Category After Apollo?

A Skeptical Perspective

In preparation for the director’s review, Dan Taft, head of the OMB space unit, prepared a lengthy paper on “The U. S. Civilian Space Program: a Look at the Options” that at its core reflected the budget office’s long-held skeptical view of the value of human space flight. The options paper recognized that the “key issue” with respect to FY1973 budget decisions was “the future role of man in space.” It noted that “historically, [the] primary reason for man in space has been the international technological image of the U. S.,” and asked “are our historical reasons for keeping man in space still sufficient to justify keeping man in space? If so, how much extra should the U. S. be willing to pay for manned flight relative to an unmanned program which could pro­duce comparable scientific and practical benefits?” The paper observed that

The contrast between President Nixon’s [March 7, 1970, space] statement and former President Kennedy’s 1961 address on space provides an interest­ing illustration of the change in attitude of the national leadership towards the space program. In contrast to President Nixon’s call for a balanced and orderly space program, former President Kennedy’s address conveys a sense of urgency, international competition with the Soviets, and the battle “between freedom and tyranny.”

With the passage of time and the achievement of successful programs, the importance of international competition and world opinion seems to have diminished. . . And yet, the significance of international competition in space is not over. . . With the Soviets steadily continuing their manned space pro­gram, would the U. S. be willing to terminate manned space flight?3

The paper declared “the objective of the future space transportation system is to reduce the total investment and operating costs (launch vehicles plus payloads) of space operations.” New capabilities provided by the shuttle, a point that NASA was advocating, did not enter into OMB’s evaluation. The paper concluded that “at the 10% discount rate, all of the shuttle options save less systems cost” than a new expendable launch vehicle. To Taft, “only the need to resupply a Space Station begins to justify investing in a reusable shut­tle capability.” Recognizing the reasoning behind NASA’s 1970 decision to give priority to shuttle development, the paper presciently commented: “In a sense, a commitment to a shuttle is an implicit commitment to a subsequent space station program.” Given that station development had been deferred to an undefined future date, this perspective led to the conclusion that there was no justifiable reason for approving shuttle development in the FY1973 budget.4

Taft’s paper set out “an illustrative future space program.” That program would complete the remaining scheduled Apollo and Skylab manned space flights, but would “postpone the space shuttle indefinitely.” It acknowledged “the possibility that the shuttle might become more economically attractive and be initiated in the 1980’s,” but until then a slow-paced human space flight program would use expendable launch vehicles. With the deferral of shuttle development, NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, could be closed; reducing NASA’s institutional base by closing Marshall was a particular OMB objective. Taft’s proposed program would reduce NASA’s budget to $2.6 billion per year by the mid-1970s.5

Which Shuttle to Approve?

As December 1971 began, Don Rice and his Office of Management and Budget (OMB) space staff remained on a collision course with NASA. Rice had taken Cap Weinberger’s guidance at the October 22 director’s review as license to direct his staff not only to come up with alternative, less ambitious, and thus less expensive, shuttle requirements in terms of payload bay size and weight-lifting capability, but also to present that new shuttle concept in the context of a different program of human space flight than what NASA was proposing. Rice was convinced that the shuttle NASA preferred was “a huge overinvestment for what the country needs,” and believed it was his respon­sibility as a steward of the federal budget to help protect the president from making that overinvestment.1

By mid-November, the OMB staff had drafted a decision memorandum for President Nixon on “the future direction of the U. S. civilian space pro­gram” and was circulating the draft inside the White House and Executive Office of the President for comments. The memo set forth “a description and analysis of NASA’s proposed future manned space flight program and an alternative program.” That alternative program “would gradually decrease NASA’s annual spending from the present $3.2 billion to about $2.5 bil­lion by 1976.” Included would be a “smaller, reduced cost version of the manned reusable shuttle. . . NASA’s larger version would not be developed now because it would probably prove too costly, uneconomical, and risky a venture.”2

George Low on November 14 noted that “we have had no direct interac­tion with OMB. . . since the budget hearings several weeks ago. . . It is clear that there are opposing forces. . . Those who are for space for its own sake appear to be very few in number.”3 Those opposing forces would play them­selves out in the following weeks as final decisions on which space shuttle to develop were made. But first President Richard Nixon twice made funda­mentally the same choice—a choice that would provide the context within which those final decisions would unfold. These two presidential decisions took place in late November and early December; Nixon left the specifics of what shuttle configuration to develop for his associates to decide during

the rest of December. There is no written or recorded evidence of his direct involvement in that decision, although it is probable that he was informed regarding the alternatives under consideration and informally communicated his views with respect to those options to his inner circle.

