Category After Apollo?

The author had the good fortune to be present at the Apollo 11 launch

Even before Apollo 11 lifted off, the crew and mission planners back in Houston had agreed that if all was going well, Armstrong and Aldrin would skip their scheduled rest period and start their extra-vehicular activity on the lunar surface as soon as they were ready. Within an hour after landing, Armstrong received permission to begin the crew’s moonwalk at approxi­mately 9:00 p. m. Informed of this change in plans, President Nixon arrived in the White House office area just before 9:00 p. m., only to be advised that preparations were running more slowly than expected. Almost two hours later, Armstrong stood on the outside of the lunar module, ready to climb down to the surface of the Moon. A worldwide audience watched his ghost-like image descend the module’s ladder; then, Armstrong announced that he was ready to step off the lunar module. He took his historic “one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind” at 10:56 p. m. on July 20, 1969. (In the excitement of the moment, Armstrong did not fully articulate the “a” in his statement, although some later acoustic analyses suggested that he had indeed included the article in what he said. In retro­spect, Armstrong himself was typically enigmatic, saying to his biographer “I would hope that history would grant me leeway for dropping the syl­lable and understand that it was certainly intended, even if it wasn’t said— and it actually might have been.28) Aldrin soon followed Armstrong to the lunar surface, stepping off the lunar module at 11:15 p. m.

The author had the good fortune to be present at the Apollo 11 launch

President Richard Nixon talks to Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the surface of the Moon, July 20, 1969. (NASA photograph GPN-2000-1672)

President Nixon watched the historic first steps on the Moon on a small television in his private office in the White House, next to the more for­mal Oval Office. Borman and Haldeman were with him. According to Haldeman, Nixon was “very excited by the whole thing. Was fascinated by the moon walk.” The president then went into the Oval Office, where from 11:45 to 11:50 p. m., in the dispassionate words of the his official “Daily Diary,” he “held an interplanetary conversation with the Apollo 11 astro­nauts Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin on the Moon.” The conversation was shown on split-screen television and seen live around most of the world, but not in the Soviet Union.29

Nixon had available to him for this conversation two different versions of prepared remarks, one written by lead speechwriter Ray Price and the other by William Safire, but he used neither version. Borman says that he and Safire composed the actual comments, while Haldeman suggests that Nixon “wrote his own remarks.” Safire recalls that he was watching the preparations for the moonwalk from his home and was struck by the idea that the president should work the theme of “tranquility” into his remarks, given that Eagle had landed on the Moon’s Sea of Tranquility. Safire called the White House and asked that his thought be relayed to the president as he prepared for his Apollo 11 phone call. Whatever the source of the rhetoric, what the president said reflected the themes—pride, power, and peace—that Nixon had from the start of his preparations wanted to associate with the lunar landing. Nixon told Armstrong and Aldrin as they stood beside the American flag on the lunar surface:

Hello Neil and Buzz, I am talking to you by telephone from the Oval Room at the White House, and this certainly has to be the most historic telephone call ever made from the White House.

I just can’t tell you how proud we all are of what you have done. For every American this has to be the proudest day of our lives, and for people all over the world I am sure that they, too, join with Americans in recognizing what an immense feat this is.

Because of what you have done the heavens have become a part of man’s world, and as you talk to us from the Sea of Tranquility, it inspires us to redouble our efforts to bring peace and tranquility to earth.

For one priceless moment in the whole history of man all the people on this earth are truly one—one in their pride in what you have done and one in our prayers that you will return safely to earth.

Armstrong replied to the president: “It is a great honor and privilege for us to be here representing not only the United States, but men of peaceable nations, men with an interest and a curiosity, and men with a vision for the future.”30

The president’s phone call came as a complete surprise to Aldrin, who found it “awkward” and decided not to respond. Armstrong had been alerted before launch that there might be a “special communication” while the two astronauts were on the Moon, but he was not told that it would be

President Nixon on the line. Armstrong did not share this “heads up” with Aldrin. Armstrong later suggested that “If I’d known it was going to be the president, I might of tried to conjure up some appropriate statement.” Armstrong’s not sharing his advance information with Aldrin was typical of the relationship between the members of the Apollo 11 crew, described by Collins as “amiable strangers.”31

On the morning of July 21, the front page of the The New York Times in a 96-point banner headline announced “Men Walk on Moon.” (In the early edition of the paper, sent to press before Aldrin had joined Armstrong on the lunar surface, the headline had been singular—“Man Walks on Moon.”) The newspaper also included on its front page the poem Archibald MacLeish had composed to commemorate the occasion, titled “Voyage to the Moon.”32

Eagle with Armstrong and Aldrin and 49 pounds of lunar samples aboard lifted off of the Moon’s surface at 1:54 p. m. on July 21, first to rendezvous in lunar orbit with Columbia, where Collins had been patiently waiting, and then to head back for an early morning splashdown in the South Pacific on July 24. The crew had little to do on the return trip, and reverted to charac­teristics that Borman had noted in his July 14 memo to Nixon. Armstrong asked mission control for a report on the stock market, and Collins rum­maged around the various storage areas of the spacecraft, hoping, with tongue in cheek, that someone had surreptitiously smuggled aboard a small supply of cognac.33

First Steps on Space

There were both parallels and differences with respect to the status of the space program at the time John F. Kennedy entered the White House in January 1961 and the arrival of Richard M. Nixon eight years later. Both men as presidential candidates had spoken of the importance of U. S. space leadership. Both had commissioned a transition task force on space that had been skeptical regarding a presidential commitment to a major new space effort, especially one involving human space flight. During both transitions, NASA had ambitious plans for the future, but also was operating with high uncertainty with respect to whether the new man in the White House would embrace those ambitions. NASA at the start of both the Kennedy and the Nixon administrations was being led by an acting administrator, and the new president was having difficulty in finding a person to head the space agency on a permanent basis. In both 1961 and 1968, the new president faced important decisions in his first months in office with respect to the future of the U. S. space effort.

