Candidate Nixon and Space
Richard Nixon would face his decisions on the future in space with some background in space policy, particularly in comparison to John Kennedy as he became president eight years earlier. Then, a leading journalist had observed “of all the major problems facing Kennedy when he came into office, he probably knew and understood least about space.”1 Nixon as Dwight Eisenhower’s vice president had an early impact on the organization of the U. S. space effort. In a February 4, 1958, meeting in which President Eisenhower discussed how the United States should organize its response to the October and November 1957 launches of Sputniks 1 and 2 by the Soviet Union, Nixon had suggested that “our posture before the world would be better if non-military research in outer space were carried forward by an agency entirely separate from the military.” Nixon judged that having a separate agency for “peaceful” research projects would also make possible a broader range of internationally cooperative space activities. Eisenhower accepted this advice, which came not only from Nixon but from other sources; the result was the president’s April 1958 proposal to create
the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) as a civilian agency. Nixon’s 1968 transition task force on space noted that “separation of the space program into a part directed towards military applications in the DOD and a largely unclassified part without strong military coloring in NASA has, we believe, been an eminently wise policy.”2 Richard Nixon was an early advocate of that policy.
One account of President Eisenhower’s measured response to Sputnik notes that Nixon “was far more attuned than Eisenhower to the political ramifications of space.” In White House discussions, Nixon suggested “we can make no greater mistake than seeing this as just a Soviet stunt. We’ve got to pull up our socks and get with it and make sure we maintain our leadership.” This account suggests that, had he been elected president in 1960, Nixon “would have pursued a [space] policy more active and flashy than Eisenhower’s.” Nixon agreed with this assessment; in his Memoirs he suggested that in cabinet and National Security Council meetings in the final years of the Eisenhower administration, he “strongly advocated a sharp increase in our. . . space program.” Once he was in the White House, however, Nixon did not follow this path, instead continuing the reductions in NASA’s budget that had begun under Lyndon Johnson. To Nixon, in a theme that he would frequently repeat in his White House years, “when a great nation drops out of the race to explore the unknown, that nation ceases to be great”; like many Nixon pronouncements, this was more an empty rhetorical statement than a guide to his policy and budget decisions.3
There was little or no Nixon involvement in space issues between his defeat in the 1960 presidential election and his selection as the Republican nominee for president in August 1968. However, a few days after his February 1, 1968, announcement that he would be a candidate for that nomination, Nixon told a space-interested audience in Washington that “the United States must remain competitive in this field, and we must support a space program which is second to none. That’s looking at it in long-term objectives.” But in the shorter term, Nixon added “I believe that space is one of the areas that will have to be in the [next] President’s recommendations for budgetcutting. . . With the immense financial crisis which currently confronts the United States, we will have to make some cuts.” These views foreshadowed the approach to space issues that Nixon would actually pursue as president, but they were articulated before the glare of campaign attention had begun. As candidate for president, Richard Nixon was much more bullish, telling audiences in Texas and Florida that the “space program was indispensable and of major importance to our country,” that in space “we must do all that we can,” that the space program was “a national imperative,” and that the United States “must be first in space.” How candidate Nixon’s general statements on space might translate into specific decisions was not made clear. As one observer commented after Nixon’s election in November 1968, his statements during the campaign “provide few clues as to what he will really do”; the president-elect’s views of the future of the space program were “as obscure. . . as his intentions across the spectrum of national problems.”4