Category After Apollo?

A Very Optimistic Assessment of Potential Shuttle Missions

The “Joint DOD/NASA Study of Space Transportation Systems” was sub­mitted to the STG on June 16, 1969. The three-volume report was (and still is) classified “Secret.” A separate “Summary Report” shared the same classi­fication for 30 years, but was declassified in 1999; the following information is extracted from that declassified document.9

The study team provided an extremely positive assessment of the poten­tials of the space shuttle and reusable upper stages to carry payloads from the shuttle to higher orbits; the combination was called the Space Transportation System (STS). Its report concluded that “the development of an STS is needed to provide a major reduction in operating costs and an increased capability for national space missions.”

Shuttle Economics

NASA from 1969 on had stressed that the overriding objective of the shuttle program was to lower the cost of space launch and operations. By empha­sizing the lower cost aspect of shuttle use rather than the new capabilities it would provide and its role in maintaining a human presence in space, NASA left itself open to having the shuttle evaluated on economic grounds. Indeed, the Bureau of the Budget (BOB) in March 1970 had asked: “Is full scale development of a new launch system to reduce the cost of payload in orbit economically justifiable?” That question set in motion a process of eco­nomic analysis that would parallel shuttle technical studies throughout 1970 and 1971. The impact of the economic analyses would come to be seen, in George Low’s words, as “important and unfortunate.”34

In his cover letter transmitting this question, BOB Director Robert Mayo told NASA to use a 10 percent “discount rate” in comparing future benefits of the shuttle program with the current investment required to obtain them and with other uses of that amount of funds.35 One way of looking at the discount rate is as representing the equivalent for a government program of the interest that a private investment would have to earn in order to be justified. The discount rate used determined how much in future benefits was required to justify a current investment. A 10 percent discount rate was associated with a particularly risky government program, one with uncertain future benefits; this was the category in which BOB placed the space shuttle program.

Critical to showing a high level of future benefits from the space shuttle was a high flight rate, since each shuttle flight would save money compared to the use of an expendable launch vehicle to launch the same mission. Additional savings would also come from the reduced costs of payloads for many missions. Thus it soon became evident that to justify the shuttle in economic terms, there had to be very active U. S. civilian and national security space programs in the 1980s, and the shuttle would have to launch essentially all flights in those programs. The shuttle would also have to be complemented by a space tug so that the combination could carry out the many missions to geosynchronous and other high orbits. Thus developing a plausible “mission model” for future space activities was a key starting point for an economic analysis; the benefits from flying the missions in that model, when compared with a forecast of the one-time costs required to develop a shuttle and the anticipated lower costs of operating it, would allow a judg­ment of whether the shuttle was a justifiable investment at the 10-percent discount rate.

What NASA Did Not Know

As NASA submitted its budget request, it did not know that President Nixon had already made a tentative decision that NASA’s budget for FY1973 would be in the $3.3-$3.4 billion range, with a strong bias toward approving space shuttle development. That decision originated with OMB Deputy Director Cap Weinberger and had been approved by the president. But that informa­tion had not been communicated to the White House technical and budget staffs, much less to NASA, and thus had little impact on NASA’s interactions with OMB and OST over the next four months.

Weinberger had discovered as he met with Fletcher on August 5 that the budget target for NASA that had been recommended by his staff would mean the eventual end of the U. S. human space flight program. This was not an acceptable option to Weinberger, and on August 12 he had sent a thoughtful memorandum to President Nixon. That memorandum is worth quoting at some length.

Present tentative plans call for major reductions or change in NASA, by elimi­nating the last two Apollo flights (16 and 17), and eliminating or sharply

reducing the balance of the Manned Space Program (Skylab and Space Shuttle)

and many remaining NASA programs.

I believe this would be a mistake.

1. The real reason for sharp reductions in the NASA budget is that NASA is entirely in the 28% of the budget that is controllable. In short we cut it because it is cuttable, not because it is doing a bad job or an unnecessary one.

2. We are being driven, by the uncontrollable items, to spend more and more on programs that offer no hope for the future: Model Cities, OEO [Office of Employment Opportunity], Welfare, interest on the National Debt, unemployment compensation, Medicare, etc. Of course, some of these have to be continued, in one form or another, but essentially they are pro­grams, not of our choice, designed to repair mistakes of the past, not of our making.