A major difference in the two situations was that while in January 1961 the United States was still four months away from the launch of its first astronaut, Alan Shepard, on a 15-minute suborbital flight, in January 1969 NASA had just sent three astronauts around the Moon and was preparing to make the initial attempt to land Americans on the lunar surface. Once the lunar landing was achieved, there was no clear next step for human space flight. Without such new missions, the U. S. program of human space flight would come to an end in the 1973-1975 period, after Apollo lunar landings missions through Apollo 20 had been carried out and astronaut visits to an already approved orbital workshop based on Apollo hardware, later named Skylab, were completed. At the time of the Kennedy transition, NASA was a relatively small organization with a modest contractor support network; in 1969, as a result of the Apollo buildup, NASA had over 34,000 employees supported by over 200,000 contractors from the aerospace industry. Deciding what to do with this “space industrial complex” and the capabilities it rep­resented was a rather more difficult problem for the Nixon administration than John F. Kennedy had faced as he decided to race to the Moon.

Negative Reactions to the "Humans to Mars" Goal

Even before this presentation to the STG, Agnew’s call at the Apollo 11 launch for sending Americans to Mars had quickly produced a variety of negative reactions. Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield (D-MT) said that he would rule out any such venture “until problems here on earth are solved.” He was joined in his criticism by Senator Edward Kennedy (D-MA).

Both Mansfield and especially Kennedy were already on record as opposing a high priority for post-Apollo space efforts. Even more telling was the skepti­cism of NASA’s traditional supporters. Senator Clinton Anderson (D-NM), chair of the Senate’s Committee on Aeronautical and Space Sciences, on July 29 said “now is not the time to commit ourselves to the goal of a manned mission to Mars.” On August 11, Anderson’s counterpart in the House of Representatives, George Miller (D-CA), chairman of the House Committee on Science and Astronautics, called the setting of a Mars goal “premature,” suggesting that “five, perhaps ten years from now we may decide that it would be in the national interest to begin a carefully planned program extending over several years to send men to Mars.” The members of Congress were joined in their criticism by The New York Times, which as the Apollo H spacecraft was on its way to the Moon called discussion of a Mars mission “scientifically and technically. . . premature” and warned with some degree of hyperbole that “any forced-draft Martian analogue of the Apollo project would divert hundreds of billions of dollars that are more urgently required to meet the needs of men and women on earth.” The general public also was skeptical. In a nationwide poll taken just after the Apollo H mission, respondents were asked: “There has been much discussion about attempt­ing to land a man on the planet Mars. How would you feel about such an attempt—Would you favor or oppose the United States setting aside money for such a project?” Of those queried, 53 percent opposed a Mars mission; only 39 percent supported it. President Nixon was an avid consumer of poll data; this kind of response is likely to have caught his attention as he weighed his decisions on future space efforts.33

Even Paine, while still pushing for the kind of vigorous program he thought NASA should undertake, was by the time of the August 4 STG meeting sensing that commitment to an early mission to Mars was not in the cards. Using von Braun’s presentation material, he had made two speeches in the first days of August about a Mars mission. He described the speeches as “trial ballooning a little bit to see what kind of comment there would be to discussions of how a Mars mission could be carried out.” From these speeches “came the first rumblings of a public reaction, which was that those trial balloons were going to be shot down, and that Mars was not going to be the thing we were going to hang the program on, that the idea ‘after the Moon, Mars’ was too simplistic a view. We have to come up with a better program rationale than Jack Kennedy sent us to the Moon, Dick Nixon sent us to Mars.”34 Even so, Paine continued to push hard for a STG report that would recommend setting Mars missions during the 1980s as a national goal, primarily as a way for gaining support for NASA’s ambitious plans in the 1970s.

NASA and BOB Clash

NASA Administrator Paine in August had told his NASA colleagues to pre­pare a budget reflecting what became Option I in the STG report; the result­ing requests totaled $5.4 billion. Paine’s reaction was that these requests “far exceed the dollar level that can be reasonably expected.” At this point, NASA’s internal budget process was in “disarray,” with “Apollo euphoria” prevalent and Paine and other senior NASA officials concentrating on the STG process.13

In submitting the NASA budget request of $4.5 billion, Paine character­ized it as consistent with Option II of the STG report, the choice he had recommended to the president. Paine also reminded Mayo that the official $3.5 billion target had been “issued prior to the Task Group’s report and recommendations.” If that budget level were forced on NASA, said Paine, “major program decisions totally inconsistent with the Task Group’s recom­mendations” would be needed, including “immediate decisions on terminat­ing manned flight operations.”14 This was the first of several times during the budget review when NASA claimed that there would be drastic conse­quences with respect to human space flight if its budget was reduced, only to find ways of avoiding those consequences when it was forced to accept a lower budget.

Over the next month, the BOB space budget examiners reviewed the NASA request. They initially thought that NASA was likely to end up with a budget at the $3.7-$3.9 billion level, but they were directed by Robert Mayo in “strong words” to keep the budget at $3.5 billion. Driving Mayo’s action was Richard Nixon’s focus on balancing the budget in the face of continu­ing inflation and the end of the tax surcharge that had been in place to help pay for the costs of the Vietnam war, even as the conflict continued. The fiscal outlook was much less optimistic in October than it had been only a few months earlier; the president’s policies were not producing the desired results in terms of controlling inflation and stimulating economic growth and increased federal revenues.

