Category After Apollo?

Final Budget Decisions

President Nixon made his decisions on various budget appeals in the days following Christmas. Included in Nixon’s December 28 choices with respect to NASA were the decisions to slip the Skylab schedule, to restore NERVA to the budget at a low funding level, not to approve shuttle airframe devel- opment—and to cancel Apollo 17. Meeting with Ehrlichman and Shultz, the president first suggested shifting funds intended for Apollo 17 to the Skylab and shuttle programs. As he discussed his options, he suggested that “politi­cally” it was better not to launch the mission, or at least slip it, “at whatever cost,” until after the November 1972 election. His final decision was to cancel the mission.31

These decisions were communicated by Weinberger to Low on December 31. To Low, the slip in the Skylab schedule and especially the cancelation of Apollo 17 “were a complete surprise.” Weinberger let Low know that these decisions were made “by the President himself, without any input from OMB.” Meeting with his NASA colleagues to discuss how to respond, Low was told by Dale Myers that canceling Apollo 17 so soon after two other Apollo missions had been eliminated would be “a devastating blow to morale.” After phone calls to David and Rice to get more background on the budget decisions, Low decided to “do no more about this on New Year’s Eve (By this time, it was 7 o’clock in the evening and we were in the midst of the biggest snowstorm in three years).”32

Low met with OMB Director Shultz and Rice on the afternoon of January 2, 1971, to get more information on the reasoning behind the budget deci­sions and to reemphasize NASA’s perspectives regarding the relationship between the space program, Soviet competition, and aerospace unemploy­ment. He also wanted to make a last effort to preserve the Apollo 17 mission. He found that “Shultz was not all that interested in unemployment in the aerospace industry. . . He apparently still believes that the U. S. R&D capa­bility can be maintained by retraining the aerospace scientists and engineers into other fields.” Shultz asked Low whether there was a possibility “of using some of NASA’s R&D capability to solve domestic problems.” This was an idea that would rise to prominence in White House thinking during 1971.

In his apparent lack of concern about aerospace unemployment, Shultz was running counter to the president. Nixon had read a December 30 mem­orandum from the chairman of his Council of Economic Advisers, Paul

McCracken, which noted “unemployment among scientists and engineers in California increased from 0.9 percent to 2.4 percent in the past year as national priority changes reduced defense and aerospace spending.” Nixon wrote a message to Ehrlichman and Weinberger on the memo: “As a matter of top priority, we must move with maximum publicity on all these fronts & any others which occur—get a real plan & act on it.”33

Regarding the decision to cancel Apollo 17, Shultz reiterated to Low that “it was not a budgetary one, but was based on the fact that the President had been informed that Apollo 17, as the last Apollo mission, was of considerably higher risk than the previous one and that he [Nixon] did not want to under­take such a mission just before the elections.” In response to Shultz’s ques­tions, Low said that that while the risk of flying Apollo 17 was “substantial,” it “may not be any higher than that for all other missions.” Low told Shultz that it was possible, with “a good technical justification,” to delay Apollo 17 until December 1972, after the presidential election. Low recommended that a decision on whether or not to cancel Apollo 17 be deferred for a year, but Shultz preferred the option of deciding immediately to slip the mission to December 1972, since such a decision “would save some money in Fiscal Year 1972,” even though it would increase the overall cost of the mission. Keeping government spending down during the election year was an impor­tant objective to the Nixon White House. Shultz told Low that the president was aware of their meeting and that he would get in touch with Nixon “right away and let me know before the end of the day” whether he would reverse his cancelation decision if the Apollo 17 flight were slipped until after the 1972 election. “About an hour later,” Don Rice, rather than Shultz, called Low to say that “the president had accepted the delay in Apollo 17.”34 As he met with Low, Shultz may have already known that the president had had second thoughts about canceling Apollo 17. The weekly magazine Newsweek in mid-December had noted the possibility of such a cancelation. This publicity had produced messages to Ed David from the scientific com­munity opposing such a step. Writing the president on December 31, David argued that canceling the mission would “give the Administration an unfor­tunate image among opinion-makers in society” and was “likely to result in strong protests from responsible and influential people.” David did not base his recommendation against canceling the mission on its scientific merit, an argument he knew carried little weight with Nixon. Rather he suggested that such a step would “make it much more difficult to rally the responsible elements to support the Administration’s other forward-looking programs.” Apparently independent of NASA’s internal thinking, David suggested that “to counter many of the concerns that have been raised about the flight of the last Apollo mission in the few months before November 1972 [the election period],” the Apollo 16 mission could be launched in February 1972 and the Apollo 17 launch could be scheduled “in mid-November or December. This would have the double advantage of maintaining critical employment levels through this period and better phasing of launch and support personnel.” Nixon in the margins of David’s memo wrote “GS [George Shultz]—good.

