Category After Apollo?

Richard Nixon, "Exploring the Unknown," and Ending Apollo

Richard Nixon liked grand concepts. Such was the case with respect to space. Nixon frequently mused about the importance to U. S. interests and national vitality of “exploring the unknown”; he connected the space program with that impulse. A particularly full example of Nixon’s thinking about space exploration came in a March 9, 1971, Oval Office meeting with a group of current and past NASA astronauts who had been touring college campuses to gauge reactions to administration policy. He told them

I know what people say, we are being jingoistic. America stays number one and so forth. In the history of great nations, once a nation gives up in the com­petition to explore the unknown, or once it accepts a position of inferiority, it ceases to be a great nation. It happened to Spain. It happened in the 20th century to the French and then to the British. And it could happen to the United States. That is what it’s all about, and so when we look at. . . the space program, whether it’s Mars or whether it’s the shuttle or who knows what it is. I don’t care what it is, but the main thing is we have to go, we have to go, we’ve got to find out.

The majority of the people in all of the polls show that they are against the SST [supersonic transport], they are against the space program. They just want to sort of settle down. . . If the United States just didn’t. . . have the prob – lems of going to space, then what a wonderful country this would be. And the answer is it wouldn’t be at all. It would be a terrible country. It would be a country big, fat, rich, but with no sense of spirit. . . If an individual does not want to do something bigger than himself, he is selfish. That’s what space is about.12

Nixon’s line of thinking was somewhat different when he was talking to a person not strongly involved with the space program. For example, on the morning of March 24, 1971, he met with several senators in a last minute (and unsuccessful) effort to avoid the Senate voting that afternoon against the supersonic transport program. Reflecting on his meetings, Nixon told his Congressional liaison Clark MacGregor that “the United States should

not drop out of any competition in a breakthrough in knowledge—explor­ing the unknown. That’s one of the reasons I support the space program.” Without pausing, he added “I don’t give a damn about space. I am not one of those space cadets.”13

Congressional refusal to continue funding for the supersonic transport was deeply disappointing to Richard Nixon, and may have reinforced his belief in the importance of the space program as a means of symbolizing America’s commitment to leadership in “exploring the unknown.” John Ehrlichman observed that “Nixon died very hard on the SST; he had a com­mitment to that which had to do with chauvinism.” To Nixon, the United States “had to be at the leading edge of this kind of applied technological development. And if we weren’t, then a great deal of national virtue was lost, and our standing in the world.”14

However, remaining first in space in Nixon’s mind did not include repeated trips to the Moon; in fact, he was much more interested in eventual human trips to Mars and at least once mused about exploring the moons of Jupiter. He had been talked out of canceling Apollo 17 at the end of 1970, but in May 1971 returned to that idea, this time including also canceling Apollo 16. Meeting with Ehrlichman on May 13, Nixon said “I personally think [we should] stop at probably five Apollos, no more. . . The reason for the space program, the best reason, is not going to the moon but is the fact that we are exploring the unknown. I don’t know what the hell is up there. We’ve got to continue to explore just for the sake of it.” Later the same day, he told Ehrlichman “the one [part of the NASA program] that seems to me to have the least appeal are more Apollo shots. Why in the hell would they have to go up there and take a look around the damn thing again?” On May 18, he asked Ehrlichman “did you get those moon shots knocked off?” Ehrlichman replied “we’re working on it.” Nixon suggested “do your best.” Finally, on May 26, Nixon told Ehrlichman “we have got to get a way to get off those damn moon-shots. . . There can’t be any after July [the date for the Apollo 15 mission]. And we all agree, none after July.” Referring to the Apollo 13 mis­sion, he said “I don’t want risk any more.”15

In response to Nixon’s interest in canceling the last two Apollo missions, Ehrlichman told Office of Management and Budget (OMB) Director George Shultz “the President would like us to review and analyze the NASA budget and future program with an eye to cutting the number of Apollo shots.” OMB’s Don Rice responded, providing estimates of the budget savings and job losses associated with canceling both missions and with canceling only Apollo 17. That latter action would save $101 million in FY72-74 and result in the loss of 9,000 jobs; canceling both missions, $192 million and 15,000 jobs. Rice commented that “California, Long Island, and Cape Kennedy would be hardest hit” by the job losses. Ehrlichman used Rice’s informa­tion in a memorandum to the president, noting that job reductions resulting from canceling the two Apollo missions would be “centered principally in the South and Southern California.”16

