Reaching for the High Frontier: Chapter 13

Reaching for the High Frontier

by Michael A. G. Michaud

Copyright 1986 by Praeger Publishers and reproduced with permission of Greenwood Publishing Group, Inc., Westport, CT. Read complete book here.

Table of Contents

Chapter 13: The Space Station Decision

The design, construction, and establishment of the manned space station should be completed by about 1970. — Willy Ley, 1958 [1]   Tonight, I am directing NASA to develop a permanently manned space station and to do it within a decade. — Ronald Reagan, 1984 [2]
In January 1984, President Ronald Reagan told the nation that he was directing NASA to develop a permanently manned space station within a decade. Here was the next logical step in the realization of the classic agenda for manned spaceflight, which also would contribute to the more diverse agenda of space industrialization and colonization. It gave NASA and several of its centers a major new project, ensuring the continued existence of their skilled teams of space technology experts; without the station or a task of comparable magnitude, NASA would have been in line for a big layoff.[3] It gave the aerospace industry and aerospace professionals the prospect of new contracts and employment, a successor to the Space Shuttle program. The decision also gave pro-space Americans a new focal point for their support and another symbolic victory not long after the first flights of the Shuttle. Frustrated by the drought of the 1970s and stimulated by the first flights of the Shuttle, much of the pro-space constituency coalesced around the idea of a space station. How did the space station decision come about? A study of the public record suggests that the principal lobby for the space station was NASA itself, whose leaders conducted a long, patient campaign against skeptics and budget-cutters. NASA Administrator James Beggs in particular showed determination and political skill. Intermediaries in the White House played a significant role. The President’s own interest in space, and its compatibility with the new pro-development, pro-private enterprise conservatism, were important factors. Friends in Congress provided support when it was needed. Aerospace companies and aerospace professional groups were interested and active participants in the process, although the decision appears to have taken much of a somewhat cynical aerospace community by surprise. Pro-space citizens groups had little influence on the decision itself but helped to create a favorable opinion climate and to provide a supporting chorus when the project first went to Congress.


The idea of a space station goes back a long way, having been featured in works of fiction in the 19th century, and in turn of the century writings by Konstantin Tsiolkowsky.[4] Hermann Oberth pointed out several potential uses of a space station in 1923.[5] In 1929, Hermann Noordung (real name Hermann Potocnic) proposed a toroidal design that was refined in new proposals by von Braun and others in the 1950s and was imprinted on our imaginations in revised form in the 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey.[6] “Development of the space station,” von Braun reportedly said, “is as inevitable as the rising of the Sun.”[6] The station could be an observatory, a communications link, and a way station to the Moon and the planets. It was a central feature of the classic agenda for manned spaceflight and the beginning of permanent human presence in space. Space station concepts have been under study by NASA and its contractors since the agency’s earliest days.[7] The Institute of the Aeronautical Sciences sponsored a space station symposium in 1960. NASA’s Langley Research Center established an office to study a manned orbiting research laboratory in 1963, at about the time that work began on the U.S. Air Force Manned Orbiting Laboratory. Planning for the Skylab short-duration space station began in 1967.[8] The Space Task Group’s 1969 report to the President included a proposal for a continuously operating low altitude station with 6 to 12 occupants, to be followed by later stations in polar and synchronous orbits. A station and a shuttle were both part of NASA’s vision of the American future in space. The Nixon White House forced NASA to choose between a shuttle and a space station. According to former NASA Deputy Administrator Hans Mark, Wernher von Braun told a meeting of NASA officials at that time that the choice must be a shuttle, which was technically more difficult and which would lead naturally to the station. (Space writer James E. Oberg and others have noted that the Soviets made the opposite choice, first building a station and then a shuttle, and that the two great space powers will be converging again in the 1990s.[9]) The Nixon White House made it clear that NASA was to get a shuttle flying first; that policy was continued under the Ford and Carter administrations. However, NASA never gave up the space station idea. Throughout the 1970s, continued low-key planning efforts went on, particularly at the Marshall and Johnson Space Flight centers and in the Office of Space Flight at NASA headquarters. NASA released a booklet entitled Space Station: Key to the Future in the early 1970s, before agreement had been reached on the design of a shuttle.[10] Aerospace industry people and other aerospace professionals frequently presented ideas for space stations at conferences. NASA got a temporary space station in Skylab, used in 1973-74. Skylab, which was basically an extension Of Apollo technologies, burned up in the atmosphere in 1979, before the Space Shuttle went into operation. In 1975, NASA contractors conducted a study of the Manned Orbital Systems Concept, but the idea was not pursued “for budgetary reasons.”[11] In that year, NASA released a booklet entitled The Manned Orbital Facility: A User’s Guide to stimulate discussion about the uses of a space station; among the groups receiving it was FASST.[12] AIAA, an important forum for legitimizing new space program ideas, published a study favorable to space stations in the September 1975 issue of Aeronautics and Astronautics.[13] Meanwhile, the Soviet Union had begun putting up its Salyut space stations in 1971 and was continuing to use them as this book was written. Technologies for a space station clearly were within reach. However, the politics for a space station decision were not yet right. In November 1976, Aviation Week reported that “NASA believes a program start for the first permanently manned space station could be part of a congressional budget request as early as fiscal 1979.”[14] In May 1977, the United States and the Soviet Union announced they would discuss a possible international space station, but those talks fell victim to worsening U.S.