Falling Back to Earth: Former La Jollan chronicles the end of the space race in new book

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.

Gayle Wilson, the wife of former U.S. Senator and Governor Pete Wilson, was instrumental in the launch of COSMOS in 2000. She’s known Albrecht for 30 years, when he served as her husband’s key staff member on defense and space matters.

“This is really out-of-the-box thinking,” Wilson said. “So much lip service is paid to how America needs to stay current in science, but it’s very hard to raise money for smart kids. (Albrecht’s contribution) came out of left field, not because he’s not a generous man. It’s just not too many people write a book to give their proceeds away.”

Albrecht is appearing on television and radio shows to tout his book. He also plans appearances at universities and bookstores across the country and is in negotiations for a stop at Warwick’s.

“As a La Jollan, that would be very exciting for me because I grew up going to the old library at the Athenaeum and going to Warwick’s as my bookstore,” Albrecht said. “So the idea of actually being at Warwick’s signing books that I wrote is really a great thought.”

Albrecht attended La Jolla Elementary, Muirlands, and La Jolla High School before attending UCLA and Rand Graduate School and rocketing to a vocation intricately tied to the space program. Although his career path was not without difficulties, Albrecht said it was clear because of its start in the community.

“One of the amazing things about growing up in La Jolla is that it’s so exciting,” he said.

“It was just this incredible candy store of opportunity – the kind of people you lived around, went to school with, the kinds of arts and creativity – it was just a paradise in that regard. I think it was very helpful. Some people find it a little overwhelming and I could certainly understand that. But for a lot of others, it created an expectation in your life that you would be part of big things.”