A Related Issue

Even as NASA was receiving White House approval to proceed with the large space shuttle, Fletcher and Low were concerned about whether the shuttle program would gain Congressional approval; that was one of the reasons that Clark MacGregor was at the January 3 meeting. At the same time the shuttle was being approved, the White House had finally decided to cancel the NERVA nuclear rocket engine project after keeping it on life support for the previous several years. The NASA leaders’ concern was that “without NERVA we will not have the political support in the Senate that we need for the Space Shuttle and other programs.” Low’s assessment was “that were we to cancel NERVA we have a 50/50 chance of com­pletely losing all support by Howard Cannon [D-NV].” Fletcher agreed with Low, telling Shultz that other than Cannon, “there are no other spokesmen, on the Democratic side of our [Senate Space] Committee, that would or could carry the NASA bill through the Senate. Therefore, without a meaningful nuclear propulsion program, we are taking the very major risk of losing the space shuttle, as well as other pieces of the NASA program, in the Senate.” Low even suggested that “the NERVA situa­tion is to my mind more complicated and more difficult than the Shuttle question.”15

The final outcome was to cancel NERVA, to allow NASA to carry out a study effort to define a smaller nuclear propulsion system, and to include in the president’s budget request with respect to nuclear propulsion lan­guage intended to be palatable to Senators Cannon and Clinton Anderson (D-NM), another strong supporter of NERVA. Anderson was actually the chairman of the Senate Committee on Space and Astronautics, but he was old and ill, and not able to lead the Senate debate on the NASA budget. These moves may have been essential in assuring eventual Senate support of the space shuttle.

Richard Nixon and the Space Shuttle

Although the Nixon decisions to treat the space program as just one of many government activities and to defer human space exploration for the indefi­nite future have had lasting impacts, the space shuttle program stands as Richard Nixon’s most recognized space legacy. Thus any assessment of that legacy must give particular weight to the shuttle’s influence on the evolution of the American space program.

Once NASA decided in 1970 to focus on developing the space shuttle as its major post-Apollo effort, there were many designs considered and a num­ber of alternatives to going ahead with a shuttle suggested. During 1971, there was a somewhat confused sorting out of these various possibilities, but as the debate over developing a shuttle reached its final stage, there was little doubt that the White House would approve some version of a shuttle rather than pursue an alternative course. Other options, such as deferring a shuttle decision and carrying out an interim program of human space flight using surplus Apollo hardware or developing an unpowered space glider or a new crew-carrying capsule, had fallen by the wayside. The key decision to be made was thus what kind of shuttle, to carry out what missions, and with what rationale, would be approved.

The options for choice were clearly understood as the decision process reached its climax. As George Low observed in December 1971, “the basic issue on the space shuttle concerns whether or not the shuttle should capture a majority of the payloads that will be flown in the 1980’s” and “whether the shuttle should be small or large and whether it should provide for routine operations or one or two flights per year.” These two alternative approaches were embodied in two competing shuttle designs, called here the “NASA shuttle” and the “OMB shuttle.” The NASA shuttle—the design ultimately selected—was the end product of more than two years of study by NASA and its aerospace contractors; that study effort had been guided by a com­bination of national security and NASA’s own requirements and the OMB pressure to make the shuttle “cost effective.” The NASA shuttle was a full capability vehicle incorporating advanced propulsion, thermal protection, and electronic systems technologies. It would have a 15 x 60 foot payload bay, be able to carry a 65,000 pound payload to a 100 nautical mile orbit due east from the Kennedy Space Center, launch or return a 40,000 pound payload from a polar orbit, and be capable of 1100 nautical miles of cross­range maneuvering. With these capabilities, the NASA shuttle would be able to carry out all planned and potential U. S. civilian, national security, and commercial missions. NASA claimed that it could be launched on a routine basis and at significantly lower cost than any alternative launch system and that it would provide valuable new capabilities for space operations. Such a shuttle, NASA claimed, could be developed for a budget of between $5 and $6 billion.

