(meteorobs) NASAThe White House Coup Against NASA

The White House Coup Against NASA

Submitted to Portside
February 20, 2004


By Morton H. Frank

A rapid series of events makes evident that the Bush
administration has moved to take direct control of NASA
in order to serve the administration's own immediate
political goals and perhaps also to support military
objectives in space. Should the effort succeed, grave
damage will be done to the scientific work now going on
under NASA's auspices. While NASA overall is closely
linked to the military, much significant science is
currently supported under its budget. It is this
civilian component of NASA that has come under attack.

On January 14th at NASA headquarters, George Bush
announced a new vision for space exploration. "We will
build new ships to carry man forward into the universe,
to gain a new foothold on the moon." "[With] the
experience and knowledge gained on the moon, "we will
take the next steps of space exploration: human missions
to Mars and to worlds beyond." The refocusing of NASA
for these new tasks was delegated by Bush to the
agency's administrator, Sean O'Keefe, a former White
House budget official. These goals, he indicated, were
to be accomplished on the cheap: All of NASA's
activities are to be subordinated to this new space
program, with $11 billion to be drawn from the agency's
existing five-year budget and Congress expected to
provide an additional billion in new money. (1, 2)

The next day, O'Keefe announced a reorganization of NASA
around the new program. (3) Two days later he shocked
the managers of the Hubble space telescope, telling them
that there would be no further shuttle visits to
maintain it. A shuttle flight planned to install new
scientific instruments and replace gyroscopes and
batteries in 2005 was now canceled. (4) Without it, the
great telescope, whose findings have revolutionized our
understanding of the universe and whose sublime
photographs of the heavens have inspired millions, is
expected to deteriorate and have its life cut short. It
has often been said that the Hubble is the most
significant telescope since Galileo's own instrument in

As O'Keefe told it, the cancellation was due to safety
considerations that had come to light after the shuttle
disaster the year before, and was unrelated to NASA's
reorganization. As shocking as the cancellation itself
was the absence of scientific participation in the

The evidence indicates that the cancellation of service
to the Hubble was part and parcel of Bush's vision of
human space exploration. The story of Bush's big plan
has been well told by Andrew Lawler in the pages of
Science magazine, the weekly published by the American
Association for the Advancement of Science. Until
December of last year, the visionary plan was "a tightly
held set of options" prepared by "a small team of White
House and federal agency officials." "That team, led by
the National Security Council," included "O'Keefe as
well as Pentagon and Commerce and State department
officials" (5) and presidential science advisor John
Marburger (6, 7). Its product was "vetted by Vice
President Dick Cheney, Presidential Chief of Staff
Andrew Card, and the president's top political adviser,
Karl Rove." Here too, there was little or no scientific
input into the decision to send people to explore space.
Also, in following these preparations Lawler recognized
that "any new mission will have to fit into an agency
budget [that is] already strained...." (5) At a hearing
on February 12th, several members of the House Science
Committee also expressed skepticism about NASA's ability
to support the new project without starving ongoing
programs. (8, 9)

In his January 14th presentation, Bush named Edward
"Pete" Aldridge to chair a commission to think up,
within four months, what should actually be done to
carry out his vision. Aldridge, a onetime astronaut and
former Secretary of the Air Force, currently serves on
the Board of Directors of the Lockheed Martin Corp. (10)
On February 11th, Pete Aldridge held a public hearing of
his hastily assembled commission to try to get some
ideas. Among those attending was Norman Augustine,
retired chairman of Lockheed Martin and leader of a
panel that had once examined the space program for the
elder President Bush. Augustine cited the enormous costs
that NASA already faces in carrying out its ongoing
programs and remarked that the nation has traditionally
underestimated the cost of big programs. He clearly
recognized that the project Bush was calling for would
cost hundreds of billions of dollars, but Aldridge
responded that both the White House and NASA believe the
new space initiative is affordable with small budget
increases, at least for the foreseeable future. (9)

