Category After Apollo?

What Budget Commitment?

In his December 29 letter to Cap Weinberger recommending how to proceed with respect to the space shuttle, and again in its January 3 letter responding to OMB questions, James Fletcher had asked for a "Administrator’s contingency" of 20 percent to guard against unex­pected costs during shuttle development, saying "approval of a $5 bil­lion program 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." That funding reserve apparently was not discussed at the January 3 meeting at which Shultz gave quick approval to the full capability shuttle. Fletcher intended to bring up the issue with the president when he and Low met with Nixon on January 5, but forgot to do so. He called Bill Anders the next day, ask­ing Anders to intercede with the White House to make sure that the budget reserve was part of NASA’s understanding with OMB. When Anders called John Ehrlichman, he was told to relay the message to Fletcher that NASA would have to "eat" any cost overruns. In a February 16 letter from Shultz to Fletcher in which Shultz "recapitu­lated our understanding of the decisions that have been made to date on the space shuttle," there was no mention of a funding reserve; indeed Shultz told Fletcher that we "fully expect NASA to develop a shuttle system within the $5.5 billion of research and development costs, should we subsequently agree on the choice of pressure-fed boosters, or within an appropriately smaller amount should the choice be solid rocket motors."5

In the same letter, Shultz told NASA that it was "our specific under­standing that NASA’s peak annual spending during the period of development of the shuttle will not exceed $3.2 billion of outlays in the dollars of the FY 1973 budget." NASA up to that point had been argu­ing that the offer that NASA had made to develop the shuttle within the framework of a constant overall NASA budget, adjusted for infla­tion, was based on FY1971 dollars and on a FY 1973 new obligational authority level of $3.379 billion, rather than the $3.2 billion outlays level. The question of the budget baseline also had not been explicitly discussed at the January 3 approval meeting. When Fletcher and Low realized that their understanding was at variance with OMB’s intent, a difference that could lead to more than a billion dollar shortfall in the funds available for shuttle development, they tried for the next month to convince OMB to agree to a constant NASA budget based on the $3.379 billion level for FY 1973 and shuttle cost estimates based on FY1971 dollars. They did not succeed. Indeed, in fall 1972, Weinberger, by then the director of OMB, refused to honor the constant budget agreement even at the $3.2 billion level, leading James Fletcher to conclude that "a commitment from OMB is worthless."6

These two differences of understanding between NASA and OMB with respect to the funding available for shuttle development meant that the program had to be managed under very tight financial con­straints. When the almost inevitable technical problems arose, there was no margin in the shuttle budget to deal with them; as a result, there were cost overruns and schedule delays that in the late 1970s almost led to President Jimmy Carter canceling the shuttle program.

International Participation in the Shuttle

Once NASA in 1970 made the decision to defer the space station and focus its hopes on the space shuttle, potential European contributions to shuttle development became central to its planning for international cooperation in the post-Apollo program. Preliminary discussions between NASA and European space officials suggested that Europe might contribute up to 10 percent of the costs of developing the shuttle. Three possibilities for that contribution emerged. One was Europe building a portion of the shuttle air­frame, such as the vehicle’s vertical tail. Another was Europe contributing a “research and applications module,” also called a “sortie module” or “sortie

can,” which would fit into the shuttle’s payload bay and serve as a facility for scientist astronauts to carry out on-orbit research. The third, which became Europe’s preferred option, was its taking on responsibility for the space tug needed to move payloads from the shuttle to higher orbits. This last possi­bility was troubling to the national security community, which was leery of depending on a foreign-made system to position its sensitive and often highly classified satellites. How to reconcile national security uses of the shuttle and international participation in the effort was a continuing issue.

