In February 1971, retired Air Force General Bernard Schriever had told George Low that NASA might be “the only agency that can see to it that the country continues to develop the very advanced technology that is needed for our security and our survival.” Schriever was planning “to go to the President with a proposal that would maintain this capability within NASA, the Defense Department, and industry, by devoting some effort to advanced civilian technological problems.” Schriever in 1969 had been asked by president-elect Nixon to become NASA administrator but had demurred; however, he still maintained good access to the top levels of the White House.19
It is not clear whether Schriever followed through on his initiative, but the idea of broadening NASA’s mission was in President Nixon’s mind as he was briefed on a possible major initiative to desalinate (remove the salt from) the ocean or other salty water so that it could be used for purposes such as agricultural irrigation or even human consumption. Meeting with Ehrlichman and Shultz on May 6 to discuss a possible desalination program, Nixon suggested: “Terrific. Put it in NASA. . . What if we change the name of NASA to the Experimental Space Agency. They have very bright guys. . . Don’t leave it over there with that Department of Interior with those damn geophysicists. Geologists, I mean.” The desalination briefing was repeated during a May 11 cabinet meeting. Haldeman reported that the briefing “really got him [Nixon] all excited, and he’s charging away now with that as his great new program. He wants to put a real crash effort behind it, put it under NASA or someplace where we can really get something going. . . He’s been interested in this to some degree before, but the presentation at the Cabinet meeting obviously cranked him up.”20
Meeting with Ehrlichman, Haldeman, and Shultz following the cabinet session, Nixon was still enthusiastic, saying “build the biggest [desalination] prototype that we possibly could in Southern California. . . Take the appropriation, what is it, 27 million for this year? . . . Let’s move it up to 100 million dollars and . . . put the scientific effort to have it done in places like, maybe NASA.” Ehrlichman added, “put it in NASA and take it out of their budget. . . Cancel the rest of the moon program, and save a lot on the Spacelab [Skylab] and Mars. We’re not going to do any more lunar landings. We’re going to take all that money, you know 500 million dollars, and we’re going to put it on desalting possibilities.” Nixon chimed in: “I think the landing on the moon thing, see what we can do in terms of bugging that out. They’ll squeal but I need to put up the money [for desalination]. I can deal with the astronauts.” The conversations continued throughout the afternoon.
Ehrlichman: Supposing we would say to the new head of NASA, that he has been concerned about presiding over a finite operation, [but] here is an open door now to certain permanent new [missions].
Nixon: Can we name it something other than National Aeronautics and Space?
Ehrlichman: We’re working on that.
Nixon: If we put some research projects in a few places, wonderful. Put a lot of them in California.
Shultz: Why not take full advantage of everything about this? In broadening NASA’s horizons we can finally do that. They like the idea of a well defined mission in space and aeronautics, but they are gradually being brought to think a little bit more broadly.
Nixon: We can put it in terms of taking them to a mountaintop. We bring them in, we say, look, you have shown how it can be done, in other words we give you a project and we say go off and do it. Now we’re going to give you this one [desalination], and you go out and do it. And that’s the best way to get the teams [working], and you know how they get, they go “Ra-Ra-Ra” and they wear the blue shirts with. . . letters and things.21
The idea of changing NASA’s name to reflect a new purpose for the agency got White House attention soon after these conversations. Ehrlichman wrote Shultz on May 17, reminding him that “the President would like serious consideration given to changing the name of NASA to something designating a more domestic orientation.” The same day, speechwriter Bill Safire wrote Haldeman, saying “the idea of redefining the mission of NASA to include desalting water and other breakthroughs is great; the idea of calling it the National Applied Science Agency is horrible.” He observed that “we seem to feel bound to the acronym NASA, as if it were a trade name with high consumer acceptance too valuable to change. Baloney.” Safire added “if we are to widen the mission, let’s do it in a way that identifies the agency as our own, reflecting our own exciting view of the future.” Among Safire’s suggestions for a new name: “The Discovery Agency,” “Center for Exploration of the Unknown (CENEX),” and “National Scientific Breakthrough Agency.” But, he suggested, “let’s get the NASA people, who are an imaginative bunch, to focus on a name for their new agency.” He added a caveat to that thought: “no ‘technology’ or ‘applied science’ or other words that turn technicians on and turn people off.”22
NASA was informed of these discussions at a May 17 meeting between Fletcher, Ehrlichman, and Flanigan and then in a letter from Shultz asking NASA to discuss how it would diversify into other high-technology areas. Fletcher met with Shultz on May 25 for a broad ranging discussion of NASA’s future. Fletcher reported to Low that Shultz “was wondering whether we could do anything in NASA to solve some of the other problems which you [Low] and I have discussed at some length.” Fletcher and Shultz had discussed “the value of technology in developing productivity in the country and also in the possible effect it might have in influencing the balance of trade.” Fletcher found Shultz “very lucid” and “not entirely inflexible. . . neither sold that NASA should do a great deal more nor sold that they shouldn’t be, and at this point has an open mind.” Low in advance of Fletcher’s meeting with Shultz had prepared a memo providing his ideas on why “it might make sense to assign to NASA the government-wide responsibility for the application of technology to national needs,” because “NASA has demonstrated a capability to solve difficult technological problems and to apply systems management and know-how in the solutions of these problems.” Low saw two alternatives: (1) “NASA could provide its services to other agencies”; or (2) “NASA could do these things in its own right as part of an expanded NASA mission.” Low thought that, despite problems associated with the transfer of missions and programs from other agencies to NASA, which would cause bureaucratic conflicts, the second alternative “would be much more likely to succeed.” Low’s suggested name for a redefined NASA was the “Aeronautics, Space, and Applied Technology Administration.”23
On June 9, Low directed Edgar Cortright, the director of NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, VA, to “undertake a study. . . to determine whether NASA has the capabilities to undertake the solution of non-aerospace technological problems; what types of problems NASA should consider; how NASA would work on those problems; and what implementing action would be required.” Cortright was to report back in “approximately one month.”24