Was Richard Nixon Involved?
President Nixon had decided on December 3 to approve some form of a space shuttle program. Whether or not Richard Nixon was consulted later in December or over the New Year’s weekend, as the decision to approve the full capability shuttle was made, is not clear. There is suggestive evidence to support either possibility.
Prior to the December 29 meeting at which Shultz gave the first indication that he would support the large shuttle, there had been general agreement among the White House staff that the issue of shuttle payload bay size and weightlifting capability was too detailed and too technical to bring before the president. There were no meetings with the president to make final decisions on any agency budget appeals, with the exception of the Department of Defense, in the days just before or after Christmas. Nixon was at his Key Biscayne, Florida, residence from December 27-31. There is no record on Nixon’s official schedule of a phone call from anyone involved in the December 29 White House meeting with NASA to discuss its outcome with the president. On December 30, Shultz was still urging Fletcher not to insist on seeing the president with respect to the shuttle decision. On December 31, Nixon did try, unsuccessfully, to telephone Al Rockwell, but this appears to have been just one of many “Happy New Year” calls Nixon placed that day to people with whom he had a personal relationship. Shultz and Weinberger did meet with Nixon on the morning of January 3 after the president returned to Washington, but that meeting was to discuss the overall shape of the FY1973 budget; neither the space shuttle nor any other specific program was discussed.16 All of this evidence tends to suggest that Nixon was not consulted as the final decision on shuttle size was being made.
There is some counterevidence, however, that Nixon might indeed have influenced the final decision on shuttle configuration, whether on that final weekend or before. John Ehrlichman suggested in a 1983 interview that he was sure it was “Nixon’s decision on the thing [shuttle], because the way these things would come to him would be with alternate levels, and then a brief description of the differences—if you go to this level, you get that; if you go to this level, you get that plus this. There wasn’t anybody during that time who made those final decisions except Nixon. . . Defense, space, certain kinds of domestic problems, he was the final arbitrator.” However, Ehrlichman may well have been referring to the November 24 and December 3 meetings at which initial decisions on the space shuttle had been made. As noted in chapter 13, Ehrlichman and Nixon were attracted by the national security uses of the shuttle. Nixon would mention those uses in his January 5 meeting with NASA’s Fletcher and Low, indicating that he was already aware of them. As the final decision on shuttle configuration was being made in March 1972, Cap Weinberger would reiterate to Fletcher “the President’s strong interest in retaining the military capability” as a factor in the “decision on the larger size” shuttle, and Fletcher would say that “the President’s expressed desire to make the shuttle a useful vehicle for military space operations could not be fulfilled with the smaller shuttle.” When, and by whom, Nixon was briefed on the national security uses of the full capability shuttle is not clear. At least Ehrlichman, and probably also Shultz and Weinberger, were aware of Nixon’s interest in national security applications of the shuttle’s capabilities as they made the final decision on shuttle size. That they took the step of actually consulting with the president at that point appears unlikely. While there is no doubt that Richard Nixon gave the green light to developing the space shuttle and that he had expressed interest in the shuttle being able to carry out a wide range of national security missions, it is probable that George Shultz and Cap Weinberger, possibly after consulting Ehrlichman and Flanigan, were the individuals who made the final decision on approving the full capability shuttle. They made that decision on their own, not on the basis of a specific presidential directive.17