Epilogue Richard Nixon and the American. Space Program
P resident Richard Nixon and his associates between 1969 and 1972 made three major decisions with lasting consequences for the U. S. space program.1 The preceding chapters have chronicled the making of those decisions. This summary chapter will assess their character and discuss their impact on the U. S. space program over the more than four decades since they were made. The three principal Nixon administration space policy decisions were:
• To treat the space program, not as a special, high-priority government activity as had been the case during Apollo, but rather as part of the “day in and day out” activities of government, with its budget determined “within a rigorous system of national priorities.”* The Nixon administration formalized NASA’s need to compete with other government agencies through the political and budgetary processes for priority, and then assigned a relatively low priority to space activities in that competition.
• To lower U. S. ambitions in spa^ce by not setting another cha^llenging space goal and thus ending for the foreseeable future human space flights beyond low Earth orbit:. As Assistant to the President Peter Flanigan remarked at the time, there was in the White House in 1969 and early 1970 “a feeling that the country had had enough excitement [in space] for now”; there was no inclination on the part of Richard Nixon to propose another Kennedy – like space goal for the post-Apollo period or even to indicate in any but the most general terms that the United States would continue to work toward human exploration of the solar system.
• To build the post-Apollo progra^m around the space shuttle without linking the shuttle to a long-term strategy for its use. The shuttle was seen as a new capability for carrying out the space program of the 1980s and beyond. Those directly involved in shuttle planning saw it as a first step
Citations to material quoted in previous chapters will not be repeated here.
toward a comprehensive space exploitation and exploration capability. However, NASA did not clearly present this perspective to Richard Nixon and his associates as the space agency sought shuttle approval, and the Nixon administration did not couple its approval to a strategic perspective on long term space program goals. As historian Walter McDougall later observed, “Apollo was a matter of going to the moon and building whatever technology could get us there; the Space Shuttle was a matter of building a technology and going wherever it could take us.”2
The first two of these decisions were made early in the Nixon administration, in the context of the White House quickly rejecting the ambitious post-Apollo space program proposed in the 1969 Space Task Group report. While these decisions were resisted by NASA, there was little controversy among Richard Nixon and his advisers in making them; their collective intent from the start of their time in the White House was to follow Apollo with a much more modest space effort. In contrast, the decision to develop the space shuttle was the end product of a contentious three-year decision process, with NASA pushing for approval of a technologically ambitious shuttle design and White House budget and technical advisers opposing such an undertaking and proposing more modest approaches to keeping human space flight a part of post-Apollo activities. Richard Nixon and his senior advisers gave little weight to economic and technical arguments, seeing the shuttle program primarily in a political context. The NASA position prevailed, with four-decade consequences for the U. S. space program.