3. We do need to reduce the budget, in my opinion, but we should not make all our reduction decisions on the basis of what is reducible, rather than on the merits of individual programs.

4. There is real merit to the future of NASA, and its proposed programs. The Space Shuttle and NERVA particularly offer the opportunity, among other things, to secure substantial scientific fall-out for the civilian economy at the same time that large numbers of valuable (and hard-to-employ – elsewhere) scientists and technicians are kept at work. . . It is very difficult to re-assemble the NASA teams should it be decided later, after major stop­pages, to re-start some of the long-range programs.

5. Recent Apollo flights have been very successful from all points of view. Most important is the fact that they give the American people a much needed lift in spirit (and the people of the world an equally needed look at American superiority). Announcement now, or very shortly, that we were cancelling Apollo 16 and 17 . . . would have a very bad effect, coming so soon after Apollo 15’s triumph. It would be confirming, in some respects, a belief that I fear is gaining credence at home and abroad: that our best years are behind us, that we are turning inward, reducing our defense commitments, and voluntarily starting to give up our super-power status, and our desire to maintain our world superiority. America should be able to afford something besides increased welfare, programs to repair our cit­ies, or Appalachian relief and the like.

6. I do not propose that we necessarily fund all NASA seeks—only that if we decide to eliminate Apollo 16 and 17, that we couple any announcement to that effect with announcements that we are going to fund space shuttles, NERVA, or other major, future NASA activities.

7. I believe I can find enough reductions in other programs to pay for con­tinuing NASA at generally the $3.3-$3.4 billion level.27

Richard Nixon read Weinberger’s memorandum and wrote on it a cryptic message, “I agree with Cap.” He also wrote “OK” next to point 7. What exactly he meant by these notations was not clear. A month later, one of Haldeman’s staff provided some clarification, telling OMB Director Shultz that the “the President read with interest and agreed with Mr. Weinberger’s memorandum of August 12, 1971, on the subject of the future of NASA. Further, the President approved Mr. Weinberger’s plan to find enough reductions in other programs to pay for NASA at generally the 3.3-3.4 bil­lion dollar level.”28

If the NASA leadership had known of Weinberger’s memorandum and Nixon’s response, they likely would have been much less nervous about the outcome of NASA’s negotiations with OMB over the FY1973 budget. The Weinberger memorandum represented one of several points in 1971 when it could be said that a decision to approve space shuttle development had been made. But if there was such a decision made on the basis of the memo, it was to approve the idea of a space shuttle, not a specific shuttle design. NASA in its budget submission left itself vulnerable to continued debate over what shuttle design merited presidential approval by its admission that it would take another six months to make the configuration choice. That debate was not long in coming.

NASA Makes Its Best Case

By late November, there was increasing pressure to reach some sort of deci­sion with respect to the space shuttle. A final budget decision needed to be made in time for it to be reflected in the president’s FY1973 budget request; the text of that request had to go to the printers in early January. NASA decided to make as strong as possible a case that its concept of the shuttle deserved to be approved.

The sense of urgency in getting the NASA case before White House deci­sion makers was reinforced by reports of the initial decisions on the NASA FY1973 budget. Anders had attended a meeting at which the OMB space staff had made some tentative decisions on the NASA budget based on the discussions at the director’s review; he relayed this information to Low, as usual on a very confidential basis. He told Low that the staff was recom­mending cancelation of Apollo 16 and 17 “because there is no public inter­est.” The fact of President Nixon’s desire to cancel the missions was still not widely known. The OMB staff was recommending, rather than the space shuttle, a small glider, and, to make up for the employment losses from the Apollo cancelations and not starting an ambitious shuttle program, “three gap-filler missions” using surplus Apollo hardware. Marshall Space Flight Center was to be closed in 1974 and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in 1975. Anders also had been “taking the pulse of those in the Executive Branch involved with the NASA program”; that pulse was “rapidly changing with time.” He perceived “two opposing forces.” One wanted “to cut NASA back to a much smaller program”; the other wanted “not to increase unemploy­ment in the aerospace industry.” He also suggested that there was “a faction in the Executive Branch that would like to cut $1 billion out of the NASA program” to start the new technology initiatives, but that “Magruder is not among those who want to cut back on space.”42 All of this added up to NASA seeing itself in a very precarious position.

