Category After Apollo?

The Threat of Withdrawn Support

Paine accepted Seamans’s suggestion, which came close to being a demand, given the perceived importance of national security community support if the shuttle program were to move forward. A charter for a NASA/Air Force STS Committee was signed on February 17, 1970. The committee, “in order that the STS be designed and developed to fulfill the objectives of both the NASA and the DOD in a manner that best serves the national interest,” was to conduct a “continuing review” of the STS program and make recom­mendations “on the establishment and assessment of program objectives, operational applications, and development plans.” The agreement noted that the shuttle program “may involve international participation and use” and would be “generally unclassified.” The agreement stated definitively that shuttle development “will be managed by NASA.”27

The committee met six times during 1970, four times in 1971, and once in early 1972. The NASA/Air Force STS Committee turned out to be pri­marily a forum for the national security community to keep pressure on NASA to propose a shuttle design that met the community’s requirements. There was throughout those two years the not-so-veiled threat to withdraw DOD support for the shuttle if NASA did not do so. NASA reflected that pressure in the requirements it established for its continuing shuttle design studies. As the shuttle entered the decisive 1971 year, NASA was proposing a shuttle that would meet all national security requirements, and continued until the final days of 1971 to insist that only such a “full capability” shuttle was worth developing. This position eventually prevailed. The national secu­rity requirements established in 1969 thus had a pervasive impact on the final design of the space shuttle.

A New Approach to Developing the Space Shuttle

In early June, George Low noted that “during discussions with Dale Myers, we had repeatedly decided to look for a phased program approach, but had been unable to establish the technical feasibility of such an approach.” However, “during the past two or three weeks, because of the smaller orbiter made possible by moving the hydrogen tanks outside of the orbiter airframe,” a phased approach was “beginning to look like a technical pos­sibility. Dale Myers and his centers are moving out to establish technical details for this approach.” He added, “in the meantime, von Braun’s group is putting together NASA long range plans, incorporating the phased shuttle development, so that the peak funding during the 1970s need not exceed $4 billion.” Fletcher and Low met with von Braun and his planning staff on May 26. At that meeting, von Braun had reported that “a reasonable shuttle alternative from both developmental and cost savings standpoints” appeared to be the orbiter with an expendable propellant tank, initially launched on an expendable booster, with “subsequent development of a fully reusable booster for use with that orbiter.”44

This advice reinforced the sense that Fletcher had gathered from his White House meetings and exposure to NASA’s thinking on the shuttle in his first month at NASA—that simultaneous development of both ele­ments of a fully reusable two stage shuttle was not a viable approach in either budgetary or technical terms. He had told industry representatives on May 20 that he was not committed to the two-stage reusable approach. George Low had been thinking along the same lines since at least the pre­ceding November. Fletcher, Low, and Myers decided in mid-June to inves­tigate a phased approach; in doing so, they were in essence making a major decision—to give up hopes of developing simultaneously both elements of a shuttle system. Commenting on the influences that led to this decision, Fletcher suggested that three-fourths of the pressure for change came from financial constraints such as the $3.2 billion annual budget proposed in Don Rice’s May 17 letter to Fletcher, and one-fourth from “our own technical concerns” regarding the fully reusable design. With respect to the latter con­cern, Charles Donlan, who had been designated shuttle program director at

NASA headquarters, later commented that “It was not until the phase B’s came along and we had a hard look at the reality of what we mean by fully reusable that we shook our heads saying ‘No way you’re going to build this thing in this century.’ . . . Thank God for all the pressures that were brought to bear not to go that route.” Shuttle program manager Robert Thompson at the Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston agreed, saying that the fully reusable shuttle was “a bridge too far.”45

On June 16, NASA announced that it would be “examining the advantages of a ‘phased approach’ to the development of a reusable space shuttle system in which the orbiter vehicle would be developed first and initially tested with an interim expendable booster.” In addition, the NASA press release said, quoting Fletcher, “we have been studying. . . the idea of sequencing the development, test, and verification of critical new technology features of the system” such as its rocket engines, thermal protection, and electronic sys­tems. Fletcher added “we now believe that a ‘phased approach’ is feasible and may offer significant advantages.”46 To give its contractors additional time to explore the implications of such an approach, NASA extended its study con­tracts, which were due to expire on June 30, by four months. Recognizing that with the adoption of the phased approach Mathematica’s analysis of the economics of a fully reusable shuttle had been overtaken by events, NASA also gave Mathematica a contract extension to examine the economics of alternative shuttle systems.