The staffs of the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and Office of Science and Technology (OST) were deeply skeptical of the validity of these claims and indeed of the need for a system with the capa­bilities NASA was promising. Although many in the two staff offices were indeed skeptical of the value of human space flight itself, they recognized that no American president, and in particular not Richard Nixon, with his emotional view of NASA’s astronauts, would choose to end the U. S. human space flight program. They therefore resonated to the advice given by Alexander Flax, chair of the ad hoc panel of the President’s Science Advisory Committee set up to examine the NASA shuttle, that “serious consideration must be given to less costly programs which, while they provide considerably less advancement in space capability than the [NASA] shuttle, still continue to maintain options for continuing manned spaceflight activity, enlarge space operational capabilities, and allow for further progress in space tech­nology.” This perspective led to OMB recommending to President Nixon in early December 1971 that he direct “OMB and OST to work with NASA on the reorientation of the space program,” with a central feature of that reorientation a “smaller, reduced cost” shuttle design. Nixon approved this recommendation on December 3, 1971, and a few days later OMB presented NASA with its concept for a less ambitious shuttle, with a 10 x 30 foot pay­load bay and 30,000 pound payload lifting capability, to be developed at a budget of no more than $4 billion.

The question of which of these two alternatives to approve was debated through most of December 1971. Even as the final choice to approve the NASA full capability shuttle was being made over the New Year’s weekend, Don Rice, assistant director of OMB, and science adviser Ed David were still arguing strongly against that step. While Rice focused his opposition on the excessive cost of the NASA shuttle, David took a broader view, arguing that “the large space program implicit in the large shuttle decision is not consis­tent with the best interests of the nation.” The opposition of Rice and David was well-founded and subsequently validated, but they were overruled by their White House bosses and ultimately by President Nixon. Nixon and his associates gave less weight to cost and technical issues than to other politi­cal and policy considerations as they decided to approve NASA’s preferred shuttle design.

The Air Force Is Concerned

That Mueller was not fully committed to a space shuttle design responsive to the performance requirements proposed by the NASA/DOD report soon became evident to the Air Force. In a September 15, 1969, memorandum to Secretary of the Air Force Seamans, Air Force Chief of Staff General John Ryan suggested that Mueller had “redirected the activities of the NASA and responsive contractors to a Space Transportation System/Space Shuttle which is knowingly inadequate for the Air Force.” This harsh judg­ment was based on Mueller’s August directive to those studying shuttle designs and Mueller’s comments at a September 10-11 meeting attended by shuttle study contractors and Air Force representatives. At that meet­ing, Mueller had indicated that designs with a payload of 20,000 pounds to the space station orbit, not the 50,000 pounds minimum, which was the national security requirement, should be studied. He also identified cross-range “as desirable but not required.” Mueller was reported as saying that the Air Force position regarding cross-range and payload weight was “soft.”24

Seamans was in a difficult position. On one hand, in his role as STG member he had taken a “go slow” stance with respect to shuttle develop­ment; in his comments at the August 4 STG meeting and the letter he had given Vice President Agnew at that meeting, Seamans had recommended that “we embark on a program to study by experimental means including orbital tests the possibility of a Space Transportation System that would permit the cost per pound in orbit to be reduced by a substantial factor.” Seamans added “it is not yet clear that we have the technology to make such a major improvement.” On the other hand, Seamans recognized that NASA was not taking his advice and instead was pushing for rapid development of an operational shuttle. Given the possibility that a shuttle not meeting national security requirements might be approved, Seamans proposed an action to make sure that those requirements were accommodated in which­ever shuttle design was eventually approved. In November 1969, Seamans wrote NASA Administrator Paine, suggesting “a senior-level management policy board” to guide the shuttle program; such a board would “insure that the interests and objectives of both the DOD and NASA are fully rep­resented and maximum cooperation between the agencies is achieved.” The board, said Seamans, “would be essentially the Board of Directors for the STS development and would be concerned with requirements, technol­ogy, funding, and management.” Given what was happening under George Mueller’s direction at NASA, Seamans added “I am convinced that such a policy board is necessary.”25

In his letter Seamans referred to the Gemini Program Planning Board as a desirable model for the board he had in mind. That board had been set up in 1963, after Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara had attempted to seize control of NASA’s Gemini program. Seamans, in 1963 NASA’s associate administrator, had been on the other side of the table negotiating with McNamara to create an arrangement that retained NASA’s lead role in Gemini while still providing a channel for making sure that the program also served DOD interests. As a senior DOD official six years later, he wanted to make sure that whatever shuttle NASA might propose also served national security interests.26

A Smaller Payload Bay?

