Category After Apollo?

Shuttle Studies Begin

The concept of a reusable space plane to carry people and equipment into orbit has a long history, and both NASA and the Department of Defense in the 1960s devoted significant attention to whether such a vehicle was tech­nologically feasible.2 But the first high-level designation of such a concept as a “space shuttle” came from NASA’s Associate Administrator for Manned Space Flight George Mueller as he addressed the British Interplanetary Society in August 1968. Mueller projected that “the next major thrust in space will be the development of an economical launch vehicle for shuttling between Earth and the installations, such as the orbiting space station, which will soon be operating in space.” Mueller was of course aware of the various studies of reusable space vehicles, and realized that the space station program he saw as a major next step in space development would not be economically feasible unless there was a low-cost transport to “shuttle” crew and supplies to and from such an outpost. Mueller’s concept for such a system was a fully reusable vehicle capable of “airline type” operations.3

Mueller decided to fund several of what NASA designated Phase A fea­sibility studies to carry out an initial examination of the technical feasibil­ity of what was at that point called the integral launch and reentry vehicle (ILRV). NASA set out an initial set of performance requirements to guide these contractor studies. They included the capability to carry up to 25,000 pounds of cargo or ten passengers to the 270 nm, 55 degree orbit then being planned for a space station. The payload bay was to provide a volume of at least 3,000 cubic feet. The ILRV was to be able to launch within 24 hours of the decision to do so, and to be capable of returning from orbit to a designated runway within a day after a deorbit decision. To achieve such a return, a cross-range capability of 450 nm was specified. NASA initially told its contractors to assume a flight rate of 8 to 12 missions to a space station per year; the use of the system to launch other NASA missions or national security missions was at this point not part of the space agency’s thinking.4

NASA’s ability to design a space shuttle solely to meet its own require­ments was short-lived. One of the first decisions of the Space Task Group (STG) as it began its review of the U. S. space program in March 1969 was to direct NASA and the Department of Defense to jointly investigate whether a single, lower-cost vehicle could meet the needs of both organizations. A charter for the joint study was signed in early April by NASA Administrator Tom Paine and Secretary of the Air Force Robert Seamans. NASA’s George Mueller and Air Force Assistant Secretary for Research and Development Grant Hansen were named as the study’s co-chairs.

There were a number of formal and informal meetings during the April-June period between Mueller and Hansen to discuss top-level shut­tle requirements. At one of these meetings, Hansen’s top assistant Michael Yarymovych told Mueller that, if NASA wanted national security commu­nity support for the shuttle, the vehicle would have to carry payloads up to 60 feet long and would have to be able to operate from the Vandenberg Air Force Base on the California coast. After a California launch, the shut­tle would have to be able to carry out a one-orbit mission without overfly­ing the Soviet Union, so that it would not be exposed to potential Soviet interference, and then be able to return to land at Vandenberg. During the shuttle’s 90-minute or so orbit, the Earth would have rotated eastward some 1,100 nm, and thus the shuttle would have to have at least that amount of cross-range maneuvering capability to be able to land back at Vandenberg. Yarymovych told Mueller “we’d support the shuttle, but only if he gave us the big payload bay and the cross-range capability.” Mueller knew that this would mean changing the shuttle design that he and his NASA engineers preferred, “but he had no choice.”5

Following his meetings with the Air Force, Mueller called together the ILRV study contractors to inform them that the requirements originally speci­fied for their studies had to be changed in light of national security prefer­ences. He told the group that the vehicle should now be able to launch 50,000 pounds of payload to the space station orbit, rather than 25,000 pounds, and should have a payload bay providing 10,000 rather than 3,000 cubic feet in volume, which was translated into a bay 15 feet wide and 60 feet long.6