Aerospace unemployment was by this point becoming an important polit­ical issue for the White House in advance of the 1972 presidential campaign. Meeting with science adviser Ed David on February 22, Nixon indicated that he wanted David and his external advisors to direct particular attention “to the unemployed from the space and defense industries.” The president met with OMB Deputy Director Cap Weinberger and Flanigan on May 5 to discuss “what could be done about high unemployment areas with spe­cific emphasis on California.” Nixon “indicated a very great concern about the California area and the high level of unemployment among technically – trained individuals.” He directed his associates to review federal programs to identify those “which could be moved either in time or in place. . . to areas of high unemployment.” Weinberger and Flanigan agreed to meet with a number of government agencies, including NASA, to pursue this directive. During the rest of 1971, aerospace unemployment, particularly in California, would be an influential factor in shaping White House space decisions.17

By mid-1971 Richard Nixon’s interest in trips to the Moon had defi­nitely waned. When Apollo 15 was launched on July 26 at 9:34 a. m. EDT, the White House put out a statement that Richard Nixon had watched the launch with great interest; in fact, he was still asleep.18

NASA and Applying Technology to Societal Problems

The White House idea of turning NASA into a general-purpose applied technology Agency persisted through summer 1971. A first draft of Edgar Cortright’s internal study of broadening NASA’s role into other areas of tech­nology was ready by late June. The study concluded that there were indeed many areas where a high-technology approach was needed and that “NASA, and only NASA, could really bring many of these problems to an early solu­tion.” Problems addressed included “environmental monitoring, health care services, transportation needs, and urban needs,” among others.8

Also in July, the White House Domestic Council established a subcom­mittee chaired by science adviser David to take a government-wide look at the issue of applying technological solutions to national needs; NASA partic­ipated in that effort. George Low’s understanding of the Domestic Council plan was “to first worry about the problems, and to define the organiza­tion to solve the problems later on.” NASA supported the subcommittee’s efforts in the areas of short-haul air transportation systems, a global environ­mental system, a wide-band communication system, and, to a lesser degree, ground-based transportation and health services. Low found working in the interagency framework “very frustrating in that other agencies are, by and large, impossible to work with. Everybody wants to play in their own little sandbox and, particularly, wants to keep NASA out of that sandbox.” Low was becoming convinced that “if anything is to be done” with respect to applying technology to national problems, “it will have to be done by NASA under a Presidential mandate.” Fletcher agreed with Low, indicating his “pessimism about the possible success of the current interagency exercise.”9 William Magruder, who had been in charge of the canceled supersonic transport program at the Department of Transportation, moved to the White House as a “special consultant to the president” to take charge of what was becoming known as the “New Technology Opportunities” program. Magruder broadened the scope of the effort beyond looking at the technical issues that had been the focus of the David subcommittee, examining issues such as balance-of-trade, antitrust, and other nontechnical aspects involved in the kind of effort being contemplated. Magruder’s goal was to define a number of major initiatives to be included in President Nixon’s January 1972 State of the Union Address. He told NASA Administrator Fletcher that he “had the distinct impression that the President would like to give the whole job to NASA.” Responding to that possibility, Fletcher drafted a letter to Magruder in late September, suggesting that “it might be wise to place the ‘soluble’ [solvable?] problems in NASA, but begin to develop new capabilities in other agencies, particularly those in which NASA is not par­ticularly qualified. NASA might be given the responsibility for outlining a government-wide program through its systems analysis capability.”

Fletcher and Low by this time had decided that it would be a good move for NASA to try to take the lead in this new area. Discussing tactics on how to achieve that outcome, Fletcher thought that NASA should “not enlarge our contacts much beyond response to requests. . . I am convinced that it has to be their [the White House’s] initiative if we are to succeed in this venture; although we can respond with enthusiasm when asked, if we do too much politicing behind the scenes, word will get around somehow.” But, he added “this seems like a ‘sporty course’ for something we really think NASA and the country ought to undertake. . . The risk we take is that the President will decide to go some other route because of influence from various other vested interests. At this point in time I am inclined to take that chance.” Low agreed with Fletcher’s ideas, suggesting that NASA “would play the role of the reluctant bride, but would be prepared to jump in if the opportunity presented itself.”10