To reduce the NASA request by $1 billion, the BOB staff made “meat-axe cuts.” There was no coherent rationale behind these cuts, but even so the staff composed a paper, delivered to NASA on November 13, that attempted to explain the reasoning behind the BOB’s “tentative allowance” of $3.5 bil­lion for FY1971. At this budget level, there would be only one Apollo launch per year. Saturn V production would be “suspended”; production capabili­ties would be mothballed, to be restarted if additional launch vehicles sub­sequently were needed. Additional research on space shuttle technologies would be required before detailed design and development of the vehicle would be approved. Space station development was deferred.15

In a strongly worded November 18 letter, Paine told Mayo that “the allowance and rationale are both unacceptable,” since they failed to support “even the minimal requirements of a balanced forward-looking U. S. space program.” He added that “the proposed rationale ignores and runs counter to the conclusions reached by the Space Task Group. . . By refusing to rec­ognize the need for a planning rationale and by undercutting existing com­mitments, the BOB staff proposals would force the President to reject the space program as an important continuing element of his Administration’s total program.” Paine reiterated his argument that a NASA budget of less than $4 billion/year “would require decisions to suspend manned flights.” He closed his missive by expressing “his disappointment that at this point in the budget process so much effort has been expended and so little accom – plished.”16

Paine and Mayo and their relevant staffs met on November 21 to discuss their differences, but according to one of those present “it was a fairly short meeting and quite—you would not say bitter—but it broke fairly quickly because we couldn’t accommodate anything”; according to another partici­pant, “Paine went away angry.” Paine and Mayo did agree that being so far apart so late in the budget process was not a good situation, and directed their staff members to work together to try to narrow the differences.17

There was some movement over the next few days. NASA developed four new budget alternatives, ranging from $4.4 to $3.9 billion, but Paine insisted that in order to make “meaningful forward progress on the key space station and space shuttle programs without sacrificing key elements of the balanced STG program,” a budget of $4.25 billion was the lowest that he and Mayo should “responsibly recommend to the President.” Paine con­tinued to use the STG report as his basis for the president’s budget decisions; he suggested to Mayo that “your job and my job” was to help Nixon “redi­rect America’s space efforts into the forward looking course charted by the Space Task Group.” NASA’s consistent strategy, whatever budget level was finally approved, was to keep in the budget some meaningful funding for the station/shuttle combination that was key to post-Apollo human flights. To do this, said Paine, “if we must sacrifice current important programs—like Saturn V production—so be it.”18

At this point in the budget process, normal practice called for the BOB director to meet with the president to make his recommendations on budget level and associated issues and to explain to the president the areas where these recommendations were not accepted by the affected agency. The agency head was not to be present; he would be given a chance to appeal the president’s tentative decisions once they were communicated to him. The Nixon-Mayo meeting took place on the afternoon of December 5. Also present at the meeting was John Ehrlichman and, for the portion of the meeting dealing with NASA, Peter Flanigan.

There was one problem lurking in the background of the meeting—by this time, Richard Nixon had discovered that he “just plain did not like Mayo” and did not relish dealing with the BOB director, whose “manner­isms and odd sense of humor thoroughly alienated the President.” This dislike was shared by Ehrlichman and Flanigan, and colored the relations between Nixon’s White House staff and the BOB through the remainder of the budget deliberations, with the two parties not communicating well and often working at cross purposes. By the time of his meeting with the presi­dent, Mayo had increased his recommended FY1971 budget for NASA to $3.7 billion; this figure included launching two Apollo missions a year and continuing Saturn V production.19

First Adjustments

All of these final Apollo missions used equipment already in production by 1970. The ability to produce more Apollo spacecraft and Saturn launchers would soon be abandoned.

No More Saturn V Launchers

NASA in July 1969 had awarded 11-month contracts to study the preliminary design of a Saturn V-launched space station to leading aerospace companies North American Rockwell and McDonnell Douglas. The space agency had set the parameters for the studies based on George Mueller’s integrated plan. The initial station module was to be 33 feet in diameter, the size of the first and second stages of the Saturn V booster that would be used to launch it. This “core module” would be able to support a 12-person crew and have a ten-year lifetime; it was to be the first step on a path to having an increasing number of humans living and working in space.

The FY1971 budget decision to suspend for an indefinite period produc­tion of the Saturn V cast an immediate pall over this plan. NASA would need one Saturn V to launch the initial module, and additional boosters if the subsequent low-Earth orbit infrastructure buildup contemplated in the STG report were to be pursued. However, the seven remaining Saturn V vehicles of the original 15 ordered at the start of Apollo were already committed to the six remaining Apollo missions after Apollo 13 and to Skylab, and pros­pects for restarting Saturn V production in a few years appeared dim.

As noted in chapter 2, the process of shutting down the production line for the Saturn V had begun in 1968, even before Richard Nixon had arrived at the White House. Then-NASA Administrator James Webb had rejected a request to begin procuring long lead-time equipment for a next production run of the Saturn V on the grounds that there was no approved requirement for those additional launchers. The Saturn V had received a brief reprieve in early 1969 as the STG recommended adding the funding to NASA’s FY1970 budget needed to keep the production line open in order to preserve President Nixon’s option to approve an ambitious post – Apollo space program. That decision had been reversed in the December 1969 budget negotiations; Tom Paine had chosen to sacrifice funding for additional Saturn Vs in order to obtain White House approval for funds to study the space station and space shuttle. The FY1971 presidential budget proposed “suspending” Saturn V production, with the idea that produc­tion could be restarted if additional heavy-lift boosters were needed in the future.