Getting Close

On the afternoon of December 29, 1971, Fletcher and Low met with George Shultz, Cap Weinberger, and Don Rice from OMB, Peter Flanigan and Jonathan Rose from the White House, and science adviser Ed David to present NASA’s proposal of how best to proceed with respect to the space shuttle. A decision was needed soon; the president’s budget message was due to go to the printer in the first week of January, and it would have to contain some indication of the fate of the space shuttle program.

Fletcher on the morning of the meeting sent to Weinberger a letter reflecting the decisions reached within NASA in the past few days. The letter said: “We have concluded that the full capability 15 x 60′ 65,000# payload shuttle still represents a ‘best buy’ and in ordinary times should be developed. However, in recognition of the extremely severe near-term budgetary problems, we are recommending a somewhat smaller vehicle—one with a 14 x 45’—45,000# payload capability, at a somewhat reduced overall cost.” The letter added “this is the smallest vehicle we can still consider to be useful for manned flight as well as a variety of unmanned payloads.” NASA gave highest priority to retain­ing a shuttle configuration that was large and powerful enough to eventually launch components of a space station, and the 14 x 45 foot shuttle it was now recommending had that capability, even though it would not be able to launch the largest intelligence satellites or astronomical observatories.

The Fletcher letter also reported NASA’s assessment of the shuttle design suggested by OMB, saying that “we have not been able to meet” the objec­tives of a development cost of less than $4 billion and a cost per flight of less than $5 million. NASA noted that the 30-foot payload bay length sug­gested by OMB “eliminates nearly all DOD payloads, some important space science payloads, most application payloads, all planetary payloads, and useful manned modules.” Attached to the letter was a table (reproduced on next page) showing the results of NASA’s evaluation of various shuttle configurations.

The letter said that “the question of a liquid as opposed to a solid booster is not yet completely settled—there are some open technical questions” and “the differences in operating costs [for the two boosters] have not yet been determined with accuracy.” For these reasons, NASA recommended that the choice among booster options should be deferred for two months to allow additional study.

NASA also asked for a “funding contingency,” saying that “it is our inten­tion to manage the program to bring it in” at the costs spelled out in the

Various Shuttle Options Presented by NASA to the White House, December 29, 1971

Payload bay size

(foot)

10 x 30

12 x 40

14 x 45

14 x 50

15 x 65

Payload weight (pounds)

30,000

30,000

45,000

65,000

65,000

Development cost (billions)

4.7

4.9

5.0

5.2

5.5

Operating cost (millions)

6.6

7.0

7.5

7.6

7.7

Payload costs ($/pound)

220

223

167

115

118

Fletcher letter. NASA added “nevertheless, we believe that we should include a contingency against future cost growths due to technical problems. . . We believe a 20% contingency would be appropriate. . . Approval of a $5 billion program [for the 14 x 45′ orbiter] would thus constitute a commitment by NASA to make every effort to produce the desired system for under $5 bil­lion, but in no case more than $6 billion.”

Finally, the letter argued that it was time for “a decision to proceed with full shuttle development” to be made. “Further delays would not produce significant new results,” and “additional delays would have many unsettling effects. . . There is a great deal to be gained, and nothing to be lost, by mak­ing a decision to proceed now.”3

Going into the meeting, Fletcher and Low were uncertain of its outcome; they even agreed in advance that they could accept a shuttle as small as one with a14 x 40′ payload bay and 40,000 pound lift capability, but that anything smaller “would require a Presidential decision.” At the meeting, “the prin­cipal negative guy, once again, was Don Rice who indicated that he did not believe NASA’s figures or the figures presented to us or to him by our contrac­tors.” However, “during the meeting Shultz looked at the facts and figures and decided that really the only thing that makes any sense, as NASA had said all along, is the 15 x 60’—65,000 lb. Shuttle capability.” Fletcher recalled that “at the end of the meeting, George said, well, it’s a pretty easy decision. We’ll go for the 60-foot one. We had George saying that and no one arguing with him.”4