Working with the White House

In the aftermath of the OMB director’s review on October 22, George Low focused his attention on making NASA’s case to OMB, the Flax committee, and the science adviser’s office, while Fletcher was working to gain the sup­port of those at the policy and political levels at the White House. Having observed Low’s actions from outside NASA, Klaus Heiss would later com­ment that “George Low was the key creative figure. . . when crucial decisions came, they were George Low’s decisions. . . He had enough engineering and other judgment that people respected him. . . He was crucial to NASA at that time.”24

Fletcher lunched with Whitehead and Anders on November 5 “to dis­cuss how NASA could better relate to OMB and the White House staff.” Whitehead felt that “there are only two ways to bring together the diverg­ing views of the White House staff.” One was “to let Peter [Flanigan] act as our [NASA’s] advocate in White House circles and, in particular, with the President. To do this we would have to keep Peter better informed.” A second option was “to call the essential constituents together and thrash through what we felt is a program responsive to the President’s desires (which, inciden­tally, coincide with the national interest).” If this were done, “when the time came for a battle with OMB or to confront the President with alternatives, there might be a reasonable degree of support from the White House staff.” Whitehead thought that “at the present time Henry [Kissinger] is very much an advocate of space, but more particularly the Manned Space Program; that Peter and Ed [David] were neutral; and that OMB, as possibly represented by George Shultz, is in favor of a continued reduction, year by year, in NASA’s total budget.” Whitehead believed that “these views need to be reconciled in favor of an agreed upon national program which makes sense.”25

In mid-November, Anders gave Low a rundown of the positions on the space shuttle of key White House players:

Weinberger: is a real space buff. The only one in OMB really positive toward the NASA program. Causes Rice to over-balance in the opposite direction. Everybody lower in OMB is negative.

Rice: the most knowledgeable opposition comes from Rice. Feels that NASA is out of control; however, he will probably support a glider on a TITAN III.

Ed David: . . . noticeably quiet, measuring his words, and repeatedly saying he represented science and that other factors are involved. . . Not really plugged into the President.

Flax: Fubini is really running the Flax Committee. Flax apparently states that no program as large as the Shuttle will gain continuing support. We need a less costly program. . . Flax is driving David toward the glider and not vice versa. . . David will support the Orbiter with the parallel staged pressure fed booster [the TAOS concept] if Flax so recommends.

Whitehead: Whitehead could be helpful in making Flanigan a meaningful communication link to the President. . . Whitehead’s main motivation now is to improve the Fletcher/Flanigan communications link. Whitehead can be extremely helpful in selling the NASA desired Shuttle approach. . . Believes in a $3.5 billion NASA.

Rose: [Jonathan Rose was Whitehead’s replacement as Peter Flanigan’s assistant tracking space issues] is the California unemployment buff in the White House. Tries to be helpful and sees Flanigan all the time. He defers to Whitehead when Whitehead is present.

Flanigan: states that the Shuttle story is improving; however, he is by no means convinced that there should be a Shuttle. Is strongly influenced by Whitehead, Rose, and David.

Peterson: [Peter Peterson was White House international economic counselor] is the most negative of all about NASA. Perhaps the most dangerous opposi­tion we have within the White House. Believes that the space program is the place to take money to stimulate technology. Asked why not take $1 billion out of space and who needs manned space flight.

Ehrliehman: asked the question, “Given the public attitude on space, why not put money in aeronautics?” However, he is very much concerned about the aerospace industry and will probably go along with whatever OMB/OST/ Flanigan recommend.26

The OMB Shuttle

On December 10, NASA received its FY1973 budget allowance from OMB, with the important exception that the budgets for the space shuttle and pos­sible interim Earth-orbital missions were not specified; NASA was told that those budgets figures would be provided later. NASA was satisfied with the OMB allowances for the rest of its program, and told OMB Deputy Director Weinberger that it did not plan to ask for any reconsideration of the OMB – proposed budget levels.17

The positive feeling did not last long. Low recorded that “on Saturday, December 11, Fletcher and I met with Rice, David, and Flanigan and were told by Rice in that meeting that the President had decided to go ahead with the shuttle provided it was a smaller orbiter with a 10 x 30’ payload bay, carrying a 30,000 pound payload.” The rationale offered for arriving at this position was that “the shuttle would primarily be used for manned space flight missions and that this kind of shuttle was a major step beyond [Apollo] command and service modules.” Considerable, rather heated, discussion fol­lowed; finally, Fletcher “indicated he could not accept this kind of edict and that he wanted to see the President.”18