The authors of Bush's January 14th speech put into his
mouth that "Our first goal is to complete the
International Space Station by 2020.... We will focus
our future research aboard the station on the long term
effects of space travel on human biology." (10) Here the
authors of the speech reveal themselves as unaware that
definitive physiology has already been done. They fail
to grasp just how hazardous to the human organism are
the prolonged exposure to the zero gravity, radiation
and social isolation of outer space. Space travel would
be far more risky than a shuttle mission to service the

Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) has called on NASA
administrator O'Keefe to appoint an independent panel of
outside experts to review his decision calling off
further visits to the Hubble. (11, 12) O'Keefe did agree
to a limited review, to be carried out by the head of
last year's investigation into the Columbia shuttle
disaster, while stressing that he himself retains
authority over the final decision.

Press reports have not favored O'Keefe's decision to
discontinue Hubble maintenance, but actual criticism has
been sparse. An Internet search led to only six
editorials or articles in U.S. newspapers in opposition.

On the other hand, the reaction of Science magazine has
been strong and immediate, with an editorial calling for
resistance: (13) "Nearly 50 years of space exploration
have seen the contribution of humans to space science
shrink while the cost of putting humans in space has
risen. Over the same period, robotic missions have grown
in effectiveness and efficiency.... [Is] human
exploration still required to gain public support for
space science and exploration, as the president claims?
We think not. The scientific community may have been
missing the opportunity to present and explain the
rationale for robotic exploration in space and the
wonder that can be gained from it.... This is the year
to do it."

Professional organizations immediately affected have
sounded the alarm. The American Physical Society
(physicists) demanded that any panel to review NASA's
dumping of the Hubble be truly independent and include
research scientists. (14) The American Astronomical
Society supported Mikulski's call for an independent
review. "The Hubble Space Telescope" said the
astronomers "is a national treasure.... Its impact, not
only on science, but on the dreams and imagination of
our young people, cannot be overstated."(15)

Finally, a petition campaign to "Save the Hubble"
addressed to Congress and NASA has gotten under way and
already collected about 25,000 signatures. (16)

* * *

The new White House vision for NASA is too vague and
unrealistic, and its stated costs too low, for it to be
taken seriously. The primary intention seems to be votes
in areas where NASA has major facilities, such as
Florida, along with the creation of new business
opportunities for aerospace corporations, and it's
likely that the inadequate budgeting for human space
exploration is intended to set the stage for squeezing
out civilian science.


http://whitehousedot gov/news/releases/2004/0114-3.html

2. Andrew Lawler. President Bush Reaches for the Moon.
Science, Jan. 16, 2004.


4. Dennis Overbye. NASA Cancels Trip to Supply Hubble,
Sealing Early Doom. The New York Times, Jan. 17, 2004.

5. Andrew Lawler. Bush Plan for NASA: Watch This Space.
Science, Dec. 12, 2003.

6. Andrew Lawler. How Much
Space for Science? Science, January 30, 2004.

7. Through most of his career Marburger has been a
science administrator, not a working scientist. The
short period of his life when he did actual research was
before 1980. See the net site of the Office of Science
and Technology Policy, which he heads, at http//ostpdot gov

8. Franklin D. Roylance. NASA will still pursue science,
Congress told. Baltimore Sun, Feb. 13, 2004.

9. Guy Gugliotta. Tests Likely to Delay Next Shuttle
Launch. Washington Post, Feb. 13, 2004.

10. Marcia Dunn. Ex-Astronaut to Lead Moon-Mars
Commission. AP dispatch posted Jan. 19, 2004 by

11. Alex Dominguez. Sen. Mikulski asks NASA to review
Hubble decision. USA Today, Jan. 23, 2004.

12. Andrew Lawler. Hubble Huggers Get a Reprieve.
Science, Feb. 6, 2004.

13. Donald Kennedy and Brooks Hanson. A Time of
Opportunity. Science, Jan. 30, 1994.


15. http://www.aas.org/governance/council/resolutions.html#CANCELLATION

16. http://savethehubble.org/petition.jsp