One challenge in designing a smaller orbiter using an expendable propel­lant tank or tanks was maintaining the 15 x 60 foot payload bay required to launch the largest national security payloads. As NASA began to explore what it called the “drop tank” design, Dale Myers on May 25 wrote Grant Hansen, asking him to “determine if Air Force requirements [which included National Reconnaissance Office payloads] could be accommodated” in a 12 x 40 foot payload bay. He added that “if this is not possible, I would appreciate some thoughts as to what missions must exceed these dimensions and what alternate launch capabilities could be used.”42

Hansen’s reply was negative in tone, saying that a shuttle with the smaller payload bay would “preclude our full use of the potential capability and operational flexibility offered by the shuttle” and would “degrade the pay­load cost savings” that were an important part of the national security inter­est in the shuttle. Maintaining the Air Force Titan III expendable boosters to launch the largest national security payloads would mean that “the potential economic attractiveness and the utility of the shuttle to the DOD” would be “severely diminished.” Hansen estimated with the shorter payload bay “71 of the 149 payloads forecasted for the 1981 to 1990 time period in option C and 129 of the 232 payloads forecasted in Option B of the mission model will require launch vehicles of the Titan III family.” Hansen also noted the negative consequences of a narrower payload bay, especially in terms of the use of a large “transfer stage” to carry national security payloads to geosyn­chronous orbit.43 This response reflected the continuing national security community pressure on NASA to maintain a shuttle design with a large payload bay, even as NASA was seeking an approach to minimize shuttle development costs.

Weinberger Disagrees

As Caspar Weinberger prepared for the director’s review of OMB staff rec­ommendations with respect to the NASA budget, he was uncertain about what precisely Richard Nixon had meant when he wrote “I agree with Cap” on Weinberger’s August 12 memorandum. On October 19, Weinberger asked Nixon’s chief of staff Bob Haldeman to have the president clarify his intent. Haldeman discussed the issue with the president the same day.

Haldeman: “So you do want to cancel [Apollo]16 and 17?”

Nixon: “Yes, I do want to cancel them, and do other things.”

Haldeman: “Do we want to follow his point, coupling [the cancellation with] the announcement that we’re going to fund the space shuttle?”

Nixon: “That’s right, and let the other two [Apollo missions] go. . . the other

two shots___ I just don’t think we should take the risk of a possible goof

off in the damn thing.”

Haldeman: “The other thing you could do is postpone them.”

Nixon: “Postpone and then cancel them, if you could get away with it. . . That’s right, no shots in ’72.”6

Haldeman reported to Weinberger that “the President did agree with your feeling that a public announcement now of the cancellation of Apollo XVI and XVII would have a bad effect,” but nevertheless Nixon “does want to eliminate” the missions, “at least in calendar year 1972,” and had directed that “steps should be taken immediately to implement that decision.” Nixon also agreed with Weinberger’s point that “if we decide to eliminate Apollo XVI and XVII 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.” Weinberger in reply told Haldeman that Apollo 16 “was scheduled for mid-March 1972 to secure data on some of the oldest events on the moon” and that Apollo 17 was scheduled for December 1972 (after the presidential election, as agreed in January 1971; it seems as if neither Nixon nor Haldeman remembered that agreement) and would provide “the first opportunity for a geologist astronaut to visit the moon.” He noted the modest cost savings if the missions were canceled, and said that if both missions were eliminated “we would lose about 3,800 jobs by June 1972 and about 6,200 by December 1972.” Weinberger concluded, repeat­ing an idea from his August 12 memo, that “if it is decided to cancel either one or both Apollo missions, it could be announced that we were doing so in order to concentrate our resources on other NASA-planned high-priority space objectives, because the prior Apollo moon explorations were so suc – cessful.”7

