Category After Apollo?

Apollo, Kennedy, and Nixon

During the 1960s, the United States had spent close to $25 billion to develop the capability to launch large payloads into orbit and beyond and to land on another celestial surface. This capability included not only the production facilities and tooling for the Saturn V launch vehicle and the Apollo space­craft but also the gigantic complex at the Kennedy Space Center required to launch the Apollo/Saturn combination to the Moon. To those such as James Webb who had fought for the political support and funding to create and use it, this capability represented an extremely valuable element of U. S. national power, not only in the context of the Cold War competition with the Soviet Union but also in terms of being a concrete and very visible symbol of U. S. ability to do in space whatever it decided was in its national interest. Sending astronauts to the Moon, Webb had argued throughout the 1960s, was only the first use of this capability. It could also enable a variety of other large – scale national security, exploratory, and scientific undertakings.

Richard Nixon and most of his policy and budget advisors did not share this concept of continued large-scale space undertakings as being important to U. S. power and pride. The March 1970 presidential statement on space had said that U. S. space activities should be viewed “as part of a continuing process—one which will go on day in and day out, year in and year out— and not as a series of separate leaps, each requiring a massive concentra­tion of energy and will and accomplished on a crash timetable.” Based on this perspective, through its post-Apollo budget and policy decisions the

Nixon administration made a conscious decision to abandon the capability that had been so expensive to develop and that had given the United States the possibility of an expansive future in space. John F. Kennedy in 1961 had characterized his decision to send Astronauts to the Moon as a “great new American enterprise. . . which in many ways may hold the key to our future on earth.” A year later, Kennedy declared that the he had chosen “to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things not because they are easy, but because they are hard,” and “because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills.” R ichard Nixon did not share this view of the importance of space achievement; in sharp contrast to John Kennedy, Nixon in 1970 made the mundane proposal that “what we do in space from here on in must become a normal and regular part of our national life.” Although Richard Nixon as he discussed the space program frequently linked “exploring the unknown” to continuing national vitality, there was little of such a grand vision in his actual approach to space decisions.

OMB Makes Its Recommendations

The strategy paper illuminated the consequences of various budget choices. It certainly influenced the OMB staff in its recommendations regarding the NASA FY1972 budget, with an OMB bias toward the lower budget options. The next step in the budget process was Don Rice’s presenta­tion to Cap Weinberger of his staff’s recommendations with respect to the NASA budget. This “director’s review” took place on November 3. Weinberger “tentatively decided” to accept the staff recommendation to terminate the Skylab program. Possible cancelation of Apollo 17, the final lunar landing mission, had been considered during the budget review, but the staff recommendation, which Weinberger accepted, was to continue with the mission.

Weinberger did approve a start on the new rocket engine intended for use in the space shuttle, but denied funding for moving forward on developing the shuttle’s airframe. Approving engine development was an important first step in eventual White House approval of the space shuttle, and sug­gested that some version of the shuttle was likely to get approval in the months to come. These and other decisions, particularly the cancelation of Skylab, brought the NASA budget recommended by the OMB staff down to $2.8 billion in budget authority and $2.7 billion in FY1972 outlays. The latter figure was some $700 million below what NASA had requested and almost $500 million less than the budget target that had been provided to NASA a few months earlier. The NASA unit in OMB, led by Don Rice, was clearly setting itself up as a counterforce to NASA’s already diminished post-Apollo aspirations. Although he tentatively approved the staff recom­mendations, Weinberger wanted a better sense of the context in which they were being made. He thus requested a more detailed analysis, taking into account “agency priorities, unemployment consequences and Soviet initia­tives.”16