Even as he announced this shift in plans, Fletcher was pessimistic about the future of the shuttle program. Writing to leading space scientist James van Allen, who was scheduled to testify before Congress in opposition to the shuttle, Fletcher suggested that “the political cards are so heavily stacked against this program. . . that no opposition from the scientific community is necessary. I think you are shooting at a dead horse. . . My feeling is that those who oppose the shuttle program—and there are good reasons for opposing certain portions of it—would be wise not to say anything now and let nature take its course.”47

NASA’s shift in direction did not please all potential users of the shuttle. In particular, in response to the June 16 announcement, Secretary of the Air Force Robert Seamans suggested that “because of the extensive effort that has gone into the evolution of the current shuttle baseline, I believe it is a system that can perform our needs.” He suggested that phased development “would reduce the potential utility of the shuttle for DOD for an indefinite period.” Seamans urged NASA to make every effort to stay with “a reusable booster and orbiter with the 15 x 60 foot payload bay.” The continuing national security pressure on NASA to develop a shuttle meeting that com­munity’s needs was a factor that could not be ignored.48

Also responding to NASA’s June 16 announcement that it was examin­ing a phased approach to shuttle development, OMB’s Don Rice on July 20 noted that “in light of continuing fiscal constraints,” such a move was “very appropriate.” But Rice wanted more than just deferring booster develop­ment. He urged NASA as it rethought its strategy for the shuttle to place emphasis “on defining approaches which will substantially reduce the over­all investment cost of the future space transportation system.” Rice wanted NASA to examine “alternative, lower cost systems” such as “expendable sys­tems, partially expendable systems, the stage and one half concept.” Rice noted that “while the economic analyses conducted to date have been very useful, they have not covered the full range of alternatives,” a point that Mathematica was also making in its report. Rice wanted additional economic analysis with respect to alternative systems in terms of “estimated payload savings, realistic mission models, and alternative payload characteristics.” He would later reflect on “the difficulty of getting any attention paid to alter­native [shuttle] designs,” noting “how hard it was to get an examination of alternative specifications of what you wanted to accomplish and the systems design that reasonably derived from that.”49

With its de facto decision to abandon concurrent development of a shuttle orbiter and booster, NASA had once again adjusted its plans to the reality of what kind of post-Apollo space program the Nixon administration might be willing to approve. Already the ambitious plan set out in the Space Task Group had been stillborn, and NASA had abandoned hope of developing simultaneously a large space station and the space shuttle. With the adoption of an expendable propellant tank design and particularly a phased approach to shuttle development, NASA was making a third major adjustment, giv­ing up for at least some years, if not forever, on its plans to develop a fully reusable two-stage shuttle. The June 16 announcement opened the door to an intense and broad-ranging effort in the next several months to identify a shuttle system design that represented the best compromise among several conflicting objectives. They included:

• keeping the annual shuttle development budget at or less than $1 billion per year, the budget level that would fit within an overall NASA allocation of $3.2 billion per year that Don Rice had suggested was an appropriate target;

• minimizing the cost of shuttle operations so that the cost per flight was as low as possible;

• maximizing the number of future missions that the shuttle would fly, in order to spread the cost of shuttle development and operation across a robust mission model and thus make the investment in shuttle develop­ment economically sound; and

• retaining the capabilities that would convince the national security com­munity to commit to using the shuttle and would allow NASA to plan for a future shuttle-launched space station.

Between June and December 1971, there was “a frantic search for the most cost-effective and technically sensible” shuttle design; in that search there were dozens of alternate configurations and development approaches con­sidered. In the words of one close observer, during those months “everyone became a shuttle designer.”50

Flax Committee and a Space Glider

One of the other key actors over the November-December period was sci­ence adviser Ed David. When Fletcher first discussed the shuttle program with David in May 1971, he had found David rather negative with respect to the wisdom of moving ahead with that program, at least as NASA was then defining it. By late September, David was still “negative about the wis­dom of a shuttle in view of the political pressures, both from the public and the Congress,” was “receptive to the idea that we needed some kind of a new booster for the ’80’s,” but was “not sure that the shuttle is the way to develop that booster.” David’s main concern was “assuming that we do need a manned space program, is the shuttle the best program we can come up with?”11

