The Space Program and National Priorities

Richard Nixon made it clear to his associates that he did not want the post – Apollo space effort appear to take money away from government programs on Earth. As the March 1970 statement outlining his space policy was being prepared, Nixon stressed that it should avoid “positive statements on space” being “invidiously” compared to his attitude toward “problems in poverty and social problems here on earth.” He did not want to be seen as “taking money away from social programs and the needs of the people here [on Earth] to fund spectacular crash programs out in space.” Nixon was a care­ful reader of opinion polls and other indications of public sentiment, and his generalized sense that space achievements were part of “exploring the unknown” did not override his sense that an ambitious space program was not something that would gain political support. He was not interested in leading the nation to accept an ambitious post-Apollo space effort.

This perspective was applied in an ad hoc fashion to budget decisions on the NASA program in December 1969 and January 1970, and space did not fare well as it competed for funding with other Nixon administra­tion priorities in the overall context of an imperative to balance the federal budget. In parallel with the chaotic Fiscal Year 1971 budget process, there was a move to formalize the approach the Nixon administration would take to setting the priority of post-Apollo space efforts. The result was what has been characterized in this study as the “Nixon space doctrine,” clearly stated in the March 7, 1970, presidential statement on space. Characterizing this statement as a “doctrine” may be rather overstating the reality; it was more an after-the-fact rationalization of the perspectives that led Nixon and his associates to reject the recommendations of the Space Task Group and even in the aftermath of the Apollo success to continue to reduce the NASA bud­get. But in the sense that the framework for space decision making set out in the Nixon statement has in its essence been accepted by most presidents since, it can be said to deserve being called a “doctrine.”

The Nixon space doctrine had two elements. The first was to change the status of the space program from an effort formally assigned the highest national priority, as had been the case during Apollo, to just one of many “normal” government activities. In the language of the space statement: “We must think of them[space activities] as part of a continuing process—one which will go on day in and day out, year in and year out—and not as a series of separate leaps, each requiring a massive concentration of energy and will and accomplished on a crash timetable.” Space was to become “a normal and regular part of our national life.”

The second element of the doctrine was to declare that the space program from 1970 forward would have to compete with other discretionary govern­ment activities for priority and corresponding budgetary support. The space statement said: “Space expenditures must take their proper place within a rigorous system of national priorities. What we do in space from here on in. . . must therefore be planned in conjunction with all of the other under­takings which are also important to us.”