By Steven Mihailovich
Although many people were dismayed to learn that the July 8 mission of the space shuttle Atlantis was the last in the 30-year program that epitomized American know-how, inquisitiveness and daring, Mark Albrecht of La Jolla wasn’t a bit surprised. Albrecht not only saw it coming, he was there when the decline began, serving as President George H. W. Bush’s principal advisor on the U.S. space program from 1989 to June, 1992.
Now, 20 years later, Albrecht documents the conversations and actions involving the famous and the flawed during that pivotal period in his new book, “Falling Back to Earth: A First Hand Account of the Great Space Race and the End of the Cold War.”
“There was a huge outcry when the last shuttle flight occurred and people began to recognize that that was the end of the line,” Albrecht said. “(We find ourselves) grounded in 2011 with no access for humans in space; no plans to explore further in the galaxy and the universe; no destination; in essence, no dream. I thought Americans deserve to know how we got to where we are, why, and what things were done by what people specifically to try to stop that from happening.”
The book, completed in four-and-a-half years during periods of intense writing interspersed with lulls, is based on Albrecht’s extensive notes during his tenure on the National Space Council in the White House, he said. It details the country’s failure to transition the U.S. program into a peaceful exploration of space after 30 years as a competition with the rival Soviet Union when the latter disintegrated during Bush’s term, despite strong support to do so from the 41st President Bush and his Vice President Dan Quayle, whom Albrecht describes as the prime “visionaries” among other political and scientific luminaries.
Because so much of America’s economic vitality and technological dominance in the past half century were based on innovations developed in the space program, Albrecht considers the end of the space program a catastrophe that could potentially have as much impact on the country as the attacks of Sept. 11.
“It may not be as dramatic momentarily, but I think it has as big a consequence,” he said. “I think very soon you’re going to start finding people who say; what happened? where did it go? why is it where it is? and what do we need to do to get it right?
“Modestly, things like my book, hopefully, will help contribute to that public discourse and debate. It’s the beginning of a process that says, alright, where can we start peeling this back and get back to basics and go on about the business.”
As someone advocating for a return to a space program that challenges the country’s talents and spirit, Albrecht has put his money where his mouth is by donating all the income from sales of his book to the California State Summer School for Mathematics and Science (COSMOS), which provides high school students with exceptional math and science skills an opportunity to be involved in cutting edge research during a four-week residential program at four University of California campuses, including the one in San Diego.