The combination of Weinberger’s thinking in his August 12 memo, Nixon’s reaction to the memo, and Nixon’s October guidance to Weinberger boded well for eventual shuttle approval. But the battle that would lead to that approval was just beginning. In a 1977 interview, Cap Weinberger recalled that “the OMB staff was against the shuttle, and I was for it, and that produced a very substantial amount of discussion and debate. . . In pre­vious years it apparently was not necessary to get to a decision point, but in that particular year [1971] . . . it was an active part of the budget, and after the various arguments and presentations, I supported it. . . After the so-called director’s review, I indicated to the staff that I disagreed with them, that I would recommend that particular item, and they protested and we had many more arguments.” Weinberger added that “I had personal feelings that this was something we should be doing. . . If I had not taken as strong a position as I did in favor of it, that ultimately just the force of inertia would have prevailed.” A major influence on Weinberger’s positive views on the shuttle and the space program in general were his interactions with Bill Anders, who “stoked his [Weinberger’s] enthusiasm for space at any opportunity.”8

Weinberger’s support for the shuttle at the director’s review did not trans­late into approval of the Mark I/Mark II shuttle program that NASA was proposing. At the director’s review the alternatives being examined by the Flax committee, including a smaller shuttle and a glider, were also discussed. While Weinberger indicated that he would recommend to the president going ahead with some form of a shuttle program, he was told by his staff “if we wanted to do it, it could be done less expensively, I was delighted to hear that, and. . . they went back and worked with NASA to work out a different configuration. In other words, did we have to have a vehicle that could carry that much on each trip, or couldn’t we have a smaller one that could make more trips. Why did we need one this big?” He added “I could have cut it off at the director’s review, and insist that we are going to do it the way NASA wants it. But the opportunity to do it at a lower cost on additional analysis appealed to me.” Even so, Weinberger added, “I never had any doubt in my own mind but, one way or the other, I wanted to do it.” Weinberger’s will­ingness to let the OMB staff consider shuttle designs different from the full capability shuttle that NASA was proposing, itself still not very well defined, opened the door to a very confusing debate, as multiple versions of a shuttle were examined. According to Weinberger, the OMB professional staff had “a certain degree of pride. The staff doesn’t like to be overridden, and they were firmly convinced that they were right, and that this was not a thing the government should be doing.”9

NASA, as was the practice, was not formally notified of the results of the director’s review, and thus did not realize that there had been a decision that some sort of shuttle program would be recommended to the president by Weinberger. On a very confidential basis, Anders told Low only that the director’s review was characterized by “general discussion only, and no decisions were made.” With respect to the shuttle, Anders reported that “there appears to be a general acceptance that the United States must stay in the manned space flight business,” but “the assembled group still felt that the Mark I/Mark II Shuttle was too much” and that “the Flax Committee has recommended something less than the Mark I/Mark II.”10 The results of the October 22 OMB director’s review thus only muddied the waters with respect to eventual shuttle approval. Weinberger had indi­cated that he would recommend developing a space shuttle to President Nixon, but his willingness to allow his staff to define an alternative, less expensive shuttle design than what NASA was proposing meant that the character of the shuttle he would recommend was still very much up for grabs.

A First Presidential Decision

In his reaction to Cap Weinberger’s August 12 memorandum and with the October 19 clarification of his intent, Richard Nixon had seemingly agreed that if Apollo 16 and 17 were canceled, there needed to be compensatory actions in terms of announcing approval of new space efforts, including the space shuttle but also the NERVA nuclear rocket engine program or other NASA activities. This was not yet a specific decision to approve shuttle development, but rather an indication that the president was leaning in that direction.