At this meeting, Rice gave Fletcher and Low a two-page document out­lining the characteristics of the smaller shuttle that OMB was claiming that President Nixon had approved. This claim was not quite valid; Nixon had indeed approved the OMB proposal to work with NASA to develop a smaller, less expensive shuttle design, but in neither the OMB December 2 decision memo nor the discussion at the December 3 budget meeting had the president approved specific shuttle design characteristics. Ehrlichman, who was present at the meeting, suggested that “there was some explanation to him [Nixon] of what the differences were. They were not in great detail, I am sure, because those things just never were, not at that level.” Rather, what OMB presented to NASA was its own preferred shuttle performance characteristics, which had been prepared with significant input from external sources. Presenting specific shuttle requirements as a presidential decision was an example of the tendency noted by Cap Weinberger of “the OMB staff acting on their own” with respect to the shuttle in a way that “may or may not have represented the policy of the appointed heads” of OMB, much less that of the president.19

The conservative philosophy behind the OMB-preferred shuttle was that it should “replace the current CSM [command and service module] capabil­ity for manned flight with increments of capability only to the extent they are both cost-effective and within overall fiscal feasibility.” OMB argued that “a small, versatile system is more likely to be used and exploited and less likely to encounter development delays and cost overruns.” With respect to orbiter size, OMB suggested that NASA should:

• “Exploit ability to dock payloads in orbit for near earth and synchronous missions (one flight carries payload and second payload carries tug).”

• “Rely on the ingenuity of payload designers to fit payloads into smaller compartments than currently projected.”

• OMB argued that a “bay size of 10’ x 30’ with 30,000 # [pound] payload due East would add sufficient capability beyond manned flight to capture most payloads.”

With respect to the “fiscal constraints” affecting shuttle development, OMB set demanding targets:

• “$4B maximum for DDT&E [design, development, test, and evaluation] including development vehicles”;

• “Other investment costs (facilities and additional vehicles) should be held to a maximum of $.5 B”;

• “Recurring costs per flight of $5 M”;

• “Peak NASA budget level $3.2 B in FY73$ [Fiscal Year 1973 dollars].”

As the December 11 meeting broke up with OMB and NASA at logger­heads, NASA agreed “to do further analysis of the 10’ x 30’ payload so that we would have some good facts at hand and then we will have to decide whether the small shuttle makes any sense at all or whether we will have to fight for a larger one.”20

Richard Nixon Meets the Space Shuttle

John Ehrlichman joined the president for the meeting with Fletcher and Low. Fletcher had suggested that Peter Flanigan also be at the meeting, given his important role in the shuttle decision, but Flanigan was not pres­ent. As the two NASA officials waited to enter the president’s office with a shuttle model, Ehrlichman asked whether it was the NASA shuttle or the OMB shuttle. Low’s reply was “it is the United States’ shuttle.”24

Ehrlichman took detailed notes during the meeting; there was no tap­ing system in Nixon’s San Clemente office. Several days later, George Low

Richard Nixon Meets the Space Shuttle

Press photographers and reporters capture the moment as NASA’s Jim Fletcher and George Low show President Nixon a model of the space shuttle in the president’s San Clemente, California, office on January 5, 1972. The top of John Ehrlichman’s head is in the foreground. (Photograph WHPO 8172-4, courtesy of Richard Nixon Presidential Library & Museum)

also prepared a “memorandum for the record” regarding the meeting and discussed it in one of his “personal notes.” Ehrlichman also prepared a “Memorandum for the President’s File” summarizing the meeting. So there is a good record of what transpired as the meeting stretched from its sched­uled 15 minutes to over half an hour. Low reported that “it soon became apparent that he [Nixon] was interested in the shuttle and in the space pro­gram as a whole and wanted to spend more time with us. The discussion was warm, friendly, and productive.”