As discussed in the previous chapter, David had created an ad hoc panel of the President’s Science Advisory Committee (PSAC), chaired by Alexander Flax of the Institute of Defense Analysis, to advise him on the shuttle program. Flax made an interim report on the committee’s delib­erations to David on October 19. Flax noted that the committee “was far from achieving any degree of unanimity regarding the attractiveness, util­ity, desirability, or necessity of the shuttle system or, for that matter, on the virtues of alternatives to it.” He added that “most of the members of the Panel doubt that a viable program can be undertaken without a degree of national commitment over the long term analogous to that which sustained the Apollo program. Such a degree of political and public support may be attainable, but it is certainly not now apparent.” He observed that “plan­ning a program as large and as risky (with respect to both technology and cost) as the shuttle, with the long-term prospect of fixed ceiling budgets for the program and NASA as a whole, does not bode well for the future of the program.” Given this reality, “most Panel members feel that seri­ous consideration must be given to less costly programs which, while they provide considerably less advancement in space capability than the shuttle, still continue to maintain options for continuing manned spaceflight activ­ity, enlarge space operational capabilities, and allow for further progress in space technology.”

The 23-page summary of the committee’s views made a number of sage observations regarding the shuttle program and possible alternatives: [10]

a primary basis for deciding to undertake such an expensive and high-risk program. . . We believe that a decision to proceed with a program such as the space shuttle should be based on an assessment of new capabilities it would provide and whether they serve the national purpose to a degree sufficient to justify the costs.

• Prudent extrapolation of prior experience would indicate that estimated development costs may be 30 to 50 percent on the low side. In consid­eration of the technical and operational risks and uncertainties and the sensitivity of potential savings from the space shuttle system to the result­ing uncertainties in development, production, and operational costs, it is clear that there is little incentive to embark on the program if the aim is primarily to achieve the possible economic benefits. Rather, if the program is to be undertaken, it must be primarily for the purpose of acquiring new capabilities, aggressively pursuing new opportunities in space, and assuring continuing national leadership in space technology and space activity.12

It is not clear how widely these observations were known at the upper echelons in the White House or much influence they had on the shuttle decision process, although they certainly were incorporated into OMB and OST attitudes. The Flax committee had considered several alternatives to the full capability shuttle that “met to some degree the requirements for a continuing manned program and for further progress in space and space vehicle technology.” But NASA in its interactions with the committee took the position that none of the alternatives merited approval. The NASA posi­tion “effectively left only two alternatives for the next ten years: either (1) proceed with the shuttle now or soon, or (2) drop manned spaceflight activ­ity after Skylab A and the possible Salyut visit. . . Most of the Panel rejected these ‘all or nothing’ views.”13

The committee gave particular attention to three alternatives, although several others were briefly mentioned in Flax’s report. The three were:

1. To defer decision on the shuttle: “This alternative contemplates the pos­sibility that with further studies, analyses, and technology advance­ment, uncertainties and risks in the shuttle technical and cost areas can be reduced to a point of greater acceptability and that the national cli­mate for generating the requisite of commitment to the program may be improved over the next year or two.”

2. To develop a ballistic recovery system: – This approach would forego “tech­nological innovation in launch and recovery” by developing a spacecraft that would be launched, as had Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo, on an expendable launch vehicle and would return from orbit using parachutes to slow it for a water or land landing, rather than flying back to a run­way landing. The leading candidate was the “Big Gemini,” which was “billed as a growth version of the Gemini recovery capsule, but, which to all intents and purposes, is a new spacecraft design based on Gemini technology.” This new spacecraft could carry nine people to orbit and back, rather than the two-person crew during the mid-1960s Gemini program. Such an approach, thought the committee, “would be justified only if a slow-paced manned spaceflight program were contemplated (2 to 4 manned flights per year).”

