Category After Apollo?

An Unhappy Webb Leaves NASA

James Webb had insisted from the early years of Apollo that the undertaking was about much more than landing men on the Moon. Rather, its purpose was “to become preeminent” in all areas of space activity, and to do so “in such a manner that our emerging scientific, technological, and operational competence in space is clearly evident.” To Webb (and John Kennedy), the space program was an instrument of national power, not an enterprise driven by the human desire to explore. In order to make sure that there was enough equipment to achieve the lunar landing goal, NASA ordered 15 Saturn V Moon rockets, 15 lunar landing spacecraft, and 20 command and service module spacecraft. The expectation was that most of this hardware would be necessary to assure Apollo’s success; it seemed likely that a number of attempts would have to be made to achieve the various milestones in the lunar landing program.7

At the peak of the Apollo buildup in fiscal year (FY) 1965, NASA’s bud­get was $5.25 billion; just four years later, the budget had shrunk by some 20 percent, to $3.99 billion, and NASA had only a few approved human space flight missions for the 1970s. Clearly NASA needed new objectives if it were to maintain the skilled workforce assembled for Apollo and other elements of its rapid 1960s buildup and to make use of the facilities and capabilities in which the nation had invested billions of dollars.

Given this lack of future large missions, Webb on August 1, 1968, refused to approve a request to begin procurement of “long-lead-time” items for the Saturn V Moon rocket, beginning the process of shutting down the booster’s production line. This decision was deeply disappointing to Webb. It represented “only the most recent in a series of cutbacks that constitute what may be called a national decision.” To Webb, that decision was “that the United States is not pursuing, for the time being at least, its goal of ‘pre­eminence’ in space.”8

By mid-1968, James Webb was “noticeably very, very tired.” Webb had for some time planned to retire from NASA before the 1968 presidential election. On September 16, 1968, he went to the White House to discuss the timing of his resignation with President Johnson. Given Webb’s unhappiness with

Johnson’s recent lack of support for NASA, it is likely that he made his disap­pointment known to the president. Johnson himself was eager to escape from the burdens of the presidency, and he was not very receptive to Webb’s con­cerns. Somewhat to Webb’s surprise, Johnson immediately accepted Webb’s resignation, effective on Webb’s 62nd birthday, October 7, and sent Webb to the White House press room to announce that action. Asked by a reporter to comment on the status of the space program, Webb responded “I am not satis­fied with the program. I am not satisfied that we as a nation have not been able to go forward to achieve a first position in space.” Commenting on Webb’s departure, The Washington Post noted that he was leaving NASA without its having “a set mission beyond landing on the moon. . . The fading American taste for competition with the Russians in space and the rising competition of other claimants for Federal funds explains NASA’s uncertain estate.” The situ­ation was “hardly his fault,” but for Webb, “it is a bitter pill.”9

Marking Time

After this March 22 meeting, the STG principals would not gather again to discuss the substance of their report for over four months; the next meet­ing took place only on August 4. In the meantime, the STG-related staffs of NASA, DOD, and OST engaged in discussions without reaching a con­sensus. According to Paine, “everybody put forth his own view and listened somewhat impatiently to the other people’s view and the discussions were fairly general and hadn’t really arrived at much of anywhere.”11

Final STG Report Prepared

The STG decisions to re-label the program options and restructure the report text led to a hurried effort over the next several days to reflect these decisions in the printed text of the STG report in time for it to be presented to the president four days later. NASA’s Wyatt was the key NASA actor in this final revision. What had been Option A was relabeled “Maximum Pace.” The report said that because that option represented “an initial rate of growth of resources which cannot be realized because such budgetary requirements would substantially exceed predicted funding capabilities,” it had “been rejected by the Space Task Group.” What had been Option E was relabeled “Low Level.” The report noted that “the Space Task Group is con­vinced that a decision to phase out manned space flight operations, although painful, is the only way to achieve significant reductions in NASA budgets over the long term.”

