Updated: Mar 21
In 1993, I had been on the job for about one year as the new NASA Administrator who was fighting for the very survival of our country’s government led Human Spaceflight Program.
Today, 30 years later, we have a strong human space flight industry with NASA still at the core of operations and a very capable commercial spaceflight sector with a growing cadre of astronauts, developing their own facilities to operate in Earth Orbit, Cislunar Space, and on a variety of planetary surfaces in a more balanced relationship with NASA.
But back in the early 1990s, Human Spaceflight in America was on the brink of extinction. The person who helped save it was the late civil rights hero, Congressman John Lewis.
It is undoubtable that John Lewis had a remarkable career as a civil rights leader, activist, and politician. But, what I remember most about him is his faith.
I remember learning of John Lewis’ name on May 20, 1961 while still in engineering school. He and twelve other Freedom Riders had been brutally beaten not only with their own suitcases, but with baseball bats, chains, bricks and so on.
The Freedom Riders had ridden a Greyhound bus from Washington D.C. through the Deep South to non-violently challenge the continued discrimination against blacks on buses after a Supreme Court ruling had rendered segregation in interstate transportation illegal. The Freedom Riders, a mixed group of black and white peers, planned to remain seated next to each other if asked to segregate onboard the bus or when they got off and entered the bus stations where white riders could use any restroom and black riders are allowed to use only those marked black. It’s hard to believe today that such conditions ever existed in the United States.
John Lewis knew the farther South they would travel, the more likely they would run into violent reactions. However, no matter how bad the beatings were, John Lewis and his colleagues elected to not physically fight back. They all wrote out their last will and testament before their trip started in case they would not return, knowingly prepared to die. On May 20, 1961, when I learned of John Lewis, the seminary student turned civil rights activist at the time, he was only twenty-one years old. (I was just a few months younger!)
Just like many in my generation, I so clearly remember the march for voting rights John Lewis and his fellow activists took on a few years later, on March 7, 1965 in Selma, Alabama. This day was called “Bloody Sunday”. As the twenty-five year old John Lewis and his peaceful marchers approached the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, they were met by a line of state troopers armed with clubs, tear gas, and bullwhips.
John Lewis was among the first to be hit, his skull fractured by a blow from a state trooper's club. Despite the pain and confusion, John Lewis refused to give up. He struggled to his feet, his determination unbroken, and continued to march forward.
In 1981, John Lewis was elected to the United States House of Representatives from Georgia's 5th congressional district, becoming the second African American from Georgia to serve in Congress since Reconstruction.
In 1993, by the time we first met, John Lewis had become a seasoned Representative in the job for over ten years. When we first crossed paths, I was a newbie Administrator of NASA fighting to keep Human Spaceflight alive in America.
There was talk in Washington about terminating funding for Human Spaceflight which included Space Station Freedom (now known as the International Space Station).
The Berlin Wall separating the communist east from the democratic west had come down, marking the end of the Soviet Union, the Cold War, and hopefully the start of a time for peace across Planet Earth. Although the 1969 landing of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the moon defined my generation in American space, technology and science, the Cold War’s space race had now come to an end. It was clear we as a country were no longer basking in the glory of the Apollo days (although I always will be), and Human Spaceflight along with the Space Station program was seen by many as a luxury the country could not afford. This was particularly true in light of the growing federal deficit, pressure to reduce spending and produce a “peace dividend” to financially signify the end of the Cold War.
The end of the Space Race and the proposed reductions in military spending left many in Congress and the executive branch questioning the value of funding the space agency. The Space Shuttle program, which had been the backbone of NASA's human spaceflight efforts for over a decade, was facing increasing scrutiny from Congress and the public. The high cost of maintaining the Shuttle fleet, coupled with the Challenger incident in 1986, had raised serious questions about the value of human spaceflight. At the same time, plans for Space Station Freedom (now known as the International Space Station), which had been in development since the early 1980s, were facing significant budget overruns and delays. By 1993, the project was expected to cost over $30 billion, far beyond the original estimates. Needless to say, Congress was increasingly less supportive of the NASA budget particularly with respect to the more expensive initiatives that involved human missions.
In June 1991 before I had come into office, the Space Station Freedom program had already been voted in Congress to be eliminated, but President George H.W. Bush and Vice President Dan Quayle along with NASA and supporting members of Congress worked to revive it.
Now in 1993, once again, the Space Station was facing an amendment by a young Representative from Indiana named Tim Roemer (we were definitely very aggressive sparring partners then, but are good friends now) to effectively be eliminated.
For those who have ever been involved in the Congressional voting process, you know just how excruciatingly difficult, almost near impossible it is to revive a program once it has been voted in favor for cancellation. At this time in 1993, Bill Clinton had just arrived, a new President and new Administration. I was initially concerned that the support from the new White House would not be as strong if funding for the Space Station died once more in Congress. The way I saw it, if Space Station Freedom was voted in Congress to be canceled, I was very concerned it would be gone for good and next it would be the Shuttle. America would be on our way to ending Human Spaceflight altogether.