The prospect of significant European participation in shuttle develop­ment had been troubling to Tom Whitehead for some time; as the March 1970 presidential statement on space had been drafted, he had been skepti­cal of any specific commitment to space cooperation. Whitehead, by 1971 the director of the new White House Office of Telecommunications Policy, was no longer working for Peter Flanigan on NASA issues, but occasion­ally became involved. In a February 1971 memorandum, Whitehead took a very skeptical position with respect to NASA’s attempts to engage Europe in the U. S. post-Apollo program. He noted “NASA is aggressively pursuing European funding for their post-Apollo program. It superficially sounds like the ‘cooperation’ the President wants,” but asked “is this what the President would really want if we thought it through?” Whitehead was concerned that “if NASA successfully gets a European commitment of $1 billion [to the shuttle program], the President and the Congress will have been locked into NASA’s grand plans because the political cost of reneging would be too high.” He suggested that “the kind of cooperation now being talked up will have the effect of giving away our space launch, space operations, and related know-how at 10 cents on the dollar.”1

Issues of international space cooperation were discussed in a February 22 Oval Office meeting attended by the president, science adviser Ed David, and Nixon assistants Flanigan and John Ehrlichman. Excerpts from the con­versation at the meeting include:

Ehrlichman: “Well, Mr. President, you have urged that we get international involvement in the space program. . . [You have said] let’s get an actor up there from a foreign government. But that’s been interpreted to a large extent by NASA, as bringing foreign countries into the development of the space shut­tle . . . To the extent that we have developed a very significant technology here which is all ours, it would seem to some of us that we risk giving that away for a pretty small amount of money.”

Flanigan: “I am all for getting their astronauts up there and letting them walk around. . . We get a lot of visibility. But I wonder if for a little bit of money we aren’t selling our heritage.”

Nixon : “Well then, don’t do it. . . What I want is symbolism. Nothing more. Give us a little cosmetics. . . What you are doing for cosmetics, do for cosmetics. Let’s appear to be very liberal.”2

There were continuing talks with Europe regarding participation in the shuttle program through 1971 and 1972, but the potential for international cooperation was not a major factor in the 1971 debate over whether to approve shuttle development. In June 1972 the United States would give Europe a “take-it-or-leave-it” choice of contributing a research and applica­tions module. Europe decided to take that offer; the result was the program that came to be known as Spacelab.3

Incidentally, Nixon’s “what I want is symbolism” comment certainly applied to another space cooperation initiative under discussion during 1971. This was the idea of a space rendezvous between a leftover Apollo spacecraft and a Soviet spacecraft. George Low had traveled to Moscow in January 1971 for a round of discussions with his Soviet counterparts regarding the feasibility of such an undertaking, which had little substantive justification but would help the Nixon administration symbolize a changed U. S.-Soviet relationship. Approval for what became the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project would have to come soon if the cooperative initiative were to move forward; funds for that effort would have to be allocated at the same time as a commitment to shuttle development was made.4

Engaging the National Security Council

While Nixon’s most senior domestic policy advisers, Ehrlichman and Shultz, had become engaged in discussions of NASA’s future, that was not the case with respect to national security adviser Henry Kissinger. Kissinger had got­ten involved in evaluating post-Apollo space cooperation with Europe and the Soviet Union, but had not had much exposure to the broader issue of future U. S. space activities. Fletcher set out to remedy this situation, first by talking with Brigadier General Alexander Haig, Kissinger’s deputy on the National Security Council staff. Fletcher reported to Low that “in suggest­ing that the National Security Council become more involved with NASA affairs, Al Haig needed absolutely no persuasion. He has, for the last year and a half, been convinced of this and so has Henry [Kissinger], but they have been so busy they haven’t really tried to work the problem.” Haig had suggested “that someone who regularly meets with the President ought to be intimately familiar with NASA affairs” and that, if Kissinger were to play that role, “some mechanism has to be set up whereby Henry is regularly informed on what the major issues are in NASA.” Fletcher told Haig “that perhaps the principal issue before the President now was the space shuttle,” and gave Haig a copy of the November 22 “best case” memorandum on the shuttle rationale, while observing that “it is doubtful whether he is going to have the time to read” the document.13