The “Conclusions and Recommendations” section of the draft report was moved to the front of the text and set in a different type face than the rest of the 29-page report. The basic recommendation was “that this Nation accept the basic goal of a balanced manned and unmanned space program con­ducted for the benefit of all mankind.” The group noted its conclusion that “a forward-looking space program for the future of this Nation should include continuation of manned space flight activity.” The STG recommended “as a focus for the development of new capability,” that “the United States accept the long-range option or goal of manned planetary exploration with a manned

Mars mission before the end of this century as the first target.” This was a much softer goal than was contained in the program options presented later in the report, and in effect removed issues associated with a decision to send humans to Mars from consideration during the Nixon administration. The rewritten text noted that “schedule and budgetary implications. . . are subject to Presidential choice” and that decisions on what systems to develop and on what schedule would be determined “in a normal annual budget and program review process.” The report proposed that NASA should “develop new systems and technology for space operations with emphasis on the criti­cal factors of: (1) commonality, (2) reusability, and (3) economy, through a program directed initially toward development of a new space transpor­tation capability and space station modules that utilize this capability.” In particular, “should it be decided to develop concurrently the space transpor­tation system and the modular space station, a rise of annual expenditures to approximately $6 billion in 1976 is required.” However, “if the space station and the transportation system were developed in series. . . a lower level of approximately $4-5 billion could be met.”50

Drafting a Nixon Space Statement

In recommending that President Nixon endorse Option II of the STG report, NASA Administrator Tom Paine on September 19, 1969, had also suggested that the president quickly issue a statement announcing that endorsement. Peter Flanigan, the assistant to the president with oversight responsibility for the space program, agreed with Paine, and intended to take the lead in pre­paring such a statement. Although an immediate declaration was opposed by BOB Director Robert Mayo, Flanigan persisted in his effort, asking his assis­tant Tom Whitehead on October 6 to “draft a statement that the President might use, picking Option 2 but providing his flexibility along the lines sug­gested in my memorandum of October 4.” In that memorandum, Flanigan had argued that he did not “believe that the President can delay until the budget review to respond to the Space Task Group report to him” and had proposed a presidential statement saying “that after a review of the Space Task Group’s report. . . we should plan on a Mars landing in the mid-1980s,” without also endorsing the STG recommendation that NASA should first develop a space station and space shuttle during the 1970s. Science adviser Lee DuBridge joined Flanigan in arguing for an earlier statement, saying that “many thousands of people employed in the Space Program, as well as many millions of citizens, are anxiously awaiting an indication of the President’s proposals for the future.”4

Despite the urgings of Flanigan and DuBridge, the White House decided that no immediate presidential space statement was desirable; Mayo’s posi­tion that such a statement should follow and reflect, not guide, FY1971 bud­get decisions prevailed. Given the lack of time pressure, Whitehead did not complete an initial outline of a possible statement until mid-November. In transmitting his draft to Flanigan, Whitehead noted that it was “a compro­mise between strong positive words and the restraint necessary to maintain the President’s flexibility in budgeting.” He alerted Flanigan to the fact that he had “not specifically referred to Option II of the STG,” since “to do so would have the effect of locking us into the spending stream projected for that option as a floor on NASA expectations.” Whitehead suggested that “a draft outline should be sent to the President along with a memo showing what we are and are not letting Paine commit us now to begin spending on.”5

Many of the features of the eventual presidential statement issued in March 1970 were already present in Whitehead’s November 17, 1969, draft, which listed three goals for the nation’s space efforts—exploration, science, and Earth applications. Notable was that exploration was separated from science as an activity “worthwhile in and of itself.” The outline suggested a policy shift “to a continuing program of exploration and application” which would be “a continuing process rather than a series of crash timetables.” Listed among “major program goals and initiatives for the next decade in space” were continued lunar landings “paced at a rate to maximize scien­tific returns”; a “newly designed Experimental Space Station” (This was the orbital workshop soon to be named Skylab); and a “longer lived Space Station Module that will serve both as a near-earth space station and a building block for manned interplanetary travel.” A Mars landing, “perhaps as early as 1986,” would follow. The outline called for efforts to “lower the costs of space launches,” but did not mention the space shuttle. Rather, it sug­gested that “our recently developed rocket technology will provide a reliable launch capability through the next decade,” with continuing research “to make possible even lower costs for launching space payloads in the future.” A final initiative was to “expand international cooperation.” With respect to funding, the outline suggested that the president should say “we will seek to provide a stable level of expenditures to enable steady progress consistent with other pressing national priorities,” but also hold out the hope “to be able to expand our effort in some years and move some accomplishments nearer in time.”6

A New Cast of Characters

As the curtain rose on the second act of the drama of post-Apollo deci­sion making, there were a number of changes in its cast of characters, both at the White House and at NASA. The White House framework for mak­ing space policy decisions was changed by creating two new structures—the Domestic Council and the Office of Management and Budget—to over­see the development of policy and budget options for presidential decision. This meant that the heads of those new organizations would inescapably be involved in space-related deliberations. Science adviser Lee DuBridge left; he was replaced by a young engineer from the private sector, Edward E. David, Jr. Tom Whitehead, who as Peter Flanigan’s assistant had been influential in shaping President Nixon’s early space decisions, moved to a new posi­tion within the Executive Office of the President, but still stayed occasion­ally involved in NASA-related issues. There was a proposal to eliminate the National Aeronautics and Space Council and its staff; while this proposal was not acted on, the council staff were not able during 1970-1971 to become significant actors in the policymaking process, although the council’s execu­tive secretary, Bill Anders, became personally involved.

