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Space Exploration Initiative (SEI)

On the 20th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission landing on the Moon, July 20, 1989, George H.W. Bush called for construction of the Space Station Freedom, sending humans back to the Moon, and ultimately sending astronauts to Mars. This plan was known as the Space Exploration Initiative.

George H.W. Bush speaks on stage with the Apollo 11 astronauts at an event at the National Air and Space Museum.
On July 20, 1989—the 20th anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon landing—President George H. W. Bush spoke at the National Air and Space Museum’s celebration and announced his new Space Exploration Initiative.


By Steve Dick, Former NASA Chief Historian

On July 20, 1989, President George H. W. Bush announced plans for the Space Exploration Initiative (SEI). On the 20th anniversary of the Apollo 11 lunar landing mission, Bush delivered a speech on the steps of the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum calling for construction of the Space Station Freedom, sending humans back to the Moon, and ultimately sending astronauts to Mars. In announcing his plans Bush specifically invoked history and exploration:  “From the voyages of Columbus—to the Oregon Trail—to the journey to the Moon itself—history proves that we have never lost by pressing the limits of our frontiers.” He noted that in 1961 it took a crisis to accelerate the civilian space program, and that he was acting in 1989 not impelled by crisis but to seize an opportunity in the best tradition of American history. He proposed not a 10-year Apollo-style plan, but a long-range continuing commitment based on the three above elements, ending with “a journey into tomorrow—a journey to another planet—a manned mission to Mars.” The President noted it was humanity’s destiny to explore, and America’s destiny to lead. He ended by asking Vice President Quayle to lead the National Space Council in determining what was needed to carry out these missions in terms of money, manpower and technology.

Following this announcement, NASA Administrator Richard Truly initiated a study of the options to achieve the President’s goals, headed by Johnson Space Center Director Aaron Cohen. On November 29, 1989, Truly briefed the National Space Council’s Blue Ribbon Panel on the resulting “90-Day Study.” The study estimated SEI’s long-term cost at approximately 500 billion dollars, a truly staggering figure, even spread over 20 to 30 years. The Vice President asked the National Academy of Sciences to assess the scope and content of the NASA study, as well as alternative approaches and technology issues. Although the Academy largely concurred with the NASA study, White House and Congressional reaction to the NASA plan was hostile, primarily due to the cost estimate. NASA was repeatedly rebuffed in its efforts to gain Congressional support for the plan. President Bush sought international partners, but the program was too expensive even for an international endeavor. 

In August 1990, President Bush established a Committee, headed by Norm Augustine, to make recommendations for the space program. Among the recommendations in the Augustine report, released on December 17, 1990, was that NASA should focus on space and Earth science, while transitioning human exploration to a “go-as-you-pay” strategy. The President ordered NASA to implement these recommendations. Dan Goldin was brought in as the new NASA Administrator, and during his tenure near-term human exploration beyond Earth orbit was abandoned, and the “faster, better, cheaper” strategy was applied to space science robotic exploration. As a result the Clinton Administration’s 1996 National Space Policy officially removed human exploration from the national agenda.