Low noted that “no decision was made in the meeting,” but added that “Fletcher and I were fairly confident that our recommendation of the 14 x 45′ 45,000 lb. Shuttle would be accepted as a minimum and that even the full capability [shuttle] might still be accepted.” A second senior-level meet­ing was scheduled for Monday, January 3, 1972, after the New Year’s week­end, to make the final decision.5

The Impact of the Nixon Space Doctrine

The proposition that the space program should not be based on “a series of separate leaps, each requiring a massive concentration of energy and will and accomplished on a crash timetable,” has had a continuing impact on presidential decisions on the space program. President Jimmy Carter in 1978 approved a space policy statement that explicitly echoed the Nixon declara­tion; it said “our space policy will become more evolutionary rather than centering on a single, massive engineering feat.”3 Even though most presi­dents since Richard Nixon have proposed some type of major new space development and in most cases provided a timetable for its achievement, in none of those proposals was the undertaking to be carried out on a “crash” basis, and certainly none were accompanied by a “massive concentration of energy and will,” not to mention adequate financial resources.

The Nixon decision that “space expenditures must take their proper place within a rigorous system of national priorities” has had an even more last­ing impact on the U. S. space program. At the peak of the Apollo buildup in 1966, the NASA budget comprised nearly 4.4 percent of federal spending overall and 19 percent of discretionary nondefense federal spending. (The

NASA share of the federal budget is most frequently cited in terms of a percentage of the overall budget. Given the inexorable growth of the por­tion of the budget devoted to mandatory entitlements, it seems more use­ful to discuss the NASA budget in terms of its share of the discretionary nondefense budget, since it is in that realm that space spending competes with other discretionary government programs.) As President Lyndon B. Johnson refused to approve any of NASA’s post-Apollo proposals, NASA’s budget share quickly began to decline from its Apollo high point; by the time Richard Nixon became president the NASA budget had dropped to just above 8 percent of discretionary nondefense spending. The early Nixon space decisions continued this trend; in Fiscal Year 1973, the budget in which space shuttle approval was first reflected, the NASA discretionary budget share was approximately 6 percent and on a downward trajectory. While it was under Lyndon Johnson rather than any of his successors that the biggest percentage reduction in NASA’s budget share occurred, that reduction came from deferring a decision on what to do in space after Apollo, not on the basis of a specific decision to lower the space program’s priority. By contrast, Richard Nixon consciously made that crucial decision—to reduce NASA’s priority rather than assign it new, expensive programs and thus continuing rather than reversing the decline in NASA’s budget share. The NASA por­tion of discretionary nondefense spending vacillated between 6 and 4 per­cent between 1977 and 2002 and between 4 and 3 percent since. By any measure, the space program has not done well in competition for budget resources; in fact, compared to other government programs, it has declined in priority over the past 40 years.4

The consequences of this declining share of the overall discretionary bud­get have been clear to most observers. For example, the Columbia Accident Investigation Board in 2003 observed that “NASA has had to participate in the give and take of the normal political process in order to obtain the resources needed to carry out its programs.” In this give and take, “NASA has usually failed to receive budget support consistent with its ambitions. The result. . . is an organization straining to do too much with too little.”5

Space Shuttle Missions

The report identified four “basic mission areas”:

1. Satellite placement, servicing, and recovery. In this mission area, a shuttle would deliver large satellites to low Earth orbit. Such satellites could be checked out in orbit before being deployed, and a future shuttle mission could rendezvous with a satellite “to replace non-operating or outdated” equipment or to return the satellite to Earth for refurbishment.

2. Launch of propulsive stages, propellants and payloads for high energy mis­sions. In this mission area, a shuttle would launch payloads destined for transfer from low Earth orbit to synchronous orbit or other destinations requiring additional propulsion. The shuttle would carry another new system, known as an “orbit-to-orbit shuttle” or “space tug,” to carry out such transfers.

3. Space station/space base logistical support. In this mission area, tied to NASA’s ambitious post-Apollo plans, the space shuttle would serve as a logistics system “capable of routinely transporting numbers of per­sonnel and significant amount of discretionary cargo to and from low earth orbit.” For example, “to sustain operation of a 50-man space base would require on the order of 70,000 pounds of cargo and passengers every three months.” The shuttle could also return to Earth “significant amounts of return cargo such as tapes, film, and processed material.”