At NASA, Dale Myers, a senior executive from North American Rockwell, where he had been working on the Apollo spacecraft and then space shuttle studies, succeeded George Mueller as associate administrator for manned space flight on January 9, 1970. In that position Myers was in charge not only of the ongoing Apollo and Skylab efforts but also of studies of the space station and space shuttle. Wernher von Braun moved to the agency’s Washington headquarters from his position as director of the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. In Washington, he would lead the agency’s planning effort; Tom Paine’s hope was that he also could be a “super salesman” for NASA’s ambitious post-Apollo aspirations. Then, after making one last attempt to gain support for such an undertaking, NASA Administrator Paine in August 1970 abruptly resigned to return to private industry. NASA was left with an acting administrator, George Low, as it fought in fall 1970 for approval of its proposals for future programs, par­ticularly the space shuttle. In that struggle, NASA found itself dealing with

a number of individuals new to the post-Apollo decision making process and skeptical of the value to the president and the country of a major commit­ment to developing a new capability for human space flight.

Budget Options Assessed

As time for the presidential meeting approached, there were several new inputs into the decision process. One was the OMB paper that Weinberger had requested, putting the staff recommendations in a broader context. The paper compared the employment effects of canceling Skylab, Apollo 17, and NERVA. Job losses if NERVA were canceled were estimated to be 2,600; if Apollo 17 were canceled; 6,000-7,000; if Skylab were canceled, 18,000­20,000, with 9,000 of those job losses coming in California. Science adviser David also weighed in, supporting retention of the Apollo 17 mission. He said that Apollo 17 “is of considerably higher priority” than either Skylab or NERVA and noted that canceling Apollo 17 “would give rise to a consider­able chorus of criticism among the scientific community. In my view, this is the wrong place to cut.”18

Ehrlichman forwarded to President Nixon a memorandum on the employment impact of cuts in the NASA budget that had been pre­pared by Will Kriegsman of Flanigan’s staff, who had taken over most of Whitehead’s responsibilities vis-a-vis NASA. Kriegsman suggested, using the figures in the OMB staff paper, that Skylab not be canceled “because of the employment situation and because we have already invested $1B in the program.” Instead, he proposed, “we should try to save some FY72 money by slipping Skylab’s schedule 6 to 12 months,” and that “we [should] defer the initiation of the Space Shuttle program.” OMB had rec­ommended $133 million to start shuttle engine development; Kriegsman suggested total deferral of this new start. He argued that “the problem with the shuttle is that it will cost $8-$10 B as a minimum over the next 10 years. Neither the economic nor the technical justifications are. . . suf­ficiently defined at this point for us to make such a commitment in the FY1972 budget.” After reading Kriegsman’s memo, Nixon, in a handwrit­ten note on the document’s final point regarding a shuttle commitment, commented “this is persuasive.” That comment likely sealed the shuttle’s fate for FY1972.19

Ed Harper also prepared several background memos to prepare Ehrlichman for his meeting on the NASA budget. Following up on Kriegsman’s memo on aerospace unemployment, Harper told Ehrlichman “the employment fac­tor in the NASA budget decisions is a significant but complicated phenom­enon.” He noted that, while the program that NASA had proposed would “result in a gradual increase in employment throughout 1971,” the OMB recommendation “would result in a sharp decline continuing through calen­dar 1971 for a total cut of 20,000 aerospace employees.” He also noted that while OMB and OST had given retaining the Apollo 17 mission their high­est priority and had given Skylab lower priority, NASA had ranked the lunar mission behind both retaining Skylab and starting the shuttle. His advice to Ehrlichman was “that the optimal budget decisions on the NASA options is to (1) continue Skylab, (2) slip the shuttle engine development, (3) continue with Apollo 17, and (4) cancel NERVA.”20