Fletcher Makes the White House Rounds

In his first month in office, Jim Fletcher made the rounds of White House people concerned with space issues, and found them skeptical about the prospects of approving the shuttle as NASA was then planning it. On May 4, the day after he arrived at NASA, Fletcher had lunch with Nixon assistant Peter Flanigan and science adviser Ed David. Fletcher reported to Low that with respect to the shuttle “Ed David took a rather negative view” and was “beginning to get cold feet about deciding to go ahead this fall.” David’s res­ervations included that he was “not yet convinced of the economic value” of the shuttle. His primary concern, however, was “political”; he feared that if “we hit Congress with something this large at this particular time, it might become another SST.” The Senate had canceled federal funding for that program in March 1971. David was also concerned, as were Fletcher and Low, about the large fraction of the NASA budget required for the shuttle program, “not leaving much room for [other] new programs along the way.” By contrast, “Peter Flanigan was not negative on the shuttle at all and was willing to be convinced.” Both David and Flanigan indicated that a NASA budget of $5 billion “was too large a peak for political salability.” David had heard rumors of the president’s interest in canceling both Apollo 16 and Apollo 17, and reminded Fletcher, referring to his intervention with the presi­dent the preceding December to avoid canceling Apollo 17, “that his name was signed in blood on this one” and that NASA “had better fight very hard for it since he had stuck his neck out so far.” David also suggested that “NASA ought to think seriously about alternatives to the shuttle.”29

David’s uncertainty about shuttle approval was also reflected in a brief memorandum regarding the shuttle he prepared at John Ehrlichman’s request in early May. Ehrlichman’s Domestic Council staff had identified the decision on whether to proceed with the shuttle as a major policy issue for 1971; Ehrlichman asked David to let him know “what has transpired and what the planning and time factor might be with regard to where we stand or plan for a decision on the shuttle.” After summarizing the current state of the program, David told Ehrlichman that “there is no commitment to devel­opment of the space shuttle system by the Administration, but it is clear that a decision will be required this fall if the shuttle is to proceed.” He added “personally, I am not yet in a position to support or to oppose the shuttle program. A great deal of important information remains to be assembled.” David also noted that “with the encouragement of OMB,” he was convening a “special panel” of the President’s Science Advisory Committee “to conduct a detailed review of the space shuttle program” and that “Dr. Fletcher, the new NASA Administrator, shares my desire to take a hard look at the pro­gram.”30

Fletcher also met with Bill Anders, executive secretary of the Space Council, who had been a confidential conduit to George Low of sensitive information regarding White House thinking on NASA issues. Anders was concerned with respect to filling the several-year gap in human space flights between the end of the Apollo and Skylab programs and initial space shuttle flights. Anders suggested to Fletcher that NASA could fill the gap by launch­ing four left-over Apollo spacecraft on Earth-orbiting missions.31

Phase B Extended and a New Approach to the Shuttle

While Low and others at NASA headquarters in Washington were con­sidering a glider or smaller shuttle, NASA’s engineers, particularly at the Manned Spacecraft Center (MSC) in Houston, and the shuttle study teams at NASA’s contractors were examining alternative ways of moving forward with an affordable program while still retaining the operational capabilities of the full-size shuttle in terms of payload capture and cross-range. They also were resisting the phased development approach advocated by NASA headquarters, which involved postponing development of a reusable booster. The engineering team at MSC had during the summer converged on an orbiter design that seemed to meet all requirements. This design, designated MSC-040, had triangular-shaped delta wings, a 15 x 60 foot payload bay, and a single expendable propellant tank containing both hydrogen fuel and oxygen oxidizer mounted under the airframe belly. That design would turn out to be the basis for the shuttle orbiter that eventually would be approved for development.