4. Short-duration orbital missions. This was the most operationally challeng­ing type of shuttle mission. In purposely opaque language the report noted that the space shuttle could make possible “special purpose orbital missions of a unique nature,” lasting from just one orbit up to seven days, to support “programs of space systems operations, earth sensing or sky viewing.” A shuttle could also place in orbit “self-contained mis­sion modules which possessed their own crews to operate specific mission equipment.” Such modules could either operate from within the shuttle’s payload bay or be left in orbit to be recovered and returned to Earth on a subsequent shuttle flight.

The report noted that “in times of crisis our national leadership requires accurate information for decisions. This information could be crucial to the survival of the United States. The possible locations of crises are worldwide: Southeast Asia, Korea, the Middle East, and Czechoslovakia are but cur­rent examples.” In 1969, the only way that national decision makers could get rapid photographic evidence of a situation in a far away crisis area was through an overflight by the U-2 or supersonic SR-71 spy planes, an action that was a violation of national sovereignty and subject to possible intercep­tion. The NRO was in 1969 operating a photo-intelligence surveillance sat­ellite called Corona and another, higher resolution satellite called Gambit, but those two systems recorded images on photographic film. That film was returned to Earth in a capsule dropped from orbit and recovered by a waiting aircraft, and it could take from several days to weeks for the final film product to reach the desks of decision makers.10 The DOD/NASA report suggested that a “mission-equipped” shuttle “could return accurate information on a crisis located anywhere in the world or an assessment of an attack to national leaders within the shortest time from launch.” To carry out such a mission, the report discussed “a single-pass [one orbit] request surveillance mission with return to Washington, DC.” That mission would require a cross-range capability of 1,400 nm. Such a space flight would not be a violation of sov­ereignty according to the practice recognized by the United States and the

Soviet Union since the early 1960s and formalized in the 1967 Outer Space Treaty—that outer space was not subject to national sovereignty. This prac­tice had been interpreted to mean that flying over a particular nation while in outer space was not a violation of its sovereignty.

Another short duration mission possibility mentioned in the report was “the interception and inspection of objects in space.” The report noted that “future unknown satellites could operate for days or weeks, posing a threat ranging from intelligence gathering to delivery of a nuclear weapon,” and suggested that “a national ability to intercept, inspect, and determine the purpose of (as well as destroy, if necessary) unknown satellites is vital.”11

The DOD/NASA report projected a shuttle flight rate between 1975 and 1985 of 30 to 70 flights per year, based on “only those flights required for existing, approved, or high priority planned missions.” Expanding the “mission model” to include flights related to post-Apollo lunar exploration by NASA and other prospective DOD missions could increase the flight rate to 140 missions per year. At such flight rates, the cost of launching a payload to low Earth orbit, the report suggested, could be reduced from approximately $800 per pound to $50-$100 per pound; a similar reduction from $10,000 per pound to less than $500 per pound for payloads going to synchronous orbit was forecast. The report predicted additional cost savings from “major improvements in payload environment, methods of operations, and through return of payload from orbit,” and noted that “the full poten­tial” of a space shuttle “can only be realized if it is indeed a means of low cost transportation.”12

The report concluded that shuttle development “does not require a break­through in technology.” Costs of developing the shuttle designs then being considered were estimated to be between $4 and $6 billion. All designs examined had a 15 x 60 foot payload bay and would be able to carry 50,000 pounds to a 100 nm polar orbit (an orbit that would go from south to north, crossing over or near the Earth’s poles) after being launched from California. The vehicle would also be able to return a heavy payload from orbit, allow­ing satellite refurbishment and re-launch. The 15-foot width of the payload bay was required for “space station logistics support, propulsive stages, and satellites such as. . . surveillance systems.” The 60-foot length of the pay­load bay was required for “ocean surveillance spacecraft, stage-plus-payloads for synchronous missions, or two medium altitude surveillance satellites.” A cross-range capability of 1,500 nm was “the selected design value.”13