Preparing for a Lunar Landing

To Nixon, “the most exciting event of the first year of my presidency came in July 1969 when an American became the first man to walk on the moon.” Not only was the historic Apollo 11 mission to the Moon personally exciting to the president, it also provided him an ideal vehicle to promote many of the themes he hoped would characterize his time in the White House, par­ticularly America’s global leadership. In addition, by linking himself closely with the message left on the Moon—“We came in peace for all mankind”— Richard Nixon could portray himself as a peacemaker, eager to reduce the tensions that had led to conflict among nations in the years since World War II. To Nixon, the American spirit, as exemplified by the Apollo missions to the moon, was “the most important psychological weapon that could be used in building the generation of peace.” Nixon had decided that the lunar landing “was (a) a necessary shot in the arm to the American body politic, (b) a lift to the spirit of a war-weary people, (c) a boost for technology that was being unfairly derided by environmentalists—and (d), (e), and (f)—that he was going to be an enthusiastic part of it.”3

Project Apollo had in fact been intended from its 1961 approval by President Kennedy to be a large-scale effort in “soft power,” sending a peace­ful but unmistakable signal to the world that the United States, not its Cold War rival the Soviet Union, possessed preeminent technological and organi­zational power, and that the American way of life provided an example other nations should admire and aspire to follow. In his May 25, 1961, address to a joint session of Congress in which he proposed setting as a national goal sending Americans to the Moon, Kennedy had said “if we are to win the battle for men’s minds, the dramatic achievements in space. . . should have made clear to us all. . . the impact of this adventure on the minds of men everywhere who are attempting to make a determination of which road they should take.”4 Although he was extremely reluctant to acknowledge that the Apollo 11 mission would be the culmination of the pledge Kennedy had made eight years earlier, Richard Nixon agreed with Kennedy’s rationale for the lunar landing effort. Even after the dismal events of the 1960s—assas­sinations, urban riots, and seemingly endless U. S. involvement in a war in Southeast Asia—landing Americans on the Moon, thought Nixon, was an achievement that could help both communicate to the rest of the world an extremely positive image of U. S. leadership and power and restore national morale.

Enter Tom Paine

Even before going to the White House press room after his meeting with Johnson, James Webb had made a quick call to NASA Deputy Administrator Thomas O. Paine, telling Paine that his resignation was about to be announced and that the president wanted Paine to serve as acting NASA administra­tor. This shift in command marked a new era for NASA; Tom Paine had a markedly different personality than James Webb. Where Webb was a consum­mate Washington insider, skilled in forging political coalitions in support of NASA’s programs but careful not to get out in front of what in his judgment was politically acceptable, Paine was a Washington outsider, naive in politi­cal dealings, ebullient, and a technological visionary. He had been a subma­rine officer during World War II and had a fascination with all things naval. Paine had a doctorate in physical metallurgy from Stanford and had spent his whole professional career with General Electric. Since 1963 he had been the manager of the General Electric “think tank” called TEMPO; there he was exposed to a wide variety of innovative technological ideas in both the civilian and national security sectors. He had had no particular exposure to the space program prior to coming to NASA. Paine had decided that some Washington experience would be good for his career and had put his name on file with the Civil Service Commission as a person interested in a high-level government position; it was there that NASA found him in January 1968 as it searched for a replacement for Deputy Administrator Robert Seamans.10

In his early months as NASA deputy administrator Paine told senior NASA managers that he saw the position of the United States in space “as somewhat analogous to that of the Atlantic Coast of Europe in the 15th century. We have small ships and crude but usable navigational systems and life-support techniques.” The question for the future, he thought, was “how should we structure our efforts to build navigation capability and conduct exploration?” Paine saw NASA as analogous to the Portuguese “Research Institute for Navigation” that had been established in 1418 by Prince Henry

Enter Tom Paine

Thomas O. Paine, NASA Acting Administrator and Administrator, 1968-1970. (NASA photograph)

the Navigator. That “maritime NASA” was “probably as significant as the later dramatic and successful Portuguese voyages of discovery,” Paine sug­gested, because “it provided a central focus for the best European cartogra­phers, astronomers, navigators, shipwrights, riggers, gunners, coopers, and other medieval scientists, technologists, and skilled workers.” This empha­sis on maritime technology, he noted, was “the base on which the Spanish and later the British, French, and Dutch empires were founded, spreading European seacoast culture, technology, and languages around the world.” Paine wondered whether the United States could have “an analogous oppor­tunity in space.”11 It would have been hard to conceive of Jim Webb pursu­ing this line of thought.