By mid-June 1970 NASA Deputy Administrator George Low concluded that restarting Saturn V production was an unrealistic hope, given NASA’s budget outlook. This meant that the only way to have the massive boosters available to launch the initial large space station module or a second Skylab mission was to cancel one or more Apollo missions and use the Saturn V boosters assigned to those missions for those launches. Low judged that NASA would “not get the amount of funding we anticipate in 1972 or 1973” and that “there seems to be a disenchantment in America and particularly in Congress with additional flights to the moon.” Low discussed his ideas on canceling one or more Apollo missions with Tom Paine, who “originally was very negative,” but upon reflection “talked about this in a much more positive vein.”2 The final decision that NASA would not retain the industrial capability required to restart Saturn V production was not made until 1972, but by mid-1970 it was virtually certain that there would be no more of the Moon rockets produced. With this decision, the United States gave up for decades to come its capability to launch astronauts for voyages beyond the immediate vicinity of Earth.

Paine Leaves NASA

On Saturday, July 25, Tom Paine called the Western White House in San Clemente requesting a ten-minute meeting on the following Monday or Tuesday to discuss a “personal decision.” That decision, it turned out, was to leave his position at NASA to accept an unexpected and apparently unso­licited offer from his former employer, General Electric, to become its vice president in charge of the company’s power generation group. This was a well-compensated position and Paine had the education of four children to pay for, but it is probable that he also was very frustrated by his inability to get the Nixon administration to accept his vision of the future in space. There is no evidence that the White House had encouraged Paine to resign; in fact, Peter Flanigan would later ask Paine to stay on until his successor was ready to take over.17

When George Low learned of Paine’s resignation, he was surprised. In a July 25 telephone conversation, Paine had told Low that he would have “some important information” he would discuss once Low arrived in Washington; Low was in the process of moving his family from Houston. Low “momen­tarily thought that this information might concern Tom’s resignation,” but he “quickly discarded this idea” because Paine had “told me after Apollo 13 that he would not leave the agency until after we had flown a successful Apollo mission.”18

Paine met with the president on the morning of Tuesday, July 28, to submit his letter of resignation, effective on September 15. Even after resign­ing, Paine continued his effort to convince Richard Nixon of the value of an ambitious U. S. space program. On August 10, Paine once again requested a 90-minute appointment with the president to present “NASA’s projection of man’s future in space to the year 2000.” Although Ehrlichman and Flanigan recommended that the president schedule such a meeting, Nixon decided to “wait for [the] new man,” that is, Paine’s replacement. When the search for a new NASA administrator did not produce quick results, the meeting never occurred.19

In attempting to set NASA on an ambitious post-Apollo course, Tom Paine had reversed by almost 180 degrees the approach followed by his predeces­sor, James Webb. According to one of his closest associates, Paine from the start of his time as NASA administrator had “decided to be a promoter. . . a fighter for what he thought ought to be done. He always may have known that he wasn’t going to get it all, but he would never admit it in advance.” Where Webb had believed that NASA should create a broad basis of capa­bility and allow the country’s leaders to select specific missions to use that capability, Paine felt that NASA should take an “uninhibited look at what the program should consist of” and then ask “the public and the nation the biggest question that we could ask, namely, whether the United States was sufficiently wealthy and sufficiently adventurous to continue human explo­ration of the solar system.” As he prepared to leave NASA, Paine continued to believe that NASA had asked “the right question, made the right offer,” but that the country, including Richard Nixon and his associates, “may have made the wrong response.”20

Paine’s 23 months as the head of NASA left a mixed legacy. He brought to the fore those within NASA who had the most expansive view of the agency’s objectives; by doing so, he tried to shake the agency out of what had been its rather cautious approach to the future. He adopted and expanded on George Mueller’s ambitious integrated plan, giving priority to human space flight rather than robotic science and application missions and in the process perpetuating the split between NASA’s human and robotic programs and antagonizing large elements of the external scientific community. Paine was willing to give up the repeated use of existing capabilities, particularly the Apollo/Saturn system, in order to get started on the next generation of human space flight projects. He took the lead in advocating international participation in NASA’s post-Apollo human space flight efforts; that partici­pation has been a hallmark of such efforts since.

Given the desire of those advising the president to avoid committing to major post-Apollo space projects, Paine’s advocacy may have been a necessary counterbalance; he thought that “the responsibilities of leadership. . . required him to get approval for as large a space program as the traffic would bear.” According to NASA’s Homer Newell, there was “a difference of opinion as to whether Paine’s attempts to force the space budget far above the lev­els the administration wanted to see kept it from falling lower than it did, or were counterproductive.” One assessment noted that Paine’s departure was “greeted with relief in the Bureau of the Budget and the White House staff”; another suggested that his resignation “came as a welcome relief to both the executive and legislative branches.” A Bureau of the Budget veteran characterized Paine as a “glory hound” who was “unrealistic and unwilling to compromise.” But to Flanigan, Paine’s aggressiveness was not “counter­productive.” Paine was a “good soldier” who accepted decisions after getting a full hearing. Ehrlichman compared Paine’s bold proposals to a spring that “had to be stretched in order for it to come back to where it belonged.”21

Welcome Back to Earth

President Nixon and a large entourage left Washington on the evening of July 22 to begin the trip to the Apollo H splashdown and then to under­take the president’s round-the-world diplomatic mission. After spending the night in San Francisco, on July 23 they flew to Johnston Island, a small atoll 750 miles west of Hawaii. During that flight, Nixon, NASA Administrator Paine, and national security adviser Kissinger spent some time discussing the president’s desire to increase international participation in the U. S. space program; Paine remembers that “we made a great deal of progress in laying out the plan for international cooperation.”34 Borman was also aboard Air Force One, and met separately with the president and Kissinger, also to dis­cuss international space cooperation.