-Soviet relations.[15] Subsequently, there was an increasing number of stories in Aviation Week about alleged Soviet development of a 12-man space station, possibly an invocation of the Soviet threat.[16] By 1979, NASA’s Johnson Space Center was studying a Space Operations Center, another euphemism for a space station. However, NASA then was dealing with cost overruns on the Shuttle and was not in a good position politically to seek a major new manned spaceflight project. Aviation Week reported in August 1980 that a consensus was growing in NASA “that the agency must pursue aggressively a permanently manned station as the next major U.S. manned space goal,” with a projected new start for fiscal year 1984 or 1985. NASA official Rocco Petrone reportedly said, “The civilian space program today is in dire need of a bold central theme.”[17] Two months later, NASA Administrator Robert Frosch reportedly said that the time was ripe to start seriously looking at a major new U.S. space initiative and that the Space Operations Center was a good example of what could be done. He added that NASA was then underutilized.[18] By 1980, NASA was hoping for a 1985 or 1986 flight of a science and applications platform, followed five years later by the Space Operations Center.[19] However, the Carter White House apparently never bought the idea of making the space station a new start. A Space Coalition poll reported in September 1980 that the aerospace industry was pessimistic about the prospects for a major new space initiative.[20]


Meanwhile, some pro-space citizens groups, notably the L-5 Society, had begun to focus on the space station as the next goal for their advocacy. The October 1976 L-5 News carried a major feature on the Manned Orbital Facility.[21] By 1980, an operational Space Shuttle was in sight, while space colonies and satellite solar power stations were beginning to fade farther into the future. The station provided a concrete goal, realizable within the lifetimes of citizen space enthusiasts and an organizing theme for their groups. “Such a project will almost certainly not happen,” wrote Gerald W. Driggers, “if the L-5 Society does not turn its efforts toward causing it to happen.”[22] Most pro-space citizens groups saw the Reagan administration as an opportunity for a step forward. Once again, the L-5 Society and its affiliates tended to be out in front of other groups. The January 1981 L-5 News announced a letter-writing campaign urging support for the station, as well as for research on solar power satellites.[23] The Citizens Advisory Council on National Space Policy, in the report of its January 1981 meeting, recommended a low Earth orbit base, to be partially operational by the fall of 1988, which would serve as the hub of a “space industrial park” for private enterprise.[24] What was new was not the idea of a space station but using commercialization as a major argument for it. During the first flight of the Space Shuttle in April 1981 — a signal to aspire to a next step — the L-5 Society used its phone tree to press the Office of Science and Technology Policy to urge the President to adopt a permanently manned station as its next goal.[25] Despite such campaigning, NASA was not given a major new mission during the Reagan administration’s early years. One reason appears to have been a desire to see the Space Shuttle become operational before moving on to the next step. Once Shuttle development costs began to decline, a funding “wedge” would become available, assuming that NASA’s total budget remained roughly the same.


At the beginning of the Reagan administration, NASA still was preoccupied with the Shuttle and with cuts in the planetary program. But the desire to start on the station remained strong. Ivan Bekey, head of advanced programs in NASA’s office of Space Transportation Systems, was quoted as believing in March 1981 that a Reagan statement that “our next major step in space should be the establishment of a permanent manned presence in space” would suffice, leaving NASA to determine the details.[26] The first clear political signal of NASA’s aspirations under the Reagan administration came in May 1981 congressional hearings honoring the astronauts who flew on the first Shuttle mission, when acting NASA Administrator Alan Lovelace and astronauts John W. Young and Robert L. Crippen said that the station was the next logical step.[27] A few weeks later, NASA Administrator-designate James Beggs and Deputy Administrator-designate Hans Mark strongly supported the establishment of a permanently manned space station as the next U.S. space goal.[28] Beggs was a former vice-president of General Dynamics. Mark, a former director of NASA’s Ames Research Center who had served as secretary of the Air Force in the Carter administration, attended the second meeting of the Citizens Advisory Committee on National Space Policy and was regarded by the L-5 Society as a friend in court.[29] What followed was an excellent example of a sustained campaign by an agency’s leadership to get White House approval for a major new program. NASA had learned lessons from its 1969-72 failure to win White House support of its grand agenda. This time the ground was laid carefully, and efforts were made to build alliances and create a consensus. Aerospace companies, although not driving the effort, were valuable allies in providing ideas and doing lobbying. Rockwell International, for example, presented a briefing in October 1981 that supported a near-term focus on an “Earth Support Base.”[30] But the station did not come easy. Several sources report that Beggs and Mark and their colleagues in NASA made four unsuccessful attempts before they finally succeeded: (1) in the late 1981 preparation of the administration’s fiscal year 1983 budget request and the President’s January 1982 State of the Union message; (2) during the 1981-82 space policy study and the related preparations for the President’s July 4, 1982 speech welcoming the return of the fourth Space Shuttle mission; (3) in the late 1982 preparations for the fiscal year 1984 budget; and (4) during the leadup to the President’s October 1983 speech at NASA’s 25th anniversary celebration. Each of these efforts provoked opposition. In an interview published in the December 1981 Omni, Beggs said the station appealed to him as the next major goal for NASA.[31] However, despite public statements by Beggs and Mark that the station was the next logical step, the late 1981 effort made little headway. White House Office of Science and Technology Policy official Victor Reis reportedly expressed doubts about the need for a station in November.[32] In connection with this attempt, James Muncy and other space activists launched a campaign through Omni magazine to get people to write to Vice-President Bush about a “Skyport,” in the hope of getting the President to include a space station in his January 1982 State of the Union address.[33] Although this effort produced a fairly significant volume of letters, it had no detectable effect on White House decision makers. After this initial failure, NASA broadened its efforts. Space station studies under way at Marshall and Johnson Space Centers reportedly were to be combined into a formal NASA position for presentation to President Reagan in the fall of 1982, with the objective of getting a fiscal year 1984 new program start.[34] In March 1982, Aviation Week reported that Beggs wanted to give President Reagan a plan for U.S. space station/space platform development by that summer as the next large U.S. space goal. NASA was considering inviting Canada, the Europeans, and Japan to participate and briefed foreign governments. Presidential Science Adviser George Keyworth reportedly was opposed to the goal.[35] In its first issue of January 1982, Aviation Week carried Planetary Society Executive Director Louis D. Friedman’s letter opposing a space station.[36] However, the momentum behind the station was building in other parts of the space advocacy. In May 1982, the AIAA published its proposed space policy in Astronautics and Aeronautics, calling on the government to establish a commitment to a manned space facility in low Earth orbit.[37] That same month, NASA formed a space station task force, while commissioning space station studies by the Space Science Board, the Space Applications Board, and various contractors. The political visibility of this step suggests that it was done with White House knowledge, if not White House approval. Aviation Week reported at the time that NASA would request about $50 million for fiscal year 1984 to initiate work on the station. Beggs reportedly believed that he was making progress in convincing the Reagan administration that justification existed to initiate the program, although the Department of Defense was indicating no need for a station. By that autumn, the European Space Agency, Japan, Canada, France, and Italy reportedly had begun studies to define possible participation in the station.[38] Meanwhile, the White House had initiated a study of U.S. space policy in August 1981. The results were released on July 4, 1982, the day the fourth Space Shuttle mission returned to Earth and the Shuttle was declared operational. Although the study did not lead directly to a major new program start, it hinted at the future. A White House fact sheet on national space policy stated this as one of the policies that was to govern the conduct of the civil space program: continue to explore the requirements, operational concepts, and technology associated with permanent space facilities.[39] Speaking at the welcoming ceremony for the returning Shuttle astronauts, President Reagan stated, “We must look aggressively to the future by demonstrating the potential of the shuttle and establishing a more permanent presence in space.”[40] The President’s phrase was the outcome of a fairly sharp bureaucratic battle between NASA on the one hand and the Office of Management and Budget and the President’s science advisor on the other. Early drafts of the speech reportedly referred specifically to “a permanent manned presence in space,” but this was changed through the intervention of Science Adviser George Keyworth and Budget Director David Stockman. NASA’s lobbying was said to have included direct appeals to the President and the Office of White House Counselor Edwin Meese. Keyworth was quoted as saying later that “it was improper to put that kind of pressure on the President.” Another player who was a space station advocate was Air Force Colonel Gilbert Rye, then handling space issues on the National Security Council Staff, who is said to have explained the policy statement to the President.[41] After July 4, 1982, Beggs could argue that NASA had a charter to study the potential and technology of a permanent manned facility. But Keyworth argued that a clearly defined objective for a station and a grand vision of what might lie beyond it were needed.[42] The new space policy established a Senior Interagency Group on Space, which later was tasked to look at options on the issue of a space station. Reportedly because of Rye, who was believed to have had the backing of then National Security Adviser William Clark, Keyworth’s office and Stockman’s office were given only observer status on this new committee. Rye also helped in the creation of the U.S. Air Force Space Command, which came into existence in September 1982.[43] Outside groups had become increasingly active on the issue. According to Science, hundreds of letters and telegrams were sent directly to Keyworth’s office, in what he called “a carefully orchestrated campaign.” The Office of Science and Technology Policy staff counted 17 newspaper and magazine articles that predicted an announcement of the space station during the President’s July 4 speech.[44] Meanwhile, NASA’s number three official Philip E. Culbertson published a major article on NASA’s space station plans in the September 1982 Astronautics and Aeronautics.[45] Having won a partial victory, NASA then tried to get the station into the fiscal year 1984 budget, reportedly asking unsuccessfully for money for industry studies of a space station.[46] Keyworth told a House committee in February 1983 that, from the point of view of scientific research, U.S. development of a manned space station would be “an unfortunate step backwards.”[47] AIAA, which had been consistently supportive, published a major section on space station technologies in the March 1983 Astronautics and Aeronautics. In that issue, space writer David Dooling (based in Huntsville, Alabama, where the Marshall Spaceflight Center is located) reported that the Office of Management and Budget had directed a cutback in space station studies, possibly “to head off the formation of a space station lobby or constituency.”[48] However, Aviation Week reported that same month that it was possible that a formal space station line item could appear in the fiscal 1985 budget and that data acquired by the Senior Interagency Group on Space in a study started in October 1982 could lead to an administration statement on the station within the next year.[49] Aviation Week also reported that NASA’s space station studies had matured to a point “where findings and decisions made over the next eight months could affect the character of the agency for the next 10-20 years.” This drew a negative response from Planetary Society Executive Director Louis Friedman, who wrote that “now is hardly the time to embark on such decisions.”[50] Opposition from some scientists was to become increasingly visible later.


By mid-1983, there was growing evidence that the Reagan administration was moving toward a major new decision on space. Science Adviser George Keyworth, who had been a critic of the space station, startled many in July 1983 by calling for an ambitious new space initiative, such as a Moon base or a Mars landing.[51] Meanwhile, NASA contracted with AIAA to hold a major conference on the space station that month, possibly to give the station idea greater credibility. At that meeting, Administrator Beggs said that he expected White House approval within the next 6 to 12 months of a space station as the next U.S. initiative in space and predicted that the President would approve $200 million for advanced space station design work in the fiscal year 1985 budget.[52] House Science and Technology Committee chairman Don Fuqua reportedly said at the same meeting that the House and Senate committees would respond to a space station initiative by saying, “We’ve waited long enough.”[53] However, the Office of Management and Budget continued to oppose the station. Meanwhile, Spacepac announced in a summer 1983 letter that “the space station is the key to our goals.”[54] One factor that helped to break the log jam was the idea of space commercialization and its adoption by a key White House insider. During early 1983, the Senior Interagency Group (Space) was discussing the commercialization of expendable launch vehicles and other space activities. Cabinet Secretary Craig Fuller, a former advertising executive who occupied a key position within the White House, reportedly dropped in on one of these discussions and, according to Science magazine, became so interested that he volunteered to write the group’s report on the subject.[55] Fuller, a strong supporter of private enterprise, seems to have bought the ideas of space commercialization and space industrialization, which were compatible with the administration’s ideology. Patiently supporting these concepts within the administration, he became a key ally of the NASA leadership, helping to bring the space station in through the commercialization door.[56] NASA’s appreciation for Fuller’s role came out in public later. After Fuller had spoken at the second Huntsville conference on space industrialization in February 1984, third-ranking NASA official Philip Culbertson stood up and said, “I have never heard an official close to the President who knew so much about the space program. I am sure that some of the President’s enthusiasm is due to you. On behalf of NASA, I thank you.”[57] NASA, which had set up a space commercialization task force in 1983, had been consulting closely with company executives interested in investing in space enterprises. Apparently with Fuller’s help, arrangements were made for 11 of these corporate managers to brief White House officials on August 3, 1983, on the kind of policy changes needed to obtain the financing and space program stability necessary to stimulate the growth of space commerce. This group then had a meeting with the President, reportedly telling him that approval of a space station program would be the best way to introduce such support and stability while providing facilities in orbit that would stimulate space commercialization. According to Science, the President said, “I want a space station too. I have wanted one for a long time.” However, he qualified the statement by commenting on the realities of federal budgeting. Participants in the meeting reportedly got the impression that the President was enthused by the prospects for commercial activity in space.[58] This also helped to broaden the industrial constituency for the space program. Meanwhile, Senator and ex-astronaut John Glenn added a political dimension by announcing his ideas for the future of the U.S. space program, including a commitment to a manned space station. An interview with Glenn, then a candidate for the Democratic nomination for President, appeared in Omni in October 1983.[59] In November 1983, the Space Shuttle carried the first Spacelab into orbit. This European-built module, designed for scientific and industrial experiments, was similar to some concepts for space station modules and showed that researchers could work in space.[60] By implication, it also broadened the range of those who could go into space well beyond an elite astronaut corps. Following review by the Senior Interagency Group (Space), space station options were to be presented to the President as a prelude to White House decisions on the fiscal year 1985 budget. Reportedly, many influential members of the group lined up against the station, including the Office of Management and Budget, the State Department, the Defense Department, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The move of the Defense Department from a neutral position was said to reflect concern that the station would drain federal development money. Favoring the station were NASA, the Commerce Department, and the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency.[61] This disagreement continued into October, when Science reported a lack of consensus within the government on the space station.[62] NASA reportedly had requested initial space station funding of $235 million. Meanwhile, at House hearings in October 1983, former NASA administrators supported the space station. The National Academy of Science’s Space Science Board issued a report in September that stated, “The board sees no scientific need for this space station during the next 20 years.”[63] This set off a new round of media stories about scientific criticism of the space station. However, the board’s chairman, Thomas Donahue, was careful to point out later that the board had not opposed the station. [64] Less noticed by the media was the fact that the academy’s Space Applications Board took a relatively favorable stand on the station.[65] Meanwhile the President’s political advisers reportedly were urging him to announce the space station with great fanfare in the fall to steal the thunder of Senator and ex-astronaut John Glenn, who was then running for the Democratic Presidential nomination. The occasion suggested was the October 19 celebration of the 25th anniversary of NASA. This did not happen, with Presidential Adviser Edwin Meese being quoted as saying that “NASA’s birthday cake is not going to be in the shape of a space station.”[66] Some of the language for the President’s speech was written by space activist James Muncy, by then working in the Office of Science and Technology Policy and acting as a liaison between that office and “Conservative Opportunity Society” advocates in Congress, particularly Newt Gingrich. The speech, using Ben Bova’s “High Road” terminology, urged NASA to be more visionary:
Right now we’re putting together a National Space Strategy that will establish our priorities and guide and inspire our efforts in space for the next 25 years and beyond. . . . We’re not just concerned about the next logical step in space. We’re planning an entire road, a “high road” if you will, that will provide us a vision of limitless hope and opportunity, that will spotlight the incredible potential waiting to be used for the betterment of humankind. On this 25th anniversary, I would like to challenge you at NASA and the rest of America’s space community: let us aim for goals that will carry us well into the next century.[67]
By November 1983, press stories were predicting that President Reagan would decide within the next few weeks to go ahead with a station.[68] Beggs reportedly was encouraged to place more emphasis on the Soviet threat in testimony presented before the Senate subcommittee dealing with space in mid-November.[69] At a space conference in Virginia late that month, National Security Council Staff member Colonel Gilbert Rye said that the President would receive space station options “very, very soon.”[70] All this encouraged pro-space citizens groups to be more active in supporting the space station initiative. However, the effort still was fragmented and uncertain at that stage. At the November 15 meeting of the National Coordinating Committee for Space, both David Webb and Leonard David said it was too late for the citizens groups to have a sizeable impact on the administration’s decision. “The space movement is no longer setting the context,” said Webb; “the question is how will we react to the President.”[71] The issue went before the Cabinet Council on Commerce and Trade and members of the National Security Council on December 1, 1983, when Beggs briefed the group on NASA’s space station plan.[72] Science magazine reported that the options ranged from an Apollo-style crash program to doing nothing at all.[73] According to Aerospace Daily, defense community representatives indicated no requirement for a space station as well as concern for the potential cost of the program, while Office of Management and Budget officials expressed concern about the deficit situation.[74] The crucial meeting was a Cabinet-level budget review. Sources conflict as to whether this was held on December 5 or December 16, or whether two meetings were held. It was at one of these meetings that Budget Director Stockman reportedly received a rebuff to his argument that the deficit could never be cut if the government continued to fund such exotic projects.[75] According to Newsweek, Attorney General William French Smith responded, “I suspect the comptroller to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella made the same pitch when Christopher Columbus came to court.”[76] Science reports that it was President Reagan who mentioned Ferdinand, Isabella, and Columbus, at the meeting on December 1. According to Science, it was on December 5 that Stockman once again pressed his case against the station, but Reagan vetoed him and ordered that the station be planned for the budget.[77] In any case, the outcome was that the NASA request for $235 million was reduced to $150 million but stayed in the President’s budget request. NASA had won its biggest campaign in a decade. One signal of its confidence was a meeting between NASA and aerospace industry officials during the second week of December to discuss space station design issues.[78] European and Japanese space agencies then were actively studying participation in the station.[79] By mid-December the word was out. The New York Times reported on December 14 that the Reagan administration appeared ready to commit itself to the station in its next budget.[80] The director of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency told the National Space Club the same day that “it appears that the President is going to make a decision in the not too distant future for NASA to proceed on a new manned space station.”[81] By the end of December the chairmen of a full committee and two subcommittees of Congress — Don Fuqua and Harold Vollmer in the House and Slade Gorton in the Senate — had supported the station in letters to the President.[82] Meanwhile, the citizens space groups had become active. On December 9, 1983, Spacepac alerted its members to write five senior administration officials in support of a space station and a lunar base.[83] Campaign for Space sent out “Space Station Alert” postcards on December 10.