Do.” Nixon communicated this decision in a December 31 meeting with Ehrlichman, directing him to tell Shultz to take another look at the Apollo 17 issue. Given this directive, it is not clear that Shultz actually called Nixon after his meeting with Low or had learned before the meeting that Nixon had decided to reverse the decision.35

There was one more contentious NASA-OMB interaction before the NASA FY1972 budget was made public on January 29, 1971. As the budget message was being finalized, there was a dispute between OMB and NASA about what it should say with respect to the space shuttle. After the initial budget decisions in early December, NASA suggested including language in the budget message indicating an administration commitment in principle, not just to the engine, but to the shuttle program overall. Low had sug­gested that the space shuttle “posture” should be that “the FY1972 budget provides for proceeding with the development of a space shuttle system,” that “detailed design and development of the shuttle engine—the longest lead time component” would begin in FY1972, and that “airframe design and development will proceed on an orderly step-by-step basis leading to detailed design or initiation of development in FY1972.” The OMB space staff objected to this language as reflecting a commitment to the shuttle that had not been made, and suggested that “the Administration preserve flex­ibility” by “making no commitment to proceeding with the development of the entire shuttle system” and “making no commitment to an FY1972 decision on initiation of development of the airframe.” The OMB Evaluation Division, headed by Assistant Director William Niskanen, was even stronger in its objections, telling Rice “it is important that the commitment to finance an advanced space engine not imply a commitment to the space shuttle.” Niskanen suggested that the language “in all sections of the budget docu­ment” should describe “this engine as an advanced lower-cost space engine rather than as a shuttle engine.”

This difference in views persisted into January as the budget documents were being sent to the printer. The OMB staff noted that while “NASA is firmly convinced that the lower-cost earth to orbit launch vehicle will be at least partially reusable and hence a ‘shuttle,’” it would be “desirable from our position” to use “a term with broader meaning than ‘space shuttle,’ which could cover low cost expendable rockets.” The staff noted that “the key issue is not really the term ‘shuttle,’ but rather achieving an understanding on Dr. Low’s part that the Administration is not now committed to a reus­able space shuttle.” The staff predicted that NASA would “strongly resist” a change in budget language.36

This prediction was accurate. Low considered the staff suggestion as a reversal “of the words Don Rice and I agreed to concerning the space shut­tle” and was upset to discover that at one point the “words space shuttle had been completely deleted from the President’s budget and, in their place, the words future launch vehicle had been inserted.” Low met with Rice on January 9. He told Rice he “fully understood the extent of the commitment (or lack thereof) by this Administration to the space shuttle, but that I also understood that such a commitment would be forthcoming if our studies so indicated during the spring and summer.” Low suggested that “Rice appar­ently agreed with me, but mentioned that he had internal problems within OMB and that the evaluation group in OMB had insisted that far more restrictive language be included.” Low and Rice “argued about this for some time”; Rice finally agreed that the language Low wanted “would be rein­stated in the budget book.” When NASA received its official budget allow­ance declaration from OMB on February 19, included was the statement, echoing Low’s preferred language, that “shuttle airframe development should proceed on an orderly step-by-step basis which may lead to continued detailed design or initiation of development of a specific design, depending on the progress in studies now underway.”37