NASA’s somewhat belated attempts to engage Kissinger as an advocate for the national security and foreign benefits of full capability shuttle and a strong civilian space program were intended as a corrective to the real­ity that from the start of the Nixon administration the future of the space program had been treated as an issue of domestic policy and thus had been evaluated in terms of employment effects, technological benefits, and budget priority. Whether NASA would have fared better in its post-Apollo aspirations if the Nixon White House had from the start seen the space program as a foreign policy and national security effort, as had been the case during the Kennedy administration, is an interesting but unanswer­able question.

National Security Uses of the Space Shuttle

Another of the influences on the choice of the full capability shuttle was President Nixon’s interest in its ability to launch the most advanced intelli­gence satellites and to carry out innovative national security missions. Those missions included the shuttle launching on demand during a political or military crisis, conducting a single-orbit satellite deployment or rendezvous, or inspecting or even destroying a potentially hostile satellite.

While the president himself may have been attracted by such national security uses, the reality was that support for the shuttle within the military and intelligence community was at best tepid, both at the time the shut­tle decision was made and afterwards. Deputy Secretary of Defense David Packard’s 1971 flexibility on shuttle requirements is suggestive of an ambiva­lent Department of Defense attitude toward the vehicle, and the effort in late 1971 to get a joint NASA-DOD statement to the president in support of the shuttle apparently did not bear fruit. During 1972 Congressional hearings on the shuttle program, DOD and Air Force testimony was supportive but guarded in character; the military took the position that the DOD would commit to depending on the shuttle only after its capabilities and constant availability had been fully demonstrated. During the mid-1970s top-level Department of Defense support for the shuttle ebbed and flowed. At lower levels of the national security community, there was strong opposition to phasing out expendable launch vehicles until the shuttle was demonstrated to be completely reliable. The DOD did agree to pay the costs of a west coast launch site for the shuttle at Vandenberg Air Force Base, since that location was primarily needed for national security launches into polar orbit. In addi­tion, DOD agreed to be responsible for funding the “space tug” to move pay­loads from the shuttle to higher orbits and for covering the costs of separate launch control centers in Houston and Colorado Springs for managing classi­fied shuttle missions. With the urging of Hans Mark, first as Undersecretary and then as Secretary of the Air Force from 1977 to 1981, and for much of that time also director of the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), some national security satellites were redesigned to take advantage of the shuttle’s attributes. When in 1979 President Jimmy Carter considered canceling the shuttle program because of its cost overruns, it was the national security uses of the shuttle, particularly in terms of launching the photo-reconnaissance satellites needed to verify arms control agreements, that convinced the presi­dent to continue the program. Once the Reagan administration took office in 1981, an early action was to confirm as national policy that the shuttle would be “the primary space launch system for both United States military and civilian government missions.”21

This policy declaration represented the high point of the notion of using the shuttle for national security missions. Within the first years of the Reagan administration, Air Force and NRO resistance to total dependence on the shuttle escalated into a conflict that required a presidential decision to resolve. The consequences of total U. S. dependence on the shuttle had been predicted. In the midst of the shuttle debate in 1971, the OMB had warned “for national security purposes, we may not want all our eggs in one basket.” The Air Force and NRO in 1984 won the right to develop an expendable launch vehicle as a backup to the shuttle for the largest national security payloads; this turned out to be the Titan IV booster. In the aftermath of the January 1986 Challenger accident, most national security payloads were removed from the shuttle and expendable launch vehicle production lines were activated; the nearly complete multibillion dollar West Coast launch site for the shuttle was mothballed.