First, reporters and press photographers were briefly present to see Fletcher present the shuttle model to President Nixon. After they left, the first order of business was whether to adopt Space Clipper as the new name for the shuttle program. Nixon decided to defer the decision to a later time; this led to a rapid modification of the planned presidential statement to remove any mention of the Space Clipper designation. (The name of course was never changed—space shuttle it would remain.) Nixon asked if the shuttle was really worth a $7 billion investment. Fletcher and Low replied in the affir­mative. Fletcher said that the shuttle was a necessary step to future space exploration, that it was too expensive to explore and do other things in space using existing launchers, that the shuttle was useful for military purposes such as a “sudden need” and interception and inspection of others’ satellites, and that it was part of the “new frontiers of the mind” with “unpredictable” impacts. Fletcher also mentioned speculative future uses of the shuttle such as facilitating solar power from space and nuclear waste disposal; Nixon’s reaction was that “these kinds of things tend to happen much more quickly than we now expect and that we should not hesitate to talk about them now.” Nixon observed that the shuttle would “open up entirely new fields” and was not a “$7 billion toy,” since it would “cut operations costs by a fac­tor of 10.” He added that even if the shuttle “were not a good investment, we would have to do it anyway, because space flight is here to stay. Men are flying in space now and will continue to fly in space, and we’d best be a part of it.” The president was very interested in the status of planning for a dock­ing between U. S. and Soviet spacecraft, and suggested that Ehrlichman ask Henry Kissinger to be sure to add a discussion of that possibility to the draft agenda for the May 1972 U. S.-Soviet summit meeting in Moscow.

Ehrlichman’s brief summary of the meeting said: “After the press and photographers left the NASA representatives explained the Shuttle to the President and the President asked questions about the Russian rendez­vous, the Sky Lab, the use of solar power, the recent AEC [Atomic Energy Commission] proposal for the disposal of waste in space and other technical matters.” Low recorded that Nixon told him and Fletcher that NASA “should stress civilian applications but not to the exclusion of military applications.” However, Ehrlichman’s notes say that Nixon’s guidance was to “downplay” the shuttle’s military aspects, particularly in the context of future interna­tional cooperation. Nixon stressed that from the start of his presidency he had “an interest in international peaceful applications of space programs.” Low records Nixon as saying that “he was disappointed that we had been unable to fly foreign astronauts on Apollo. . . He understood that foreign astronauts of all nations could fly on the shuttle and appeared to be particu­larly interested in Eastern European participation in the flight program.” Nixon was “not only interested in flying foreign astronauts, but also in other types of meaningful participation.” Fletcher told Nixon that the shuttle pro­gram would have a “big job impact,” with 3,500 jobs in 1972, 14,000 by 1973, and 50,000 at its peak. (Commenting on a draft of Low’s memoran­dum for the record regarding the meeting, Fletcher noted that the president “wanted to be sure that aerospace employment was mentioned, particularly on [the] West Coast.” But Fletcher thought that because of the political sen­sitivity of Nixon’s indicating in the meeting that the shuttle prime contract should go to a California company, Low should not mention this interest in his memorandum.) Nixon stressed that it was his view that the United States needed to be “No. 1” in all fields of space activity. “Like the new world,” he said, “someone will explore.” And it was important for the United States to be in the vanguard.25

Ehrlichman commented on “Nixon’s fascination with the [shuttle] model. He held it and, in fact, I wasn’t sure Fletcher was going to be able to get it away from him” when the meeting was over. Actually, Fletcher and Low left the model behind for possible display in Nixon’s White House office.26

After the meeting was concluded, the White House press office issued the presidential statement, quickly revised to delete any mention of Space

Clipper. In contrast to John Kennedy’s high-profile speech before a joint session of Congress announcing his decision to go to the Moon, Richard Nixon did not speak to the press about his shuttle decision. In the statement, which based on a draft prepared by Bill Anders, Nixon declared “I have decided was today that the United States should proceed at once with the development of an entirely new type of space transportation system designed to help transform the space frontier of the 1970’s into familiar territory.” The statement added “the space shuttle will give us routine access to space by sharply reducing costs in dollars and preparation time. . . Most of the new system will be recovered and used again and again—up to 100 times. The resulting economies may bring operating costs down to as low as one-tenth of those for present launch vehicles.” The shuttle would “take the place of all present launch vehicles except the very smallest and the very largest.” It suggested that “we can have the shuttle in manned flight by 1978, and operational a short time later.” The space shuttle, the statement suggested, “will revolutionize transportation into near space by routinizing it. It will take the astronomical costs out of astronautics.”27

There were a number of loose ends to tie up over the next two months before NASA would be ready to announce the final configuration of the space shuttle and invite aerospace firms to bid on a contract to develop it. In particular, the choice of how the shuttle orbiter would be boosted off the launch pad had not been made; both liquid-fueled and solid-fueled boosters remained in contention. But with his January 5, 1972, statement, President Richard Nixon had formally approved the space shuttle program; the shuttle would be the centerpiece of U. S. human space flight activities for the next four decades.

