Category After Apollo?

Space Station Exits the Stage

However, the shuttle-based approach to keeping space station development alive as an immediate post-Apollo prospect had a short lifetime. The NASA leadership in mid-July 1970 met to formulate the agency’s program for the next five to ten years. They took into account the president’s March space statement, the funding the agency would request in its FY1972 budget submission, due on September 30, and an estimate of the budget it could expect in the subsequent few years. A key result of these discussions was a decision to return the space station to preliminary study status rather than seek FY1972 approval to begin its detailed design and development. This decision effectively postponed the station for a number of years. Associate Administrator for Manned Space Flight Dale Myers, who had joined NASA in January 1970 as George Mueller’s successor, told Low that he was “mov­ing out to the shuttle first because. . . an interim space station, without a proper logistics system, would be dead-ended.” Low agreed, recognizing that “a space station without a shuttle makes no sense at all. . . a shuttle with­out a space station does.”4

This was a momentous choice. It meant that NASA would abandon its plan for simultaneous development of the station and shuttle that had been at the heart of its post-Apollo aspirations; rather, NASA would first seek approval to develop the space shuttle, postponing station development until after the shuttle began flying later in the 1970s. It also meant that the shut­tle would have to be sold as a general-purpose, lower-cost launch system and as the way of keeping astronauts flying in space, not as a logistics vehicle for a space station, its original rationale.

Even with the decision to give shuttle schedule priority vis-a-vis the station, the link between the space shuttle and an eventual space station remained unbreakable; in NASA’s view, one of the highest priority require­ments driving space shuttle design would be its ability to launch modules large enough to be assembled into a viable space station. NASA told the White House as it submitted its budget request in September 1970 that “we have made a major decision to defer development of a space station. . . to a later time and to orient the space station studies we will continue in FY1972 toward modular systems that can be launched as well as serviced by the space shuttle.”5 The space station for the time being might be postponed, but it would not be forgotten.

The Space Shuttle Takes Center Stage

Based on the decisions made during the previous months, the human space flight program that NASA presented to the White House in September 1970 looked very different from the one put forward a year earlier. NASA hoped that this revised program, focused on beginning to develop the space shut­tle, would be seen as sufficiently responsive to White House budgetary and program priorities to gain Richard Nixon’s approval.

By shutting down the Saturn V and Apollo spacecraft production lines and by returning the space station to preliminary study status, NASA was in effect giving the Nixon administration only one alternative if there was to be a continuing U. S. human space flight program after the mid-1970s—to approve development of the NASA-designed space shuttle. This was a situ­ation unacceptable to the new space actors in the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and the Office of Science and Technology (OST); they would push NASA over the remainder of 1970 and particularly during 1971 to come up with alternative human space flight proposals or, at a minimum, alternatives to NASA’s preferred shuttle design. These two organizations operated under the premise that President Nixon did not want to termi­nate U. S. human space flights, and thus pushed to find a way of continuing such flights that both made technical sense and also could be carried out in the context of a modest NASA budget, while also maintaining a balance between the human space flight effort and robotic science and application activities. Tensions between OMB and OST on one hand and NASA on the other would be the axis of space policy debates in coming months.

With White House failure to find a successor to Tom Paine, there was a de facto realization that George Low would serve as NASA’s acting administrator as the NASA budget was being decided during the fall of 1970. Compared to Paine’s call for NASA to be a “swashbuckling” organization, Low’s thoughts as he became the agency’s top official were much more somber.

In the 1960’s, the country was looking outward, and the national priorities included the Apollo goal, because this would establish clearly in our minds and in the minds of the world technological leadership by the United States. . . The

situation in the beginning of the 1970’s is very different. We are now an intro­spective nation. We will do only those things that help ourselves and help

ourselves at an early date.1

This rather dour perspective would color Low’s actions as he sought a per­suasive rationale to convince the White House to approve NASA’s reduced post-Apollo ambitions.

Low’s first responsibility as acting administrator was finalizing NASA’s budget request for Fiscal Year (FY) 1972, due at OMB on September 30. The prospects for getting OMB approval to begin shuttle development in FY 1972, which would begin on July 1, 1971, were very much on Low’s mind as the NASA budget request was prepared: “If we do not get a firm go-ahead for the shuttle this year, we will not have a viable space program in the middle 1970’s. . . The question, then, is ‘how do we approach OMB and the White House to get them to give us $500-$600 million more than they would like to approve?’”2

It would turn out that there was no positive answer to this question. Even though the process by which decisions were made on NASA’s FY1972 budget was much more orderly than the chaotic approach of a year earlier, NASA did not get the definitive commitment to the shuttle it was seeking, In addition, there was some last-minute drama. There was serious thought given to canceling Skylab, NASA’s experimental space station. A new con­sideration—the possibility that aerospace unemployment in areas that could affect President Nixon’s reelection prospects in 1972—became part of the discussion about NASA’s future, and was a major factor in the ultimate decision to proceed with Skylab. In addition, Nixon, shaken by the Apollo 13 accident, personally tried to cancel the final lunar mission, Apollo 17, as excessively risky, but was persuaded not to follow through on that action. By the time final budget decisions were made in early January 1971, NASA’s post-Apollo future remained uncertain, although there were some positive signs that a space shuttle would eventually gain White House endorsement.