The final NASA FY1972 budget request that President Nixon sent to the Congress was for $3.271 billion in budget authority (compared to the FY1971 budget of $3.298 billion) and $3.152 billion in outlays (com­pared to the FY1971 budget of $3.368 billion). Although there would be $200 million less to spend during FY1972 than a year earlier, the overall FY1972 budget authority for 1972 and projected for future years would be basically the same as for FY1971, thus arresting the half-decade long cuts in NASA funding. As he met with Tom Paine in January 1970, Richard Nixon had indicated that he might be willing to approve a NASA budget of as much as $3.9 billion for FY1972, but continuing economic and fiscal problems had made such an increased allocation for NASA politically and fiscally impossible. Reflecting on the final budget, George Low suggested that “although I am personally disappointed that we did not do better, the general feeling around NASA appears to be that we did considerably better than people had expected us to do.”38

While NASA may have “done better than people expected,” a decision crucial to the space agency’s future remained unmade. That was whether NASA would get presidential approval to proceed with the space shuttle as its major program during the 1970s. NASA’s hope, embodied in the budget language that Low had fought to preserve, was that such approval would come at the end of the ongoing shuttle studies in June 1971. Then NASA would quickly invite bids on developing the shuttle airframe and select the winning contractor by the end of 1971. However, not including funds for airframe development in the FY1972 budget request almost certainly meant that this plan was not viable. While White House approval of funds for devel­oping the new rocket engine intended for shuttle use was a significant step to shuttle approval, there remained major obstacles, budgetary and technical as well as political, to a final go ahead. NASA’s uncertainty about its future continued, and 1971 became a make-or-break year for what was left of the space agency’s post-Apollo aspirations.

Phase B Study Results

The Phase B preliminary design studies of a two-stage, fully reusable shuttle being carried out by North American Rockwell and McDonnell Douglas continued until mid-1971. There were a wide variety of orbiter and booster designs considered and cost estimates also varied widely as industry engi­neers struggled to meet the requirements set out by NASA. There was one

Phase B Study Results

A 1971-vintage artist’s concept of a two-stage fully reusable space shuttle. (Illustration cour­tesy of Dennis Jenkins)

constant: the shuttle designs being considered involved developing two large and expensive vehicles. For example, one version of the North American Rockwell orbiter was 206 feet long and had a wing span of 107 feet, about the size of the four-engine Boeing 707 commercial airliner then in use. The booster was 269 feet long and had a wing span of 143.5 feet, about the size of the Boeing 747 jumbo airliner then just entering commercial service; it had 12 rocket engines to provide the initial power to lift itself and the orbiter off the ground to what was called a “staging velocity.” The vehicles would then separate and the booster’s two-person crew would fly it, using a dozen air-breathing jet engines, back to a runway landing. The orbiter, also oper­ated by a two-person crew, upon separation would fire its two engines of the same design as those used on the booster and accelerate to orbital velocity. One contractor’s estimate of the cost of a fleet of four boosters and five orbiters flying 445 missions through FY1989 was $9.6 billion.27

NASA Gets a Low Budget Target

The shuttle’s fate, and with it the character of the post-Apollo NASA, would be decided against the background of continuing problems in the U. S. economy and their impact on the federal budget; those problems included a high rate of inflation, an unacceptable level of unemployment, stock market declines, deficits in international trade, and threats to the U. S. dollar as the basis for international financial transactions. The economic policies pursued by the Nixon administration in its first two years in office had not been suc­cessful in reversing these negative trends.