The proceedings of the director’s review were not supposed to be known outside the White House and Executive Office of the President. But the Space Council’s Bill Anders attended the review meeting and on a very con­fidential basis called NASA’s Low to communicate its results. In addition, Bill Lilly, NASA’s budget chief, got feedback from some of the career budget staff. Based on this information, Low judged that while Rice and the OMB career staff were “quite negative to our programs,” Weinberger had “care­fully read our letters and is, in fact, trying to get a detailed understanding of the issues involved in the NASA budget.” In addition to calling Low, Anders wrote a letter to Weinberger in support of the Skylab program. This may have been the beginning of Anders’s relationship with Weinberger; over the following months Anders served as Weinberger’s unofficial space advi­sor, providing an informed view independent of the information and rec­ommendations the OMB deputy director was getting from his staff. This relationship gave Anders a way to have an impact on major space decisions. Anders found in Weinberger an individual who appreciated the value to the nation of a vigorous space effort; he took every opportunity to nurture that appreciation.17


July 20, 1969, U. S. astronaut Neil Armstrong took "one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind," as he became the first human to set foot on the Moon. The success of the Apollo 11 mission satisfied the goal that had been set by President John F. Kennedy just over eight years earlier—"before this decade is out, landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth."1 Inevitably, it also raised the question "What do you do next, after landing on the Moon?"

It fell to President Richard M. Nixon, sworn into office exactly six months before Armstrong’s historic moonwalk, to answer this ques­tion. The following account traces in detail how Nixon and his associ­ates in the 1969-1972 period went about developing their response. The decisions made then have defined the U. S. program of human space flight well into the twenty-first century. Those choices have thus had a much more lasting impact than did John Kennedy’s 1961 decision to go to the Moon. The factors leading to Kennedy’s decision are well understood, but that is not the case with respect to space pol­icymaking under President Nixon. The goal of this study is to provide that understanding, and thus to fill in the details of a crucial period in the history of the U. S. space program, and particularly its human space flight element. The Nixon administration also made influential decisions with respect to space science and applications efforts, but those decisions will not be discussed here.

The process of deciding what the United States should do in space after Apollo is presented here as a "play in two acts." In the first act, unfolding in chapters 1-6, decisions were made on what not

to do—not to continue during the 1970s a fast-paced, high-priority, Apollo-like effort aimed at rapid development of new space capabili­ties and leading to human missions to Mars in the early to mid-1980s. Nixon soon after taking office chartered a top-level review to recom­mend post-Apollo space goals and programs. That review took place even as Apollo 11 gained worldwide acclaim; Richard Nixon made sure that he would bask in the glow of that achievement. But when presented with a recommendation for an ambitious post-Apollo space effort, Nixon decided that the nation neither wanted nor could afford such an undertaking. In March 1970 the president spelled out a policy that assigned to the space program reduced priority among the many demands on the federal budget. The refrain "after the Moon, Mars" did not resonate with the Nixon White House, even though the president himself identified with American astronauts and was intrigued with a future in space exploration that included eventual Martian journeys.

The second act of the drama, discussed in chapters 7-14, involved answering the question, "if not an ambitious post-Apollo program centered on human space flight, then what?" Options evaluated dur­ing the 1970-1972 period ranged from focusing the nation’s space capabilities on Earth-bound problems, and perhaps even transform­ing the space agency to a general-purpose technology organization, to a modestly paced effort using surplus Apollo hardware, to develop­ing a fully or partly reusable space shuttle.

During 1970, the future development that had had highest prior­ity in 1969, developing a long duration orbital outpost—a space sta­tion launched by the Saturn V Moon rocket and serviced by the space shuttle—fell from favor, and thus other rationales for developing a shuttle had to be articulated. A wide variety of shuttle designs were assessed, with the president’s technical and budget advisers arguing for a far less ambitious system than that advocated by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Factors such as aero­space unemployment and its impact on the 1972 presidential elec­tion entered into consideration, as did the message the United States would send to the world if it were to decide not to continue to seek space leadership. All involved believed that Richard Nixon wanted to continue some type of human space flight program, even as he personally tried to cancel the final flights to the Moon to avoid the possibility of the kind of near-fatal accident that had threatened the Apollo 13 crew.