Only ten dedicated national security missions, eight of which were classi­fied, were launched aboard the space shuttle, including eight missions after the 1986 Challenger accident; the payloads for most of those missions had been uniquely designed for shuttle launch. Some of the capabilities relevant to national security uses, such as satellite repair, recovery, and refueling, were demonstrated on other early shuttle missions. But as a national security system, the shuttle had no continuing utility. One historian of national secu­rity space activities cites a Department of Defense 1992 report that set the cost of redesigning military and reconnaissance spacecraft first to launch on the shuttle and then reconfiguring them again to launch on the expen­sive Titan IV expendable launch vehicles after the Challenger accident as “in excess of $20 billion.”22 None of the ten national security shuttle mis­sions required the cross-range capability that had been an original DOD demand, and none of the innovative missions described in the 1969 DOD/ NASA space shuttle report that had influenced Richard Nixon’s support of the NASA shuttle were ever attempted. Rather than provide new capabili­ties used by the national security community, the shuttle turned out to be a multibillion dollar drain on the national security space budget.

Which Payloads Drove Shuttle Design Requirements?

There is little controversy with respect to the influences that originally led to setting the desired width of the shuttle payload bay at 15 feet. They were both NASA’s space station crew and cargo payloads and a potential new upper rocket stage—a space tug—for moving national security and other payloads from the shuttle’s low Earth orbit to higher altitudes, particularly geosynchronous orbit.[7]

It is also now clear which payload defined the need for a 60-foot long payload bay. In an 1997 interview, Hans Mark, who as both Under Secretary and Secretary of the Air Force during the administration of President Jimmy Carter (1977-1981) had concurrently served from August 1977 to October 1979 as the director of NRO, commented that “the shuttle was in fact sized to launch HEXAGON.” This photo-intelligence satellite, also known as KH(Keyhole)-9 and nicknamed “the Big Bird,” was under development in 1969 as the successor to the Corona satellites, which had been operat­ing since 1960 to provide broad area photographic surveillance of various regions of the world. Hexagon was a very large object, only ten feet in diam­eter but almost 60 feet long. The satellite would weigh over 30,000 pounds when fully loaded with film for its four entry capsules that would return exposed film to Earth.15

The existence of Hexagon was in 1969 classified at a very high level, above “Top Secret”; thus it could not be mentioned in the DOD/NASA report, which bore only a lower-level “Secret” classification. As Mark sug­gested, Hexagon was used to “size” the payload bay; originally there were no plans to actually launch it on the shuttle, since the Hexagon program would be reaching the end of its likely service life as the shuttle began opera­tional flights in the late 1970s or early 1980s.16 Air Force and NRO plan­ners judged that whatever system would be the follow-on to Hexagon would likely be equally as large, and Hexagon thus could serve as a surrogate for that future system in determining an appropriate payload bay length.

Less clear is which potential Air Force or NRO missions drove the require­ment for a shuttle to have a high cross-range capability. No prior actual national security space system had been required to maneuver to return to Earth, since all were expended after completing their mission. However, the Air Force had pursued from the late 1950s until it was canceled in 1963 a research program called Dyna-Soar, which involved developing a small glider-like winged vehicle that would be launched into orbit on an expend­able booster and would have cross-range capability upon its return to Earth. The idea of a piloted space system that could be brought back to a secure base after a one-orbit or short-duration mission remained attractive to national security planners, but that idea had not gone through the typical rigorous review to establish it as a firm national security requirement. Air Force Secretary Robert Seamans suggested that the cross-range requirement was advocated by “operational types,” not the top Department of Defense, Air Force, or NRO leadership.17

The DOD/NASA report had mentioned a “single pass” mission with an unspecified launch location and requiring 1,400 nm of cross-range to return to a location near Washington, DC, presumably so that the intelligence products obtained during the mission could be rushed to top-level deci­sion makers. None of the subsequent discussions of national security shuttle flights discussed such a mission profile; it seemingly reflected the aspirations of those who prepared the 1969 report. Missions taking off and landing at Vandenberg Air Force Base on the California coast (or some other Western launch site18) were much more prominent in later discussions. If the space shuttle were to carry out a one-orbit mission launched from Vandenberg, the shuttle would have to have at least 1,100 nm of cross-range to return to a secure runway at that Air Force base.