Meeting with his budget and policy advisers on July 23, Nixon made a tentative decision to cut the budgets of “civilian agencies” by 10 percent from their FY1972 levels. Among those agencies was NASA; it was noted at the meeting that by canceling the last two Apollo missions and the NERVA program and not starting the shuttle program, some $1.32 billion could be saved in FY 1973.16 Nixon’s July decision to reduce the budgets of the civil­ian agencies of the government by 10 percent was reflected in the budget targets provided to NASA by Cap Weinberger in an August 2 letter. Rather than the $3.2 billion per year budget that Don Rice in his May 17 letter had indicated was a reasonable expectation, Weinberger told NASA that its budget authority for FY1973 would be $2.835 billion, with a limit on outlays during the year of $2.975 billion. Weinberger told NASA that “the President emphasized at his 1973 budget planning meetings that it is essen­tial that we do not exceed the overall budget totals he has decided upon” and thus that NASA was required to “submit your budget at or below these figures.”17

Fletcher, upset at these low budget targets, quickly met with Weinberger to get a fuller understanding of the thinking behind them. Weinberger first told him that “things were tough all over” and that NASA should come in with a budget at the targeted level. But when Weinberger was told that the $2.8 billion budget target recommended by his staff meant the end of human space flight, he told Fletcher that it might be possible to bring the budget up to the $3.2 billion level of FY1972.18

Another Rethinking of the Space Shuttle

Fletcher and Low found themselves in a quandary with respect to how to proceed in developing NASA’s budget request for FY1973, given the low budget target and the feedback from the Woods Hole meeting. NASA’s internal planning, led by Wernher von Braun, had been assuming a FY1973 budget at approximately the $3.7-$3.8 billion level, fully $1 billion above the OMB target, with the budget gradually increasing to $4 billion per year; von Braun was warning that it would be very difficult to carry out an ambi­tious shuttle program with that budget outlook. This was a message that Fletcher and Low did not want to hear. They briefed David and Flanigan at the White House on the von Braun plan and got a noncommittal reaction. Flanigan “stated that a transportation system alone, without clearly under­stood objectives (a transportation system to where?) would not get the sup­port” that NASA needed. The “only bright spot” in the meeting was David’s comment “that it would be inconceivable for any President at any time in this age to stop manned space flight.”19

Low’s assessment of NASA’s situation as of August 1971 was sober.

In the course of planning for Fiscal Year 1971 and 1972, we assumed each year that the current year was a bad year but that things would get better on the next year. In effect, we pushed a funding bow wave ahead of us. My view today is that we should no longer build a future program on promises, but that we should, instead, assume that the NASA budget will be confined to the $3 billion level (say up to $3.3 billion) for the next several years. . . We should drop the shuttle right now and come up with a different manned space flight program.

This program should be based on an evolutionary space station develop­ment, leading from Skylab through a series of research and applications mod­ules to a distant goal of a permanent space station. We should also set for ourselves a distant goal of a lunar base. The transportation system for this manned space flight program would consist of Apollo hardware for Skylab; a glider launched on an expendable booster for the research and application modules; and finally, the shuttle but delayed 5 to 10 years beyond our present thinking.20

Where was Wernher von Braun?

Noticeable by his absence as NASA tried to garner support for the space shuttle was Wernher von Braun, perhaps NASA’s most charismatic spokes­person. Von Braun had moved to NASA headquarters early in 1970 to direct NASA’s planning efforts, and thus logically he should have been one of the senior NASA officials involved in the attempt to gain White House support for the shuttle. But Fletcher and Low had discovered that “von Braun is not a supporter of the Shuttle, and in fact may be an opponent.” According to Low, von Braun’s skepticism was based on his conclusion that “the Shuttle will cost much more than our current estimates of Mark I/Mark II, and that NASA cannot afford to proceed with the development. To use his words, if we were given a Shuttle for a Christmas present, we would certainly use it, but, according to him, we cannot afford the cost of development.”31

