Final Budget Decisions
President Nixon made his decisions on various budget appeals in the days following Christmas. Included in Nixon’s December 28 choices with respect to NASA were the decisions to slip the Skylab schedule, to restore NERVA to the budget at a low funding level, not to approve shuttle airframe devel- opment—and to cancel Apollo 17. Meeting with Ehrlichman and Shultz, the president first suggested shifting funds intended for Apollo 17 to the Skylab and shuttle programs. As he discussed his options, he suggested that “politically” it was better not to launch the mission, or at least slip it, “at whatever cost,” until after the November 1972 election. His final decision was to cancel the mission.31
These decisions were communicated by Weinberger to Low on December 31. To Low, the slip in the Skylab schedule and especially the cancelation of Apollo 17 “were a complete surprise.” Weinberger let Low know that these decisions were made “by the President himself, without any input from OMB.” Meeting with his NASA colleagues to discuss how to respond, Low was told by Dale Myers that canceling Apollo 17 so soon after two other Apollo missions had been eliminated would be “a devastating blow to morale.” After phone calls to David and Rice to get more background on the budget decisions, Low decided to “do no more about this on New Year’s Eve (By this time, it was 7 o’clock in the evening and we were in the midst of the biggest snowstorm in three years).”32
Low met with OMB Director Shultz and Rice on the afternoon of January 2, 1971, to get more information on the reasoning behind the budget decisions and to reemphasize NASA’s perspectives regarding the relationship between the space program, Soviet competition, and aerospace unemployment. He also wanted to make a last effort to preserve the Apollo 17 mission. He found that “Shultz was not all that interested in unemployment in the aerospace industry. . . He apparently still believes that the U. S. R&D capability can be maintained by retraining the aerospace scientists and engineers into other fields.” Shultz asked Low whether there was a possibility “of using some of NASA’s R&D capability to solve domestic problems.” This was an idea that would rise to prominence in White House thinking during 1971.
In his apparent lack of concern about aerospace unemployment, Shultz was running counter to the president. Nixon had read a December 30 memorandum from the chairman of his Council of Economic Advisers, Paul
McCracken, which noted “unemployment among scientists and engineers in California increased from 0.9 percent to 2.4 percent in the past year as national priority changes reduced defense and aerospace spending.” Nixon wrote a message to Ehrlichman and Weinberger on the memo: “As a matter of top priority, we must move with maximum publicity on all these fronts & any others which occur—get a real plan & act on it.”33
Regarding the decision to cancel Apollo 17, Shultz reiterated to Low that “it was not a budgetary one, but was based on the fact that the President had been informed that Apollo 17, as the last Apollo mission, was of considerably higher risk than the previous one and that he [Nixon] did not want to undertake such a mission just before the elections.” In response to Shultz’s questions, Low said that that while the risk of flying Apollo 17 was “substantial,” it “may not be any higher than that for all other missions.” Low told Shultz that it was possible, with “a good technical justification,” to delay Apollo 17 until December 1972, after the presidential election. Low recommended that a decision on whether or not to cancel Apollo 17 be deferred for a year, but Shultz preferred the option of deciding immediately to slip the mission to December 1972, since such a decision “would save some money in Fiscal Year 1972,” even though it would increase the overall cost of the mission. Keeping government spending down during the election year was an important objective to the Nixon White House. Shultz told Low that the president was aware of their meeting and that he would get in touch with Nixon “right away and let me know before the end of the day” whether he would reverse his cancelation decision if the Apollo 17 flight were slipped until after the 1972 election. “About an hour later,” Don Rice, rather than Shultz, called Low to say that “the president had accepted the delay in Apollo 17.”34 As he met with Low, Shultz may have already known that the president had had second thoughts about canceling Apollo 17. The weekly magazine Newsweek in mid-December had noted the possibility of such a cancelation. This publicity had produced messages to Ed David from the scientific community opposing such a step. Writing the president on December 31, David argued that canceling the mission would “give the Administration an unfortunate image among opinion-makers in society” and was “likely to result in strong protests from responsible and influential people.” David did not base his recommendation against canceling the mission on its scientific merit, an argument he knew carried little weight with Nixon. Rather he suggested that such a step would “make it much more difficult to rally the responsible elements to support the Administration’s other forward-looking programs.” Apparently independent of NASA’s internal thinking, David suggested that “to counter many of the concerns that have been raised about the flight of the last Apollo mission in the few months before November 1972 [the election period],” the Apollo 16 mission could be launched in February 1972 and the Apollo 17 launch could be scheduled “in mid-November or December. This would have the double advantage of maintaining critical employment levels through this period and better phasing of launch and support personnel.” Nixon in the margins of David’s memo wrote “GS [George Shultz]—good.
