Category After Apollo?

A “New NASA"?

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

Continuing Discussions of the Path Forward

The Space Shuttle extended study contracts expired on October 31 and NASA for a second time extended the contracts for another four months. The focus of the continuing effort was still the Mark I/Mark II orbiter sequence with various means of boosting it into orbit. Low reported in early November that “the shuttle configuration is beginning to be focused on a considerably smaller orbiter with external hydrogen and oxygen tanks (but with the same payload size and weight), and with a pressure-fed recoverable booster that might be parallel staged. . . It may be possible to buy a shuttle for an investment cost (including the high pressure [space shuttle main] engine of less than $5 billion with cost per flight of the order of $10 million. . . Solid rocket motors also look promising.” On the basis of these study results, Low suggested that “if NASA were left to its own devices, I think we are now in a position to make a decision to move out with contractor selection and to proceed with the work. I believe it is important to get a decision on this soon and within the FY1973 budget process, unless the decision is the wrong decision.” The wrong decision, in Low’s view, “would be a glider on a Titan III.” But NASA had “not yet done adequate analysis of the glider,” primarily due to the resistance from Dale Myers and his space flight team, and thus NASA “should not absolutely discard it. The next several weeks will tell the story.” Also, observed Low, “NASA is not left to its own devices, and it appears that everyone wants to have their fingers in the pot.” Low also noted that “the only organized effort to either support or not support the shuttle is the so-called Flax Committee.” It seemed to Low to be important for NASA to influence the thinking of Flax and his associates.27


As soon as NASA headquarters in Washington received confirma­tion that the presidential statement had been issued in San Clemente, Charles Donlan, director of the space shuttle program, sent a mes­sage to shuttle program manager Robert Thompson at the Manned Spacecraft Center, saying "NASA will proceed with the development of the space shuttle. The shuttle orbiter is expected to have a 15 x 60 foot payload bay, and a 65,000 pound payload capability. It will be boosted either by a pressure fed liquid recoverable booster or by solid rocket motors." The message contained detailed instructions to guide the next phase of shuttle studies.1

Reaction to the president’s announcement was mixed. The New York Times quickly editorialized that the shuttle was an "investment in the future" and that Nixon’s decision to approve the shuttle was "wise." Predictably, given their 1971 attempt to cut funding for shuttle studies, Senators William Proxmire (D-WI) and Walter Mondale (D-MN) announced that they would lead the Senate opposition to shuttle approval; in addition, Senator Edward Muskie (D-ME), at that point the likely opponent for Richard Nixon in the 1972 presidential election, also said that he opposed the program as a "boondoggle." Talking with his political operative Chuck Colson on January 9, Richard Nixon was pleased to hear that Muskie’s opposition to the shuttle "may have blown his chances in Florida completely." Nixon noted that "in Florida and California this [approving the shuttle] is a big deal. It will save the aerospace industry."2 Whatever else his approval of the space shuttle meant to Richard Nixon, he saw it as an asset in terms of his reelection prospects.

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

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.

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 Very Optimistic Assessment of Potential Shuttle Missions

The “Joint DOD/NASA Study of Space Transportation Systems” was sub­mitted to the STG on June 16, 1969. The three-volume report was (and still is) classified “Secret.” A separate “Summary Report” shared the same classi­fication for 30 years, but was declassified in 1999; the following information is extracted from that declassified document.9

The study team provided an extremely positive assessment of the poten­tials of the space shuttle and reusable upper stages to carry payloads from the shuttle to higher orbits; the combination was called the Space Transportation System (STS). Its report concluded that “the development of an STS is needed to provide a major reduction in operating costs and an increased capability for national space missions.”

What NASA Did Not Know

As NASA submitted its budget request, it did not know that President Nixon had already made a tentative decision that NASA’s budget for FY1973 would be in the $3.3-$3.4 billion range, with a strong bias toward approving space shuttle development. That decision originated with OMB Deputy Director Cap Weinberger and had been approved by the president. But that informa­tion had not been communicated to the White House technical and budget staffs, much less to NASA, and thus had little impact on NASA’s interactions with OMB and OST over the next four months.

Weinberger had discovered as he met with Fletcher on August 5 that the budget target for NASA that had been recommended by his staff would mean the eventual end of the U. S. human space flight program. This was not an acceptable option to Weinberger, and on August 12 he had sent a thoughtful memorandum to President Nixon. That memorandum is worth quoting at some length.

Present tentative plans call for major reductions or change in NASA, by elimi­nating the last two Apollo flights (16 and 17), and eliminating or sharply

reducing the balance of the Manned Space Program (Skylab and Space Shuttle)

and many remaining NASA programs.

I believe this would be a mistake.