A clue to the character of missions that required high cross-range can be found in studies performed by NASA in 1973, after the shuttle entered its development phase. By then, NASA had already done considerable work in designing “reference missions” for two uses of the shuttle—placing a satellite in geosynchronous orbit and resupplying a spacecraft in low Earth orbit. In 1973 NASA developed two new reference mission scenarios for single-orbit shuttle flights from Vandenberg Air Force Base. These reference missions were “representative of Air Force requirements on the shuttle.” One of the two missions, designated 3A, would deploy a satellite into a 104 degree, 100 nm polar orbit; the shuttle would return to Vandenberg after one orbit. The satellite to be deployed would weigh 32,000 pounds and was ten feet in diameter and 60 feet long; it would almost certainly be the follow-on photo­intelligence satellite to Hexagon. It would be deployed less than 24 min­utes after launch. NASA noted that “the mission of the payload is beyond the scope” of the reference mission description, likely referring to its intel­ligence objectives. The second mission, designated 3B, after carrying out a rendezvous within 25 minutes of launch, would retrieve a similar satellite and return it to Vandenberg after a single orbit.19

So were satellite deployment or retrieval the missions that defined the needed shuttle cross-range capability? Or was it also, or even primarily, the hope of national security planners to be able to fly an on-demand mission in polar orbit to get crisis-related information on what was happening at a flash­point anywhere in the world, such as the mission landing in Washington, DC, mentioned in the DOD/NASA report? This latter speculation is sup­ported by a letter drafted in late 1971 for then NASA Administrator James Fletcher to send to Deputy Secretary of Defense David Packard as NASA sought DOD support for the shuttle program. The draft letter suggested that “the shuttle could be maintained on ready alert, making possible rapid responses to foreseeable and unexpected situations”; such a mission could examine “unidentified and suspicious orbiting objects”; enable “capture, disablement, or destruction of unfriendly spacecraft”; and make possible “rapid examination of crucial situations developing on earth or in space.”20

The DOD/NASA report also mentioned launches of “self-contained mission modules which possessed their own crews to operate specific mis­sion equipment.” Might these “mission modules” have carried the human – operated KH-10 very high-resolution camera system, code named Dorian, developed during the 1960s for the Manned Orbiting Laboratory (MOL) program? That program was canceled on June 10, 1969, just as the DOD/ NASA shuttle report was being prepared. The MOL combined a capsule based on NASA’s Gemini spacecraft, to be used during launch and reentry, and a two-segment module containing the Dorian camera system and crew quarters. The 1971 NASA draft letter said, “the shuttle could be equipped to perform the MOL mission for seven days on station. . . Alternatively, the shuttle could transport MOL-like equipment in a self-supporting module to the desired orbit for operation over a longer period of time.” Such missions would most likely have been launched into polar orbit so they would overfly all areas of the world, and would return to Vandenberg at their completion, thus requiring cross-range capability.21

The need for high cross-range was throughout the shuttle debate a point of contention between NASA and the national security community. In real­ity, requirements for national security missions requiring high cross-range were never formalized and more or less evaporated during the 1970s. Well before that time, however, NASA had decided that a shuttle having signifi­cant maneuvering capability as it returned from orbit was needed to sur­vive the heat of entry into the atmosphere. So while the national security cross-range requirement initially drove NASA to a particular shuttle orbiter design, one with delta-shaped wings and the thermal protection needed to resist high temperatures during a maneuvering entry, NASA likely would have adopted a similar design even if that requirement had not been levied in 1969. Whether NASA would have gone forward with a shuttle having a 15 x 60 foot payload bay and powerful enough to launch the most heavy national security payloads is not as clear; in the final days of the shuttle debate in December 1971, NASA put forward a somewhat smaller and less powerful shuttle as its proposed design.