The report concluded by noting that “a fully reusable system has inherent advantages compared to a partially reusable system.” It added that “unless the stage and one-half partially reusable system [an option that at that time was being considered during the NASA Phase A studies and would in 1971 be adopted as the final shuttle design] is found to have substantial advan­tage in cost, schedule, or reduction in technical risk, a fully reusable system should be selected.”14

The extremely optimistic—indeed, unrealistic—tone of the DOD/NASA report, with its projection of a high space flight rate and the ability to launch on demand and its conclusion that there were no technological barriers to designing a space shuttle that would launch anticipated missions at a major reduction in cost while at the same time offering unique capabilities for new missions, set the baseline for the policy-level discussions of the space shuttle over the next several years. In a period of a few months in early 1969, the shuttle concept had expanded from being only a supply vehicle for a space sta­tion, to be launched 8 to 12 times a year, to a system that could launch up to 140 times a year, carrying out all government space missions. This very high launch rate (almost three launches per week!) was well beyond the bounds of realism, but suggests the aspirations of some of those involved in the DOD/ NASA study. The projected low cost of shuttle operations remained a major selling point, and the validity of the report’s call for a large payload bay and substantial cross-range were key issues in the debate over shuttle approval. Thus the June 1969 DOD/NASA report marked a key milestone in the space shuttle decision process.

Initial Economic Studies

NASA from the time it received the BOB letter asking for a study of shuttle economics had planned to have that study carried out by an outside con­tractor with impeccable economic credentials. Tom Paine decided that “no one would believe NASA’s results.” There was, however, an interim in-house NASA study managed by Robert Lindley of the Office of Manned Space Flight. Lindley had been one of the first people within NASA to suggest that “payload effects”—the cost savings from reusing or repairing satellites and initially designing them for the less demanding characteristics of a shuttle launch—might be as important a benefit from shuttle development as lower launch costs. In terms of overall space program costs, payload development accounted for 80 percent of total costs; launch, only 20 percent, and thus lowering payload costs could have a greater impact than lowering launch costs. Lindley’s study produced positive results, but Paine was correct. It had little credibility when it was submitted to the new Office of Management and Budget (OMB) in August 1970.

NASA selected Mathematica, Inc. of Princeton, NJ to lead an indepen­dent study of shuttle economics. Mathematica had been founded by presti­gious economist Oskar Morgenstern of the Institute for Advanced Studies; there he had worked with mathematician John von Neumann to develop game theory, an approach to analyzing situations in which actors with con­flicting interests pursue independent courses of action. Morgenstern had founded Mathematica to pursue practical applications of this approach. At

Mathematica, a young Austrian-born economist named Klaus Heiss was put in charge of the space shuttle study. Mathematica was supported in its analytic efforts by the Aerospace Corporation, which developed various mission and cost models, and Lockheed, which performed technical analy­ses of payload effects. The first meeting among Mathematica, NASA, and OMB took place on July 9, 1970; the firm’s contract was for an 11-month study to be completed at the same time as the shuttle Phase B studies in June 1971.36

Debating a Shuttle Decision

^With the September 30, 1971, submission of NASA’s Fiscal Year (FY) 1973 budget request to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), the process that would most likely result in an up-or-down decision on approving space shuttle development or pursuing some less ambitious post-Apollo human space flight program entered its final stage. Even though Cap Weinberger had suggested in his August 12 memo that the NASA budget should be set at a level that would allow the beginning of space shuttle development and President Nixon had indicated “I agree with Cap,” that news had not been communicated to lower levels in the White House or to NASA. The result was a fragmented and contentious debate over shuttle approval.

Over the next three months, as NASA’s Jim Fletcher and George Low sought support in the national security community and the aerospace indus­try for NASA’s position that a “full capability” shuttle orbiter able to launch all U. S. payloads should be approved for development, OMB’s Rice and his staff were joined by science adviser Ed David, his Office of Science and Technology (OST) staff, and David’s advisory Flax committee in opposition to an ambitious space shuttle program. Others in the Executive Office of the President, such as Tom Whitehead, now at the Office of Telecommunications Policy, Bill Anders at the Space Council, and Peter Flanigan and his assistant Jonathan Rose in the White House, tried to mediate the conflict between NASA and OMB/OST and to move the process toward a productive out­come.