Out of this complex mix of influences came the decision, announced by President Nixon on January 5, 1972, "to revolutionize transportation into near space by routinizing it."2 By approving NASA’s plans for a large space shuttle, Nixon put the shuttle at the center of U. S. space efforts without proposing clear strategic goals that it would serve. Because the shuttle would be flown by a two – person astronaut crew and on most missions would carry additional astronauts, it met Nixon’s desire to keep the human space flight pro­gram alive. The belief was that, by reducing the cost of space launch, the shuttle would open up space to a wide variety of activities. By providing capabilities for satellite deployment, in-orbit servicing, in­orbit assembly, and return of payloads to Earth, NASA hoped that the shuttle would usher in a new era of space operations. There were suggestions of innovative, potentially provocative, national secu­rity missions made possible by the new capabilities that the shuttle would offer.

The decision to develop a space shuttle was the culmination of the drama of post-Apollo space policymaking. The decision carried with it NASA’s intent, once the shuttle entered operations, to seek presi­dential support for developing a space station launched in separate elements by the shuttle and assembled in orbit. Those two activities — developing and flying the space shuttle, then developing, assembling, and utilizing the space station — have dominated U. S. human space flight efforts for four decades after the last American astronaut left the Moon in December 1972. As Apollo 17 lifted off the lunar surface on December 14, 1972, President Nixon issued a statement saying "this may be the last time in this century that men will walk on the Moon."3 By the decisions he made between 1969 and 1972, Richard Nixon ensured that his forecast would come true.

NASA Resistance to Facing Its Future

James Webb had been NASA administrator from 1961 until he resigned in October 1968. Webb had seen as his overriding responsibility making sure that the Kennedy commitment to a lunar landing was carried out. With this as his focus, Webb had resisted agency-wide planning for what NASA should undertake in the post-Apollo period. According to Willis Shapley, one of Webb’s close associates at NASA, Webb “refused to the extent possible to recognize the importance” of post-Apollo planning. Webb did believe, as a “fundamental tenet,” that “we could not or should assume that the Apollo program would be a total success, and certainly not assume that it would be a total early success.” Webb felt “that nothing should be allowed to dilute the focus of the program we had taken on already, and that we should not start dreaming about what would take place after that.”6 (Shapley as NASA associate deputy administrator had a major role during the period examined in this study in developing NASA’s strategy and policies and articulating them to the White House and Congress. He was a prime example of a “face­less bureaucrat” who plays a key behind-the-scene policy role, in this case with respect to the nation’s civilian space program.) Webb’s perspective also reflected political reality. President Lyndon B. Johnson had made sure that the NASA budget remained adequate to assure Apollo’s success, but faced with spiraling costs of the Vietnam War and of his Great Society programs as well as with widespread domestic unrest, he was unwilling to approve a NASA budget at a level that could support major new space initiatives. NASA itself was a badly divided organization, with its Office of Manned Space Flight and its human space flight centers in Houston, Texas and Huntsville, Alabama planning their own course for the future, while its Office of Space Science and Applications worked with the external scientific community to define a different preferred future, one which would redress the perceived imbalance between human and robotic space missions. As a result of Webb’s resistance, agency-wide planning for the post-Apollo period began only in early 1968, and its early results were disappointing, reflecting the divisions within the organization.

Early STG Decisions

The second meeting of the STG principals took place on March 22, 1969. With respect to NASA’s request for additional funding in the FY1970 bud­get, the STG principals accepted the advice of the Staff Directors Committee, which recommended:

• that high priority be accorded to funding for preserving the option of continued Saturn V production, but that the production rate be subject to review;

• that augmented lunar exploration capability be provided, with the pace of future lunar missions also to be subject to further study;

• that the amount of FY1970 funding for these two purposes be a matter of negotiation between NASA and BOB;

• that no additional funding for space station and space shuttle studies should be approved; and

• that no immediate presidential statement on the future of human space flight was desirable, although a broad policy statement by the presi­dent as astronauts returned from the first lunar landing might be worth considering.