On September 14, the NASA human space flight leadership called its contractors together at MSC to discuss various changes in study direction. One shift of lasting significance was that all contractors were told to use the MSC-040 orbiter design as the baseline for further studies. NASA also directed the contractors to study a “phased technology” approach as a way of reducing short-term and peak funding requirements for shuttle develop­ment. In this approach, a “Mark I” orbiter using the MSC airframe design would be developed first; it would use existing technology, mainly derived from the Apollo program, as much as possible in areas such as thermal pro­tection, on-board electronic systems, and rocket engines. After a few years, a “Mark II” orbiter would be developed, incorporating advanced technology in terms of the thermal protection needed for demanding cross-range mis­sions, a new high-pressure space shuttle main engine, and state-of-the art electronics. Only the Mark II orbiter would be able to meet all NASA and national security requirements. This approach spread out over a longer time the total cost of orbiter development, thereby lowering the annual budget required but resulting in a higher overall program cost.

There was a major political problem with the Mark I/Mark II approach to shuttle development. NASA in July had announced that it had selected the Rocketdyne Corporation to develop the new rocket engine for use in the shuttle. But the Mark I orbiter would use modified Apollo-vintage J-2 engines, and thus the new engines would not be needed for several years; this put NASA in a potentially embarrassing position vis-a-vis Rocketdyne, a California-based company, at a time when the White House was eager to see all possible high technology government contracts go to that state. (Rocketdyne’s main competitor for the engine contract, Pratt & Whitney, with its rocket engine facility in Florida, lodged a formal protest regarding the contract award, implying that political considerations had played a role in Rocketdyne’s selection.) There was some merit to that argument. When Richard Nixon learned of the protest and the possibility that the engine con­tract might be taken away from a California company, his request was “if the contract does not go to the California firm, the White House should review the matter and possibly cancel the contract.”22

New Technology Opportunities

As NASA and OMB debated shuttle approval, the possibility of NASA tak­ing on a broadened role in applying technology to national problems was still alive. At the White House, Bill Magruder continued to examine a wide range of possible initiatives. In late October, Low reported that “there is still the question as to whether or not NASA should undertake the management of all of the efforts no matter what the subject.” Low got a report from a NASA staff person sent to work with Magruder that “the White House is all geared up to do this and that the President himself is interested in NASA taking on the job.”34

Low was understandably worried about where the funds to undertake new technological initiatives might come from. Magruder in a mid-Novem­ber telephone conversation with Low reported “that many people are saying that the money should come from the space program.” Magruder suggested that he and science adviser David were NASA’s “best friends,” arguing that taking the money from NASA “would defeat the original purpose of put­ting to work the unemployed aerospace engineers.” Also, “a cut in the space program would have an instantaneous [negative] effect on unemployment, while the new technology initiatives would only have a slow buildup in employment.” Magruder estimated that the cost for his effort in its first year “would be $600 to $700 million. . . for all except the transportation and aviation initiatives, plus another $1 billion for transportation and aviation.” He thought that the funds should come from “social programs” and foreign aid. Magruder intended to set up “a small, hard-hitting interim organiza­tion” to develop various initiatives, and asked NASA to provide team lead­ers for most initiatives. Low noted “whether or not NASA will be asked to undertake any or all of these initiatives is still not clear”; he was worried that “if we are asked to undertake some of this work, it will be at the expense of some of our aeronautics and space work.”35

A "Space Clipper&quot

As a decision on the shuttle neared in the final days of 1971, Jim Fletcher and George Low continued to interact with the relevant White House and Executive Office officials. They told Cap Weinberger on December 22 that NASA was “not yet in the position to respond to Don Rice’s request of December 11.” NASA’s human space flight element was still resisting seri­ous analysis of the OMB-suggested shuttle design. The Weinberger meeting “was followed by another series of phone calls from Jonathan Rose in Peter Flanigan’s office, who is primarily concerned with employment in Southern California.” On December 23, Fletcher and Low had lunch with Bill Anders, his assistant David Elliott, Tom Whitehead, and Jonathan Rose. These indi­viduals “were all trying to be very helpful and particularly wanted to bring the [shuttle] issue to a proper decision.” On the basis of their White House discussions, Fletcher and Low learned “that there indeed was a Presidential decision to go ahead with the Shuttle; that the issue of size was not really raised as a major one with the President; but that David and Rice, and to a lesser extent, Flanigan, felt that the 15 x 60′ 65,000 pound shuttle proposed by NASA was really too big.”1 Based on messages such as these, the NASA leadership by the end of December was increasingly skeptical that it could get White House approval for a full capability shuttle, and was searching for an acceptable compromise.

