In this week’s issue of The Space Review, I reviewed the new book Falling Back to Earth by Mark Albrecht, who was the executive secretary of the National Space Council during the George H.W. Bush administration and, later, president of International Launch Services. Much of the book, as I note in the review, talks about his time on the space council, including development of the Space Exploration Initiative and clashes with NASA regarding implementing SEI. Albrecht is pessimistic about the future of human spaceflight, citing the failures of SEI and the Vision for Space Exploration, saying “it is hard to imagine” another president making a major push in this area.
At the end of the book, though, Albrecht does state that “changes are urgently needed at NASA” for there to be any hope of reviving human space exploration, reforms that are not themselves sufficient but “necessary preconditions for success” of any new exploration initiative. At the heart of these proposed changes is a greater reliance on public-private partnerships “that recognize that the center of technical development and manufacturing excellence has shifted to the private sector.” (This approach sounds similar to NASA’s COTS and CCDev efforts, although he doesn’t explicitly mention either.) He also endorses greater participation by international entities “based purely on financial and technical capability” as opposed to policy considerations.
Separately, he calls for a radical restructuring of NASA as it relies more on these partnerships. The agency, he argues, should be focused on space science and human space exploration; other efforts, including aeronautics and Earth sciences, should be transferred to other agencies. He advocatesfor closing unneeded NASA centers through a BRAC-like process. Congress should support this by resisting earmarks for local center projects, and also through supporting “permissive statutory contexts for aggressive public-private initiatives.”
NASA, he argues in the book’s conclusion, can again achieve the heights it experienced early in its history, “but to do so will require a sober self-assessment, a desire to change, and a willingness to let go of what has long brought institutional comfort at the expense of national achievement.” Whether his proposed reforms can achieve those changes, or are even feasible, is an open question.