The Second Presidential Decision
The OMB decision memorandum on NASA’s program for President Nixon, revised on the basis of comments from various offices in the White House and Executive Office of the President, was ready on December 2.7 The memo began with a section on why decisions were needed:
• “The lead times are gone to decide what to do after Apollo.”
• “Industry wants decisions one way or the other, particularly on the Space Shuttle—on which contractors have been doing design studies for the last 18 months.”
• “Adjusting space spending and turning NASA’s capabilities to other domestic problems requires a 2-3 year phasing.” (This was an indication that a lead NASA role in William Magruder’s New Technology Opportunities effort was still a possibility.)
The eight-page memo both described NASA’s human space flight program as proposed in the agency’s September 30 budget request and OMB’s alternative. The alternative program included “a smaller and less costly Space Shuttle,” cancellation of Apollo 16 and 17 “because we understand that is your [Nixon’s] wish,” and “reduction in the size of NASA’s institutional base after calendar 1972.” With respect to NASA’s plans for the shuttle, OMB asked “since we already have the capability to put manned and unmanned payloads into earth orbit using expendable boosters, how much should we be willing to pay for a Shuttle?”
The memo noted “last year NASA was proposing a $10-$12 B [billion] Shuttle. In response to questions from OMB and OST about whether the benefits justified such a large investment, NASA has since designed a $6 B Shuttle which can do all the missions of the larger, more expensive one . . . (We think both costs are underestimated, perhaps by 50%.)” If NASA were given approval to develop the shuttle it was proposing, suggested OMB, “one program, the Shuttle, would dominate NASA for the coming decade, as did Apollo in the 1960’s.”
What OMB was proposing as a “smaller reduced cost” alternative to NASA’s shuttle would involve “an investment of $4-5 billion over the next 8 years.” Such a vehicle, OMB suggested, could “capture about 80% of the payloads of the redesigned larger Shuttle at about two-thirds of the investment cost.” By this time OMB had accepted that there would be a space shuttle program rather than a glider or some other alternative, and was focusing on keeping the shuttle as inexpensive as possible in investment terms; there was little attention given by either OMB or NASA to an examination of shuttle operating costs, which in any event would be incurred after the Nixon administration left office. It would be necessary to “retain the reliable Titan III expendable booster to launch the few largest payloads that would not fit the smaller Shuttle. These include space telescopes and large intelligence satellites. (This may be desirable in any event since, for national security purposes, we may not want all our eggs in one basket.)” OMB added, reflecting the White House interest in California employment, that “we understand from NASA that the recently awarded engine contract with Rocketdyne division of North American Rockwell will probably be continued for the smaller Shuttle without the need for recompetition.”
The OMB-proposed program also included three Earth orbital missions using launch vehicles and spacecraft left over from the Apollo program. Only one of these missions, the 1975 docking mission with a Soviet spacecraft, had been in NASA’s September 30 “minimum acceptable” budget proposal. The other two would be Earth resources survey missions that had been included in NASA’s September 30 “alternate recommended program,” which presumed a higher budget level; OMB suggested them as a way of having one human spaceflight mission per year between 1974 and 1976, thereby avoiding a multiyear gap in U. S. human space flight activity. The smaller shuttle was anticipated to be ready for flight by 1978. With respect to Apollo 16 and 17, while the OMB alternative program canceled the missions on the basis that that was the president’s wish, the memo actually argued for retaining the missions. Saying “if concerns about complications during 1972 [Nixon’s already planned visits to China and the Soviet Union and the presidential election] can be alleviated by rescheduling Apollo 16, it would seem appropriate to retain Apollo 16 and 17 for their scientific returns and employment impacts.” OMB estimated that the employment impact of adopting its proposed alternative program would be 4,000 job losses by mid-1972 and 8,000 by the end of the year, but 30,000 by mid-1975. In OMB’s recommended program, the NASA budget for FY1973 would be $3.050 billion, declining to $2.975 billion by FY1976.
The “recommended next step” was for “OMB and OST to work with NASA on the reorientation of the space program.” The memorandum asked President Nixon to either “Approve” or “Disapprove” four actions:
1. “Initiate reduced-cost smaller Space Shuttle program.”
2. “Conduct Soviet docking mission.”
3. “Conduct other manned earth-orbital missions.”
4. “Apollo 16 and 17”
• “Cancel both missions”
• “Cancel just Apollo 16”
• “Reschedule Apollo 16 and fly both.”
Notably, OMB did not provide the president the option of approving NASA’s shuttle plans.
The OMB memorandum was discussed on December 3 as Ehrlichman, Shultz, and Cap Weinberger met with President Nixon at the Southern White House in Key Biscayne, Florida. There is no recording of the meeting, since Nixon had not set up a taping system in his office at Key Biscayne, but as was his custom Ehrlichman took notes.
With respect to Apollo 16 and 17, Nixon suggested that it would be better to combine the two missions after the 1972 election, but that his aides should “work it out.” Apollo 16 was scheduled for March 1972, but Nixon suggested moving the launch to April to avoid any possibility of its interfering with his planned 1972 trip to China. (Nixon went to China between February 21 and 28; the Apollo 16 mission was launched on April 16.) Nixon on November 24 had already approved going ahead with Apollo 17; with this discussion of rescheduling the Apollo 16 mission, the possibility of canceling one or both of the missions, a long-held Nixon wish, disappeared.
President Nixon discusses the FY 1973 budget with his advisers. (l-r) John Ehrlichman, George Shultz, and Caspar Weinberger at his Key Biscayne, Florida, residence on December 3, 1971. It was at this meeting that Nixon made the formal decision to approve space shuttle development. (National Archives photo WHPO 7933-8)
With respect to OMB’s proposal for a smaller shuttle, Ehrlichman recorded Nixon’s response simply as “yes,” providing that the vehicle would use the “California engine.”8 The effect of Nixon saying “yes” to the smaller shuttle was to approve the recommendation that “OMB and OST proceed to work with NASA on a reorientation of the space program.” That process would take place during the rest of December.