The STG members also agreed that NASA and DOD should study their sepa­rate requirements for a new space transportation system, and then jointly determine whether a single system could satisfy those requirements. This set in motion a process that three years later would result in the decision to make a large space shuttle the central initiative of the post-Apollo space program.7

The STG principals discussed whether their deliberations should be con­strained by any a priori limits on funds available for future space budgets. DuBridge noted that “he and many others would indeed want to have a vigorous program of five or six or even seven billion dollars annually. But realities must be kept in mind.” Vice President Agnew stated “very strongly” that he opposed such constraints, and BOB Director Mayo, reserving for his organization the initiative with respect to budget decisions, agreed, say­ing that “it would be bad to constrain the planning by imposing funding restrictions at the outset. These would have to be introduced later.”8 This decision not to set in principle an upper limit on the post-Apollo NASA bud­get would allow NASA later in the STG process to come forward with the totally unrealistic proposal for early missions to Mars, an undertaking that would require during the 1970s a NASA budget well above that which had enabled Project Apollo.

NASA’s Paine was not happy with the tone of this meeting. During the session, he distributed a three-page plea saying “to put it bluntly, the U. S.

manned flight program is going to go out of business, unless some decisions and steps are taken to keep it going.” Paine told the other STG members that the “dichotomy” between “science and the practical applications of space” and “manned space flight. . . makes no sense to me,” since both were only “means for accomplishing various goals.” He found it “ironic” that “at the moment of its greatest public triumph, our manned flight program is declin­ing and in need of help.” Paine argued in support of his request for immedi­ate presidential endorsement of a space station that “continued development of manned space flight capability is essential to maintaining a national posi­tion of power in space.”9

Paine also suggested that there was a need for “a new banner to be hoisted” around which the NASA human space flight team could rally. He was joined in this call by Vice President Agnew. NASA had been courting Agnew since his STG role had been announced, and had invited him to the Apollo 9 launch on March 3, making him the guest of honor at a lun­cheon following the lift off. During his time with the vice president at the launch, Paine was at his enthusiastic best. This experience convinced Agnew, if he needed convincing, of the importance of a vigorous space effort. At the March 22 STG meeting, Agnew argued that, “in his very strong opinion,” the United States needed “an antidote to earth-based problems,” and that dramatic space accomplishments could provide such a counterbalance. He raised the question that would permeate much of the STG’s deliberations. “Where was the Apollo of the 1970s?” he asked. Could it be that the United States should undertake a manned expedition to Mars?10

Final Space Task Group Meeting

As the STG assembled for its final meeting, Agnew reported on his just – concluded confrontation with Ehrlichman, telling the group that the White House wanted to eliminate Option A from the STG report. Paine opposed such a step; DuBridge and BOB Director Mayo supported it. Seaborg sug­gested a compromise, in which Options A and E would be changed from potential choices to “dotted line” possibilities, meaning that the STG judged neither as viable alternatives. Agnew embraced this option and quickly checked with Ehrlichman, who found it acceptable. The group then decided to re-label Options B, C, and D as Options I, II, and III and to move the section containing the report’s recommendations and conclusions from the back to the front of the document “to make them more noticeable and accept­able.” The change in labeling the options made what was now Option II the choice that was most likely to be recommended to the president; this was the Program C option NASA had described in mid-August as requiring the “minimum investment consistent with continuing advance.” The principals agreed that one person—OST staffer Russ Drew—should present the report to President Nixon, and that it was up to the White House to decide when and how to make the report public.49

Following the “truce” between Ehrlichman and Agnew, the request for an Agnew-Nixon meeting was quickly withdrawn. Instead Dwight Chapin asked President Nixon to approve a one-hour meeting in the Cabinet Room for the “Space Task Group to present [its] completed report and discuss its recommendations.” Chapin wanted to schedule the meeting within the next week, since science adviser DuBridge was leaving on an extended trip on September 18. Originally set for September 16, the meeting was soon moved to the afternoon of Monday, September 15, to better fit President Nixon’s schedule.