I was not going to allow human space to be cancelled on my watch. I believed deep down the American people lived vicariously through the experiences of our talented and brave astronauts. The program motivated many young people to study STEM and become significant contributors to our society. I also felt that the Space Station would not only be important for scientific research in microgravity, but it would help us learn how to increasingly work safely and more productively in space to eventually enable us Earthlings leave orbit, explore our solar system and eventually live among the stars. I had heroes like John Glenn, the first American to orbit the earth, as well as Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin of the Apollo 11 moon landing. What would my children and their children have to look up to?
Finally on June 24, 1993 the day of reconning arrived when the the Roemer Amendment to eliminate funding for the Space Station came up for a be vote in the House of Representatives. I was now entering the defining battle of my career, fighting for the very survival of Human Spaceflight in America. Up to this point I had done all I could in my first year in office to get ready for the upcoming vote. I worked with a coalition of dedicated congressmen and women from both political parties. Earlier on I had strong support from President George H.W. Bush and Vice President Dan Quayle. In the first 6 months of 1993 I earned the support of President Clinton and Vice President Gore. It was now the determining hour, most members were in the People’s House voting on the fate of human spaceflight. The outcome was now out of my hands, the die was cast.
As the clock ticked down to the voting deadline, I was a bundle of nerves, pacing back and forth outside the congressional entrance to the House. It was a warm night in June in Washington, D.C. and my heart was pounding in my chest as sweat dripped down my face. The timer beeped, signaling the end of the voting period. The NASA Head of Legislative Affairs, Jeff Lawrence, approached me with a grave look. I can hear his voice pounding in my ear, the vote was 215 to 215. “A dead tie,” he said. Jeff was my proxy to watch to Congressional Vote Board in the Chamber, the tension within me was so high I just couldn’t handle watching the vote board go back and forth positive and negative.
Then, Jeff suddenly saw John Lewis come out of the Congressional elevator by himself and he said, “Dan, here comes Congressman John Lewis. “Jump in front of him and make the powerful case for an affirmative vote”. Jeff then shoved me in front of the Honorable Representative John Lewis. I took a deep breath and said in a light manner with a smile on my sweaty face,
“Congressman Lewis, the future of the space program depends on you.”
He broke out laughing.
He broke out laughing, but I continued anyway and in a burst of nervous energy told him, “The space program is important to all Americans. It’s inspirational. Children of all from all walks of life will be inspired by the program and have an opportunity to excel in life as a result. The nation is counting on you. How will you vote?”
Lewis looked at me with a mysterious smile and replied,
“I ain’t telling you.”
My heart sank as he disappeared into the chamber. I was too tense to peek in and look at the vote board.
A few minutes later, Jeff, who was watching the vote board like a hawk watching a rodent yelled: “John Lewis cast the deciding vote!”
The final vote: 216-215.
John Lewis had tipped it past the tie, saving the Space Station program and giving hope to American Human Spaceflight.
Later that same year, on September 29,1993, during a speech he gave on the floor of the House of Representatives, advocating for continued funding for the Space Station program, Congressman John Lewis said,
“I still believe, as do the majority of the American people, that it is America’s destiny to explore space. Not for the cold war reasoning of proving we are the greatest Nation on Earth, but because we are the greatest Nation on Earth. We became great by dreaming and pursuing that dream. As soon as we lose the ability to dream and reach for the stars we cease to be great.”
Despite widespread opposition and budget cuts, John Lewis voted in favor of funding the Space Station program. The program did not necessarily benefit his specific constituency but he voted in favor for it, because he felt it was good for all Americans. During my entire time in office, John Lewis was a believer and champion of the space program and saw it as a way to inspire young people, particularly those from underrepresented communities, to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). He recognized the importance of science and technology in creating new opportunities and breaking down barriers to success. He is my first visionary of the month, because above all things, he believed that all dreams, and the pursuit thereof, were worth a good fight. The good, and necessary, kind of trouble.
John Lewis’ vote was crucial in securing the necessary funding for the program, which ultimately laid the foundation for the International Space Station (ISS), a joint effort between the United States, Russia, Europe, Japan, and Canada, which has been continuously occupied since 2000.
This is a beautiful photo of the International Space Station and the docked space shuttle Endeavour, flying at an altitude of approximately 220 miles on May 23, 2011. This is what faith looks like.
What I remember most about John Lewis is his unwavering faith. In justice and in the future of America. In the toughest of times and when many did not have it. February 21 is the Honorable John Lewis’s birthday.
As we celebrate what would have been John Lewis's 82nd birthday, we honor his legacy and his contributions to American society. John Lewis was a hero, a visionary, and a true champion of justice and equality. His life has been dedicated to the future of Americans through his sacrifices made during the civil rights movement and his contributions made after that.
I would like you to join me in wishing the late American hero a:
“Big Happy Birthday!”