President Nixon did make a significant step toward such a decision dur­ing a November 24 meeting discussing “sensitive and significant issues in the FY1973 budget.” Attending the Oval Office meeting were Nixon’s top assistant for domestic policy John Ehrlichman, OMB Director George Shultz, and Secretary of Treasury John Connally, a new member of Nixon’s inner circle. In preparing him for the meeting, Domestic Council Deputy Director Ed Harper alerted Ehrlichman that a “complete alterna­tive NASA program [was] being developed by OMB [and] should be ready this week. Extraordinarily important that this decision is carefully staffed out.”4

Ehrlichman came to the meeting with a two-page list of issues for discus­sion. One item asked “Will the budget style be: (a) expansive? (b) austere? (c) neither?” Another question was “What economic (employment) assump­tions will be displayed?” Eighteen program issues were listed; space was third, after general revenue sharing and welfare reform. As the four men got to the space issue, the following discussion occurred:

Nixon: “Space, what’s the problem here?”

Ehrlichman: “Well the problem here is do we go ahead with the next two shots? [Apollo 16 and 17]”

Nixon: “No! If we go, no shots before the election.”

Ehrlichman: “Then what would we do with all those employees?”

Nixon: “For those shots? How many, George?”

Shultz: “17,500 or something like that.”

Nixon: “I don’t like the feeling of space shots between now and the elec­tion.”

Ehrlichman: “But thinking of this thing [the space program] in just pure job terms, it is a hell of a job creator.”

Connally: “The American people are really not impressed by any more space shots.”

Nixon: “NASA is saying you’ll find incredible things about the Moon with these last two shots, and the American people say ‘so what’?”

Shultz: “Could I try another possibility? The last shot is the one in which they have loaded a great amount of scientific stuff from the ones that have been canceled before. That shot is scheduled after the election.”

Nixon: “I only see a minor waste of money. Keep the people on, but don’t make the shots. I just don’t feel the shots are a big deal at this time. . . There is also the risk you could have another Apollo 13 . . . That would be the worst thing we could have. . . We are just not going to do it. There will not be any launches between now and the election. The last shot, fine. Let’s go forward with the last shot.”

Ehrlichman: “The southern California people have a mighty press on for the space shuttle to be located in southern California. It is a highly visible kind of thing, if we were to announce at the State of the Union or sometime that you were going ahead with the shuttle.”

Nixon: “This is not a State of the Union thing. I should do it [announcing shuttle approval] out in California where you are going to put it. Jobs— right, John? Do it in terms of jobs. It ought to be in California.”

Shultz: “NASA has a full thrust [shuttle] program, but there are options that are a little more modest.”

Nixon: “Take the more modest option. We’ll take a look later to see [if that is the right choice.] It’s the symbol that we are going to go forward. We are going to be positive on space. Nobody is going to be against us if we go forward in space, and a few will be for us because we do.”

Ehrlichman: “If you tell the aerospace industry that we are going ahead on the shuttle, that helps right now.”

Shultz: “While the shuttle and Skylab will keep men in space to a degree, the direction of this program ought to shift away from man in space and toward doing most of these things on an unmanned basis.”

Nixon: “I agree. Manned space flight becomes a stunt after a while.”5

Ehrlichman later thought the basic decision to develop a space shuttle had been made at this meeting. His record of the discussion, prepared only on January 4, the day before Nixon was to announce his shuttle decision, said that on November 24 “the President decided to support the space shuttle providing it could be located in California.” After this meeting there was little doubt that some form of space shuttle would be approved by the Nixon administration; the question was whether it would be NASA’s preferred full capability shuttle orbiter design or a smaller alternative as was being sug­gested by OMB.6

There are a number of interesting elements to this November 24 discussion. The space program, including both the ongoing Apollo effort and the space shuttle, was being evaluated by Nixon and his top advisers not only in terms of its substantive value but especially in terms of its employment impacts. In particular, the space shuttle was seen as part of the ongoing White House California Employment Project, aimed at getting the most possible new jobs located in California prior to the 1972 election. Nixon continued to want to avoid the risk of another Apollo 13 accident in the months leading up to that election, believing that such an incident could impact his reelection prospects and the 1972 summit meetings that were part of his attempt to normalize relations with China and the Soviet Union. He judged that the American public was not really interested in more trips to the Moon, which gave him a free hand to defer or cancel the remaining two Apollo missions. Ultimately, Nixon decided to go ahead with the two missions, moving Apollo 16 so that it would not interfere with his China trip and approving Apollo 17 once he recognized that it would take place only after the 1972 election. Perhaps most surprising, it had been an article of policy belief in the White House that Richard Nixon wanted a future NASA program including U. S. astronauts flying in space. Yet in this conversation he had said “manned space flight becomes a stunt after a while.” Even so, he gave the space shuttle a qualified approval as a “symbol,” saying “we are going to be positive on space.” There was little consistency in the Nixon attitude toward human space flight.