Crafting a Presidential Space Statement

Almost from the start of his administration, there had been suggestions that President Nixon spell out his views on the future in space in a formal state­ment or speech. As the STG report was submitted, one of the NASA senior staff who had been working with the group, Milt Rosen, observed that “the President is going to make. . . a policy statement on space, and presumably one comparable in importance with the statement of President Kennedy in 1961.”2

It was the need to respond to the STG report that ultimately led to the formal statement of Richard Nixon’s post-Apollo space policy; that pro­nouncement is called here the “Nixon space doctrine.” But the presidential statement, issued only on March 7, 1970, six months after the STG report had been submitted, was hardly the kind of clarion call to leadership in space that President John F. Kennedy had proposed to the Congress and the nation on May 25, 1961.3 Rather, it was carefully balanced between provid­ing a positive but very general vision for future space development and mak­ing it clear that the space program would no longer be treated as it had been during Apollo, as “special,” operating outside the normal process for setting national priorities and based on highly mobilized efforts to achieve chal­lenging goals. In a rather negative way, the Nixon space doctrine was indeed comparable in importance to Kennedy’s 1961 setting of a lunar landing as a national goal, for it set out a framework for making space decisions that not only Richard Nixon, but most subsequent occupants of the White House, have used over the past 40 plus years. The framework put in place by Richard Nixon on March 7, 1970, has thus had a far more lasting impact on national space policy than John Kennedy’s 1961 decision to go to the Moon.


With NASA’s cancelation of two Apollo missions to the Moon, deferral of space station development, and the decision to make the space shuttle the centerpiece of its post-Apollo hopes, the curtain came down on the first act in the drama of setting the content and direction of the post-Apollo space program. NASA Administrator Tom Paine’s hope of getting, in the months following the success of the Apollo 11 lunar landing and the submission of the Space Task Group (STG) report, White House support for a fast-paced space effort in the 1970s had been decisively denied. The Nixon White House in shaping a post-Apollo space effort had decided not to build on the national investment in the capabilities that had made Apollo possible.

In February 1969 Richard Nixon had asked for a "definitive recom­mendation on the direction which the U. S. space program should take in the post-Apollo period." When seven months later he received that recommendation in the form of the STG report, he and especially his policy and budget advisors found it not at all to their liking. NASA, with the active assistance of Vice President Spiro Agnew, had in essence seized control of the STG; none of the other members had fought hard for a different recommendation than one centered on space station and space shuttle development during the 1970s, lead­ing to missions to Mars in the 1980s. Secretary of the Air Force Robert Seamans in both August and September had presented alternatives to that approach, but had not been persistent in his advocacy. Science adviser Lee DuBridge, rather than act as an advocate for the views of his external advisory committee, which favored the space shuttle and

was skeptical about the value of a space station, chose to be a media­tor with respect to his fellow STG members, seeking an outcome that all could accept. Budget Director Robert Mayo decided to deal with space issues in the context of FY1971 budget decisions rather than argue within the STG for a program he thought the president could support. The STG participants from the Atomic Energy Commission and the Department of State had narrower interests that the totality of the post-Apollo program, and thus deferred to NASA’s recommenda­tions.

Even in the aftermath of the triumph of the Apollo 11 lunar landing, the question of the content and pace of the post-Apollo space program had relatively low priority in the Nixon White House, as the president grappled with a recalcitrant economy and a looming budget deficit, not to mention various overseas involvements of higher interest to him. This lack of top-level interest in the future of the space program allowed a junior member of the White House staff, Clay Thomas "Tom" Whitehead, to exercise substantial influence on how the president and his senior advisers responded to the STG report. Although there was significant confusion and competition in roles between the White House policy staff, represented by Whitehead and his boss, Assistant to the President Peter Flanigan, and the Bureau of the Budget staff mem­bers dealing with space issues and their director, Robert Mayo, the two groups were united in their skepticism regarding the value of the kind of post-Apollo space program Paine was so insistently advocating. Their views carried the day with President Nixon, who by most indications was personally in favor of a more ambitious NASA program than his advisers favored. Nixon, apparently reluctantly, came to the conclusion that there was neither the public and political support nor the budget wherewithal to support such space ambitions. As Flanigan commented at the time, there was in the White House in 1969 and early 1970 "a feel­ing that the country had had enough excitement for now"; the result was "a series of negative decisions—no, we won’t do this."1

The March 1970 presidential statement on space was deliberately noncommittal, seeming to echo the STG report by identifying the space station and space shuttle as desirable future developments, but also indicating that they and other NASA proposals would have to compete with other government programs for funding. To optimists like Paine, the statement seemed still to leave the door slightly open for future approval of some version of the STG program, but that was not a realistic reading of White House intent.