1. The real reason for sharp reductions in the NASA budget is that NASA is entirely in the 28% of the budget that is controllable. In short we cut it because it is cuttable, not because it is doing a bad job or an unnecessary one.

2. We are being driven, by the uncontrollable items, to spend more and more on programs that offer no hope for the future: Model Cities, OEO [Office of Employment Opportunity], Welfare, interest on the National Debt, unemployment compensation, Medicare, etc. Of course, some of these have to be continued, in one form or another, but essentially they are pro­grams, not of our choice, designed to repair mistakes of the past, not of our making.

3. We do need to reduce the budget, in my opinion, but we should not make all our reduction decisions on the basis of what is reducible, rather than on the merits of individual programs.

4. There is real merit to the future of NASA, and its proposed programs. The Space Shuttle and NERVA particularly offer the opportunity, among other things, to secure substantial scientific fall-out for the civilian economy at the same time that large numbers of valuable (and hard-to-employ – elsewhere) scientists and technicians are kept at work. . . It is very difficult to re-assemble the NASA teams should it be decided later, after major stop­pages, to re-start some of the long-range programs.

5. Recent Apollo flights have been very successful from all points of view. Most important is the fact that they give the American people a much needed lift in spirit (and the people of the world an equally needed look at American superiority). Announcement now, or very shortly, that we were cancelling Apollo 16 and 17 . . . would have a very bad effect, coming so soon after Apollo 15’s triumph. It would be confirming, in some respects, a belief that I fear is gaining credence at home and abroad: that our best years are behind us, that we are turning inward, reducing our defense commitments, and voluntarily starting to give up our super-power status, and our desire to maintain our world superiority. America should be able to afford something besides increased welfare, programs to repair our cit­ies, or Appalachian relief and the like.

6. I do not propose that we necessarily fund all NASA seeks—only that if we decide to eliminate Apollo 16 and 17, that we couple any announcement to that effect with announcements that we are going to fund space shuttles, NERVA, or other major, future NASA activities.

7. I believe I can find enough reductions in other programs to pay for con­tinuing NASA at generally the $3.3-$3.4 billion level.27

Richard Nixon read Weinberger’s memorandum and wrote on it a cryptic message, “I agree with Cap.” He also wrote “OK” next to point 7. What exactly he meant by these notations was not clear. A month later, one of Haldeman’s staff provided some clarification, telling OMB Director Shultz that the “the President read with interest and agreed with Mr. Weinberger’s memorandum of August 12, 1971, on the subject of the future of NASA. Further, the President approved Mr. Weinberger’s plan to find enough reductions in other programs to pay for NASA at generally the 3.3-3.4 bil­lion dollar level.”28

If the NASA leadership had known of Weinberger’s memorandum and Nixon’s response, they likely would have been much less nervous about the outcome of NASA’s negotiations with OMB over the FY1973 budget. The Weinberger memorandum represented one of several points in 1971 when it could be said that a decision to approve space shuttle development had been made. But if there was such a decision made on the basis of the memo, it was to approve the idea of a space shuttle, not a specific shuttle design. NASA in its budget submission left itself vulnerable to continued debate over what shuttle design merited presidential approval by its admission that it would take another six months to make the configuration choice. That debate was not long in coming.

Getting Close

On the afternoon of December 29, 1971, Fletcher and Low met with George Shultz, Cap Weinberger, and Don Rice from OMB, Peter Flanigan and Jonathan Rose from the White House, and science adviser Ed David to present NASA’s proposal of how best to proceed with respect to the space shuttle. A decision was needed soon; the president’s budget message was due to go to the printer in the first week of January, and it would have to contain some indication of the fate of the space shuttle program.

Fletcher on the morning of the meeting sent to Weinberger a letter reflecting the decisions reached within NASA in the past few days. The letter said: “We have concluded that the full capability 15 x 60′ 65,000# payload shuttle still represents a ‘best buy’ and in ordinary times should be developed. However, in recognition of the extremely severe near-term budgetary problems, we are recommending a somewhat smaller vehicle—one with a 14 x 45’—45,000# payload capability, at a somewhat reduced overall cost.” The letter added “this is the smallest vehicle we can still consider to be useful for manned flight as well as a variety of unmanned payloads.” NASA gave highest priority to retain­ing a shuttle configuration that was large and powerful enough to eventually launch components of a space station, and the 14 x 45 foot shuttle it was now recommending had that capability, even though it would not be able to launch the largest intelligence satellites or astronomical observatories.

The Fletcher letter also reported NASA’s assessment of the shuttle design suggested by OMB, saying that “we have not been able to meet” the objec­tives of a development cost of less than $4 billion and a cost per flight of less than $5 million. NASA noted that the 30-foot payload bay length sug­gested by OMB “eliminates nearly all DOD payloads, some important space science payloads, most application payloads, all planetary payloads, and useful manned modules.” Attached to the letter was a table (reproduced on next page) showing the results of NASA’s evaluation of various shuttle configurations.