Von Braun had come to Washington with high hopes that, working together with the visionary Tom Paine, he might be able to convince the president and Congress to proceed toward a goal of eventual human missions to Mars, which had been his lifelong aspiration. President Nixon’s March 1970 space statement had dampened that hope, and von Braun quickly found that in his position as head of planning for NASA, he was expected to present options for the agency’s leaders to choose among, not advocate a particular course of action. When Paine announced in July 1970 that he was leaving NASA, von Braun was “just devastated.” His relationship with George Low during Low’s time as acting administrator was cordial but professional; “the one-on-one meetings with the administrator [Paine] ended and appointments with the acting administrator [Low] to discuss our programs became more difficult to set up as time went by.” When Fletcher became NASA administrator, “it tem­porarily improved the climate for von Braun.” Fletcher “admired” von Braun, and told him so. But given that Dale Myers and his team were leading shuttle studies, Fletcher “no more needed a ‘chief architect’ and planner than did George Low.” Von Braun was one of those arguing in mid-1971 that NASA should give up on advocating a two-stage, fully reusable shuttle. According to von Braun’s biographer, “what he could not dodge was his growing isolation at headquarters, a product of the marginalization of his planning office and his unpopular stance on space shuttle funding and design.” By May 1972, von Braun decided to leave NASA for a job in industry; at his farewell party, he told a close associate, “George Low had thanked him profusely, in the name of all NASA, for fighting for a ‘smaller and cheaper’ shuttle.” Low told von Braun: “We were not at all pleased by your warning words, but finally

accepted your advice__ If you had not raised the red flag at that time, I’m

certain the entire shuttle would be dead by now.” Von Braun described that conversation as his “happiest moment during my time at headquarters.”32 But in the heated debate over shuttle approval in the fall of 1971, Wernher von Braun was nowhere to be seen.

New Technology Opportunities Effort Collapses

One issue that had been in the background through much of 1971 had been the possibility that President Nixon would decide to broaden NASA’s man­date to include large-scale efforts to apply technology to the solution of vari­ous social problems outside of the aeronautics and space arena. Spearheading the effort to develop such “new technology opportunities” in the White House had been William Magruder, former head of the supersonic transport program. By November, Magruder had come up with a proposal to establish within the Executive Office of the President a new unit with some 300 staff members (many more than staff working for OMB or OST) as an interim step to coordinate planning a major technology initiatives effort, with the possibility that after sufficient planning was completed NASA might be asked to take on some or all of the new activities.

However, there were emerging problems with the Magruder effort. When Low in late November asked Magruder when the NASA people Magruder had requested to help staff the new office should report for duty, “it became quite apparent that he did not yet have clearance to move out with this so-called interim organization.” At about the same time, Rice told Low that “there was a great deal of controversy within the White House as to whether or not Magruder ought to establish this organization.” Rice thought that “nothing much will happen as a result of the New Technological Initiatives” and that “there was no sense in going ahead with the massive Magruder exercise.” Rice was correct; during December both OMB and OST raised strong objections to the Magruder plan, and it was stillborn, with only a few modest efforts in stimulating technological innovation eventually approved. Low thought that “a strong NASA association” with the Magruder effort “would have done us a great deal of harm.”25

The collapse of the Magruder exercise was not explicitly linked to increas­ing the chances of NASA’s getting approval for a full capability shuttle and its other post-Apollo ambitions. The Domestic Council’s Ed Harper said “I was at all the relevant meetings and the two programs [New Technology Opportunities and the space shuttle] were never discussed in terms of a trade-off.” Weinberger suggested that “there was no connection between the two. . . The shuttle was already there on a separate track.” When asked whether the collapse of the Magruder effort got linked to the shuttle deci­sion at the president’s level, Ehrlichman replied “I don’t think so.”26

What Budget Commitment?

In his December 29 letter to Cap Weinberger recommending how to proceed with respect to the space shuttle, and again in its January 3 letter responding to OMB questions, James Fletcher had asked for a "Administrator’s contingency" of 20 percent to guard against unex­pected costs during shuttle development, saying "approval of a $5 bil­lion program would thus constitute a commitment by NASA to make every effort to produce the desired system for under $5 billion, but in no case more than $6 billion." That funding reserve apparently was not discussed at the January 3 meeting at which Shultz gave quick approval to the full capability shuttle. Fletcher intended to bring up the issue with the president when he and Low met with Nixon on January 5, but forgot to do so. He called Bill Anders the next day, ask­ing Anders to intercede with the White House to make sure that the budget reserve was part of NASA’s understanding with OMB. When Anders called John Ehrlichman, he was told to relay the message to Fletcher that NASA would have to "eat" any cost overruns. In a February 16 letter from Shultz to Fletcher in which Shultz "recapitu­lated our understanding of the decisions that have been made to date on the space shuttle," there was no mention of a funding reserve; indeed Shultz told Fletcher that we "fully expect NASA to develop a shuttle system within the $5.5 billion of research and development costs, should we subsequently agree on the choice of pressure-fed boosters, or within an appropriately smaller amount should the choice be solid rocket motors."5

