Getting Close

On the afternoon of December 29, 1971, Fletcher and Low met with George Shultz, Cap Weinberger, and Don Rice from OMB, Peter Flanigan and Jonathan Rose from the White House, and science adviser Ed David to present NASA’s proposal of how best to proceed with respect to the space shuttle. A decision was needed soon; the president’s budget message was due to go to the printer in the first week of January, and it would have to contain some indication of the fate of the space shuttle program.

Fletcher on the morning of the meeting sent to Weinberger a letter reflecting the decisions reached within NASA in the past few days. The letter said: “We have concluded that the full capability 15 x 60′ 65,000# payload shuttle still represents a ‘best buy’ and in ordinary times should be developed. However, in recognition of the extremely severe near-term budgetary problems, we are recommending a somewhat smaller vehicle—one with a 14 x 45’—45,000# payload capability, at a somewhat reduced overall cost.” The letter added “this is the smallest vehicle we can still consider to be useful for manned flight as well as a variety of unmanned payloads.” NASA gave highest priority to retain­ing a shuttle configuration that was large and powerful enough to eventually launch components of a space station, and the 14 x 45 foot shuttle it was now recommending had that capability, even though it would not be able to launch the largest intelligence satellites or astronomical observatories.

The Fletcher letter also reported NASA’s assessment of the shuttle design suggested by OMB, saying that “we have not been able to meet” the objec­tives of a development cost of less than $4 billion and a cost per flight of less than $5 million. NASA noted that the 30-foot payload bay length sug­gested by OMB “eliminates nearly all DOD payloads, some important space science payloads, most application payloads, all planetary payloads, and useful manned modules.” Attached to the letter was a table (reproduced on next page) showing the results of NASA’s evaluation of various shuttle configurations.

The letter said that “the question of a liquid as opposed to a solid booster is not yet completely settled—there are some open technical questions” and “the differences in operating costs [for the two boosters] have not yet been determined with accuracy.” For these reasons, NASA recommended that the choice among booster options should be deferred for two months to allow additional study.

NASA also asked for a “funding contingency,” saying that “it is our inten­tion to manage the program to bring it in” at the costs spelled out in the

Various Shuttle Options Presented by NASA to the White House, December 29, 1971

Payload bay size


10 x 30

12 x 40

14 x 45

14 x 50

15 x 65

Payload weight (pounds)






Development cost (billions)






Operating cost (millions)






Payload costs ($/pound)






Fletcher letter. NASA added “nevertheless, we believe that we should include a contingency against future cost growths due to technical problems. . . We believe a 20% contingency would be appropriate. . . Approval of a $5 billion program [for the 14 x 45′ orbiter] would thus constitute a commitment by NASA to make every effort to produce the desired system for under $5 bil­lion, but in no case more than $6 billion.”

Finally, the letter argued that it was time for “a decision to proceed with full shuttle development” to be made. “Further delays would not produce significant new results,” and “additional delays would have many unsettling effects. . . There is a great deal to be gained, and nothing to be lost, by mak­ing a decision to proceed now.”3

Going into the meeting, Fletcher and Low were uncertain of its outcome; they even agreed in advance that they could accept a shuttle as small as one with a14 x 40′ payload bay and 40,000 pound lift capability, but that anything smaller “would require a Presidential decision.” At the meeting, “the prin­cipal negative guy, once again, was Don Rice who indicated that he did not believe NASA’s figures or the figures presented to us or to him by our contrac­tors.” However, “during the meeting Shultz looked at the facts and figures and decided that really the only thing that makes any sense, as NASA had said all along, is the 15 x 60’—65,000 lb. Shuttle capability.” Fletcher recalled that “at the end of the meeting, George said, well, it’s a pretty easy decision. We’ll go for the 60-foot one. We had George saying that and no one arguing with him.”4

Low noted that “no decision was made in the meeting,” but added that “Fletcher and I were fairly confident that our recommendation of the 14 x 45′ 45,000 lb. Shuttle would be accepted as a minimum and that even the full capability [shuttle] might still be accepted.” A second senior-level meet­ing was scheduled for Monday, January 3, 1972, after the New Year’s week­end, to make the final decision.5