Book Review: New Moon Rising
It’s rare for space policy to make headlines. However, the revelation in early January 2004 that President Bush would announce a new exploration initiative on January 14 that involved sending humans back to the Moon and from there on to Mars captured the interest of the media, if only for a day or two. While the story was technically broken by a Reuters reporter with a brief story on the early evening of January 8th, the reporters with the inside story on the new policy turned out not to be with the Washington Post or New York Times, or even with Aviation Week or Space News. Instead, it was a pair of journalists recognized only in the small space community—Frank Sietzen and Keith Cowing—who had gained access months earlier to at least some of the major participants in the policy and thus had inside knowledge of the formation of the policy and its contents. (This generated a modest bit of controversy, enough to warrant a rare article about the space media in the pages of the Columbia Journalism Review.) They parlayed that knowledge into a series of articles for the UPI wire service and now a book, New Moon Rising, that offers more details about the policy and puts it into a broader context.
In the months leading up to the publication of New Moon Rising, the book had been billed as a behind-the-scenes account of the formation of what has come to be known as the Vision for Space Exploration. The book is that, but it is also a wider review of the recent history of NASA and space policy. The book starts after the 2000 election, with the tortuously extended departure of then-administrator Dan Goldin and the selection of Sean O’Keefe, who had been the deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget, as Goldin’s successor. O’Keefe was charged with putting the International Space Station program, and the agency in general, back on track after the station’s multi-billion cost overrun came to light. By the time O’Keefe had made headway in that regard, though, came the Columbia accident and investigation, and the soul-searching within NASA and the Administration about the future of NASA.
The heart of New Moon Rising is the account of how the new space policy was formulated within NASA Headquarters and the White House. Surprisingly, much of the early work on the new policy was made by a group of anonymous junior White House staffers who, by the book’s account, had a genuine interest in space exploration and sought to create a new vision that would reinvigorate the space agency. This “Splinter Group” spent months meeting informally, reviewing white papers and proposals, before inviting more senior advisers and, eventually, NASA officials into the discussion. This led to the creation of two “Rump Groups” that narrowed down proposals for a new exploration plan, keeping in mind fiscal limitations that ruled out any plan that required significant additional funding for NASA. The result of these deliberations, spread out over most of 2003, was a plan the President approved on December 19 and announced to the world at NASA Headquarters on January 14.
Despite the central role of these policy-making efforts to the book’s theme, and the great interest in them by the space community and the broader public, these sections comprise only a very small portion of the 280-page book: the chapter on the policy deliberations spans just ten pages, while the other on the President’s approval of the vision and its rollout takes up 21 pages. (The two chapters, oddly, are not adjacent to each other but are separated by a chapter that describes in detail a number of failed efforts, from the X-33 to the Orbital Space Plane, to develop a successor to the shuttle.) It’s not clear whether this brevity is a decision by the authors to focus on the overall evolution of NASA over the last few years, or because they had access to only limited information about those events. In any case, the chapters are informative enough to provide new insights into how the policy was drafted, but it will leave many readers hungry for more details about those efforts.
Those chapters, as well as other insider information sprinkled throughout the book, are based on interviews with high-ranking but unnamed sources with NASA and the Administration. Several NASA officials are featured prominently in the book, including O’Keefe; Paul Pastorek, a longtime friend of O’Keefe who until recently was NASA general counsel; and Bill Readdy, associate administrator for human spaceflight. The passages in the book suggest that if the source(s) interviewed in the book are not any of these three, they worked closely enough with some or all of them to be intimately familiar with many of the private events described in the book.
While much of the book relies on these interviews, much of the other material in the book, including events both prior to and after the release of new exploration vision, is taken from press conferences, other public events, and reports by the Columbia Accident Investigation Board and the Aldridge Commission. Some of the material is recycled from articles published on Cowing’s web sites, NASA Watch and SpaceRef.com: an extended description of Goldin’s retirement dinner, extending across several pages early in the book, is taken directly from an article Cowing wrote for SpaceRef in December 2001.
The biggest flaw of New Moon Rising is arguably not its content but how it is presented. The book is littered with errors that a trained copy editor would have caught immediately: inconsistent and incorrect capitalization and punctuation, along with the occasional spelling error. Even the formatting seems odd: the leading, or spacing between lines of text, varies in some portions late in the book, becoming mildly distracting. The book also lacks an index or bibliography. A “source notes” runs just half a page, citing interviews with unnamed “senior leaders” at NASA and the White House. That note also promises to provide appendices and additional unpublished information related to the book on a web page, although at the time of the publication of this review no new material had been placed there.
Along with the typographical errors are a few factual errors. Early in the book the authors describe how O’Keefe had been NASA administrator for two years at the time of the Columbia accident; in fact he had been in office just over a year. In another case, Congressman Bart Gordon is misidentified as a Republican. Most of these errors are minor, but a few are more significant. The authors refer to a Congressional Research Service (CRS) study in the spring of this year that estimated the cost of returning humans to the Moon to be $64 billion. In fact, while that figure is used in the CRS report, it is simply repeating NASA’s own internal estimate; the exploration plan at that time (as it is today) insufficiently defined to permit a detailed independent cost estimate. Towards the end of the book, the authors describe the voting history of senator and Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry, noting a number of votes he cast in favor of measures that would kill the ISS. That voting record ends in 1996, but omits two additional votes, in 1997 and 1998, where Kerry changed course and supported the station.
Combined, these typographical and factual errors suggest that the book did not go through nearly as rigorous an editing process as desired. That can be explained in part, no doubt, by the rushed publication schedule: the book refers to events as late as mid-June (the release of the Aldridge Commission’s report on June 16 and a NASA industry day for the exploration plan two days later), yet copies of the completed book were on sale at the Return to the Moon conference in mid-July. While the authors and the publisher should be commended for their speed in getting the latest information possible into print, their haste appears to have caused a number of errors that could have been avoided. If the book is successful enough to warrant a second printing, hopefully these errors can be corrected.
While New Moon Rising is not a perfect book, it does provide the best insight yet into the formation of the new space exploration vision and why that vision was important to a space agency that was casting about for a new direction. One can question who were the sources whose information became the foundation for this book, as well as their motivations, but unless and until the principals of this policy effort decide to write their own books or otherwise speak openly of their efforts, this book is likely to be the best, if not only, insight for years to come into the formation of a policy that may remake—or break—NASA.
© 2004 Jeff Foust
Jeff Foust is the editor and publisher of The Space Review.