In the same letter, Shultz told NASA that it was "our specific under­standing that NASA’s peak annual spending during the period of development of the shuttle will not exceed $3.2 billion of outlays in the dollars of the FY 1973 budget." NASA up to that point had been argu­ing that the offer that NASA had made to develop the shuttle within the framework of a constant overall NASA budget, adjusted for infla­tion, was based on FY1971 dollars and on a FY 1973 new obligational authority level of $3.379 billion, rather than the $3.2 billion outlays level. The question of the budget baseline also had not been explicitly discussed at the January 3 approval meeting. When Fletcher and Low realized that their understanding was at variance with OMB’s intent, a difference that could lead to more than a billion dollar shortfall in the funds available for shuttle development, they tried for the next month to convince OMB to agree to a constant NASA budget based on the $3.379 billion level for FY 1973 and shuttle cost estimates based on FY1971 dollars. They did not succeed. Indeed, in fall 1972, Weinberger, by then the director of OMB, refused to honor the constant budget agreement even at the $3.2 billion level, leading James Fletcher to conclude that "a commitment from OMB is worthless."6

These two differences of understanding between NASA and OMB with respect to the funding available for shuttle development meant that the program had to be managed under very tight financial con­straints. When the almost inevitable technical problems arose, there was no margin in the shuttle budget to deal with them; as a result, there were cost overruns and schedule delays that in the late 1970s almost led to President Jimmy Carter canceling the shuttle program.

The Roots of the Policy Mistake

The policy mistake in the decision to develop the full capability space shuttle had deep roots in the history of the space shuttle program. The 2003 report of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board concluded that “the great­est compromise NASA made was not so much with any particular element of the technical design, but rather with the premise of the vehicle itself. NASA promised it could develop a Shuttle that would be launched almost on demand and would fly many missions each year.” The report added “the increased complexity of a Shuttle designed to be all things to all people cre­ated inherently greater risks than if more realistic technical goals had been set from the start. Designing a reusable spacecraft that is cost-effective is a daunting engineering challenge; doing so on a tightly constrained budget is even more difficult.”29 That was the situation in which NASA found itself in 1970 and 1971, but NASA’s leaders persisted in their advocacy of the full capability shuttle, even as some of them, particularly George Low, ques­tioned the wisdom of that advocacy.

There were actually two policy mistakes associated with the shuttle deci­sion. The first and more fundamental mistake was the White House accept­ing as the basis for its shuttle decision NASA’s claim that it could successfully go directly from the Apollo progra^m, characterized by brute force launcher technology and crew-carrying capsules parachuting to an ocean landing, to developing a highly capable vehicle in terms of payload capacity, in-orbit operation, and maneuvering during entry, incorporating a^dvanced tech­nology in many of its systems, with a high degree of reusability, and able to land on a runway and quickly be readied for another Sunch, all at res­tively modest cost compared to the alternatives. The bullish vision of people such as Tom Paine and George Mueller pushed NASA to focus on an ambi­tious shuttle design incorporating advanced technology and capable of “air­line type” operations. There was a significant degree of technological hubris in NASA’s view of what would be achievable. After all, NASA engineers and managers had just succeeded in landing American astronauts on the Moon and were convinced that they could overcome the next set of technological challenges.