Was Richard Nixon Involved?

President Nixon had decided on December 3 to approve some form of a space shuttle program. Whether or not Richard Nixon was consulted later in December or over the New Year’s weekend, as the decision to approve the full capability shuttle was made, is not clear. There is suggestive evidence to support either possibility.

Prior to the December 29 meeting at which Shultz gave the first indica­tion that he would support the large shuttle, there had been general agree­ment among the White House staff that the issue of shuttle payload bay size and weightlifting capability was too detailed and too technical to bring before the president. There were no meetings with the president to make final decisions on any agency budget appeals, with the exception of the Department of Defense, in the days just before or after Christmas. Nixon was at his Key Biscayne, Florida, residence from December 27-31. There is no record on Nixon’s official schedule of a phone call from anyone involved in the December 29 White House meeting with NASA to discuss its out­come with the president. On December 30, Shultz was still urging Fletcher not to insist on seeing the president with respect to the shuttle decision. On December 31, Nixon did try, unsuccessfully, to telephone Al Rockwell, but this appears to have been just one of many “Happy New Year” calls Nixon placed that day to people with whom he had a personal relationship. Shultz and Weinberger did meet with Nixon on the morning of January 3 after the president returned to Washington, but that meeting was to discuss the overall shape of the FY1973 budget; neither the space shuttle nor any other specific program was discussed.16 All of this evidence tends to suggest that Nixon was not consulted as the final decision on shuttle size was being made.

There is some counterevidence, however, that Nixon might indeed have influenced the final decision on shuttle configuration, whether on that final weekend or before. John Ehrlichman suggested in a 1983 interview that he was sure it was “Nixon’s decision on the thing [shuttle], because the way these things would come to him would be with alternate levels, and then a brief description of the differences—if you go to this level, you get that; if you go to this level, you get that plus this. There wasn’t anybody during that time who made those final decisions except Nixon. . . Defense, space, certain kinds of domestic problems, he was the final arbitrator.” However, Ehrlichman may well have been referring to the November 24 and December 3 meetings at which initial decisions on the space shuttle had been made. As noted in chapter 13, Ehrlichman and Nixon were attracted by the national security uses of the shuttle. Nixon would mention those uses in his January 5 meeting with NASA’s Fletcher and Low, indicating that he was already aware of them. As the final decision on shuttle configu­ration was being made in March 1972, Cap Weinberger would reiterate to Fletcher “the President’s strong interest in retaining the military capabil­ity” as a factor in the “decision on the larger size” shuttle, and Fletcher would say that “the President’s expressed desire to make the shuttle a useful vehicle for military space operations could not be fulfilled with the smaller shuttle.” When, and by whom, Nixon was briefed on the national security uses of the full capability shuttle is not clear. At least Ehrlichman, and prob­ably also Shultz and Weinberger, were aware of Nixon’s interest in national security applications of the shuttle’s capabilities as they made the final deci­sion on shuttle size. That they took the step of actually consulting with the president at that point appears unlikely. While there is no doubt that Richard Nixon gave the green light to developing the space shuttle and that he had expressed interest in the shuttle being able to carry out a wide range of national security missions, it is probable that George Shultz and Cap Weinberger, possibly after consulting Ehrlichman and Flanigan, were the individuals who made the final decision on approving the full capability shuttle. They made that decision on their own, not on the basis of a specific presidential directive.17

Why Did the Nixon Administration Select the NASA Shuttle?

On November 24, 1971, Richard Nixon had indicated his preference for a “more modest option” with respect to the space shuttle, and again on December 3 had said “yes” to the OMB proposal to work with NASA to examine a smaller, less expensive shuttle design. Yet when the final decision on which shuttle design would be approved was communicated, and most likely made, by George Shultz and Cap Weinberger, it was NASA’s full capa­bility shuttle that won the day. The evidence suggests that there were three primary reasons for that choice.

