What NASA Did Not Know

As NASA submitted its budget request, it did not know that President Nixon had already made a tentative decision that NASA’s budget for FY1973 would be in the $3.3-$3.4 billion range, with a strong bias toward approving space shuttle development. That decision originated with OMB Deputy Director Cap Weinberger and had been approved by the president. But that informa­tion had not been communicated to the White House technical and budget staffs, much less to NASA, and thus had little impact on NASA’s interactions with OMB and OST over the next four months.

Weinberger had discovered as he met with Fletcher on August 5 that the budget target for NASA that had been recommended by his staff would mean the eventual end of the U. S. human space flight program. This was not an acceptable option to Weinberger, and on August 12 he had sent a thoughtful memorandum to President Nixon. That memorandum is worth quoting at some length.

Present tentative plans call for major reductions or change in NASA, by elimi­nating the last two Apollo flights (16 and 17), and eliminating or sharply

reducing the balance of the Manned Space Program (Skylab and Space Shuttle)

and many remaining NASA programs.

I believe this would be a mistake.

1. The real reason for sharp reductions in the NASA budget is that NASA is entirely in the 28% of the budget that is controllable. In short we cut it because it is cuttable, not because it is doing a bad job or an unnecessary one.

2. We are being driven, by the uncontrollable items, to spend more and more on programs that offer no hope for the future: Model Cities, OEO [Office of Employment Opportunity], Welfare, interest on the National Debt, unemployment compensation, Medicare, etc. Of course, some of these have to be continued, in one form or another, but essentially they are pro­grams, not of our choice, designed to repair mistakes of the past, not of our making.

3. We do need to reduce the budget, in my opinion, but we should not make all our reduction decisions on the basis of what is reducible, rather than on the merits of individual programs.

4. There is real merit to the future of NASA, and its proposed programs. The Space Shuttle and NERVA particularly offer the opportunity, among other things, to secure substantial scientific fall-out for the civilian economy at the same time that large numbers of valuable (and hard-to-employ – elsewhere) scientists and technicians are kept at work. . . It is very difficult to re-assemble the NASA teams should it be decided later, after major stop­pages, to re-start some of the long-range programs.

5. Recent Apollo flights have been very successful from all points of view. Most important is the fact that they give the American people a much needed lift in spirit (and the people of the world an equally needed look at American superiority). Announcement now, or very shortly, that we were cancelling Apollo 16 and 17 . . . would have a very bad effect, coming so soon after Apollo 15’s triumph. It would be confirming, in some respects, a belief that I fear is gaining credence at home and abroad: that our best years are behind us, that we are turning inward, reducing our defense commitments, and voluntarily starting to give up our super-power status, and our desire to maintain our world superiority. America should be able to afford something besides increased welfare, programs to repair our cit­ies, or Appalachian relief and the like.

6. I do not propose that we necessarily fund all NASA seeks—only that if we decide to eliminate Apollo 16 and 17, that we couple any announcement to that effect with announcements that we are going to fund space shuttles, NERVA, or other major, future NASA activities.

7. I believe I can find enough reductions in other programs to pay for con­tinuing NASA at generally the $3.3-$3.4 billion level.27

Richard Nixon read Weinberger’s memorandum and wrote on it a cryptic message, “I agree with Cap.” He also wrote “OK” next to point 7. What exactly he meant by these notations was not clear. A month later, one of Haldeman’s staff provided some clarification, telling OMB Director Shultz that the “the President read with interest and agreed with Mr. Weinberger’s memorandum of August 12, 1971, on the subject of the future of NASA. Further, the President approved Mr. Weinberger’s plan to find enough reductions in other programs to pay for NASA at generally the 3.3-3.4 bil­lion dollar level.”28

If the NASA leadership had known of Weinberger’s memorandum and Nixon’s response, they likely would have been much less nervous about the outcome of NASA’s negotiations with OMB over the FY1973 budget. The Weinberger memorandum represented one of several points in 1971 when it could be said that a decision to approve space shuttle development had been made. But if there was such a decision made on the basis of the memo, it was to approve the idea of a space shuttle, not a specific shuttle design. NASA in its budget submission left itself vulnerable to continued debate over what shuttle design merited presidential approval by its admission that it would take another six months to make the configuration choice. That debate was not long in coming.