Battle Lines Are Drawn

The first step in the budget decision process was a set of “hearings” at which NASA met with those in OMB and other parts of the Executive Office of the President working on space issues to present the thinking behind NASA’s budget request. The OMB hearings took place on October 6, 7, and 8, with the human space flight program being the focus on October 7. Low led the NASA delegation to the hearings and reported that they were gener­ally positive and friendly in tone. Low told Rice and the OMB staff that at the budget level of approximately $3.2 billion that NASA had requested, the agency’s priorities with respect to human space flight were, in order: flying Skylab, starting shuttle development, flying the Apollo 16 and 17 missions, carrying out a docking mission with a Soviet spacecraft, and adding addi­tional “gap-filler” missions using left-over Apollo hardware. But if NASA were held to a budget less that $3 billion as proposed in the OMB August target, said Low, NASA would give priority to flying the remaining two Apollo missions and would “re-examine what to do about future manned space flight.”1

There was one exception to the collegial tone of the October 7 hearing. William Niskanen, head of the OMB Evaluation Division, made two pro­vocative suggestions. The first was to finance the NASA program through revenues raised by selling the material returned from the Apollo missions to the Moon. The second was to have the private sector, using its own financial resources, develop the next generation space transportation system, and then sell transportation services to NASA and the Department of Defense (DOD) to recoup that investment. The staff of the Evaluation Division was in gen­eral even more skeptical of the value of NASA’s human space flight program than were OMB’s mainline budget examiners, and Niskanen a year earlier had been an opponent of any hint of a commitment to the space shuttle. Niskanen was a student of conservative economist Milton Freidman at the University of Chicago and libertarian in political and economic philosophy, advocating a very limited role for government; this perspective made him an opponent of major new government programs justified on economic grounds.

Reacting to the first of Niskanen’s ideas, the Space Council’s Anders com­mented that “unless the President himself ordered us to consider the selling of lunar material for profit, we should not even discuss the subject because it would be embarrassing to the Administration.” With respect to a commercial shuttle, Low told Niskanen that “the reason for not doing it is that it simply won’t work: if the idea is to cancel the space program, this might be a way to do it.” Whereupon, Low reported, Niskanen and his staff left the room, “but not without making a fairly strong threat about NASA’s budget.”

OMB’s Rice was personally sympathetic to the idea of not going ahead with the shuttle, noting that Niskanen and his group “wanted to kill it, just kill it off,” but that he had “adopted the view fairly early on that while that may well be the desirable thing to do from a broader public interest point of view, I didn’t believe that the President was in fact going to take the country out of manned space flight.” This skeptical perspective would lead Rice in the following weeks to seek the least costly shuttle program possible, putting him in direct opposition to NASA’s insistence that only a large space shuttle made sense. Rice’s background was in the type of systems analysis that had been developed at the Rand Corporation (which he would later head) and applied during the 1960s under Robert McNamara at the DOD; both Rice and Niskanen had worked at DOD then. Rice had pushed NASA to take a “whole systems” approach to evaluating the shuttle and possible alternatives for space transportation in terms of their cost-effectiveness. This approach, with its emphasis on quantitative measures, gave primary importance to eco­nomic factors. NASA’s Fletcher, believing that the primary reason for going ahead with the shuttle was the new capabilities it would offer and the intan­gible values associated with human space flight, was skeptical of a systems analysis approach to evaluating the shuttle, believing that “you can make systems analysis prove anything you want. . . it was just a lot of hocus-pocus,” since it could not assign a quantitative value to those new capabilities or to the value of the shuttle in terms of national prestige and international coop­eration. NASA’s Willis Shapley described Rice as “a strong believer in the religion of systems analysis” who took the shuttle issue on “to prove. . . that you could really get a better decision by really giving this the full systems analysis treatment.” Shapley, himself a long-time Bureau of the Budget staff person before joining NASA, observed that “analysis becomes a weapon in a controversy rather than a search after some abstract kind of truth.”2