Epilogue Richard Nixon and the American. Space Program

P resident Richard Nixon and his associates between 1969 and 1972 made three major decisions with lasting consequences for the U. S. space program.1 The preceding chapters have chronicled the making of those decisions. This summary chapter will assess their character and discuss their impact on the U. S. space program over the more than four decades since they were made. The three principal Nixon administration space policy decisions were:

• To treat the space program, not as a special, high-priority government activity as had been the case during Apollo, but rather as part of the “day in and day out” activities of government, with its budget determined “within a rigorous system of national priorities.”* The Nixon adminis­tration formalized NASA’s need to compete with other government agen­cies through the political and budgetary processes for priority, and then assigned a relatively low priority to space activities in that competition.

• To lower U. S. ambitions in spa^ce by not setting another cha^llenging space goal and thus ending for the foreseeable future human space flights beyond low Earth orbit:. As Assistant to the President Peter Flanigan remarked at the time, there was in the White House in 1969 and early 1970 “a feeling that the country had had enough excitement [in space] for now”; there was no inclination on the part of Richard Nixon to propose another Kennedy – like space goal for the post-Apollo period or even to indicate in any but the most general terms that the United States would continue to work toward human exploration of the solar system.

• To build the post-Apollo progra^m around the space shuttle without link­ing the shuttle to a long-term strategy for its use. The shuttle was seen as a new capability for carrying out the space program of the 1980s and beyond. Those directly involved in shuttle planning saw it as a first step

Citations to material quoted in previous chapters will not be repeated here.

toward a comprehensive space exploitation and exploration capability. However, NASA did not clearly present this perspective to Richard Nixon and his associates as the space agency sought shuttle approval, and the Nixon administration did not couple its approval to a strategic perspec­tive on long term space program goals. As historian Walter McDougall later observed, “Apollo was a matter of going to the moon and building whatever technology could get us there; the Space Shuttle was a matter of building a technology and going wherever it could take us.”2

The first two of these decisions were made early in the Nixon admin­istration, in the context of the White House quickly rejecting the ambi­tious post-Apollo space program proposed in the 1969 Space Task Group report. While these decisions were resisted by NASA, there was little con­troversy among Richard Nixon and his advisers in making them; their col­lective intent from the start of their time in the White House was to follow Apollo with a much more modest space effort. In contrast, the decision to develop the space shuttle was the end product of a contentious three-year decision process, with NASA pushing for approval of a technologically ambi­tious shuttle design and White House budget and technical advisers oppos­ing such an undertaking and proposing more modest approaches to keeping human space flight a part of post-Apollo activities. Richard Nixon and his senior advisers gave little weight to economic and technical arguments, see­ing the shuttle program primarily in a political context. The NASA position prevailed, with four-decade consequences for the U. S. space program.

The Nixon Space Heritage

The space shuttle may be the most visible Nixon space legacy, but the con­sequences of the other Nixon administration decisions in the 1969-1972 period have also had pervasive and lasting impacts. A 2012 assessment of NASA’s “strategic direction” observed that:

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is at a transi­tional point in its history. . . The agency’s budget. . . is under considerable stress, servicing increasingly expensive missions and a large, aging infrastructure established at the height of the Apollo program. Other than the long-range goal of sending humans to Mars, there is no strong, compelling national vision for the human spaceflight program, which is arguably the centerpiece of NASA’s spectrum of mission areas. The lack of national consensus on NASA’s most publicly visible mission, along with out-year budget uncertainty, has resulted in the lack of strategic focus necessary for national agencies operat­ing in today’s budgetary reality. As a result, NASA’s distribution of resources may be out of sync with what it can achieve relative to what it has been asked to do.