What about the Other Reasons for Shuttle Approval?

There were other reasons put forward for going ahead with the full capa­bility shuttle, and the success or failure of the shuttle in satisfying those reasons must be included in an overall assessment of the shuttle as a Nixon space legacy. Although secondary factors in the presidential-level decision to approve NASA’s full capability shuttle, the claims that NASA had made from 1969 on—that the shuttle could be launched on a routine basis and that it would significantly lower the costs of space operations—became the publicly offered reasons for developing the shuttle. The space shuttle failed to match those claims. As then-NASA Administrator Mike Griffin com­mented in 2010, “what the shuttle does is stunning, but it is stunningly less than what was predicted.”23

In his prepared statement announcing shuttle approval, President Nixon said that the shuttle would “revolutionize transportation into near space by routinizing it.” At the time the shuttle decision was made, the intent was to launch the shuttle 40 to 60 times per year once it became fully operational. This of course never happened. The most launches of the shuttle in a single calendar year ended up being nine in 1985, with the average annual launch rate over the 30-year lifetime of the program being 4.3 launches per year. The shuttle could not be launched on demand; rather, it took a lengthy and labor-intensive process to prepare each shuttle mission for launch. Rather than a vehicle capable of frequent and routine operation, the shuttle turned out to be, in the words of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board, a “complex and risky system” and a first generation “developmental vehicle” which required great care to operate safely.24

The Nixon January statement also said that the space shuttle would “take the astronomical costs out of astronautics.” In March 1972, as the final shuttle design was announced, NASA Administrator Jim Fletcher claimed that once the shuttle became operational, its incremental cost per launch would be $10.5 million (almost $60 million in 2014 dollars). But NASA in 2012 estimated the cost of each shuttle launch, depending on how it was cal­culated, as between $814 million and $1.266 billion, up to 20 times higher than the 1972 estimate. NASA in December 1971 had said that the full – capability shuttle would carry payload into orbit at a cost of $118 per pound ($691 in 2014 dollars); in Congressional testimony, NASA listed the cost of using the shuttle to deliver cargo to the space station as $21,268 per pound in 2011 dollars.25 By any measure, the shuttle did not “take the astronomical costs out of astronautics.”

One may ask why NASA’s 1972 estimates of shuttle operating costs were so far off the mark, while the estimates of shuttle development costs made at the same time were close to the actual amount. NASA cost estimators had significant experience in forecasting the costs to develop systems such as the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo spacecraft, various launch vehicles, and scien­tific spacecraft. Based on that experience, they were able to estimate the cost of designing, developing, and testing the final NASA shuttle design with enough precision to allow Fletcher and Low to promise the White House that the cost was likely to be approximately $5 billion and certainly not more than $6 billion. The actual development cost was $5.5 billion in 1971 dol­lars, which were the basis for the NASA cost estimate.

None of those involved in the shuttle decision were as concerned about operating costs as they were about keeping the annual budget and total cost of shuttle development below politically acceptable levels. There was little White House or NASA leadership attention given to the quality of the cost-per-launch forecasts being put forward. NASA had little experience in estimating the costs of repetitive operation of a space system, and thus its estimates of shuttle operating costs were very uncertain. NASA, coming off its Apollo successes, was a technologically confident, perhaps even arrogant, organization, believing that it could incorporate advanced technology in such areas as propulsion, thermal protection, and on-board electronic sys­tems into the shuttle design in ways that would make the vehicle able to be operated inexpensively and on a routine basis. The per flight cost estimate provided to the NASA leadership in late 1971 was based on assumptions of 50 flights per year, vehicle self-checkout, fully reusable thermal protection, and long engine life without major repair. While that estimate may have rep­resented the best NASA could do in 1971, it ended up being based on the wrong technological assumptions and far off the mark. The shuttle required many hours of human labor for its checkout, a number of the shuttle’s ther­mal protection tiles had to be repaired or replaced after each mission, and the shuttle’s main engines required extensive refurbishment between uses. Shuttle program manager Robert Thompson characterized the NASA cost per flight estimate as an “optimistic guess.” That “guess” was nowhere near the actual cost once the shuttle began flying; rather than the shuttle signifi­cantly lowering the cost of space launch, it became an extremely expensive system to operate. Because of the need for extensive checkout and refurbish­ment between flights, the shuttle that was developed had no chance of being operated at a 40 or more launches per year flight rate; in addition, the antici­pated demand for that many shuttle launches a year never materialized.26