The president’s party arrived on Johnston Island at 5:00 p. m. local time. Those of the group that would view the Apollo H splashdown then boarded helicopters for the hour and a half trip to the aircraft carrier Arlington, where they would spend the evening. As he had earlier met with Ehrlichman to plan his trip to meet the returning Apollo 11 astronauts, President Nixon had attempted to stage manage his trip to the splash down. He recog­nized that Secretary of State William Rogers and Kissinger would have to be part of the diplomatic trip, but he did not want them to accompany him to the recovery; instead, Nixon declared, they would stay on Johnston Island awaiting his return. Nixon did not want to share the event with

Welcome Back to Earth

President Nixon, Apollo 8 astronaut Frank Borman (right) and Admiral John McCain (left) watch as the recovery carrier Hornet approaches the Apollo 11 capsule after it splashed down in the Pacific Ocean on July 24, 1969. (NASA photograph 6900598)

a large entourage; his presence as the crew returned from the Moon was “to be his triumph, not theirs" Nixon told Ehrlichman that “no staff— no Dr. [Doctor]—only two SS [Secret Service]—no press pool—nobody” was to ride on his helicopter to the recovery carrier. Ehrlichman described these directives as an example of the “forlorn and impossible wishing game he liked so well.” He added “as he knew it would, Nixon’s entourage at the splashdown included the full complement of bodyguards, a vast press contingent, the President’s doctor, Haldeman, Haldeman’s aide, and, of course, both Rogers and Kissinger.”35

Haldeman in his diary described in vivid detail both the trip from the Arlington to the smaller recovery carrier Hornet to view the splashdown and the event itself:

Up at 4:00 for 4:40 departure. It was beautiful on the flight deck, absolutely dark, millions of stars, plus the antenna lights on the ship. Borman said it looked more like the sky on the back side of the moon than any he had ever seen on earth. Helicopter left in the dark and flew over the ocean to the Hornet. Landed and went through quick briefings on the decontamination setup and the recovery plan. Then waited on the bridge for the capsule to appear.

It did, in spectacular fashion. We saw the fireball (like a meteor with a tail) rise from the horizon and arch through the sky, turning into a red ball,

then disappearing. Waited on the bridge for an hour or so until we could see the helicopters over the capsule and raft in the sea. We steamed toward them. Watched the pickup, first through binoculars, then with naked eye. P [the president] was exuberant, really cranked up, like a little kid. Watched every­thing, soaked it all up.

Then the pickup helicopter landed on deck. P ordered band to play “Columbia the Gem of the Ocean.” . . . Then down to the hangar deck for P chat with the astronauts in quarantine chamber. Great show. He was very excited, personal, perfect approach. Then prayer and “Star Spangled Banner.” Then “Ruffles and Flourishes” and “Hail to the Chief,” and we left.36

The Apollo H command module Columbia splashed down on target at 5:51 a. m. local time (12:51 p. m. EDT) on July 24, 13 miles from the Hornet. After donning their “biological containment garments,” Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins were helped from their spacecraft into a raft, then lifted into a waiting helicopter. By now, the Hornet was only a quarter of a mile away, and the helicopter carrying the Apollo H crew landed on its deck at 6:57 local time.

The astronauts had an hour before interacting with the president, first undergoing a quick medical examination, then taking a shower and chang­ing into comfortable clothing. Armstrong later reflected “there were the Nixon ceremonial activities to attend to. We needed to do that and get it behind us so we could celebrate.” Collins added that after showering and shaving, “we were looking for something to do, and it’s not long in coming.” The crew was summoned to the end of the quarantine facility and “part­ing the curtains we see that the hangar deck has arranged for some sort of ceremony—the first of many, I would guess.” After the band played Ruffles and Flourishes, “in marches none other than President Nixon, looking very fit and relaxed as he stands by a microphone just outside our window.”As he spoke with the crew, Nixon demonstrated his lack of facility with small talk, attempting to joke that his conversation with the crew while they were on the Moon was a collect call, pointing out Frank Borman standing nearby, and asking whether the crew knew the results of the baseball All Star game and whether they were fans of the American or National League. One of Nixon’s biographers suggested that his conversation “set some sort of record for inappropriateness.” He told the astronauts that he had spoken to their wives—“three of the greatest ladies and most courageous ladies in the whole world today”—and had invited them to a dinner on August 13. He asked the crew “Will you come?” Demonstrating his “penchant for hyperbole and weakness for gross exaggeration,” Nixon “came out with the all-time Nixonism,” telling the crew that “this is the greatest week in the history of the world since the Creation, because as a result of what happened in this week, the world is bigger, infinitely” and “as a result of what you have done, the world has never been closer together before.”37

Shortly after 9:00 a. m., President Nixon and his party boarded their helicopters for the return trip to Johnston Island; by early that afternoon, they were on their way to Guam, the first stop in a tour that would bring

Welcome Back to Earth

President Nixon jokes with the Apollo 11 crew in their mobile quarantine facility. (Photo cour­tesy of Milt Putnam, the Navy photographer who recorded the recovery of the Apollo 8, 10, and 11 crews after their return from the Moon.38)

