One of the rarely mentioned legacies of President George H. W. Bush was his greatest, but most magnificent, failure -the Space Exploration Initiative. The newly elected president announced SEI, a program to send astronauts back to the moon and on to Mars, on July 20, 1989, in front of the Air and Space Museum in Washington DC. The optics were all but perfect, with the Apollo 11 astronauts in attendance and a cheering crowd witnessing the announcement. Sadly everything went downhill from there.

Space exploration runs into opposition in Congress

SEI ran into a buzz saw of opposition from Congress, especially from Democrats who had majorities in both houses.

Al Gore, then a United States senator and chair of the Senate Committee on Space, Science, and Technology, was particularly caustic when he said, ''By proposing a return to the Moon and a manned base on Mars, with no money, no timetable, and no plan, President Bush offers the country not a challenge to inspire us, but a daydream to briefly entertain us, a daydream about as splashy as a George Lucas movie, with about as much connection to reality.”

The 90 Day Study

In order to meet the demands of congressional Democrats such as Gore, the Bush administration instructed NASA to conduct a study that set out a plan to implement the president’s proposal. The space agency came back with the 90 Day study that set the price tag of $500 billion and the schedule at 30 years.

To say that the plan was fiscally unrealistic, since it would have required doubling NASA’s budget immediately, is to put the matter mildly.

The Death of the Space Exploration Initiative

To make a long story short, the Space Exploration Initiative failed at launch. Congress never seriously funded any programs to send people beyond low Earth orbit, despite attempts by the Bush administration to come up with a more realistic plan to implement them.

Time ran out when Bill Clinton defeated Bush for reelection in 1992. One of the first decisions made by the Clinton administration was to kill SEI root and branch.

The reasons for the failure

As I explain in my book, “Why is it so Hard to Go Back to the Moon,” the primary reason for the failure of SEI stemmed from the fact that the Bush White House did not consult with aerospace stakeholders in advance, soliciting ideas, and discussing possible objections.

The proposal was rushed to meet the moon landing anniversary. The Bush administration counted on the “coolness factor” to garner support.

A different world

Of course, things might have gone differently. The Bush administration might have done the necessary prep work, including forming an independent commission, from the start, to develop a realistic plan. George H. W. Bush might have been reelected, using a second term for a new start for SEI. Had things happened differently, we might have been living in a different world, with a moon base functioning along with what became the International Space Station, and humans having gone to Mars in the early 21st Century. As it is, SEI does bequeath a legacy of mistakes, but also inspiration, best expressed by the current NASA Administrator, Jim Bridenstine, who is tasked with a different return to the moon program: