The Impact of the Nixon Space Doctrine

The proposition that the space program should not be based on “a series of separate leaps, each requiring a massive concentration of energy and will and accomplished on a crash timetable,” has had a continuing impact on presidential decisions on the space program. President Jimmy Carter in 1978 approved a space policy statement that explicitly echoed the Nixon declara­tion; it said “our space policy will become more evolutionary rather than centering on a single, massive engineering feat.”3 Even though most presi­dents since Richard Nixon have proposed some type of major new space development and in most cases provided a timetable for its achievement, in none of those proposals was the undertaking to be carried out on a “crash” basis, and certainly none were accompanied by a “massive concentration of energy and will,” not to mention adequate financial resources.

The Nixon decision that “space expenditures must take their proper place within a rigorous system of national priorities” has had an even more last­ing impact on the U. S. space program. At the peak of the Apollo buildup in 1966, the NASA budget comprised nearly 4.4 percent of federal spending overall and 19 percent of discretionary nondefense federal spending. (The

NASA share of the federal budget is most frequently cited in terms of a percentage of the overall budget. Given the inexorable growth of the por­tion of the budget devoted to mandatory entitlements, it seems more use­ful to discuss the NASA budget in terms of its share of the discretionary nondefense budget, since it is in that realm that space spending competes with other discretionary government programs.) As President Lyndon B. Johnson refused to approve any of NASA’s post-Apollo proposals, NASA’s budget share quickly began to decline from its Apollo high point; by the time Richard Nixon became president the NASA budget had dropped to just above 8 percent of discretionary nondefense spending. The early Nixon space decisions continued this trend; in Fiscal Year 1973, the budget in which space shuttle approval was first reflected, the NASA discretionary budget share was approximately 6 percent and on a downward trajectory. While it was under Lyndon Johnson rather than any of his successors that the biggest percentage reduction in NASA’s budget share occurred, that reduction came from deferring a decision on what to do in space after Apollo, not on the basis of a specific decision to lower the space program’s priority. By contrast, Richard Nixon consciously made that crucial decision—to reduce NASA’s priority rather than assign it new, expensive programs and thus continuing rather than reversing the decline in NASA’s budget share. The NASA por­tion of discretionary nondefense spending vacillated between 6 and 4 per­cent between 1977 and 2002 and between 4 and 3 percent since. By any measure, the space program has not done well in competition for budget resources; in fact, compared to other government programs, it has declined in priority over the past 40 years.4

The consequences of this declining share of the overall discretionary bud­get have been clear to most observers. For example, the Columbia Accident Investigation Board in 2003 observed that “NASA has had to participate in the give and take of the normal political process in order to obtain the resources needed to carry out its programs.” In this give and take, “NASA has usually failed to receive budget support consistent with its ambitions. The result. . . is an organization straining to do too much with too little.”5