Nixon to the Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam, India, Pakistan, Romania, and the United Kingdom before returning to Washington on August 3. At each stop on the journey, Nixon evoked “the spirit of Apollo 11.” For example, when he landed in Manila, the president said “as we think of that great venture into space, as we think of the first man setting foot on the moon, we realize the meaning that that has, clearly apart from the technical achievement, we realize that if man can reach the moon, that we can bring peace to the earth. And that should be the great lesson of that great space journey for all of us.” In Romania, Nixon added “mankind has landed on the moon. We have established a foothold in outer space.” He added “but there are goals that we have not reached here on earth. We are still building a just peace in the world. This is a work that requires the same cooperation and patience and perseverance from men of good will that it took to launch that vehicle to the moon. I believe that if human beings can reach the moon, human beings can reach an understanding with each other on the earth.” As had been planned from the start of the Nixon administration, and indeed from 1961 as President Kennedy had laid out his rationale for sending Americans to the Moon, the Apollo 11 triumph was used by President Nixon as a powerful tool in Earth-bound diplomacy.39

Missing in Richard Nixon’s communications during the Apollo 11 mis­sion and his subsequent world tour was any mention of John F. Kennedy. However, some in NASA did recognize President Kennedy’s role. As the Apollo 11 spacecraft splashed down in the Pacific Ocean, one of the video screens in the front of the mission control room at NASA’s Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston had displayed Kennedy’s 1961 challenge, while another screen noted simply: “Task Accomplished.”40

On the evening of August 10, 21 days after leaving the surface of the Moon, the Apollo 11 crew members were released from their Houston quar­antine. Early on the morning of August 13 they left Houston on what prom­ised to be an exhausting day. The crew and their wives and children were flown by Air Force Two to New York City for a ticker-tape parade. According to Armstrong’s biographer, “not even the revelry at the end of World War II or the parade for Lindbergh in 1927 matched in size” the crowd watch­ing the crew’s parade through Manhattan; one estimate of the turnout was 4 million people. Then on to Chicago, where the crowds were “even wilder.” Finally the astronauts arrived in Los Angeles for the huge dinner celebrating their mission.

Richard Nixon acted as master of ceremonies for the evening. The assem­blage included representatives of 83 countries, governors from 44 states, 14 members of the president’s cabinet (“More members of the Cabinet than are usually present at a Cabinet meeting,” joked Nixon), the chief justice of the Supreme Court, 50 members of Congress, a bevy of Hollywood stars, NASA officials and astronauts, aerospace industry executives, and the man who Nixon had defeated in the contest to be president, former Vice President Hubert Humphrey. At the culmination of the evening, Vice President Spiro Agnew presented the Medal of Freedom, the nation’s high­est civilian award, to each of the Apollo 11 crew members. Then the astro­nauts spoke. Michael Collins said “here stands one proud American, proud to be a member of the Apollo team, proud to be a citizen of the United States of America which nearly a decade ago said that it would land two men on the moon and then did so, showing along the way, to the world, both the triumphs and the tragedies—and proud to be an inhabitant of this most magnificent planet.” Buzz Aldrin added, “There are footprints on the moon. Those footprints belong to each and every one of you, to all of mankind, and they are there because of the blood, the sweat, and the tears of millions of people. These footprints are a symbol of the true human spirit.” Neil Armstrong hoped that “this is the beginning of a new era, the beginning of an era when man understands the universe around him, and the beginning of the era when man understands himself.” President Nixon closed the evening, saying “It has been my privilege in the White House, and also in other world capitals, to propose toasts to many distinguished people, to emperors, to kings, to presidents, to prime ministers. . . Tonight, this is the highest privilege I could have, to propose a toast to America’s astronauts.” Reflecting on the event the next day, Haldeman suggested that the “dinner was a truly smashing success. . . Highly emotional and patriotic evening that completely succeeded in meeting all the P’s objectives. Well worth all the work.”41

Organizing a Review of the U. S. Space Program

The incoming Nixon administration was advised that there was a need for a focused review of the future options for the U. S. civilian and national security space programs. Arthur Burns, an economist and long-time Nixon associate whom Nixon had appointed as his top domestic policy advisor, had reviewed the reports of the 17 Nixon transition task forces and had extracted from them recommendations for President Nixon’s early attention. With respect to space, Burns had identified three items:

1. Opportunities for increasing the amount and broadening the character of international cooperation in space;

2. Opportunities for significant reduction in the costs of space launches;

3. The need for a comprehensive review of the nation’s space programs.

The second and third of these items were quickly incorporated into February 4 memos from President Nixon to science adviser DuBridge. With respect to lowering launch costs, Nixon told DuBridge “I would appreciate hav­ing by February 10, 1969, your assessment of this matter, and also of the recommendation that the Department of Defense and NASA be directed to coordinate studies in this area.” With respect to the overall program review, Nixon noted that “there is general agreement that our space efforts should continue, although there are notable differences of opinion in regard to specific projects and the amount of annual funding.” Burns had pro­posed “the establishment of an interagency committee which would include you [DuBridge], the Administrator of NASA, and a senior official from the Department of Defense. The primary function of this committee would be to furnish recommendations to me [Nixon] on the scope and direction of our Post Apollo space program.” Nixon also asked for an assessment of this pro­posal by February 10.34 A similar presidential memorandum regarding the first of Burns’s recommended items for attention, international space coop­eration, was sent to Secretary of State William Rogers only on February 21.