[84] New National Coordinating Committee for Space (NCCS) Chairman David Webb began calling meetings of Washington representatives of pro-space organizations to discuss what they should do about the space station issue. It was agreed that the first step was to get an immediate input into the Cabinet to encourage the support of those already convinced and to stimulate people to be bold. Individual pro-space organizations launched letter-writing campaigns. Ben Bova sent a letter to National Space Institute members.[85] On January 12, Space Studies Institute Vice-President Gregg Maryniak encouraged members to support the station and a lunar base.[86] Other groups joined the effort, including the AIAA, Omni, Space Calendar, Liftoff magazine, Spaceweek, Write Now!, and Star Fleet Command (a major group of “Star Trek” fans). On January 24, the L-5 Society initiated a campaign to support the President’s plan.[87] By early January, the NCCS group had decided that it would not have any significant influence on the decision itself, which appeared to have been made anyway, and shifted its efforts to supporting the decision once it was announced. As Muncy put it to the group, “we want to be a megaphone for what the President says.”[88] Two days before the State of the Union address, an NCCS drafting group led by Webb hammered out a statement of support, which was distributed on the day of the speech. Although time for coordinating with organizations around the country was short, the Washington group managed to get 15 pro-space organizations to sign. Here is the text of the press release:[89]
The following member organizations of the National Coordinating Committee for Space, representing 100,000 members, supports President Reagan’s anticipated announcement committing the nation to the establishment of a permanent manned space station.   A space station is not a goal in itself, but an essential first step in regaining the United States’ preeminence in space exploration and development. Funding for the station should be in addition to — not in place of — NASA’s regular budget. There must not be a repeat of the 70’s when the development of the space shuttle cut heavily into all our other space programs.   A space station will enable the United States to compete more effectively with the Soviet Union and other nations that are so actively engaged in the exploration and industrialization of outer space. It will also enable our corporations and entrepreneurs to compete in the commercial development of this vital new frontier. In addition, it will provide a less expensive means for our continued, preeminent exploration of the solar system on behalf of all Mankind.   A space station will establish the necessary launch base for our early return to the Moon and for the exploration of other planetary bodies. Such exploration will enable us to procure essential resources for continued development on Earth and in space.   We commend the President for committing the United States to the establishment of a space station and the long-range development of outer space. We encourage the adoption of this program by the Congress.   Endorsing Organizations:
National Space Institute American Astronautical Society Space Studies Institute L-5 Society Spaceweek Spacepac Campaign for Space PAC American Space Foundation Piedmont Advocacy for Space Chicago Society for Space Studies OASIS/L-5 Students for the Exploration and Development of Space Sunsat Energy Council Maryland Space Futures Association American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics
This is a high percentage of the major pro-space organizations, plus several minor ones. It was no small achievement for Webb to get them all to agree to the text, even though it reflected fairly well many of the views of the mainstream of the American space movement. However, there is one significant name missing from the list: the Planetary Society, which would have more than doubled the number of people represented by the signers. Although approached, it declined to sign because of real difficulties with the content of the statement. This was the first important agreed text the NCCS had put out since 1981. However, there is no evidence that it ever reached senior levels in the administration or that it appeared in major media. What may be of greater long-term interest is the fact that those citizen group representatives present managed to reach a consensus on a basic platform for space that included the space station, a lunar base, the SSEC core program, strong space sciences and applications programs, and in the longer term an asteroid probe, space industrialization, and a manned mission to Mars. The President delivered his State of the Union message on January 25, 1984. To the surprise of most of his audience, space was one of his four main topics. And there was the space station initiative, clearly linked to industrialization and commercialization:[90]
A sparkling economy spurs initiative and ingenuity to create sunrise industries and make older ones more competitive. . . . Opportunities and jobs will multiply as we cross new thresholds of knowledge and reach deeper into the unknown. . . . We can follow our dreams to distant stars, living and working in space for peaceful economic and scientific gain. Tonight, I am directing NASA to develop a permanently manned space station and to do it within a decade. . . . A space station will permit quantum leaps in our research in science, communications, and in metals and life-saving medicines which can be manufactured only in space.
Space industrialization, a concept limited to technical and space enthusiast circles only five years before, had been endorsed at the highest level.