"Houston, We’ve Had a Problem&quot

The Apollo 13 mission was launched on the afternoon of April 11, 1970. Almost 56 hours later, with the spacecraft 200,000 miles from Earth, Apollo 13 commander James Lovell reported to mission control in Houston that “we’ve had a problem here.” Within a few minutes, NASA notified the White House situation room. National security adviser Henry Kissinger was informed at around 11:00 p. m. Kissinger called Nixon chief of staff Bob Haldeman, suggesting that President Nixon be awakened and informed of the situation, but Haldeman, in what Kissinger later characterized as “one of the mindless edicts by which Haldeman established his authority,” refused to contact the president on the grounds that this was merely a “technical prob­lem.” At 4:00 a. m., Haldeman changed his mind and decided to inform the president; he also called Nixon press secretary Ron Ziegler, telling Ziegler to inform the press that the president was “in personal charge of the crisis.” Kissinger describes Ziegler’s interaction with the press as “verbal contortions to imply, without lying outright, that the President had been in command all night.”24

The story of the herculean efforts undertaken by NASA and its industry colleagues to achieve the safe return of the Apollo 13 crew—Jim Lovell, Jack Swigert, and Fred Haise—is well known and will not be repeated here. Once made aware of the risky situation, Richard Nixon became very emotionally involved in the crew’s fate. There were at the time intense discussions within the White House on whether to send American troops into Cambodia to attack North Vietnamese sanctuaries. Even so, according to Henry Kissinger, “the rescue of the astronauts absorbed a great deal of Nixon’s attention” and “took a heavy toll of Nixon’s nervous energy.”25

On the morning after the accident Ehrlichman suggested to Nixon that he might want to go to Houston to signal his personal concern about the fate of the crew; it took a call from Frank Borman to Haldeman to dissuade the president from making such a trip. Borman, who was in Houston, told the White House that Nixon’s presence would be a distraction as the NASA mis­sion managers struggled to find a way to get the crew safely back to Earth. Likely on the same call, Borman relayed to the White House the news that Vice President Agnew, who was in Iowa on a political trip, was intending to come to Houston “to take charge of the rescue efforts.” The director of the Manned Spacecraft Center, Robert Gilruth, told Borman that “Agnew’s interference was the last thing NASA needed or deserved,” and asked “is there anything you can do to keep the Vice President away from here?”

In his call to the White House, Borman suggested that “Agnew’s presence in Houston would be about as welcome as a Martian invasion.” Haldeman kept an unhappy Agnew waiting for an hour at the end of an airport runway in Des Moines until he could consult with Nixon with respect to Agnew’s plans. When he did reach Nixon, the president “fully agreed” that Agnew should not go to Houston. Haldeman relayed that order to Agnew, who was “mad as hell.”26

The next day there were discussions among the president, Haldeman, and Borman on how to react to various outcomes of the Apollo 13 crisis; the astronauts’ survival was still very much in doubt. The three decided that if the crew returned safely, the president would go to Houston to congratu­late the NASA flight control team, then fly to Hawaii with the astronauts’ families to greet the crew as they returned to U. S. soil. If the crew did not survive, the president would go to Houston to “speak to the men of NASA and reaffirm his support of them and compliment them on their tremendous efforts to bring Apollo 13 home.”27

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


As NASA entered the Fiscal Year 1973 “budget season” by submitting its proposed budget on September 30, 1971, its prospects remained very uncer­tain. On one hand, NASA might both receive presidential approval for a major new space effort, the space shuttle, and at the same time be asked by the White House to take on a much broadened role as the nation’s applied technology agency. On the other hand, NASA might not gain approval for the shuttle program, and some other approach might be chosen for the new technology opportunities effort. The short-term stakes for the organization’s future were very high.

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