Do.” Nixon communicated this decision in a December 31 meeting with Ehrlichman, directing him to tell Shultz to take another look at the Apollo 17 issue. Given this directive, it is not clear that Shultz actually called Nixon after his meeting with Low or had learned before the meeting that Nixon had decided to reverse the decision.35
There was one more contentious NASA-OMB interaction before the NASA FY1972 budget was made public on January 29, 1971. As the budget message was being finalized, there was a dispute between OMB and NASA about what it should say with respect to the space shuttle. After the initial budget decisions in early December, NASA suggested including language in the budget message indicating an administration commitment in principle, not just to the engine, but to the shuttle program overall. Low had suggested that the space shuttle “posture” should be that “the FY1972 budget provides for proceeding with the development of a space shuttle system,” that “detailed design and development of the shuttle engine—the longest lead time component” would begin in FY1972, and that “airframe design and development will proceed on an orderly step-by-step basis leading to detailed design or initiation of development in FY1972.” The OMB space staff objected to this language as reflecting a commitment to the shuttle that had not been made, and suggested that “the Administration preserve flexibility” by “making no commitment to proceeding with the development of the entire shuttle system” and “making no commitment to an FY1972 decision on initiation of development of the airframe.” The OMB Evaluation Division, headed by Assistant Director William Niskanen, was even stronger in its objections, telling Rice “it is important that the commitment to finance an advanced space engine not imply a commitment to the space shuttle.” Niskanen suggested that the language “in all sections of the budget document” should describe “this engine as an advanced lower-cost space engine rather than as a shuttle engine.”
This difference in views persisted into January as the budget documents were being sent to the printer. The OMB staff noted that while “NASA is firmly convinced that the lower-cost earth to orbit launch vehicle will be at least partially reusable and hence a ‘shuttle,’” it would be “desirable from our position” to use “a term with broader meaning than ‘space shuttle,’ which could cover low cost expendable rockets.” The staff noted that “the key issue is not really the term ‘shuttle,’ but rather achieving an understanding on Dr. Low’s part that the Administration is not now committed to a reusable space shuttle.” The staff predicted that NASA would “strongly resist” a change in budget language.36
This prediction was accurate. Low considered the staff suggestion as a reversal “of the words Don Rice and I agreed to concerning the space shuttle” and was upset to discover that at one point the “words space shuttle had been completely deleted from the President’s budget and, in their place, the words future launch vehicle had been inserted.” Low met with Rice on January 9. He told Rice he “fully understood the extent of the commitment (or lack thereof) by this Administration to the space shuttle, but that I also understood that such a commitment would be forthcoming if our studies so indicated during the spring and summer.” Low suggested that “Rice apparently agreed with me, but mentioned that he had internal problems within OMB and that the evaluation group in OMB had insisted that far more restrictive language be included.” Low and Rice “argued about this for some time”; Rice finally agreed that the language Low wanted “would be reinstated in the budget book.” When NASA received its official budget allowance declaration from OMB on February 19, included was the statement, echoing Low’s preferred language, that “shuttle airframe development should proceed on an orderly step-by-step basis which may lead to continued detailed design or initiation of development of a specific design, depending on the progress in studies now underway.”37
The final NASA FY1972 budget request that President Nixon sent to the Congress was for $3.271 billion in budget authority (compared to the FY1971 budget of $3.298 billion) and $3.152 billion in outlays (compared to the FY1971 budget of $3.368 billion). Although there would be $200 million less to spend during FY1972 than a year earlier, the overall FY1972 budget authority for 1972 and projected for future years would be basically the same as for FY1971, thus arresting the half-decade long cuts in NASA funding. As he met with Tom Paine in January 1970, Richard Nixon had indicated that he might be willing to approve a NASA budget of as much as $3.9 billion for FY1972, but continuing economic and fiscal problems had made such an increased allocation for NASA politically and fiscally impossible. Reflecting on the final budget, George Low suggested that “although I am personally disappointed that we did not do better, the general feeling around NASA appears to be that we did considerably better than people had expected us to do.”38
While NASA may have “done better than people expected,” a decision crucial to the space agency’s future remained unmade. That was whether NASA would get presidential approval to proceed with the space shuttle as its major program during the 1970s. NASA’s hope, embodied in the budget language that Low had fought to preserve, was that such approval would come at the end of the ongoing shuttle studies in June 1971. Then NASA would quickly invite bids on developing the shuttle airframe and select the winning contractor by the end of 1971. However, not including funds for airframe development in the FY1972 budget request almost certainly meant that this plan was not viable. While White House approval of funds for developing the new rocket engine intended for shuttle use was a significant step to shuttle approval, there remained major obstacles, budgetary and technical as well as political, to a final go ahead. NASA’s uncertainty about its future continued, and 1971 became a make-or-break year for what was left of the space agency’s post-Apollo aspirations.