Once the decision was announced, pro-space groups shifted their efforts to supporting passage through the Congress of funding for the station for fiscal 1985. There was scattered but highly visible opposition from some scientists and a few other figures, such as aerospace workers leader William Winpisinger, who called the station “lunacy.”[91] The L-5 Society again played the most active role; its Washington representative, Gary Oleson, went on half time from his job to lobby for the station. When it appeared that the House Authorization Committee might cut back funding for the space station, L-5 mobilized its phone tree and a write-in campaign and other pro-space organizations helped. Mark M. Hopkins wrote later that 115,000 messages had been sent in connection with the space station campaign, of which Spacepac and the L-5 Society paid for 75,000.[92] The committee eventually approved the full $150 million. Convinced that their effort made a difference, L-5 leaders cite a letter of appreciation to them from NASA Deputy Administrator Hans Mark.[93] However, the battle was not over. By the time of the L-5 conference in April 1984, concern had shifted to the House Appropriations Committee, where some members favored cutting station funding and even making the station initially an unmanned platform. Spacepac leaders Mark Hopkins and David Brandt-Erichsen sent out an urgent letter calling on addressees to contact three swing members of the committee.[94] Strikingly, the L-5 Society and some other groups were particularly vehement in denouncing the idea that the station should initially be unmanned. Criticisms again were heard from prominent scientists, including leaders of the Planetary Society, who revived old manned versus unmanned issues heard in debates since the 1960s. One tactic used by the pro-station forces was to head off opposition from some scientists by getting support from others. NASA formed a committee of scientists to study the scientific uses of the station.[95] In an inspired improvisation, space activists James Muncy, Gary Oleson, and Joe Hopkins created almost overnight an organization called Scientists for a Space Station, which put out a press release.[96] This group’s most visible member was astronomer and former NASA official Robert Jastrow, who also was a supporter of the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI). Another scientist critical of both SDI and the space station, Carl Sagan, was, of course, president of the Planetary Society, the only major pro-space group that declined to sign the NCCS statement. As of 1985, it looked as if the station might turn out to be a mix of manned and unmanned elements. The committee of scientists convened by NASA eventually reported favorably on the scientific uses of the space station, a theme taken up in the pages of Science by two NASA scientists in December 1984.[97] NASA, with a little help from its friends, got the requested $150 million, although part of it was set aside for studies of unmanned options. The President signed the authorization and appropriations bills in July 1984. NASA announced the formation of a space station program office shortly thereafter and began issuing requests for proposals, setting off the biggest scramble for space contracts since 1972. The agency was back on track with the classic agenda for manned spaceflight. However, this was just a step toward grander visions. NASA official Philip Culbertson told the National Space Club that the station itself is not a mission but an enabling capability.[98] In November 1984, the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) released its report Civilian Space Stations and the U.S. Future in Space.[99] Although the media tended to focus on the report’s criticisms of NASA’s approach to the space station, OTA was in fact supportive of a permanent human presence in space. The report included OTA’s own proposals for future U.S. objectives in space, which drew on some ideas supported by the pro-space movement: a modest human presence on the Moon, further exploration of Mars and some asteroids, and taking at least hundreds of members of the general public into space every year. Even the OTA accepted some of the space vision. The future of the space station was not ensured as of late 1984; it faced difficult budget tests in 1985 and 1986 as the proposed funding increased at a time when the Reagan administration and Congress were emphasizing the need to reduce the federal deficit. That fiscal crunch could be a test of support for manned spaceflight, and for the pro-space lobby. But optimism was surviving. Satellite solar power station inventor Peter Glaser wrote in November 1984 that the station would open the door to U.S. industry in space.[100] NASA Administrator James Beggs observed that, starting in the early 1990s, Americans would be in space permanently.[101]


Former NASA press spokesman Brian Duff describes the station initiative as “a staffed decision,” in which the classic bureaucratic moves worked.[102] Although NASA was the principal lobbying force, it was critically dependent on receptive attitudes in the White House. For its advocacy to bear fruit, at least two things had to happen: the proposed program had to gain credibility both within the technical community and the interested public and the White House had to find it politically useful and ideologically compatible. Space station advocates were fortunate to have a President who found space development personally interesting. However, the steadiness of purpose of NASA’s leaders also was critical. Beggs and his colleagues never wavered. The space station decision seems to support the validity of a thesis discussed in the space weapons chapter: in general, major new technological ideas and projects cannot be rushed through the governmental and political system but require the building of a constituency and improved credibilty. Major top-down decisions such as Apollo can occur only in rare circumstances. There is a significant difference in perception between outsiders and insiders as to the role of citizens groups in the space station decision. The L-5 Society and its offshoot, the Citizens Advisory Council on National Space Policy, claim to have had real influence on the President’s decision and on the content of his State of the Union speech. However, two people who worked in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy during the period say that the citizens groups had no significant influence.[103] What the space movement clearly had done was to help prepare the way with the interested public and to signal the existence of a constituency for space.


  1. Willy Ley, Space Stations (Poughkeepsie, N.Y.: Guild Press, 1958), p. 44.
  2. Ronald Reagan, State of the Union Address, January 24, 1984, in Presidential Documents, January 24, 1984, pp. 87-94.
  3. Interview with Thomas A. Heppenheimer.
  4. See E. E. Hale, “The Brick Moon,” Atlantic Monthly, volume XXIV (October, November, December 1869), and Konstantin Tsiolkowsky, Dreams of Earth and Heaven (Moscow, 1895).
  5. Hermann Oberth, The Rocket into Interplanetary Space (Munich: R. Oldenbourg, 1923).
  6. Hermann Noordung, The Problems of Spaceflight (Berlin: Schmidt & Company, 1929). The von Braun quote is from Egon Eis, The Forts of Folly (London: Oswald Wolff, 1959), p. 248.