One reason was the importance to the White House of a continuing program of human space flight as a symbol of U. S. space leadership. Cap

Weinberger in August 1971 told President Nixon that not moving ahead with some major post-Apollo space effort would be a “mistake,” arguing that such a decision “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.” Nixon had written on Weinberger’s memo­randum “I agree with Cap.” In making its best case for shuttle approval, NASA had argued “man has learned to fly in space, and man will continue to fly in space. This is fact. And, given this fact, the United States cannot forego its responsibility—to itself and to the free world—to have a part in manned space flight. . . For the U. S. not to be in space, while others do have men in space, is unthinkable, and a position which America cannot accept.” As he met with Fletcher and Low on January 5, 1972, President Nixon asked the NASA leaders if they thought that the space shuttle was a good investment. They of course responded positively, but Nixon, echoing NASA’s argument, then added “even if it were not a good investment, we would have to do it anyway, because space flight is here to stay. Men are fly­ing in space now and will continue to fly in space, and we’d best be a part of it.”18 While, as OMB and OST were arguing, a smaller shuttle launched a few times a year would have kept the U. S. human space flight program alive and would have been a useful symbol of U. S. space leadership, clearly a large shuttle launched on a frequent basis would be a much more potent indication of that leadership.

A second reason for the decision to approve the full capability shuttle was President Nixon’s interest in its national security uses. John Ehrlichman in

a 1983 interview suggested that “what the military could do with the larger bay in terms of the use of satellites” and the fact that “the space shuttle would have the capability of capturing satellites or recovering them” had “a strong influence on me” and “weighed into my attitude toward the larger shuttle.” He added “I feel it is valid to say it also weighed into” the president’s evalu­ation of the shuttle. Nixon’s interest in national security uses of the shuttle was well known as final decisions were made, and the president discussed them with Fletcher and Low at their January 5 meeting. As Fletcher and Low met with Cap Weinberger and Jon Rose on March 3, 1972, to discuss NASA’s decision on using solid rocket motors to boost the shuttle orbiter off its launch pad, Weinberger reminded the NASA leaders that “the President’s strong interest in retaining the military capability” was an important factor in “confirming our decision on the larger size” shuttle.19

The third and most immediate reason for the choice of the NASA shuttle was the anticipated short-term employment impact of that choice in par­allel with Richard Nixon’s 1972 reelection bid, particularly in Southern California. The evidence in support of this assertion is conclusive. Aerospace unemployment had emerged as an important political issue in early 1971, particularly after the congressional cancellation of the supersonic transport program. Meeting with Flanigan and Weinberger in May, the president dis­cussed “what could be done about high unemployment areas with specific emphasis on California.” Nixon “indicated a very great concern about the California area and the high level of unemployment among technically – trained individuals.” The White House created a “California Employment Project” to address this issue in a systematic way. In June 1971, even before the shuttle decision process reached its final stage, Cap Weinberger told a California politician “I am sure that whatever is done will be largely based in California.”

On November 24, as he made his initial decision on the space shuttle, President Nixon had commented to Ehrlichman: “Jobs—right, John? Do it in terms of jobs. It ought to be in California.” Ehrlichman recalled that the issue of shuttle-related employment in Southern California “was a very important consideration in Nixon’s mind. . . I can recall conversations about that, which were highly persuasive. . . You must not underemphasize that ele­ment, that employment element, in Nixon’s decision [on the shuttle], the whole manned space program.” When Bill Anders told Ehrlichman in late December that the NASA shuttle would create more short-term jobs than the OMB alternative, the reaction was “OK, that will be the one” chosen. In preparing President Nixon for his January 5 meeting with Fletcher and Low, Flanigan told him that “this program will greatly stimulate the aerospace industry.” Nixon himself, discussing his shuttle approval with his political adviser Charles Colson a few days after it was announced, noted that “in Florida and California this [approving the shuttle] is a big deal. It will save the aerospace industry.” A few months later, he told a delegation from New York lobbying for the shuttle contract to go to Grumman’s Long Island facility that “I’ll take the heat for putting the money there [on the space shuttle contract] rather than the ghettos and all that sort of thing, but then by God we’d better at least get a little credit for it. This is jobs. I mean that is really what is at stake here, jobs.”20