NASA and its contractors thus focused their attention during 1970 and the first half of 1971 on finding the best design meeting NASA and national security community requirements and employing cutting edge technology in areas such as propulsion, thermal protection, and onboard electronic sys­tems. After May 1971 they had to carry out their design studies within an OMB-imposed budget ceiling in terms of both peak annual funding and the overall cost of the shuttle program. Although NASA recognized by mid-1971 that a two-stage fully reusable shuttle design was not feasible either financially or technologically, there was little emphasis on investigat­ing less ambitious, less expensive, alternatives to an advanced technology shuttle orbiter with a variety of means for boosting it into space. There was essentially no attention given at the engineering level to concepts such as the glider favored by the Flax committee or the smaller shuttle proposed by OMB, or even to the Mark I, less technologically ambitious, shuttle pro­posed by NASA Headquarters.

In addition to designing a shuttle that could be developed within a constrained budget, NASA engineers were forced into demonstrating the shuttle’s overall cost-effectiveness. In 1970, the Bureau of the Budget and then its successor OMB had insisted on proof that the shuttle development and operation would cost less than using expendable vehicles to launch U. S. space missions. NASA concluded that it had to satisfy that unprec­edented OMB requirement. Demonstrating the shuttle’s cost-effectiveness became perceived as a political necessity, and likely led to NASA’s lead­ers and engineers deluding themselves about the costs of operating the shuttle on a frequent basis in order to make the economic case come out positively.

The design ultimately recommended was likely the best engineering solu­tion to the demanding requirements NASA’s technical staff was asked to meet. But that design created a first-generation experimental vehicle, not a shuttle capable of delivering the cost savings and routine operational benefits that NASA was promising. Basing the White House decision to approve the NASA shuttle on other factors while implicitly accepting NASA’s optimistic claims with respect to the shuttle’s operation was a policy mistake with long – lasting consequences.

National Security Requirements. Drive Shuttle Design

When NASA in its September 30, 1970, budget proposal to the Office of Management and Budget OMB) characterized the space shuttle as “cost- effective,” it was responding to pressure from the budget office to demon­strate that the combination of the costs of developing and operating the reusable shuttle would, over the period of shuttle use, produce a cost savings over the use of existing or new expendable launch vehicles to launch the same missions. This requirement was unprecedented; in the 12 years since NASA had begun operations, it had never been required to show that one of its programs could be justified in economic terms. The NASA leadership, once it had decided to defer the space station and to justify the shuttle as a general – purpose launch system, concluded that it had no alternative but to accede to the cost-effectiveness requirement. NASA quickly recognized that meeting this requirement would require the shuttle being used to launch essentially all U. S. payloads. In particular, military and intelligence satellites launched by the national security community comprised almost half of the U. S. demand for space launches, and there was no way that the shuttle could be cost effec­tive unless that community abandoned its own launch vehicles and commit­ted to use the shuttle once its feasibility had been demonstrated.

This put the national security community in a strong bargaining position. Knowing that NASA needed its commitment to use the shuttle, the com­munity could both set out a demanding set of performance requirements for the shuttle to meet and refuse to share in the cost of shuttle development, claiming it already had perfectly adequate launch capability. This was the path that was followed from early 1969 to the final approval of the shuttle. While NASA if it had not had to respond to national security requirements might well have chosen another shuttle design, its leaders decided that they had no choice but to meet those requirements. Throughout the shuttle study process, and particularly in the critical year of 1971, it was the ability of the shuttle to launch all or almost all national security as well as NASA payloads that defined the shuttle design NASA would advocate.

National security requirements defined three shuttle performance char­acteristics:

1. Payload bay dimensions: The shuttle would carry its cargo in a “payload bay.” The width and length of the payload bay would determine the size of the cargo that could be carried.

2. Payload weight: The lifting power of the shuttle was usually expressed in how many pounds of payload it could launch to various orbits. The weight of payloads that the shuttle could take to various orbits was in turn linked to how many future missions could be launched by the shuttle. The heavi­est payloads anticipated for the shuttle were national security missions.

3. Cross range: This was the ability of the shuttle to maneuver sideways from a “straight ahead” path as it returned to Earth. There were a variety of speculative national security missions for the shuttle that required cross range of over 1,100 nautical miles (nm).

