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.