This review concluded that “there is no national consensus on strategic goals and objectives for NASA.”33 This judgment was echoed in the most recent review of the human space flight program, which observed that “a national consensus on the long-term future of human spaceflight. . . remains elusive.”34

To a significant degree this unsatisfactory condition of the U. S. human space flight program in the second decade of the twenty-first century is a heritage of the policy decisions made by Richard Nixon more than 40 years ago. Approving the space shuttle came without a meaningful national com­mitment to post-Apollo space program objectives—there was no “strategic focus.” George Low in October 1970 had suggested that “with the shuttle the U. S. can have a continuing program of manned space flight. . . without a commitment to a major new manned mission goal.” This proved to be a winning argument; by approving the space shuttle, a capability-justified means for carrying out a variety of space activities, Richard Nixon avoided having to define the long-term space objectives which the shuttle would serve. This lack of guiding goals for the U. S. space program has persisted for more than 40 years, causing many to characterize the program as “adrift.” If this characterization is accepted, it was Richard Nixon that set NASA on that goal-less voyage.

Nixon and his closest advisers gave little attention to the longer term consequences of their decision to put the NASA full-capability space shuttle at the center of the post-Apollo space program. Those consequences were compounded by approving a shuttle design that from NASA’s standpoint was a step toward an eventual space station. The consequences were exacer­bated by setting out an approach to determining the NASA budget that was very likely to result in funding insufficient to support efficient development and operation of both the space shuttle and space station while also fund­ing the space activities they were designed to serve. It was difficult to rally public and political support for the capability-driven approach inherent in the Nixon approach to the post-Apollo space program, and the lack of broad public support for the space program has persisted. The absence of a compel­ling exploration objective or other widely accepted goal has resulted for four decades in a human spaceflight program focused, for uncertain purposes, on developing and operating the shuttle and assembling the space station. Attempts in 1989 and 2004 to set an exploration goal to guide the space program have not taken root, and the fate of the current NASA exploration program is unclear.

There is no simple or immediate remedy to the current situation with respect to the U. S. space program. It will be very difficult to undo the conse­quences of flawed or mistaken policy decisions made more than four decades ago. Some suggest that the government should step aside and allow the U. S. private sector to take the leading role in the U. S. space program, including human exploration. My judgment is that such an approach is unrealistic; only governments can provide resources sufficient to lead the initial stages of a long-term exploration effort, although government-private sector partner­ships (and international cooperation) should certainly be part of that effort. In my view, if the United States is to remain the leader in human space explo­ration it will take committed and continuing presidential leadership of the character provided so long ago by John F. Kennedy, once again singling out the space program for special priority and setting challenging goals, convinc­ing a reluctant public and their representatives in Congress to accept those goals, and then, crucially, committing on a sustained basis the political, human, and financial resources needed to achieve them.35 The alternatives are to continue to drift along, trying to do too much with too little, or, less likely, to lower U. S. ambitions in space to match the funding available. A comprehensive review of the U. S. space program in 2014 once again con­cluded, as had its 2009 and 2012 predecessors, that “the human spaceflight program conducted by the U. S. government today has no strong direction” and that “the long-term future of human spaceflight. . . is unclear.”36 That situation is Richard Nixon’s most fundamental space heritage.

[1] Actually, Borman was joined in the reading by his astronaut colleagues Lovell and Anders.

[2] The Department of Defense also prepared an extensive report on its proposed plans for the 1970s and submitted it to the Space Task Group. That submission, and DOD-specific space issues, will not be discussed in this study.