This chapter gives only minimal attention to the detailed technical issues involved in defining a space shuttle design that would meet these national security requirements; those issues have been treated in several other studies.1

Low Has Reservations

George Low, at that time still NASA acting administrator, reluctantly approved Myers’s January decision to orient the Phase B studies to a full capability fully reusable shuttle, although he “had hoped that Myers would be able to come up with a phased program, where we would first develop the orbiter to be launched on a [expendable] Saturn IC stage”; a reusable booster stage would be developed several years later. Such an approach would mean giving up, at least for the first few years of shuttle operation, the goal of full reusability and the accompanying very low operating costs that had been at the core of the shuttle’s attractiveness for potential users.

Low’s thoughts about phasing the shuttle development program dated back several months. As he had argued with OMB in the fall of 1970 for full funding for the shuttle in the FY1972 budget, Low recognized that if future NASA budgets remained at the same low level as what was being proposed for FY1972, there was no way to fund the development of a two-stage, fully reusable space shuttle without taking up an unacceptable share of the overall NASA budget. On the day after Thanksgiving 1970, Low had called to his home Willis Shapley, Dale Myers, and Charles Donlan. Low noted that “we held the meeting because of our collective concern that the shuttle program, as now constituted (two-stage fully reusable vehicle), would cost more than we could afford on an annual basis in the middle of the 70’s.” He added

A phased program, wherein we would first procure only the orbiter and launch it on a modified [Saturn] S-1C stage and only subsequently build a booster, would make more sense from the point of view of annual funding. It might also make more sense technically because we would face only one major prob­lem at a time. At the same time, we could also adopt a Block I/Block II approach, wherein many of the “nice to have” features would be reserved for Block II and would not be incorporated into Block I. In other words, the Block I vehicle would have the potential for cross-range, but only Block II would fly with cross-range.28

These ideas did not get translated into NASA policy for some months; in the interim, studies of the shuttle went forward based on Dale Myers’s January 1971 requirements.

Alternative Space Transportation Approaches

As he thought through the path that NASA should follow, Low in August had outlined for his senior colleagues his ideas on “the desired Space Transportation System for the 1980’s.” He rejected both developing a full­sized, two-stage reusable shuttle and pursuing an approach using a reusable “ballistic” spacecraft, a capsule without wings, launched on an expendable booster and parachuted back to Earth. This approach was based on modify­ing the two-person Gemini spacecraft used in the mid-1960s to carry six or more people, and was becoming known as “Big-G.” Low focused on a “mini-shuttle approach wherein a smaller shuttle vehicle is first developed and launched on an expendable booster. The recoverable booster and the desired full-scale shuttle are phased in at a later date.” The mini-shuttle would have a 15 x 40 foot payload bay (so that it could carry research and application modules and eventually space station modules), upgraded Saturn J-2 engines, and a disposable hydrogen/oxygen propellant tank. It could carry 40,000 pounds (rather than 65,000 pounds) to a due-East orbit. The initial version of this mini-shuttle would make use of existing technology in its on-board electronic systems. It would be propelled to staging velocity by an expendable booster, then fire its engines to accelerate to orbital velocity. In successive stages of development, an advanced shuttle rocket engine could replace the J-2 engines and a recoverable booster, not necessarily piloted, could be used.

Low also considered a “glider approach.” This vehicle, Low suggested, would be winged but smaller, with a 12 x 40 foot payload bay, carrying 30,000 pounds to orbit. It would have small engines for maneuvering in orbit and to initiate return to Earth, but no large rocket engines. It would be propelled to orbit by an expendable booster. Low did not have “enough information in hand to lead to a firm recommendation between the glider approach and the mini-shuttle approach.” He suggested that NASA “take a further look at both the glider and the mini-shuttle before we decide to limit our work to one or the other.” Low noted that Dale Myers preferred the mini-shuttle approach, suggesting that a glider would only send astronauts “whirling about the Earth” to no evident purpose, while he, Fletcher, and von Braun favored the glider.21