NASA learned of the plans for the White House space review only by acci­dent. The agency’s public affairs office had noticed a news item in a Florida newspaper saying that the president had asked his science adviser to evalu­ate ways of achieving lower costs in the space program. NASA contacted DuBridge to learn what was going on. While the story had to do with the transition task force’s suggestion that it might be possible to lower launch costs, when DuBridge talked to Paine, he was confused, and began to explain to Paine his not-yet-final plans for the overall space review. He told Paine that what he had in mind was a steering committee composed of DuBridge as chairman and including Paine from NASA, either Deputy Secretary of Defense David Packard or Secretary of the Air Force Robert Seamans from the Department of Defense, and Vice President Spiro Agnew in his role as chairman of the National Aeronautics and Space Council, the high-level interagency group set up in 1958 to develop a national perspective on space issues. DuBridge suggested that after this group had examined the space program he would integrate their views and would prepare a summary docu­ment that he would present to President Nixon. Paine “dissented strongly” from this proposal, saying that “it was not proper for the President’s Special Assistant for Science and Technology to put himself in a position superior to the Vice President, the Secretary of Defense, and the Administrator of NASA, all of whom report directly to the President.” DuBridge suggested that Paine’s objections were a “question of protocol.” Paine disagreed; to him, the issue was “a basic question of executive authority, organization, and responsibility.” DuBridge closed their conversation by telling the NASA chief he would be in contact with a new proposal that he hoped would meet Paine’s objections.35

DuBridge’s apparent intent in organizing the post-Apollo review, with himself as its chair and his OST staff and the President’s Science Advisory Committee (PSAC) playing key roles, was to make sure that the review “covered all the necessary bases and got all the necessary points of view exposed for the president.” There was a concern within OST that if NASA controlled the review the science adviser “would be called upon to rubber stamp a NASA document.” Paine’s negative reaction was aimed at preserving NASA’s direct access to the president; Paine feared that what DuBridge had in mind “might result in some diminution of NASA’s authority. . . because you never want one bunch of guys to do the planning and another bunch to carry it out.” NASA was also concerned about DuBridge having the key role in the review, given his reported skepticism regarding the value of human space flight.36

After two days, DuBridge came back to Paine with a new proposal. It met many of Paine’s objections. One change was making Vice President Agnew the chair of the review. Paine asked DuBridge about “the delicate matter” of whether the White House really wanted to put Agnew in such an impor­tant role; even three weeks into the Nixon administration, it was clear that Agnew would not be part of Richard Nixon’s inner circle. DuBridge assured Paine “that he had discussed this question with both the President and the Vice President and this was their decision.” With this assurance and word that the White House did not want to wait until a permanent NASA admin­istrator was selected to begin the review, Paine agreed to DuBridge’s new proposal.37

Later that day, DuBridge sent a memorandum to the president suggesting a “Task Group” composed of the acting administrator of NASA, the secre­tary of defense, the chairman of the National Aeronautics and Space Council, and the director of the Office of Science and Technology (DuBridge him­self) to oversee the review, with Vice President Spiro Agnew in his role as Space Council head as chair of the Task Group. DuBridge still proposed to reserve to himself the key role of “staff officer” and coordinator of the staff studies that the Task Group would review. He earlier had suggested that the separate review of space launch cost reductions be folded into the general review of the space program. DuBridge noted that “there is some urgency in proceeding with this review because of the very long lead time for space proj­ects” and suggested a September 1, 1969, date for submitting the group’s recommendations. DuBridge attached to his report a draft memorandum for presidential signature.

Richard Nixon on February 13 signed that memorandum. It said that “it is necessary for me to have in the near future definitive recommendation on the direction which the U. S. space program should take in the post-Apollo period.” Thus was created what came to be known as the Space Task Group (STG). Over the next seven months, the STG would be the forum for debate over the American future in space.38

Space Task Group Debates Alternatives

If Paine’s faint hope was that the August 4 presentation, which he had intended to “substantially shake up” the STG, would lead to a decision to recommend the program he and von Braun had outlined, he was quickly disappointed. Immediately following the presentation, the STG principals began to discuss the content of their report, and it was soon clear that they were not in agreement with the NASA proposal.

Speaking after von Braun and Paine, Secretary of the Air Force Robert Seamans indicated that he was not prepared to endorse the humans to Mars goal, and in fact thought that the focus of NASA’s activities during the 1970s should be on space applications of direct service to mankind rather than on creating the capabilities needed for human exploration. Seamans had been a member of the transition task force on space headed by Charles Townes, and his comments to the STG on August 4 echoed many of the themes of that transition task force report. Before the meeting he had pre­pared a letter to the vice president outlining his views, and he used that as the basis for his remarks. He supported continued missions to the Moon, but only on a “careful step-by-step basis reviewing scientific information from one flight before going on to the next.” Seamans argued for the use of Apollo hardware for additional missions in Earth orbit, including investiga­tions of the planet’s environment, but he judged that it was premature to “commit ourselves to the development” of a large space station. Seamans, in contrast to the bullish assessment of the space shuttle recently completed by a DOD/NASA team (see chapter 9), suggested that “it is not yet clear that we have the technology” for a reusable space transportation system that would produce major reductions in the cost of transporting payloads into space, and suggested “a program to study by experimental means including orbital tests” the feasibility of such a system. With respect to human mis­sions to Mars, Seamans did not think “we should commit this Nation to a manned planetary mission, at least until the feasibility and need are more firmly established.” The funds needed for such a mission “would compete with the resources needed to provide immediate benefits from NASA’s capabilities.” Given the ambitious proposals that NASA had just presented, Seamans felt he was “sort of like a skunk at a garden party” for espousing such a “go slow” view. Agnew expressed his disappointment with Seamans’s views, suggesting that while it was difficult to argue in terms of concrete payoffs for the ambitious NASA proposal, it represented “a new vista for mankind.”35

