Sciency Words: The 90-Day Report

Sciency Words: (proper noun) a special series here on Planet Pailly focusing on the definitions and etymologies of science or science-related terms.  Today’s Sciency Word is:


We recently celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Moon Landing. There’s been a lot of talk lately about the old Apollo Program, and also a lot of talk about the new Artemis Program, NASA’s next manned (and womanned) mission to the Moon.

But this is not a Sciency Words post about Artemis (I’m saving that for next week).  Instead, this is a post about the 90-Day Report and how it effectively killed NASA’s plans to return to the Moon in the 1990’s.  I think the story of the 90-Day Report provides some context for what may or may not happen with Artemis.

It was July 20, 1989—the 20th anniversary of the Moon Landing—when President George H.W. Bush announced America’s intention to return to the Moon and establish a permanent presence there.  This would be part of a strategy for America to push onward to Mars.  Following the President’s announcement, a special committee was formed to figure out how to make it all happen.  The committee’s findings were released in a document titled “Report on the 90-Day Study on Human Exploration of the Moon and Mars,” a.k.a. the 90-Day Report.

According to the 90-Day Report, NASA would need to build a huge amount of infrastructure in space.  If you’ve seen Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, that’s basically what the 90-Day Report described: giant space stations, a multitude of space shuttles taxiing equipment and personnel to Earth orbit, and enormous interplanetary space cruisers to transport astronauts to the Moon or Mars.

And how much would this cost?  The 90-Day Report conspicuously didn’t say, but the most commonly cited estimate was $450 billion.  To put that in some context, NASA’s budget at the time was just over $11 billion (according to Wikipedia, numbers not adjusted for inflation).  As Robert Zubrin explains in his book The Case for Mars:

It is doubtful that any kind of program could have survived that price tag. Given its long timelines and limited set of advertised accomplishments on the road to colonizing space, which did little to arouse the enthusiasm of the space-interested public, the 90-Day Report proposal certainly could not.  Unless that $450 billion number could be radically reduced, the [Space Exploration Initiative] was as good as dead, a fact made clear in the ensuing months and years as Congress proceeded to zero out every SEI appropriation bill that crossed its desks.

A lot of people ask why we haven’t returned to the Moon since the days of the Apollo Program.  The 90-Day Report is a prime example of why.  “Too many cooks in the kitchen,” as a dear friend of mine likes to say.  Where President Kennedy set a singular, clearly defined goal for the American space program, President Bush handed the space program over to a committee, which came up with a very complicated, very costly list of ideas, which Congress was unsurprisingly unwilling in paying for.

To be fair, at least one idea from the 90-Day Report did come to fruition.  We did get a giant space station.  But that only happened as a result of an international partnership, which is (in my opinion) a model for how all future space missions should be done.

So with the memory of the 90-Day report in mind, next week we’ll talk about the Artemis Program.

6 thoughts on “Sciency Words: The 90-Day Report

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