What Shuttle to Propose?

NASA Administrator Fletcher also met with science adviser David on August 24, separately from the David-Low meeting on the same day, to discuss the best approach to getting a shuttle program approved by the White House. While he had developed a sense of trust with David, he was not sure “how much we could trust OMB” if NASA came in with a budget proposal at the $3.2 billion level through the 1970s, as Don Rice had suggested in May, given the low budget target OMB had provided in early August. Fletcher, as had Low, told David of NASA’s internal discussions of a shuttle program that could be carried out for less than $1 billion per year and a total invest­ment of $5 billion. David advised him to keep that thinking confined to a few people within NASA, and instead to let David propose the low-cost shuttle to OMB, with NASA resisting that proposal. This gambit, thought David, would put NASA in a “better bargaining position.” As Fletcher saw it, the issue was that “OMB can’t entirely be trusted to commit to any kind of program and that if we [NASA] agreed too easily to the low-cost shuttle, they might try to work us down to a smaller budget yet.” David felt that “there was not anyone in OMB who could be completely trusted—not that they were dishonest, but that their sole function was to put a ratchet on the budget and [they] couldn’t make a commitment on anything.”23 Clearly, OMB and OST were not working harmoniously with respect to space issues, and Davis was angling for increased influence within the White House deci­sion process.

As usual, the NASA budget request for FY1973 was due at OMB on September 30. What to request with respect to the space shuttle was a major issue in formulating the budget proposal. Three basic alternatives were con­sidered:

1. A lower-cost glider or mini-shuttle, as suggested by Low in August;

2. The Mark I/Mark II shuttle. Low noted in mid-September that “OMSF [Office of Manned Space Flight] is now focusing on a ‘phased technol­ogy’ Shuttle, wherein today’s technology is used in a Block I version and any more expensive, more sophisticated subsystems are phased in at a later date”;

3. No shuttle at all. Low had considered such an option during August, and during the final two weeks before submitting the budget recorded that “Fletcher and I debated whether we should not forego the shuttle entirely and develop instead some alternate manned space flight program.”

Fletcher and Low finally decided to include “something like the Mark I/ Mark II shuttle,” but to delay the start of shuttle development by approxi­mately six months to “give us more time to reach final decisions on the con­figuration.”24 As it had done a year earlier, NASA would request presidential approval of the space shuttle without being able to specify the shuttle design being approved.

As NASA prepared its budget request, its leaders also concluded that the space agency needed “a new justification for manned space flight.” Low rec­ognized that “during the past year we begged the issue by stating that we needed a new transportation system—a space shuttle—and it just happened to be manned.” It was now time to “try to justify manned flight in its own right.” This shift in emphasis likely reflected James Fletcher’s influence at the top levels of NASA. Discussing the issue, the NASA leadership “agreed that the main justification for manned space flight is the ‘American presence in space’ and not the fact that man can twirl knobs better than machines can.”25 The NASA FY1973 budget request contained funding proposals at three levels—a “minimum recommended program” with budget authority at $3.385 billion and outlays at $3.225 billion, close to the FY1972 levels; an “alternate recommended program” at $3.54 billion in authority and $3.305 billion in outlays; and a budget at the OMB target of $2.975 billion in out­lays. To reach that lowest figure, NASA would cancel Apollo 16 and 17 and not start the space shuttle, actions that would cause “irreparable damage.” NASA argued that “this nation must continue to fly men in space. Man will fly in space, and for many reasons the United States should not forego its responsibility—to itself and to the free world—to take part in this great venture.” This was a theme that would reappear throughout the next few months and would be important to convincing Richard Nixon to approve the shuttle.

The budget letter contained “detailed figures on the effects of the vari­ous program options on unemployment,” an issue that NASA knew was of increasing interest to the White House. The letter pointed out that “the NASA program is labor intensive: small changes in program funding now have immediate, and nearly one for one, effects on employment.” With respect to the space shuttle, NASA told OMB that “the single most impor­tant consideration” was how to “achieve it with lower annual funding in view of continuing severe budget constraints.” NASA’s plan was “to select the optimum shuttle configuration, considering both technical and budgetary factors, next spring, to select the contractor next summer, and to proceed then with development leading to the first manned orbital flight in 1978 or 1979.”

NASA described “a promising configuration that would substantially reduce the funds required prior to the first manned flight.” This was the Mark I/Mark II approach, although those designations were not mentioned in the letter. NASA noted that “the reduction in shuttle development fund­ing will come at the expense of somewhat higher operational costs initially and of delaying by several years the full realization of the planned opera­tional capabilities.” The NASA letter argued that delaying a decision on the shuttle configuration past spring 1972 “would be expensive and unsettling to the aerospace industry, which is forced to maintain a capability to respond to the government until our decisions are reached.”

The budget letter noted that NASA was proposing “run-out costs, in future years, at or below the FY1973 level” of $3.385 billion in new budget authority that NASA was requesting. This “constant budget” was an inven­tion of NASA’s Willis Shapley, and allowed NASA to propose a six-year pro­gram “at a level between $500 million and one billion [per year] below the financial plans presented to OMB and the Congress at the time the FY1972 budget was approved.” NASA’s hope was that OMB would not only approve a new start on the shuttle, but would agree in advance to a constant budget level for the next several years that would provide the space agency with some stability after the several prior years of budget uncertainty.26

In its budget submission, NASA was asking OMB, and ultimately President Nixon, to approve development of a still rather fuzzily defined space shuttle. Fletcher, Low, and their associates fully realized that it would not be easy to get OMB and then the president to approve that request.