Where was Wernher von Braun?
Noticeable by his absence as NASA tried to garner support for the space shuttle was Wernher von Braun, perhaps NASA’s most charismatic spokesperson. Von Braun had moved to NASA headquarters early in 1970 to direct NASA’s planning efforts, and thus logically he should have been one of the senior NASA officials involved in the attempt to gain White House support for the shuttle. But Fletcher and Low had discovered that “von Braun is not a supporter of the Shuttle, and in fact may be an opponent.” According to Low, von Braun’s skepticism was based on his conclusion that “the Shuttle will cost much more than our current estimates of Mark I/Mark II, and that NASA cannot afford to proceed with the development. To use his words, if we were given a Shuttle for a Christmas present, we would certainly use it, but, according to him, we cannot afford the cost of development.”31
Von Braun had come to Washington with high hopes that, working together with the visionary Tom Paine, he might be able to convince the president and Congress to proceed toward a goal of eventual human missions to Mars, which had been his lifelong aspiration. President Nixon’s March 1970 space statement had dampened that hope, and von Braun quickly found that in his position as head of planning for NASA, he was expected to present options for the agency’s leaders to choose among, not advocate a particular course of action. When Paine announced in July 1970 that he was leaving NASA, von Braun was “just devastated.” His relationship with George Low during Low’s time as acting administrator was cordial but professional; “the one-on-one meetings with the administrator [Paine] ended and appointments with the acting administrator [Low] to discuss our programs became more difficult to set up as time went by.” When Fletcher became NASA administrator, “it temporarily improved the climate for von Braun.” Fletcher “admired” von Braun, and told him so. But given that Dale Myers and his team were leading shuttle studies, Fletcher “no more needed a ‘chief architect’ and planner than did George Low.” Von Braun was one of those arguing in mid-1971 that NASA should give up on advocating a two-stage, fully reusable shuttle. According to von Braun’s biographer, “what he could not dodge was his growing isolation at headquarters, a product of the marginalization of his planning office and his unpopular stance on space shuttle funding and design.” By May 1972, von Braun decided to leave NASA for a job in industry; at his farewell party, he told a close associate, “George Low had thanked him profusely, in the name of all NASA, for fighting for a ‘smaller and cheaper’ shuttle.” Low told von Braun: “We were not at all pleased by your warning words, but finally
accepted your advice__ If you had not raised the red flag at that time, I’m
certain the entire shuttle would be dead by now.” Von Braun described that conversation as his “happiest moment during my time at headquarters.”32 But in the heated debate over shuttle approval in the fall of 1971, Wernher von Braun was nowhere to be seen.