience maintaining reusable spacecraft.

  6. is anyone still concerned? Look how things have evolved since then. No one seemed to panic when GW gave us the news but I think Obama let my uncle Norm cut our throats for us.