Category After Apollo?

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.

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.