3. To develop an unpowered but winged orbital vehicle, a “space glider Such a vehicle would have a much smaller cargo bay (10 x 20 feet rather than 15 x 60 feet) and less payload capacity (10,000 pounds versus 65,000 pounds) than the NASA-proposed shuttle. The space glider would be launched on an expendable booster, probably a ver­sion of the Titan III, and be able to return from orbit to a runway landing. The committee was positive in its view of the glider because such a vehicle “could provide a more convenient and lower cost means of recovering men from space missions; it would insure greater safety in unscheduled aborts from orbit; it would entail making progress in reentry vehicle technology. . . It would allow the acquisition of experi­ence in payload recovery, . . . maintenance, refurbishment and replenish­ment; and finally, it would lead to the accumulation of a body of data on the techniques and operational characteristics and costs of reusable orbital recovery vehicles.”14

As the Flax committee was carrying out its deliberations, NASA’s Fletcher and Low had met with Flax and, separately, Fubini, to get as much perspective as possible on the committee’s thinking, on the grounds that both the committee’s views and Fubini’s individual perspective “will have a lot to do with the kind of shuttle we will be able to sell to OMB.” In Low’s judgment, Flax was “in complete agreement with NASA’s position, but has a great deal of difficulty with the scientists on his committee,” while Fubini “is pushing strongly for a glider as opposed to an orbiter.” These meetings led to an October directive to manned space flight head Dale Myers that “he must study all of the alternatives in great detail so that those that are discarded will be discarded not through arm-waving, but through facts.” Myers and his space flight teams at the Manned Spacecraft Center and Marshall Space Flight Center were convinced that some form of large shuttle was the only reasonable path to pursue. Even after Low’s directive, they spent little time studying concepts such as the space glider or the “Big G,” which they did not believe were productive ways to pro­ceed. Myers would later comment “we probably were the guys that were dragging our feet.”15

The Second Presidential Decision

The OMB decision memorandum on NASA’s program for President Nixon, revised on the basis of comments from various offices in the White House and Executive Office of the President, was ready on December 2.7 The memo began with a section on why decisions were needed:

• “The lead times are gone to decide what to do after Apollo.”

• “Industry wants decisions one way or the other, particularly on the Space Shuttle—on which contractors have been doing design studies for the last 18 months.”

• “Adjusting space spending and turning NASA’s capabilities to other domes­tic problems requires a 2-3 year phasing.” (This was an indication that a lead NASA role in William Magruder’s New Technology Opportunities effort was still a possibility.)

The eight-page memo both described NASA’s human space flight pro­gram as proposed in the agency’s September 30 budget request and OMB’s alternative. The alternative program included “a smaller and less costly Space Shuttle,” cancellation of Apollo 16 and 17 “because we understand that is your [Nixon’s] wish,” and “reduction in the size of NASA’s institutional base after calendar 1972.” With respect to NASA’s plans for the shuttle, OMB asked “since we already have the capability to put manned and unmanned payloads into earth orbit using expendable boosters, how much should we be willing to pay for a Shuttle?”

The memo noted “last year NASA was proposing a $10-$12 B [billion] Shuttle. In response to questions from OMB and OST about whether the benefits justified such a large investment, NASA has since designed a $6 B Shuttle which can do all the missions of the larger, more expensive one . . . (We think both costs are underestimated, perhaps by 50%.)” If NASA were given approval to develop the shuttle it was proposing, suggested OMB, “one pro­gram, the Shuttle, would dominate NASA for the coming decade, as did Apollo in the 1960’s.”

What OMB was proposing as a “smaller reduced cost” alternative to NASA’s shuttle would involve “an investment of $4-5 billion over the next 8 years.” Such a vehicle, OMB suggested, could “capture about 80% of the payloads of the redesigned larger Shuttle at about two-thirds of the investment cost.” By this time OMB had accepted that there would be a space shuttle program rather than a glider or some other alternative, and was focusing on keeping the shuttle as inexpensive as possible in investment terms; there was little attention given by either OMB or NASA to an exami­nation of shuttle operating costs, which in any event would be incurred after the Nixon administration left office. It would be necessary to “retain the reliable Titan III expendable booster to launch the few largest payloads that would not fit the smaller Shuttle. These include space telescopes and large intelligence satellites. (This may be desirable in any event since, for national security purposes, we may not want all our eggs in one basket.)” OMB added, reflecting the White House interest in California employment, that “we understand from NASA that the recently awarded engine contract with Rocketdyne division of North American Rockwell will probably be contin­ued for the smaller Shuttle without the need for recompetition.”