The debate over what should be the next step in human space flight, although conducted in the context of decisions with respect to the president’s FY1973 budget proposal, was not intimately tied to NASA’s budget level for that year, since NASA had requested only $228 million for the space shuttle in its budget submission. Rather, it was fundamentally about what kind of space program the United States would carry out in the coming decade and beyond. Approving a new start on the full capability shuttle would imply that once the shuttle was flying the United States would use it as the basis for an active national space effort, even if it were far less ambitious than what the Space Task Group had proposed in 1969. Choosing a more modest shuttle

option or an alternative to the shuttle such as an unpowered glider would signify the Nixon administration’s intent to reduce even more NASA’s post – Apollo ambitions with respect to the future of human space flight.

Remaining Shuttle Options

George Low was finally able to meet with Don Rice in late November to bring Rice up to date on NASA’s current thinking on the shuttle. Low described the meeting as “extremely good. . . for we communicated well.” Once again, Low drew his development versus operation cost curve for Rice and used it as the basis for his presentation. He told Rice that on the basis of 18 months of contractor and NASA studies and of trading off develop­ment and operating costs, NASA had come up with “a class of [shuttle] configurations that costs much less to develop than earlier configurations, is smaller but can carry the required payload, and is still ‘productive’ in terms of operating costs.” He suggested that “for practical purposes,” the two – stage fully reusable and the baseline (a two-stage shuttle with disposable hydrogen tanks) configurations could be “discarded” because of their high development cost. He argued that “the glider, as presently proposed, also does not appear to be promising.” If the glider were to carry the same pay­load as the full size shuttle orbiter, it would “probably not offer a significant saving in development cost, but will be expensive to operate.” (This was a rigged argument, since neither the Flax committee nor OMB was suggesting a glider able to carry large payloads, and NASA had still not examined the implications of a much smaller glider.) This left, suggested Low, “the Mark I/Mark II configurations with four booster options: flyback, pressure-fed, parallel-staged pressure fed, and parallel staged solid rocket boosters.” (The term “flyback” referred to the use of a modified first stage of the Saturn V Moon rocket that could be operated by a human crew and flown back to a runway after launch. The term “pressure-fed” referred to a new booster design concept, developed at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, in which propellant would be forced into the booster engines by gas pressure rather than fed into the engines by a large turbopump. A “parallel-staged” con­figuration would have both booster and orbiter engines firing at liftoff, as opposed to the usual “series-staged” approach in which only booster engines would be fired on the launch pad.) Low suggested that a space shuttle using one of these booster options could be developed for between $4.5 and $6.5 billion, with operating costs between $6 and $12 million per flight. All shut­tles in this range could eventually “carry the same payload, 65,000 pounds into a due east orbit or 40,000 pounds to polar orbit, in a 15 ft by 60 ft. payload bay.” Low concluded that “the most promising configuration today is the Mark I/Mark II orbiter with the parallel-staged pressure-fed booster.” It is worth noting that NASA at this late point was still advocating the idea of phased technology development of the shuttle orbiter.43

Rice later would remark “that what sticks in my mind more than any­thing else was the difficulty of getting any solid attention paid to alterna­tive [shuttle] designs. . . alternative in terms of mission requirements and why that mattered.” He added “I still find myself a little bit incredulous to this day that there were three widely different concepts that NASA had for that system. All had the same physical capability to do work.”44 Rice was correct; NASA was strongly resistant to examining alternatives to the capabilities embodied in its preferred shuttle design. For one thing, NASA was still caught between OMB’s pressure to consider a signifi­cantly smaller shuttle or a glider and NASA’s perception that it had to meet national security requirements to gain the DOD support it thought essential for White House approval of the shuttle. Also, NASA’s human space flight team was being stubborn, convinced that the shuttle orbiter design coming out of more than eighteen months of study was a much better choice than any of the alternatives being discussed in Washington. In a 1979 letter, Low commented that “even long after those of us in the top NASA administration had decided that a less ambitious shuttle design was ‘all the traffic would bear,’ it took some time to get the rest of the people in NASA who had been working on the two-stage, fully reusable shuttle to agree with this approach. Therefore, what may have appeared to some as a NASA/OMB fight, in part, was really an internal NASA debate.”45