[3] a “vigorous” program along the lines presented at the meeting by Paine and von Braun, with funding for NASA increasing to between $7 billion by the mid-1970s and $8-10 billion in the latter half of the decade;

[4] The “Grand Tour” mission would fly by Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, and perhaps even Pluto. This was possible because of a once-every-175-years alignment of the outer planets. Whether to undertake such a mission was a controversial issue in NASA-White House dealings between 19 69 and 1973, but will not be discussed in this study, which focuses on issues related to post-Apollo human space flight.

[5] “Low – cost opportunities for Presidential initiatives have been suppressed.” Those opportunities included the “prosaic-sounding Apollo Applications

[6] “We should continue to explore the Moon.”

• “We should move ahead with bold exploration of the planets and the uni­verse.” The statement identified as a “major but longer range goal. . . we will eventually send men to explore the planet Mars.”

[7] After NASA decided in 1970 that a future space station would be assembled from shut­tle-launched modules and other components, the 15-foot width also became a requirement related to the size of those space station elements.

[8] $15.4 billion for a flight rate of 56 launches per year, the NASA/DOD mission model;

• $14.6 billion “for the historic flight level of the unmanned U. S. space program of the 1960’s,” corresponding to 51 launches per year; and

• $12.9 billion at a flight rate of 46 launches per year.

[9] “What are the major high risk technology areas?”

• “What trade-offs are implicit in the manned vs. unmanned operation of the space shuttle?”

[10] The space shuttle program. . . represents a technical synthesis which, to a remarkable degree, integrates into a single vehicle system and proposed mode of operation the means for potentially achieving improvements and advances relevant to virtually all foreseeable space program objectives. . . If an enthusiastic, optimistic, and expansionary view is taken of the probable growth of the nation’s military and civilian space programs over the next twenty years. . . the development of the space shuttle as proposed by NASA is undoubtedly the most important and valuable major new space program which could be undertaken at this time.

• The Mk I/Mk II approach [is] a very dubious course of action.

• The Panel has been impressed by the large amount of effort which has been put into the cost analysis of the shuttle program and into the study of the economic cost-benefit justification for the program. Nevertheless, we are unconvinced that such analyses have sufficient credibility to serve as

[11] The author has not been able to find independent evidence supporting Low’s conclusion that North American Rockwell was providing information to OMB counter to what NASA was advocating. This conclusion seems a bit questionable, given that in late 1971 the head of North American Rockwell, Willlard “Al” Rockwell, was visiting the White House to lobby for shuttle approval. But perhaps Rockwell was not aware of the fact that people at the working level within his company were cooperating with OMB.

DOD/NASA Study Bullish on Shuttle

NASA completed its initial report for the STG on future space transporta­tion requirements in mid-May; the report concluded that “fully reusable or near fully reusable systems offer the maximum potential for an economic and versatile space shuttle system that could readily satisfy a vast majority of future space transportation requirements.” Also, a “reusable space shuttle would provide a broad range of capability in space operations—a capability that is the keystone to the success and growth of future space flight develop­ments for exploration and exploitation of near and far space.”7 The separate Air Force study effort was finished in the same mid-May time frame. The next step in the process was integrating the two studies into a single report, to be submitted to the STG by June 15. Lead responsibility for assembling the final study report was assigned to a national security community sup­port contractor, The Aerospace Corporation; Aerospace staff member Don Dooley led the report-writing effort.

The Air Force was not the only national security organization participating in the shuttle study. Also deeply involved was the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), the organization created in 1961 to develop and operate the highly classified intelligence satellites that provided crucial national security information to the nation’s leadership. In 1969, the very existence of NRO was classified, and thus NRO participation in the shuttle study could not be publicly acknowledged. The director of the NRO was a civilian, usually holding a high-level Air Force position, such as undersecretary or assistant secretary, but because the NRO was classified this responsibility was not acknowledged. The Aerospace Corporation supported not only the space elements of the Air Force but also the activities of the NRO, and thus was well positioned to reflect the interests of both organizations.8