The OMB-proposed program also included three Earth orbital missions using launch vehicles and spacecraft left over from the Apollo program. Only one of these missions, the 1975 docking mission with a Soviet spacecraft, had been in NASA’s September 30 “minimum acceptable” budget proposal. The other two would be Earth resources survey missions that had been included in NASA’s September 30 “alternate recommended program,” which pre­sumed a higher budget level; OMB suggested them as a way of having one human spaceflight mission per year between 1974 and 1976, thereby avoid­ing a multiyear gap in U. S. human space flight activity. The smaller shuttle was anticipated to be ready for flight by 1978. With respect to Apollo 16 and 17, while the OMB alternative program canceled the missions on the basis that that was the president’s wish, the memo actually argued for retaining the missions. Saying “if concerns about complications during 1972 [Nixon’s already planned visits to China and the Soviet Union and the presidential election] can be alleviated by rescheduling Apollo 16, it would seem appro­priate to retain Apollo 16 and 17 for their scientific returns and employ­ment impacts.” OMB estimated that the employment impact of adopting its proposed alternative program would be 4,000 job losses by mid-1972 and 8,000 by the end of the year, but 30,000 by mid-1975. In OMB’s recom­mended program, the NASA budget for FY1973 would be $3.050 billion, declining to $2.975 billion by FY1976.

The “recommended next step” was for “OMB and OST to work with NASA on the reorientation of the space program.” The memorandum asked President Nixon to either “Approve” or “Disapprove” four actions:

1. “Initiate reduced-cost smaller Space Shuttle program.”

2. “Conduct Soviet docking mission.”

3. “Conduct other manned earth-orbital missions.”

4. “Apollo 16 and 17”

• “Cancel both missions”

• “Cancel just Apollo 16”

• “Reschedule Apollo 16 and fly both.”

Notably, OMB did not provide the president the option of approving NASA’s shuttle plans.

The OMB memorandum was discussed on December 3 as Ehrlichman, Shultz, and Cap Weinberger met with President Nixon at the Southern White House in Key Biscayne, Florida. There is no recording of the meeting, since Nixon had not set up a taping system in his office at Key Biscayne, but as was his custom Ehrlichman took notes.

With respect to Apollo 16 and 17, Nixon suggested that it would be better to combine the two missions after the 1972 election, but that his aides should “work it out.” Apollo 16 was scheduled for March 1972, but Nixon suggested moving the launch to April to avoid any possibility of its interfering with his planned 1972 trip to China. (Nixon went to China between February 21 and 28; the Apollo 16 mission was launched on April 16.) Nixon on November 24 had already approved going ahead with Apollo 17; with this discussion of rescheduling the Apollo 16 mission, the pos­sibility of canceling one or both of the missions, a long-held Nixon wish, disappeared.

The Second Presidential Decision

President Nixon discusses the FY 1973 budget with his advisers. (l-r) John Ehrlichman, George Shultz, and Caspar Weinberger at his Key Biscayne, Florida, residence on December 3, 1971. It was at this meeting that Nixon made the formal decision to approve space shuttle development. (National Archives photo WHPO 7933-8)

With respect to OMB’s proposal for a smaller shuttle, Ehrlichman recorded Nixon’s response simply as “yes,” providing that the vehicle would use the “California engine.”8 The effect of Nixon saying “yes” to the smaller shuttle was to approve the recommendation that “OMB and OST proceed to work with NASA on a reorientation of the space program.” That process would take place during the rest of December.

Transforming the Space Frontier

From a White House perspective, the December 29 meeting on the space shuttle had resulted in a definitive enough decision that there would be a space shuttle program to begin preparing for a presidential announcement of his approval of the shuttle. As those preparations began, there were two open questions: what should the presidential statement say and whether the space shuttle program should be given a distinctive name, just as prior U. S. human space flight programs had been christened Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo.

