Richard Nixon has frequently been identified as the individual who decided to truncate the Apollo program. As the above account shows, this is not fully the case. Nixon’s personal attitude toward the desirable number of Apollo flights was not consistent. In January 1970, Nixon and his advisors approved a NASA FY1971 budget that anticipated seven more Apollo flights, even though the president had in early December 1969 expressed skepticism regarding “the need to go to the Moon six more times” and “didn’t care about building more [Apollo] hardware.” After the April 1970 Apollo 13 accident, which had a strong emotional impact on Nixon, the president indicated that the Apollo program would continue as planned. It was a Nixon decision to hold NASA to the tightly constrained budget that forced a choice between existing missions and getting started on future programs. But it was the NASA leadership that proposed not flying all remaining Apollo missions. In June, reflecting on NASA’s future outlook, George Low had even contemplated canceling four, rather than just two, of the remaining six Apollo flights. He noted that “if we make a major program change like this, we will attribute it to the budgetary situation and to the manpower situation in NASA, and not to the fact that it may programmatically also make more sense.”11 The United States decided in 1970 to retreat from exploring the Moon; that decision had several parents, not just Richard Nixon.
Category After Apollo?
As OMB began its review of the NASA budget, Low set out on an intense effort through both face-to-face meetings and letters to communicate the NASA story, both inside the agency and to anyone outside the space agency who might offer support to NASA’s plans. One of those targeted by Low was William Pickering, the long-time director of the NASA-affiliated Jet Propulsion Laboratory of the California Institute of Technology; Pickering had expressed some skepticism regarding whether NASA was indeed prepared
to begin shuttle development. Low suggested to Pickering that “the technology for the shuttle appears to be as well or better in hand than the technology was for the Apollo lunar mission when that program got started.” Low in 1961 had been in charge of human space flight at NASA headquarters and had prepared a key report saying that there were no technological barriers to a lunar landing mission.9
One of the meetings Low organized as he explained the NASA budget request was with science advisor Ed David and his space staff person Russ Drew. Low was quite surprised to discover that David and Drew were “very much opposed to Skylab.” The two argued that the only reason for getting experience with long-duration space flight was preparing to send astronauts to Mars, and, since there was no intent in a relevant time frame of undertaking a Mars mission, there was no need for Skylab. Low found it “inconceivable” that “there would be serious consideration given to the cancellation of Skylab,” given all the money that had already been spent on the program. Following this meeting, Low wrote a letter to David discussing the relative priority of Skylab and Apollo. With respect to Apollo, Low was rather guarded, reflecting his own concerns about additional Apollo missions, saying that although the final four Apollo missions would increase scientific understanding of the Earth-Moon system, the missions “would in another sense be dead-ended. No new capabilities or techniques would be explored that could be further exploited. . . no major new opportunities for leadership and prestige would likely accrue; and the potential of Apollo for international cooperation is limited.” By contrast, with respect to Skylab “there has been no return from considerable investment to date. . . We simply have no data on man’s ability to live and work in space for long periods of time.” Low suggested that “on balance, the weight of evidence seems to favor Skylab over Apollo if a choice must be made.”10
One of the other people to whom Low wrote in this period was national security advisor Henry Kissinger. Kissinger and his staff had not gotten deeply involved in NASA-related decisions, with the exception of monitoring the discussions in 1969 and 1970 between NASA and European space officials about possible European participation in the U. S. post-Apollo program. Low pointed out to Kissinger that, given the NASA decision to defer space station development, the space shuttle program provided the only opportunity for international participation in human space flight, something that the president wanted. He hoped that Kissinger would support a decision to begin shuttle development in FY1972, since without “forward motion on the space shuttle system. . . the prospects for the major advance in international cooperation that we have hoped for will dim to the vanishing point.” The letter had little impact; Kissinger did not get involved in the budget
Low also tried several times in October to set up a meeting with Peter Flanigan, but Flanigan “cancelled each time because of other commitments.” In comparison to his active role in the deliberations that had led to the NASA budget decisions a year earlier, Flanigan was noticeably missing from the FY1972 discussions. The OMB was approaching its review of the NASA budget request in a much more orderly fashion than had been the case in late 1969 and trusted Nixon assistants were in charge of the budget process. In addition, the Domestic Council was monitoring space options. Flanigan may have felt no need to intervene in the budget process to make sure that the president’s priorities were heeded.12
NASA’s informal contacts with the OMB staff working under Don Rice had alerted it to the areas where OMB was considering NASA budget reductions. Trying to preempt such cuts, Low wrote Weinberger on October 28, saying that he wanted to make “especially sure” that several elements in the NASA budget request were “clearly understood and given careful consideration.” Low gave particular emphasis to the reasons for going ahead with the space shuttle, saying that shuttle development “can be justified as a versatile and economical system for placing unmanned civil and military satellites in orbit, entirely apart from its role in conducting or supporting manned missions.” This was the newly developed NASA argument as the agency recognized that the shuttle now had to be justified as a launch and orbital operations vehicle, absent a space station to service. Low added what would turn out to be a winning argument: “With the shuttle the U. S. can have a continuing program of manned space flight. . . without a commitment to a major new manned mission goal.” Recognizing that the Nixon administration had no intention of setting out an Apollo-like goal for the post-Apollo space program, NASA was basically arguing that the country could have, almost “for free,” a continued human space flight program by approving a system justified by reducing the costs of space launch and in-orbit operations, which incidentally happened to be operated by a human crew and could carry humans as passengers.13
A final NASA move in making the case for shuttle approval was to prepare for OMB Director George Shultz a paper “from a national—not just a NASA—standpoint of the need for and importance of a continuing program of manned space flight.” Shultz was reputed to be skeptical about the value of humans in space, and the NASA paper was aimed at countering that skepticism. In his cover letter, Low emphasized “that manned flight to Mars is not a goal or justification of the program that NASA is recommending for the 1970’s. Skylab and the space shuttle, for example, are necessary elements of the United States space program without a manned Mars mission.” This statement was intended to rebut the claims of Congressional critics of the two programs such as Senators William Proxmire and Walter Mondale and Representative Joseph Karth, who had linked the station and shuttle in Congressional debates to preparing to send astronauts to Mars. Karth’s attempt to cut station and shuttle funds from the NASA FY1971 budget had failed, but only on the basis of a 54-54 tie vote.
The 11-page NASA paper discussed both “the role of manned space flight as a means for accomplishing objectives in space” and “the importance of manned space flight to the United States as an end in itself.” With respect to the former role, the paper stressed that the space shuttle was “not a ‘manned spacecraftit is a space transportation system” that “would bring about a fundamental change in space operations and result in very substantial cost reductions.” With respect to the latter role, the paper argued for “acceptance of manned exploration of space as an important and continuing goal in its own right” one which “the United States, as a great nation, should continue” and “take a leading role.” It suggested that “manned space flight will continue to be the best and perhaps the only arena of worldwide interest where the United States can demonstrate at the same time technological strength, peaceful intentions, power without confrontation, and the openness of a free society.”14