An OMB "Bombshell&quot

On May 17, Fletcher received a letter from Don Rice, the OMB assistant director with space responsibilities, after the two had met on May 7. To Rice, the letter was the one action that should have made clear to NASA that it had to adjust its plans to the reality of continued budget constraints. At the meeting, Fletcher and Rice had agreed that NASA and OMB would “work together to develop a realistic NASA plan for the future.” Rice agreed to provide NASA with a five-year projection of the budget that NASA was likely to receive, “allowing NASA and OMB management to consider the relative priorities of alternative programs.” Rice realized “that the most difficult aspect of this approach to five-year planning would be to secure agreement between NASA and OMB on the range of overall agency totals which could be considered ‘realistic’ for the five-year period.” He suggested that the then-current NASA budget of $3.2 billion per year might be an appropriate expectation. Rice later reflected that his letter “hit [NASA] like a bombshell,” since a $3.2 billion annual budget for the next half-decade would make it impossible for NASA to develop the shuttle it was then plan­ning. Dale Myers described Rice’s letter as “the single stroke of the pen that knocked out the first stage booster, because you just couldn’t get the two [stages] into the budget.”32

At this point, NASA had been hoping that its annual budget might increase to $4 billion—perhaps even $5 billion—by the mid-1970s. Rice’s suggestion that NASA plan for an annual budget at a significantly lower level was a sobering reminder that the agency had to constrain its future ambi­tions. Among other things, it implied that NASA could not budget more than $1 billion per year for shuttle development and still maintain the bal­anced program that was presidential policy.

By the time he finished his White House visits, Fletcher had come to share George Low’s concern that NASA was not on a sustainable path with respect to the shuttle program. Fletcher, reported Low, “in fact, has asked for the development of a shuttle program that will fit within a $4 billion overall NASA budget.” To Low, an important question was “is there a phasing of the shuttle or, alternatively, a cheaper shuttle that will not reach the very high expenditures in the middle of the decade?” Low worried that despite “pushing this point for about six months now, we have not yet been able to come up with an answer. Perhaps there is no viable answer.” In a thought that would reoccur several times in the following months, Low suggested that perhaps there was no alternative but “the choice of foregoing the shuttle altogether for the 1970’s and starting it in the 1980’s.”33

What Shuttle to Propose?

NASA Administrator Fletcher also met with science adviser David on August 24, separately from the David-Low meeting on the same day, to discuss the best approach to getting a shuttle program approved by the White House. While he had developed a sense of trust with David, he was not sure “how much we could trust OMB” if NASA came in with a budget proposal at the $3.2 billion level through the 1970s, as Don Rice had suggested in May, given the low budget target OMB had provided in early August. Fletcher, as had Low, told David of NASA’s internal discussions of a shuttle program that could be carried out for less than $1 billion per year and a total invest­ment of $5 billion. David advised him to keep that thinking confined to a few people within NASA, and instead to let David propose the low-cost shuttle to OMB, with NASA resisting that proposal. This gambit, thought David, would put NASA in a “better bargaining position.” As Fletcher saw it, the issue was that “OMB can’t entirely be trusted to commit to any kind of program and that if we [NASA] agreed too easily to the low-cost shuttle, they might try to work us down to a smaller budget yet.” David felt that “there was not anyone in OMB who could be completely trusted—not that they were dishonest, but that their sole function was to put a ratchet on the budget and [they] couldn’t make a commitment on anything.”23 Clearly, OMB and OST were not working harmoniously with respect to space issues, and Davis was angling for increased influence within the White House deci­sion process.

As usual, the NASA budget request for FY1973 was due at OMB on September 30. What to request with respect to the space shuttle was a major issue in formulating the budget proposal. Three basic alternatives were con­sidered:

1. A lower-cost glider or mini-shuttle, as suggested by Low in August;

2. The Mark I/Mark II shuttle. Low noted in mid-September that “OMSF [Office of Manned Space Flight] is now focusing on a ‘phased technol­ogy’ Shuttle, wherein today’s technology is used in a Block I version and any more expensive, more sophisticated subsystems are phased in at a later date”;

3. No shuttle at all. Low had considered such an option during August, and during the final two weeks before submitting the budget recorded that “Fletcher and I debated whether we should not forego the shuttle entirely and develop instead some alternate manned space flight program.”

