NASA Not Ready for Success

While Richard Nixon came to the White House knowing that he would soon have to make choices regarding the future of the United States in space, the NASA leadership was not well prepared to present the new president with attractive options for that future. At what should have been a moment of great triumph, with the spectacular success of the bold Apollo 8 mission and with the first landing on the Moon just months in the future, the top offi­cials of NASA in January 1969 did not have a clear sense of what might best follow Apollo. According to one of those officials, “the general atmosphere [among NASA’s leaders] in terms of decisiveness, purpose, dynamics—a feel­ing that you were in an agency moving forward—that was not there.” Those at the helm of NASA did not accurately perceive the broad societal changes that would influence political decisions on what space future was sustainable; “the dramatic political, cultural, and socioeconomic changes of the tumul­tuous decade of the 1960s” had left NASA, focused on the Cold War goal of beating the Soviet Union to the Moon, “in a time warp not completely of its own making.” Apollo’s message of America’s technological power stemming from the concerted actions of government and industry “ran up against a powerful shift in American culture that was beginning to push in the opposite direction, and which ultimately undermined the very premise (and promise) of the manned space program.”5 Decisions on the post-Apollo space program would be made in a very different context than that existing as John F. Kennedy in 1961 decided to send Americans to the Moon.