As Paine took over the direction of the space agency in October 1968, he urged people at NASA to be bolder in their thinking than they had been while Webb was administrator. New in Washington, believing strongly in the historical importance of the space program, and optimistic that he could convince others of that importance, Paine faced the incoming Nixon admin­istration with anticipation, telling a reporter soon after the presidential elec­tion that he would present the new president “with an ambitious agenda for future man-in-space flights.”12

Congress and the "Public" Consulted

The STG did organize a session to inform interested members of Congress about STG activities. That meeting produced little of substance. James Schlesinger, deputy director of BOB, attended as an alternate for Mayo, and reported that there was talk of “technology, pride, scientific knowledge, and spiritual uplift” and that a “promotional motive” ran “virtually unchecked throughout the meeting.”12

The STG also organized two sessions with a group of “Invited Contributors” to get some sense of public attitudes with respect to the future in space. Science adviser DuBridge in April had suggested that “a detached and unbiased group of well-informed people could cast a consid­erable amount of light” on what kind of space program the nation should undertake. He proposed that a group “that represents the general public” be formed under the auspices of Vice President Agnew. The vice president approved this proposal and told his assistant Jerome Wolff “Let’s go!”13

Of the 31 invitees, 18 attended the first meeting on July 7. One of them was former child movie star Shirley Temple Black; Agnew’s assistant Wolff assured the vice president that “as you suggested, the little girl who sang ‘On the Good Ship Lollypop’ will be with us.”14 Agnew opened the meet­ing, telling the group “it would be ludicrous to say that you are the man in the street and that this is participatory democracy. Your profile is clearly that of America’s intellectual, industrial, civic, and political leadership. But it is accurate to say that you are here to represent the man in the street and your participation reflects the finest tradition of participatory democracy. We are asking you to advise us on policy decisions that we hope the man in the street will be happy to live with for the next decade.” There was a second meeting of the invited contributors on August 1, this time to hear briefings on the potential for enhanced international space cooperation and on Russian space plans. Many of the invited contributors submitted thoughtful letters after these meetings, but there is no evidence that their views had any direct influ­ence on the content of the STG report or its recommendations.15

Space Task Group Reports to the President

At 3:00 p. m. on September 15, President Richard Nixon met in the White House Cabinet Room with the members of the STG (with the exception of Glenn Seaborg, who was out of Washington). In transmitting the STG report to the president, Vice President Spiro Agnew commented that “the three options presented in the report provide properly balanced space pro­grams, and that the range of choice provides flexibility in meeting budget­ary constraints.” Agnew suggested that Nixon choose Option II of the STG report, noting that “the cornerstones for any of the program options are two projects—the space station and the space transportation system.”51

As planned, Russ Drew summarized the report and its recommendations. President Nixon responded that “he felt strongly that the Nation should move forward in space,” and that “while the present financial burdens of the country may limit how fast we were able to move at this time, he wanted to be in a position to move faster in the future if circumstances permit.” Nixon “tended to focus on the manned planetary mission” and welcomed the flexibility in the STG options to decide “in a couple of years” whether to undertake a mission to Mars in 1983. The president “liked the approach of the report. He was pleased that it rejected any substantial reduction in space activities and, at the other extreme, did not propose a crash program for a manned Mars landing.” At the conclusion of the meeting President Nixon “stated a very positive personal view with respect to moving ahead” with U. S. space activities.52

The STG report and the NASA input to the STG, “America’s Next Decades in Space,” were released at a September 17 White House press conference attended by Agnew, DuBridge, Seamans, and Paine. Agnew made public his transmittal letter to President Nixon in which he had recommended

Space Task Group Reports to the President

The Space Task Group presents its report to President Nixon on September 15, 1969. Clockwise from top right: Russell Drew, Office of Science and Technology; Thomas Paine, NASA; the President; Science Adviser Lee DuBridge; Budget Director Robert Mayo; Presidential Counselor Arthur Burns; (with back to camera) Milton Klein, Atomic Energy Commission; Bill Anders, National Aeronautics and Space Council; Robert Seamans, Secretary of the Air Force; Vice-President Spiro Agnew; Undersecretary of State U. Alexis Johnson; Jerome Wolff, Office of the Vice President; Frank Pagnotta, Office of Science and Technology. (Photograph WHPO 1962-4, courtesy of the Richard Nixon Presidential Library & Museum)

Option II. Seamans and DuBridge chose not to go on the public record with respect to their recommendation to the president, and Paine said he had not yet made his recommendation; he did so in a letter to the president on September 19. Like the vice president, Paine in his letter recommended that Nixon select Option II, “a balanced and challenging program.” Ever the optimist, Paine added, “as the nation progresses toward meeting its other needs during the next few years, I would hope that we might be able to reex­amine this and move closer to Option I.”53