All of this was clear to Whitehead, who observed that "no compel­ling reason to push space was ever presented to the White House by

NASA or anyone else." Reflecting in 1971 on his space policy experi­ences, Whitehead suggested that

this Administration has never really faced up to where we are going in Space. NASA, with some help from the Vice President, made a try in 1969 to get the President committed to an "ever-onward-and-upward" post – Apollo program with continued budget growth into the $6-10 billion range. We were successful in holding that off at least temporarily, but we have not developed any theme or consistency in policy. As a result, NASA is both drifting and lobbying for bigger things—without being forced to focus realistically on what it ought to be doing . . . We have cut the NASA budget, but they manage. . . to get a "compromise" of a few hundred million on their shuttle and space station plans. Is the President really going to ignore a billion or so of sunk costs when he gets hit for the really big money in a year or two? . . . There needs to be a sense of direction, both publicly and within NASA. The President’s statement on the seventies in space laid the groundwork, but no one is following up.

Whitehead suggested that "we really ought to decide if we mean to muddle through on space policy for the rest of the President’s term in office" and pointed out the need to answer a crucial question: "What do we expect of a space program?"2 How that question was answered (or not) will be the central focus of the second act of this drama.

Initial Presidential Decisions

Richard Nixon was scheduled to meet with John Ehrlichman and George Shultz on December 1 for an initial discussion of the NASA budget. The issues identified by OMB as requiring presidential decision were: whether to continue lunar exploration through Apollo 17; whether to start space shut­tle development or just begin engine development and defer an airframe commitment; whether to cancel Skylab; and whether to cancel the NERVA (nuclear rocket engine) effort. Other NASA issues would be decided without direct presidential involvement.

Richard Nixon and Apollo 11

P resident-elect Richard Nixon, like most Americans, was thrilled by the December 1968 Apollo 8 mission, the first space flight to leave Earth orbit with humans aboard. Apollo 8 sent Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and Bill Anders into orbit around the Moon on December 24. In his Memoirs, Nixon recalled that on that Christmas Eve, he “was a happy man.” At his retreat on Key Biscayne, Florida, “a wreath hung on the front door and a beautifully trimmed Christmas tree stood in the living room. . . Far out in space Apollo VIII orbited the moon while astronaut Frank Borman read the story of the Creation from the Book of Genesis.[1] Those days were rich with happiness and full of anticipation and hope.”1

The afterglow of the bold Apollo 8 mission was still bright as Richard Milhous Nixon was sworn in as the thirty-seventh president of the United States on January 20, 1969. References to that mission and to space explora­tion in general appeared throughout the new president’s inaugural address:

• “In throwing wide the horizons of space, we have discovered new hori­zons on earth.”

• “We find ourselves rich in goods, but ragged in spirit; reaching with magnificent precision for the moon, but falling into raucous discord on earth.”

• “As we explore the reaches of space, let us go to new worlds together—not as new worlds to be conquered, but as a new adventure to be shared.”

• “Only a few weeks ago we shared the glory of man’s first sight of the world as God sees it, as a single sphere reflecting light in the darkness. As the Apollo astronauts flew over the moon’s grey surface on Christmas Eve, they spoke to us of the beauty of earth.”

• “In that moment of surpassing technological triumph, men turned their thoughts toward home and humanity—seeing in that far perspective that

man’s destiny on earth is not divisible; telling us that however far we reach into the cosmos, our destiny lies not in the stars but on earth itself.”2

As he assumed the presidency, Richard Nixon was well aware that the success of the Apollo 8 mission meant that the United States during his first year in the White House almost surely would achieve the lunar landing goal set by Nixon’s long-time nemesis John F. Kennedy eight years earlier. He also knew that in his first year in office he would face significant space policy decisions, choices that would set the path in space for the United States for the coming decade and beyond. But there was no sense of urgency within the Nixon administration with respect to defining what the United States would do in space after landing on the Moon; the space program was not high on Nixon’s policy agenda. More important in the short run was making sure that the lunar landing program was a success and that Richard Nixon was closely identified with that success.