With respect to the first issue, NASA’s Fletcher had been alerted by the White House during the New Year’s weekend of the possibility of a presiden­tial announcement. The decision to make that announcement was “firmed up” during the January 3 meeting in Shultz’s office, and Flanigan asked NASA to prepare a draft statement. Even before this request, Fletcher and Jonathan Rose of Flanigan’s office had also asked Bill Anders to start work­ing on the presidential statement. Even though Fletcher and Low also pre­pared draft statements, it was the Anders draft that was the primary basis of the final presidential statement. With respect to the second issue, naming the space shuttle program, the decision was left to Richard Nixon himself.18

Evaluating the Space Shuttle Decision

It was this combination of short and longer-term considerations—the cre­ation of jobs in California before the 1972 election, the interest in poten­tial national security uses of the space shuttle, and the desire to continue a human space flight program that would demonstrate U. S. space leadership to the world and be a source of national pride at home—that led to Richard Nixon’s approval of NASA’s full capability shuttle. Other factors, such as the ability of the shuttle to operate routinely and at greatly reduced costs, were not greatly influential as Nixon and his top advisers made that choice, even though they became the publicly offered justifications for shuttle devel­opment. So an evaluation of the shuttle’s impact on the American space program must begin with an assessment of the shuttle program in terms of those objectives that were the proximate reasons for the choice of the NASA – preferred shuttle.

A Time of Transitions

.Axting Administrator George Low in January 1971 characterized the NASA Fiscal Year (FY) 1972 budget request sent to Congress as one of tran­sition from the program of the 1960s to the programs of the 1970s. This was indeed the case, as the budget request formalized canceling two Apollo missions and deferring space station development, and suggested that at least in principle the Nixon administration intended to move forward with a space shuttle program as the central U. S. space effort in the 1970s.

This was only one of the transitions taking place in the first months of 1971. The White House finally selected Tom Paine’s successor as NASA administrator. He was Dr. James Fletcher, the president of the University of Utah. Fletcher’s nomination was submitted to the Senate in February, he was confirmed in March, sworn in by the president in April, and took over NASA in the first days of May. Fletcher and George Low, who stayed on as deputy administrator, became a very effective team in leading the space agency through the tortuous process over the second half of the year, ulti­mately resulting in presidential approval of the shuttle that NASA wanted to develop.

In another potential transition, a White House initiative created some­thing of an identity crisis for NASA. President Nixon and his advisers were interested in developing technology-based solutions to major societal prob­lems, and seriously considered transforming NASA into a general applied science agency—a “new NASA”—to take on that responsibility. Fletcher and Low assessed the desirability of NASA’s assuming such a role while still also maintaining its aeronautics and space responsibilities, and decided to respond positively if asked by the president to take on added missions.

Finally, there was a major transition in NASA’s thinking about the char­acter of the space shuttle program it would put forward for presidential approval. At the start of 1971, NASA Associate Administrator for Manned Space Flight Dale Myers had decided to press forward with a two-stage fully reusable shuttle design meeting all national security requirements. But by mid-year the combination of Fletcher and Low recognizing that NASA was very unlikely to get White House approval of the funding required for such a

development and growing concern among NASA’s engineering staff regard­ing the technical challenges associated with simultaneously developing both the shuttle booster stage and the shuttle orbiter led NASA to abandon the fully reusable design. There followed a rather frenzied search for an alterna­tive that presented the best combination of development and operating costs to make the shuttle cost-effective while still preserving all shuttle capabilities that NASA and the national security community sought.

A Confused Path Forward

NASA’s move toward phased development of the space shuttle was a clear indication that the shuttle studies to that point had failed to identify a shuttle design that would both fit within the anticipated budget during the 1970s and that NASA’s engineers were confident could be successfully developed. This realization put the space agency in a rather difficult position. A year had been spent studying shuttle designs that turned out to be neither politically nor technically acceptable. Yet Jim Fletcher and George Low were convinced that a decision to go ahead with the shuttle had to be made by the end of 1971 if NASA were to hold together the engineering design and devel­opment teams, both within the agency and in its contractors, required to undertake the shuttle program. They found themselves, six months before that deadline, without a specific shuttle design to put forward for approval. Fletcher and Low at several points in summer 1971 gave serious consid­eration to pulling the plug on seeking approval for shuttle development, instead putting forward some alternative, less ambitious human space flight effort during the 1970s. Ultimately they rejected this fallback position and decided to press forward with the attempt to find a shuttle program that both made sense in terms of NASA’s future ambitions and was acceptable to the White House. Meanwhile, there were several related developments that would influence the eventual outcome of the shuttle decision process.