Finally, a Decision

In preparation for the January 3 White House meeting, the NASA lead­ers prepared a letter reporting on their conclusions following the harried weekend of answering OMB’s questions. The letter reported that “the previ­ous conclusion that the full capability 15 x 60—65,000# shuttle makes the most sense has been reaffirmed and we now urge—even more strongly— that this configuration be adopted.” It said that “the OMB proposed option of a 14 x 45—30,000# shuttle is not acceptable because it will not handle manned space station modules, manned sortie flights, or manned resupply missions in a standard space station orbit.” In addition, “this shuttle would not handle 28 different science, applications and planetary payloads.” Once again, NASA asked for an “Administrator’s contingency” of 20 percent of the estimated development cost to accommodate “future cost growths due to technical problems.”12

Before their meeting, Fletcher and Low stopped by the offices of the Space Council across Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House to dis­cuss with Bill Anders, who had become an ally in their conflict with OMB and OST, “what they were going to say and what they thought the state of play was. Clearly they thought everything was still under scrutiny and study and it wasn’t close to a decision.” Then they went to Shultz’s White House office; the 6:00 p. m. meeting was attended by Shultz, Weinberger, Rice, David, Flanigan, and Nixon Congressional liaison Clark MacGregor. David briefly restated his opposition to going ahead with the NASA-recommended 14 x 45 foot shuttle, but Shultz quickly overruled both David and Rice and told Fletcher and Low that they could proceed with their plans for the full capability 15 x 60 foot, 65,000 pound shuttle. At some point between December 29 and January 3, Shultz had telephoned fellow economist Oskar Morgenstern to discuss the Mathematica study of shuttle econom­ics that Morgenstern’s firm had carried out; Morgenstern assured him that the shuttle was a reasonable program in economic terms. (One report even had Shultz making the call to Morgenstern during the January 3 meeting, but this seems unlikely, given the short duration of the meeting.) With that assurance, aware of the impact of the shuttle on aerospace employment, and also apparently aware of President Nixon’s interest in the national security missions enabled by the full capability shuttle, Shultz had decided before the meeting to approve NASA’s full capability shuttle configuration. Within a few minutes, Fletcher and Low were back in the Space Council office, “kind of elated,” to report “we didn’t have to say a word; we were just told that the decision was to go ahead” with the full capability shuttle that NASA had been advocating all along. When the two NASA leaders returned to NASA headquarters and reported the outcome of their meeting to human space flight chief Dale Myers, he was “amazed.”13

The next day, to be sure that his understanding of what had been decided was correct and to get that understanding on the record, Fletcher wrote Weinberger “to document the decision reached yesterday concerning the space shuttle.” As Fletcher understood it: “NASA will proceed with the development of the space shuttle. The shuttle orbiter will have a 15 x 60-foot payload bay, and a 65,000-pound payload capability. It will be boosted either by a pressure-fed liquid recoverable booster or by solid rocket motors. NASA will make a decision between these two booster options before requests for proposals are issued in the spring of 1972.” In addition, “NASA and indus­try will also continue to study, for the next several weeks, a somewhat smaller version of the orbiter. . . The main purpose of studying this smaller shuttle is to determine whether or not significant savings in operational costs can be realized, with [already existing] solid rocket motors, at this smaller size.”14

Low Has Reservations

George Low, at that time still NASA acting administrator, reluctantly approved Myers’s January decision to orient the Phase B studies to a full capability fully reusable shuttle, although he “had hoped that Myers would be able to come up with a phased program, where we would first develop the orbiter to be launched on a [expendable] Saturn IC stage”; a reusable booster stage would be developed several years later. Such an approach would mean giving up, at least for the first few years of shuttle operation, the goal of full reusability and the accompanying very low operating costs that had been at the core of the shuttle’s attractiveness for potential users.