Fletcher and Low finally decided to include “something like the Mark I/ Mark II shuttle,” but to delay the start of shuttle development by approxi­mately six months to “give us more time to reach final decisions on the con­figuration.”24 As it had done a year earlier, NASA would request presidential approval of the space shuttle without being able to specify the shuttle design being approved.

As NASA prepared its budget request, its leaders also concluded that the space agency needed “a new justification for manned space flight.” Low rec­ognized that “during the past year we begged the issue by stating that we needed a new transportation system—a space shuttle—and it just happened to be manned.” It was now time to “try to justify manned flight in its own right.” This shift in emphasis likely reflected James Fletcher’s influence at the top levels of NASA. Discussing the issue, the NASA leadership “agreed that the main justification for manned space flight is the ‘American presence in space’ and not the fact that man can twirl knobs better than machines can.”25 The NASA FY1973 budget request contained funding proposals at three levels—a “minimum recommended program” with budget authority at $3.385 billion and outlays at $3.225 billion, close to the FY1972 levels; an “alternate recommended program” at $3.54 billion in authority and $3.305 billion in outlays; and a budget at the OMB target of $2.975 billion in out­lays. To reach that lowest figure, NASA would cancel Apollo 16 and 17 and not start the space shuttle, actions that would cause “irreparable damage.” NASA argued that “this nation must continue to fly men in space. Man will fly in space, and for many reasons the United States should not forego its responsibility—to itself and to the free world—to take part in this great venture.” This was a theme that would reappear throughout the next few months and would be important to convincing Richard Nixon to approve the shuttle.

The budget letter contained “detailed figures on the effects of the vari­ous program options on unemployment,” an issue that NASA knew was of increasing interest to the White House. The letter pointed out that “the NASA program is labor intensive: small changes in program funding now have immediate, and nearly one for one, effects on employment.” With respect to the space shuttle, NASA told OMB that “the single most impor­tant consideration” was how to “achieve it with lower annual funding in view of continuing severe budget constraints.” NASA’s plan was “to select the optimum shuttle configuration, considering both technical and budgetary factors, next spring, to select the contractor next summer, and to proceed then with development leading to the first manned orbital flight in 1978 or 1979.”

NASA described “a promising configuration that would substantially reduce the funds required prior to the first manned flight.” This was the Mark I/Mark II approach, although those designations were not mentioned in the letter. NASA noted that “the reduction in shuttle development fund­ing will come at the expense of somewhat higher operational costs initially and of delaying by several years the full realization of the planned opera­tional capabilities.” The NASA letter argued that delaying a decision on the shuttle configuration past spring 1972 “would be expensive and unsettling to the aerospace industry, which is forced to maintain a capability to respond to the government until our decisions are reached.”

The budget letter noted that NASA was proposing “run-out costs, in future years, at or below the FY1973 level” of $3.385 billion in new budget authority that NASA was requesting. This “constant budget” was an inven­tion of NASA’s Willis Shapley, and allowed NASA to propose a six-year pro­gram “at a level between $500 million and one billion [per year] below the financial plans presented to OMB and the Congress at the time the FY1972 budget was approved.” NASA’s hope was that OMB would not only approve a new start on the shuttle, but would agree in advance to a constant budget level for the next several years that would provide the space agency with some stability after the several prior years of budget uncertainty.26

In its budget submission, NASA was asking OMB, and ultimately President Nixon, to approve development of a still rather fuzzily defined space shuttle. Fletcher, Low, and their associates fully realized that it would not be easy to get OMB and then the president to approve that request.