NASA Submits Its FY1972 Budget Request

In January 1970 Richard Nixon had approved a NASA FY1971 budget of $3.3 billion in outlays, the funds actually to be spent during the fiscal year. There had been attempts in both houses of Congress to make cuts in this request by eliminating funds for the space station and space shuttle, primar­ily on the grounds that they were the first steps toward missions to Mars, but these attempts were defeated. By mid-summer it was clear that Congress would approve a FY1971 NASA budget with only a slight reduction from the president’s request. On the basis of Richard Nixon’s comments at his January 22, 1970, meeting with Tom Paine that the FY71 budget level was the end of NASA budget reductions, NASA had hoped to get a budget target from the White House for FY1972 that was higher than its FY 1971 budget. But the poor economic outlook had persisted; NASA was disappointed when in August it received a budget target of $3.1 in new budget authority and $3.2 billion in FY1972 outlays, both reductions from the FY1971 figures. It was this highly constrained budget outlook and the anticipation that it was likely to continue in subsequent years that had colored the summer 1970 decisions to defer the space station and to cancel two Apollo missions.

The deadline for NASA to submit its budget request to OMB was mid­night on September 30, and NASA went down almost to the last minute before deciding what to request and especially how best to justify its propos­als. The budget requests from the various elements of NASA totaled over $4 billion, and it took some doing on the part of Low, his strategy adviser Willis Shapley, and his budget chief Bill Lilly to get the request down to $3.7 in new budget authority and $3.4 billion in outlays. This latter number was the one of most interest to the White House, given its short-term economic concerns with respect to limiting government expenditures; the NASA total was $200 million higher than the OMB outlays target. Low felt that “a bud­get at this level was the lowest level that I could submit in good conscience.” On September 30, the budget submission letter was “written and rewritten, edited and re-edited, and finished typing by 8:30,” reaching OMB “at 9:00 or three hours before the deadline.”7

The budget letter spelled out the adjustments in its program that NASA had made in order to avoid “an unacceptable peaking of the NASA budget at over $5 billion in the middle 1970’s,” saying that the program laid out could be approved “without committing the nation to an annual budget level in excess of $4 billion.” These adjustments represented a dramatic lowering of sights since the submission of the Space Task Group report a year earlier, which had forecast NASA budgets in the $8-10 billion range in the late 1970s. NASA argued that “the key element in our program for the 1970’s is the space shuttle. . . We must start this development now to lay the founda­tions for the nation’s future space program, and to bring about the major economies in later years.” In justifying the shuttle, NASA said that “the space shuttle will be used for manned and man-tended experiments and to place unmanned scientific, weather, earth resources and other satellites in earth orbit and bring them back to earth for repair and reuse.” Only in the future would the shuttle be used to “transport men, supplies, and scientific equipment to and from space stations.” Deciding to characterize the space shuttle as an all-purpose launch and space operations vehicle was a major change, since it represented a claim that the shuttle could stand on its own merits, not primarily as an adjunct to the space station. NASA justified the shuttle as “cost-effective,” a claim that was to become a controversial point in NASA-OMB interactions in the coming months.8

There was significant weakness in NASA’s argument for approving shut­tle development in FY1972; in essence, the shuttle concept was “not ready for prime time.” NASA was focusing on a large, two-stage, fully reusable shuttle, but had not yet decided what version of such a system it wished to develop, whether it was technologically feasible, or how much it was likely to cost. Intensive contractor studies of fully reusable shuttle designs and alternate configurations were just starting. An independent study of shuttle economics requested by the Bureau of the Budget in early 1970 was also not complete. What NASA was asking OMB to approve was putting in the FY1972 budget a modest down payment of $190 million on shuttle develop­ment; more significant, that down payment was to represent a commitment that the shuttle had gained White House approval. The $190 million would allow NASA to award contracts soon after the start of FY 1972 on July 1, 1971, for detailed design and development of both an advanced technology rocket engine planned for the shuttle and the shuttle’s “airframe,” that is, the basic structures of the shuttle orbiter and booster. The results from the shuttle technical and economic studies were expected in the May-June 1971 time frame, and the proposition that NASA was asking OMB to approve in fall 1970 was that those results would justify an immediate start on shuttle development. This request—to approve in advance a multi-billion dollar, multi-year program to develop a not-yet-well-defined shuttle—was not a proposition OMB was likely to accept.