Low’s thoughts about phasing the shuttle development program dated back several months. As he had argued with OMB in the fall of 1970 for full funding for the shuttle in the FY1972 budget, Low recognized that if future NASA budgets remained at the same low level as what was being proposed for FY1972, there was no way to fund the development of a two-stage, fully reusable space shuttle without taking up an unacceptable share of the overall NASA budget. On the day after Thanksgiving 1970, Low had called to his home Willis Shapley, Dale Myers, and Charles Donlan. Low noted that “we held the meeting because of our collective concern that the shuttle program, as now constituted (two-stage fully reusable vehicle), would cost more than we could afford on an annual basis in the middle of the 70’s.” He added

A phased program, wherein we would first procure only the orbiter and launch it on a modified [Saturn] S-1C stage and only subsequently build a booster, would make more sense from the point of view of annual funding. It might also make more sense technically because we would face only one major prob­lem at a time. At the same time, we could also adopt a Block I/Block II approach, wherein many of the “nice to have” features would be reserved for Block II and would not be incorporated into Block I. In other words, the Block I vehicle would have the potential for cross-range, but only Block II would fly with cross-range.28

These ideas did not get translated into NASA policy for some months; in the interim, studies of the shuttle went forward based on Dale Myers’s January 1971 requirements.

Canceling Apollo 16 and 17

By the end of October, NASA had learned of the possibility that Apollo 16 and 17 might be canceled, though it is not clear that the agency knew that the can­celation directive came directly from President Nixon. Fletcher wrote a long let­ter to Cap Weinberger on November 3, putting forth the case for not canceling the missions. He told Weinberger that “if broader considerations, nevertheless, lead to a decision to cancel Apollo 16 and 17, the consequences would be much more serious than the loss of a major scientific opportunity. Unless compen­satory actions are taken at the same time to offset and minimize the impact, this decision could be a blow from which the space program might not easily recover.” Fletcher proposed as a rationale for canceling the missions “that, in these times of pressing domestic needs, the manned space program should be earth-oriented instead of exploration and science-oriented.” Not surprisingly, he suggested as an offsetting action “an early go-ahead for the space shuttle.” Science adviser David chimed in at the end of November, urging the president to retain the mission in the NASA program, telling Nixon that “the cost of completing these missions is $118 million in FY 73, less than one-half of one per cent of the total cost of the Apollo investment. . . These missions will pro­vide over fifty per cent of the total productive time on the lunar surface” and that “further cancellation at this time would be seized upon not only by skeptics in the science and engineering communities but also by many staunch supporters of the Administration as unwarranted and unwise.” Apparently David had told his associates that he would resign if the two missions were canceled.33

A “Go” for Shuttle Development

On March 14, Don Rice gave NASA oral approval for developing the NASA-recommended shuttle configuration, an orbiter with a 15 x 60 foot payload bay and using solid rocket motors to assist in its launch. The next day, NASA issued a press release saying: "NASA announced today that the Space Shuttle booster stage will be powered by solid rocket motors in a parallel burn configuration. The booster stage will be recoverable. Requests for proposals for design and development of the Space Shuttle are expected to be issued to industry about March 17." NASA estimated shuttle development costs would be $5.15 billion and the cost per flight would be $10.5 million. A contract for shuttle development would be issued in summer 1972, with the initial orbital test flights with a crew aboard to occur in 1978. The NASA release stated "the complete Shuttle system is to be operational before 1980."7

This announcement brought down the curtain on the drama that had begun more than three years earlier. President Richard Nixon and his associates, with the decision to develop the space shuttle, had finally given an answer to the question "What do you do next, after the Moon?" That answer defined much of the U. S. civilian space pro­gram for the next 40 years. John Kennedy’s 1961 decision to go to the Moon led to the Apollo program, which lasted only from 1961 to 1975; Richard Nixon’s decision to build the U. S. post-Apollo space program around the space shuttle had a far more lasting impact.