Written by Sarah Calise, Archivist
The United Nations observes International Day of Human Space Flight on April 12th, a date that honors the historic beginnings of mankind’s space exploration. Yuri Gagarin, a Soviet pilot, became the first human to fly among the stars when his spacecraft completed an orbit of Earth on April 12, 1961.
In 2018, NASA and four other space agencies (Roscosmos, JAXA, ESA, and CSA) will celebrate the 20th anniversary of launching the first component of the International Space Station (ISS) into orbit. Since 1998, Congress has debated funding and support measures for the continuation of human space flight programs. At the center of many of these discussions was former U.S. Rep. Bart Gordon, who was a ranking member and chairman of the House’s Committee on Science and Technology. Using documents from the Bart Gordon Papers and available digital documents from Congress and NASA’s archives, this blog will trace his position on human space flight from 1998 until 2011, when he retired from office.
In 1998, NASA’s budget was split into three appropriation lines: Human Space Flight; Science, Aeronautics and Technology; and Mission Support. The Human Space Flight (HSF) sector contained two major programs, the Space Station and the Space Shuttle, along with the US/Russian Cooperative Program. At this time, HSF accounted for 40% of NASA’s entire budget. The Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics held a hearing on HSF programs in March 1998. In his opening statement, Gordon stressed that the committee worried most about the growth costs and schedule delays caused by Russian economic and political turmoil as well as problems between NASA and contractors. The goal of this hearing, as Gordon put it, was for NASA to “convince this Subcommittee that it understands the problems, that it is prepared to get the Space Station’s costs and schedule under control, and that it is not going to directly or indirectly raid the rest of NASA’s programs to pay for the Space Station.” Budget balancing and U.S. dependence on Russia were two factors that consistently worried Gordon when it came to our nation’s ability to achieve advancements in human space exploration.
In 2001, President George W. Bush’s budget proposal for Fiscal Year 2002 caused major concerns at a NASA Posture hearing. Gordon stated that he was “troubled by the request” because it would cut or eliminate the necessary content to make the International Space Station a productive research facility, thus potentially ruining all previous hard work conducted by NASA engineers, its contractors, and the other space agencies involved in the assembly of the ISS. Additionally, in a memorandum to Democratic members of the Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics, preparation material for the hearing stated that the Bush administration’s budget plan for the Space Station would “appear to increase U.S. dependence on the Russians as a result of the elimination of funding for the U.S. Propulsion Module and the U.S. Crew Return Vehicle.” Russia’s economic issues had already effected ISS construction delays, so many Democratic Members of Congress, including Gordon, wanted to avoid any greater dependence on the foreign power. Despite this early heated debate on space exploration funding, the Bush administration’s mid-2000s space policy made a significant positive change in presidential support for NASA and human space flight.
Throughout the 2000s, Congress and the Committee on Science focused their attention on the assembly and completion of the ISS, which served as a pertinent first step for exploration beyond low Earth orbit–a goal that earlier administrations nearly squandered. According to scholar John Logsdon, President Richard Nixon’s “Space Doctrine” had long-lasting negative effects on America’s human space flight programs. In his book, After Apollo?: Richard Nixon and the American Space Program (2015), Logsdon explained that the space program under Nixon functioned largely as domestic policy with a decreased budget even though NASA scientists worked toward increasingly ambitious goals. In a 2004 press release, Gordon referred to Nixon’s space policy by stating that the United States “failed to capitalize on Apollo” and “walked away from the infrastructure the nation had built to enable humans to travel beyond low Earth orbit.” From Reagan to Clinton, the U.S. space policy centered mostly on national security interests and saw a decrease in enthusiasm for human space flight.
Following the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster, President George W. Bush announced the Vision for Space Exploration policy in January 2004, which stated four objectives related to “a renewed spirit of discovery.” Just days prior to the announcement of Bush’s space policy, Gordon pushed the president to publicly endorse a commitment to human space exploration “for the long-term” with a detailed plan to travel beyond low Earth orbit that entailed the “eventual attainment” of Mars. Ultimately, the policy sought to implement a sustained and affordable human and robotic program for exploring our solar system; to extend human presence across our solar system, starting with a return to the Moon by 2020, in preparation for a human exploration of Mars; to develop technologies and infrastructures to support decisions about the destinations for human exploration; and to promote international and commercial participation to further U.S. scientific, security, and economic interests. The plan also suggested the completion of the ISS and retirement of the Space Shuttle by 2010.
Gordon had positive remarks for Bush’s space policy and its potential for bipartisan support in an opening statement he gave on February 12, 2004. He said that the specific long-term goals for human space flight presented in the Vision for Space Exploration plan was “something that Members on both sides of the aisle have been urging for some time.” Indeed, the passage of the NASA Authorization Act of 2005 was a bipartisan effort. Still, Gordon underscored the need to attain these goals while keeping in mind a balanced budget. “After further review Congress and the American people may conclude that NASA’s plans for implementing the President’s goals are unrealistic or unaffordable or both,” but if that was the case then Gordon believed the government would be able to craft a plan that was “workable and sustainable.” While Gordon highly supported human space flight, he also did not want NASA’s other missions and scientific programs “cannibalized” to cover the cost of these exploration initiatives.
Bush’s space policy resulted in the creation of the Constellation Program, which was a manned space flight program developed by NASA in order to complete the ISS and return to the Moon no later than 2020. Building replacement vehicles and rockets for NASA’s aging space shuttles was the main objective of this program and had an estimated a cost of $230 billion through 2025. During the administration of President Barack Obama, the Constellation Program ended due to reports of funding issues, engineering challenges, and nonviable goals. The Augustine Committee released a report that concluded the U.S. human space flight program was on an “unsustainable trajectory.” This report influenced Obama’s decision to end the Constellation Program and halt any plans to return to the Moon in the immediate future. Instead, the President switched to a more aggressive plan that projected a manned mission to an asteroid by 2025 and a crewed orbital mission to Mars by the mid-2030s. Obama presented his space policy at Kennedy Space Center in Florida on April 15, 2010 (see video below).
Obama’s space policy relied more on the commercial space industry for getting astronauts into orbit, which Gordon (chair of the Committee on Science at this time) thought was a risky move. Not only did the administration reject five years worth of planning and achievements from the Constellation Program, but it also turned to commercial crew services with “little-to-no track record developing space systems” and caused the U.S. to rely on Russian and Japanese spacecrafts until privately-built vehicles become available.
It was a great struggle for Gordon to maintain bipartisanship and compromise while trying to pass the NASA Authorization Act of 2010. During the bill mark-up, Gordon echoed his statements from 2004-2005 about creating a balanced, sustainable human space flight program in light of economic hardships. The bill that eventually passed the Senate salvaged some of the progress made under the Constellation Program by ensuring NASA utilized existing contracts and investments in the Orion I spacecraft and the Ares I rocket. It also authorized some funding for commercial space flight companies, although at a much lower number than what Obama initially requested.
Overall, Gordon was a major supporter of NASA’s Human Space Flight program throughout his time in office. He often helped accomplish bipartisan legislation for the expansion of manned missions beyond low Earth orbit that also accounted for budgetary and safety concerns. His efforts with the Committee on Science were part of the country’s transition into a new era of human space exploration that previous administrations severely hindered during the twentieth century. The latest authorization bill signed by President Donald Trump continues plans for deep space exploration and requires a detailed road map for a human mission to Mars. Perhaps one day in our lifetime “The Martian” will be more than just a Hollywood film.
Note: former Project Archivist, Evan Spencer, previously wrote a blog on the New Horizons mission using the Bart Gordon Papers. Read it here.