Undersecretary of State Johnson indicated that he was sympathetic to Seamans’s perspective, and science adviser DuBridge indicated that PSAC was thinking along similar lines. DuBridge suggested that a NASA pro­gram at the $4-$5 billion level for the next twenty years could achieve many of NASA’s objectives, although on a stretched-out scale. Although he was an observer, not formally a member of the STG, budget director Robert Mayo spoke next, commenting that Seamans and DuBridge “had made his speech already.” Mayo’s comments carried particular weight, since it would be through budget decisions in the fall of 1969 that any recommen­dations that the STG might make would begin to be implemented. Mayo was quite cautious, arguing that pursuing the ambitious NASA program would make it impossible to meet the budget needs of such high priority issues as alleviating poverty and better control of the environment, in addi­tion to avoiding a budget deficit. Glenn Seaborg, another STG observer as chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, disagreed, saying that “the country can certainly afford the suggested space program and still take care of its domestic needs.” In the subsequent discussion, Mayo indicated that while he recognized “some social dividends to space,” he did not see “how we could announce an exciting new goal when we have these problems on earth that need to be solved.” Agnew and Mayo engaged in a spirited debate over national priorities that ended with the vice president calling the budget director “nothing but a cheapskate.” DuBridge suggested that the target date for an initial Mars landing be set at 1990 or even the end of the century. Paine objected, saying that such slow forward movement “would change the character of NASA.” He continued to argue that NASA needed a definite goal and decisions by President Nixon on specific things that NASA should do next. Agnew closed the discussion by suggesting that perhaps the STG should suggest a first mission to Mars in the 1980s as the culmination of a broadly based space effort.36

The STG principals and observers, without their staff present, then dis­cussed the actual content of their report, at that point due on September 1, less than a month away. They had before them a draft of the report’s sum­mary and recommendations section prepared by Russ Drew of DuBridge’s staff. Drew had identified four “major issues. . . for which additional guid­ance is requested.” These were:

1. Shall there be a single powerful theme or goal for the post-Apollo decade?

2. If so, what should that goal be, and how should it be presented?

3. Should there be a large space station program, and should it precede the availability of a low-cost transportation system?

4. Should a reusable space transportation capability be developed, and how should the program be managed?

Drew’s draft noted that “there was complete agreement [among the staff directors] on the importance of programs that are directed toward the application of the nation’s space capabilities to a wide range of problems.” There was also “general agreement” that “exploration of the solar system and beyond” should be “an important continuing broad objective of the Nation’s space program.”37

At the suggestion of the vice president, the STG members agreed that rather than present a single recommended program of human space flight, the report would provide the president with three options: [3]

• an “intermediate” program with a commitment to sending humans to Mars but with no fixed date for such an achievement, and with NASA’s budget increasing to $5-6 billion by the mid-decade;

• an “austere” program with funding level at approximately $4 billion per year, with no commitment to a Mars mission, while retaining the option of such a commitment at a later date.38

Richard Nixon Talks about the Future in Space

President Nixon traveled to the Kennedy Space Center to view the November 14 launch of Apollo 12, the second lunar landing mission; in doing so, he became the first sitting U. S. president to witness an astronaut launch. The weather for the launch was “dismal,” but Nixon, his wife Pat, and his daugh­ter Tricia sat under umbrellas as the Saturn V lifted off through rain and low clouds, generating a lightning strike that threatened to abort the mission. Nixon called the launch “spectacular.”20

NASA Administrator Paine took the opportunity of Nixon’s presence at the launch to press his case for a NASA budget at the level the agency had requested. Paine had received the BOB allowance the previous day, and made sure the president knew of his unhappiness with it. Speaking to NASA employees in the launch control center after the Apollo 12 crew— Pete Conrad, Alan Bean, and Richard Gordon—were safely in orbit, Nixon commented on his reaction to seeing the launch in person. He compared it to seeing a football game live rather than on television, because “it is a sense of not just the sight and the picture but of feeling it—feeling the great experience of all that is happening.” Then, in his first public comments on the space program in the two months since the STG report was submitted, Nixon told the crowd

You can be assured that in Dr. Paine and his colleagues you have men who are dedicated to this program, who are making the case for it, making the case for it as against other national priorities and making it very effectively.

I leaned in the direction of the program before. After hearing what they have to say with regard to our future plans, I must say that I lean even more in that direction.

I realize that within those of the program, between scientists and engi­neers and others, there are different attitudes as to what the emphasis should be, whether we should emphasize more far exploration or more in taking the knowledge we have already acquired in making practical applications of it.

All of these matters have been brought to my attention. I can assure you that every side is getting a hearing. We want to have a balanced program, but, most important, we are going forward. America, the United States, is first in space. We are proud to be first in space. We don’t say that in any jingoistic way.

We say it because, as Americans, we want to give the people of this country, in particular our young people, the feeling that here is an area that we can concentrate on a positive goal.21

That the president was so aware of the arguments about the future direc­tion of the NASA program may have come as a surprise to Paine; the NASA chief must have been heartened by Nixon’s words. But those words turned out to be much more rhetoric designed to reassure the NASA workforce than a reflection of Nixon’s actual attitude toward future space efforts. That attitude was soon to be reflected in Nixon’s budget decisions.