The letter said that “the question of a liquid as opposed to a solid booster is not yet completely settled—there are some open technical questions” and “the differences in operating costs [for the two boosters] have not yet been determined with accuracy.” For these reasons, NASA recommended that the choice among booster options should be deferred for two months to allow additional study.

NASA also asked for a “funding contingency,” saying that “it is our inten­tion to manage the program to bring it in” at the costs spelled out in the

Various Shuttle Options Presented by NASA to the White House, December 29, 1971

Payload bay size


10 x 30

12 x 40

14 x 45

14 x 50

15 x 65

Payload weight (pounds)






Development cost (billions)






Operating cost (millions)






Payload costs ($/pound)






Fletcher letter. NASA added “nevertheless, we believe that we should include a contingency against future cost growths due to technical problems. . . We believe a 20% contingency would be appropriate. . . Approval of a $5 billion program [for the 14 x 45′ orbiter] 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.”

Finally, the letter argued that it was time for “a decision to proceed with full shuttle development” to be made. “Further delays would not produce significant new results,” and “additional delays would have many unsettling effects. . . There is a great deal to be gained, and nothing to be lost, by mak­ing a decision to proceed now.”3

Going into the meeting, Fletcher and Low were uncertain of its outcome; they even agreed in advance that they could accept a shuttle as small as one with a14 x 40′ payload bay and 40,000 pound lift capability, but that anything smaller “would require a Presidential decision.” At the meeting, “the prin­cipal negative guy, once again, was Don Rice who indicated that he did not believe NASA’s figures or the figures presented to us or to him by our contrac­tors.” However, “during the meeting Shultz looked at the facts and figures and decided that really the only thing that makes any sense, as NASA had said all along, is the 15 x 60’—65,000 lb. Shuttle capability.” Fletcher recalled that “at the end of the meeting, George said, well, it’s a pretty easy decision. We’ll go for the 60-foot one. We had George saying that and no one arguing with him.”4

Low noted that “no decision was made in the meeting,” but added that “Fletcher and I were fairly confident that our recommendation of the 14 x 45′ 45,000 lb. Shuttle would be accepted as a minimum and that even the full capability [shuttle] might still be accepted.” A second senior-level meet­ing was scheduled for Monday, January 3, 1972, after the New Year’s week­end, to make the final decision.5

Rethinking the Space Shuttle

One study of space shuttle development comments that during 1971 “pres­sures of financial stringency penetrated every aspect of the Shuttle program. Few high-technology development programs, if any, have been subjected to the kind of fiscal pressures and controls which the Shuttle Program endured, and it was during this period that they had the greatest impact on the design process.” Indeed, “the fiscal and political environment influenced the detailed engineering design decisions on a month to month, and at times, a day to day basis.”25

This pressure was already in the background as NASA’s Associate Administrator for Manned Space Flight Dale Myers and his top associates decided in January 1971 to direct NASA’s contractors to restrict their stud­ies to a shuttle design that could meet all national security requirements. Myers convened a January 19-20, 1971, meeting in Williamsburg, Virginia, attended by all those involved in shuttle studies. At the meeting, Myers announced the requirements that would guide the remaining months of the ongoing shuttle studies. Performance requirements included:

• The ability to launch 65,000 pounds into a due east 100 nautical mile (nm) orbit, which equated with the ability to launch 40,000 pounds into a polar orbit, a national security requirement;

• Nominal cross-range of 1,100 nm, the least amount acceptable to the national security community; up to that point, NASA’s contractors had been studying both a delta-wing orbiter design capable of 1,500 nm cross­range as well as one with straight wings and only 200 nm cross-range;

• Engines capable of generating 550,000 pounds of sea-level thrust. NASA had allowed its Phase A and Phase B contractors also to examine the use of an engine with 415,000 pounds of thrust, and most industry stud­ies had preferred that option. Myers’s directive removed that choice. The more powerful engine would be required to launch the heaviest NASA and national security payloads;

• The ability to return payloads weighing up to 40,000 pounds, also a national security requirement.26

Although the cross-range requirement had originated with the Department of Defense (DOD) and in the early stages of shuttle studies had been resisted by NASA, by this time many of those within NASA and industry involved in shuttle design efforts acknowledged the limitations of the straight-wing orbiter design, which was the preference of NASA’s Max Faget, and recog­nized that a high cross-range vehicle had a number of operational advantages in terms of dissipating energy during return from orbit and of getting the shuttle orbiter to an appropriate landing site from various orbits. Myers’s January 1971 directive eliminated the straight-wing design from further consideration; whatever shuttle design NASA would choose would have delta-shaped wings.