Mathematica and the TAOS Concept

In late October, there was an unexpected external intervention in the shuttle decision process. Mathematica, the Princeton-based company that NASA had selected to carry out an independent analysis of the cost-effectiveness of a space shuttle, had submitted its final report with respect to the two-stage fully reusable shuttle concept in summer 1971. But this submittal came after

NASA had already decided to abandon the fully reusable approach and to examine alternative shuttle designs. The Mathematica report had made the point that while the two-stage fully reusable design was marginally cost- effective, it was not necessarily the optimum shuttle design from an eco­nomic perspective. NASA had decided to extend Mathematical work to examine the economic dimensions of the alternate shuttle concepts during the extended study period.

The person in day-to-day charge of the Mathematica effort was economist Klaus Heiss. During September, Heiss visited with two of the study contrac­tors, McDonnell Douglas and Grumman, to get information on the alterna­tives being examined by the two companies. Each firm had been allowed by NASA to allocate 10 percent of its study effort to a shuttle concept in which an orbiter with an external propellant tank was carried to orbit by the power of its own engines combined for the initial few minutes of the flight with the much higher thrust of one or two conventional rockets attached to the orbiter or its propellant tank, all engines firing from the launch pad on. McDonnell Douglas had labeled its concept rocket-assisted takeoff (RATO); Grumman, thrust-assisted hydrogen-oxygen (TAHO) takeoff. Heiss got cost and other data on those configurations and other designs under study from the two companies and also from a third study contractor, Lockheed. He used that information as input to the complex computer-based model that Mathematica had developed for its shuttle-related work. (Heiss did not interact with the fourth shuttle study contractor, North American Rockwell, because he “was convinced from the beginning that they would win the competition.” Apparently, he was aware of the bias toward awarding the shuttle contract to a California firm.) Heiss discovered that “whatever space program [mission model] you used and even if you changed interest rates from five percent to ten percent to fifteen percent, again and again and again the same configura­tion came out” as economically preferred—the RATO/TAHO approach. He labeled this concept TAOS (thrust-assisted orbiter shuttle).16

Heiss faced a dilemma with respect to what to do with that finding. The second Mathematica report was not due until the end of January 1972, and by that time a decision on the space shuttle design might have been reached. He was aware of the conflicts between OMB and NASA over shuttle approval, and thought that his findings could help resolve the debate. Heiss told Bob Lindley that “I’m going to do something that maybe I’m not supposed to, but since it’s so clear. . . I’m going to write up my conclusions in fifteen or twenty pages and send that to [NASA Administrator] Fletcher.” Heiss chose not to route his analysis through Dale Myers, believing that Myers and his team were still trying to find a way to get approval for some version of a two-stage shuttle in order to have enough work to occupy both Houston and Huntsville.17

The Heiss memorandum, dated October 28, 1971, was titled “Factors for a Decision on a New Reusable Space Transportation System.” It was co­signed by Oskar Morgenstern, Mathematica’s head. The memo led off with three conclusions, all emphatically stated in capital letters:




The memorandum noted that “in part the choice of the current Mark I-Mark II approach was forced by a peak funding requirement for space shuttle development of, say, $1 billion per year. In this approach, however, several important parts of the system would be postponed in some configurations while other configurations with the same total funding requirement assure an early IOC [initial operating capability] date not only of the space shuttle alone, but also of the space tug" It suggested that “the non-recurring costs of TAOS are estimated by industry to be $6 billion or less” and noted that the TAOS configuration would promise “the same capabilities as the original two-stage shuttle.” Heiss added that “the most economic TAOS would use the advanced orbiter engines immediately” and that “the cost per launch of TAOS can be as low as $6 million or less.” The memo thus concluded that “TAOS practically assures NASA of a reusable space transportation system with major objectives achieved"1

It is difficult to judge the impact of the Heiss memorandum on the ulti­mate decision regarding the shuttle program. A version of the TAOS con­cept was indeed the shuttle configuration selected for development. Heiss suggests that “as soon as Fletcher read” his memo, he concluded “that’s the solution to this problem” and “ran all over town with it,” going first to OMB and saying “this group of outside people finds that this makes sense, so why do you fool around with this negative attitude?” Fletcher himself suggested that the Mathematica work reflected in the memo “did influence the decision in the sense that if it had come out negative, we’d have been in trouble.” But, he added, “the Mathematica stuff all along was really supportive of our decision, not determinative.”19 The memorandum did not make its way to those managing the shuttle studies at the Manned Spacecraft Center, who were interacting directly with their study contrac­tors in evaluating the final shuttle configuration. The TAOS concept they ultimately adopted likely reached them through those interactions, not as a result of the Heiss intervention. As the shuttle debate continued in the last two months of 1971, there were few, if any, references in the interactions between NASA, OMB, OST, and the White House to this memorandum or to the economic analyses it reported. It seems as if the Mathematica memo was one, but only one, of the influences that converged on the concept of a “thrust assisted” shuttle orbiter as the best technical choice for a new space transportation capability.

NASA Continues to Seek DOD Support

Although NASA’s Fletcher and Deputy Secretary of Defense David Packard had agreed in October that NASA and DOD would work together to develop a restated rationale for the shuttle, by the start of December little progress had been made in this effort. One problem was that Johnny Foster, DOD’s director of defense research and engineering, who had been charged with preparing the rationale paper, remained ambivalent about a DOD commit­ment to the shuttle and to NASA’s approach to selling it. Talking with George Low at a December 1 dinner party, Foster had suggested that NASA was “doing the wrong things,” saying that “NASA should not let OMB impose an arbitrary cost limit on the shuttle. Dictating technical decisions through the budget process is just plain wrong.” He added “it is even worse if NASA lets OMB dictate the shuttle configuration.” Foster suggested that “NASA has decided to build a taxi to nowhere on faith. We should instead have a flight program that demonstrates the need” for the shuttle. Low’s retort was that “the main lack was in presenting an imaginative military space program taking advantage of the new capabilities that the shuttle would represent.”9 Foster’s advice was hardly useful to NASA, faced as it was with what seemed to be an unchangeable upper limit on the budget that the White House was willing to allocate for its activities. But NASA did not give up its attempt to get DOD support; rather, it took on itself the role of suggest­ing the “imaginative military space program” that Low had suggested was needed. That program came in the form of a memorandum for Fletcher to send to Packard. The memo was drafted by NASA’s Assistant Administrator for DOD and Interagency Affairs Jacob Smart, a retired four-star Air Force general. Smart’s draft noted that “in the next few weeks the President will make decisions relating to national objectives in space” that would be of “critical importance, because the nation’s military security, its political, eco­nomic and social well being in this and succeeding decades, are inextricably interwoven with what we do and what we fail to do in space.” He forecast dire consequences if the United States did not maintain a position of space leadership: “the self confidence of our people would diminish, our posture in the world community will be overshadowed, and our trade in world markets will be reduced,” resulting in “problems of great magnitude and complexity” which would “likely face this government, particularly DOD.” As noted in chapter 9, Smart in his draft detailed a number of ways in which “the space shuttle can deliver, with few exceptions, the total traffic of presently-planned military spacecraft to useful earth orbits.”10

Smart’s suggestions for potential national security uses of the space shut­tle were very similar to the ideas in the initial June 1969 DOD-NASA study of shuttle uses. They had been in the background of the discussions between the two agencies over shuttle design ever since, but apparently had had little influence on the assessment of the shuttle by the OMB civilian space staff. However, those potentialities were indeed known to and of interest to the top levels in the White House, including Richard Nixon. Ehrlichman in a 1983 interview suggested that “what the military could do with the larger bay in terms of the use of satellites” and the fact that “the space shuttle would have the capability of capturing satellites or recovering them” had “a strong influence on me” and “weighed into my attitude toward the larger shuttle. And I feel it is valid to say it also weighed into Nixon’s” attitude.11 What is not clear was how, and when, Nixon, Ehrlichman, and perhaps also Flanigan, Shultz, and Weinberger, were made aware of the national security potentials of the shuttle; because the issues involved were highly classified, any relevant documents are not contained in accessible archives. But as final decisions on shuttle size were reached at the end of December, the presi­dent’s interest in national security uses of shuttle capability were known to his other senior associates and very likely influenced their willingness to go forward with NASA’s full capability space shuttle.

It is not clear whether the Fletcher-Packard memorandum was ever sent; a final copy does not appear in NASA’s files. But the memo stands as an example of the arguments that NASA was using in its effort to insure DOD support of the shuttle program. Fletcher and Smart did meet with Foster and several of his associates on December 3. But no formal statement of DOD views on the shuttle sent to the president in December 1971 was located in research for this study, and there is no record of a meeting with the president to discuss this issue.12