  7. See Sylvia Doughty Fines, “Function, Form, and Technology: The Evolution of Space Station in NASA,” paper presented at the Congress of the International Astronautical Federation, Stockholm, October 1985.
  8. Walter B. Olstad, “Targeting Space Station Technologies,” Astronautics and Aeronautics, March 1983, pp. 28-32. See also the special section on Skylab in the June 1971 issue of Astronautics and Aeronautics.
  9. Interview with Hans Mark and James E. Oberg, The New Race for Space (Harrisburg, Pa.: Stackpole Books, 1984). See also “Window for Space Detente,” Aerospace America, November 1984, pp. 86-87.
  10. Space Station (Washington, D.C.: National Aeronautics and Space Administration, 1970).
  11. Philip E. Culbertson, “Current NASA Space Station Planning,” Astronautics and Aeronautics, September 1982, pp. 36-43, 38, 59.
  12. Manned Orbital Facility: A User’s Guide (Washington, D.C.: National Aeronautics and Space Administration, 1975).
  13. Donald W. Patterson, John W. Gurr, and George V. Butler, “Earth Orbiting Stations,” Astronautics and Aeronautics, September 1975, pp. 22-29.
  14. “Expanded Utilization of Shuttle Studied,” Aviation Week and Space Technology, November 8, 1976, p. 134. See also “NASA Weighing Space Station Approach,” Aviation Week and Space Technology, April 18, 1977, pp. 42-43.
  15. “U.S. and Russia Announce Talks on Operating Space Station in 80’s,” New York Times, May 18, 1977.
  16. See Craig Covault, “Soviets Developing 12-Man Space Station,” Aviation Week and Space Technology, June 16, 1980, pp. 26-29. See also Salyut: Soviet Steps Toward Permanent Human Presence in Space (Washington, D.C.: Office of Technology Assessment, 1983).
  17. “Floating in Space,” Aviation Week and Space Technology, August 4, 1980, p. 11.
  18. Craig Covault, “NASA Termed Underutilized,” Aviation Week and Space Technology, October 13, 1980, pp. 16-17.
  19. Brian T. O’Leary, Project Space Station (Harrisburg, Pa.: Stackpole Books, 1983), p. 14.
  20. “Industry Pessimism,” Aviation Week and Space Technology, September 8, 1980, p. 15.
  21. “A Space Base for the 80s?” L-5 News, October 1976, pp. 1-6.
  22. Gerald W. Driggers, “Space Station — Pathway into the Universe,” L-5 News, April 1980, pp. 4-5.
  23. “To Everyone Who Wants an Expanded Space Program,” L-5 News, January 1981, p. 1.
  24. Space: The Crucial Frontier, p. 15.
  25. “The Washington Scene,” L-5 News, June 1981, p. 14.
  26. Craig Covault, “Planners Set Long-Term Space Goals,” Aviation Week and Space Technology, March 9, 1981, pp. 75-78, 75.
  27. “NASA Endorses Space Station Development,” Aviation Week and Space Technology, May 25, 1981, p. 16.
  28. “NASA Nominees Back Expanded Goals,” Aviation Week and Space Technology, June 29, 1981, p. 56.
  29. “Citizens Council Discusses Space Future,” L-5 News, November 1981, p. 1.
  30. “Space: America’s Frontier for Growth, Leadership, and Freedom,” Rockwell International, October 2, 1981.
  31. “Interview: James M. Beggs,” Omni, December 1981, pp. 93-94, 148-51, 94.
  32. “Official Doubts Space Station Need,” Aviation Week and Space Technology, November 30, 1981, p. 20.
  33. See letter from Newt Gingrich, Omni, December 1981, p. 14.
  34. Craig Covault, “Consensus Nearing on Orbital Facilities,” Aviation Week and Space Technology, February 15, 1982, pp. 119-25, 119.
  35. Craig Covault, “NASA Mulls International Effort on Space Station,” Aviation Week and Space Technology, March 1, 1982, pp. 20-22 and “News Digest,” Aviation Week and Space Technology, March 22, 1982, p. 28.
  36. Letter from Louis D. Friedman, Aviation Week and Space Technology, January 4, 1981, p. 68. A rebuttal from Leonard W. David appeared in Aviation Week and Space Technology, March 22, 1982, p. 80.
  37. “Space Policy: An AIAA View,” Astronautics and Aeronautics, May 1982, pp. 12-14.
  38. “Industry Observer,” Aviation Week and Space Technology, September 6, 1982, p. 39; Culbertson, “Current NASA Space Station Planning.”
  39. White House Fact Sheet, July 4, 1982.
  40. Remarks by President Reagan at Edwards Air Force Base, July 4, 1982.
  41. R. Jeffrey Smith, “Squabbling Over Space Policy,” Science 217 (1982):331-33.
  42. Richard G. O’Lone, “Keyworth Urges Definition of Space Station Objective,” Aviation Week and Space Technology, July 4, 1983, pp. 25-26, 25.
  43. Interview with James Muncy, March 8, 1984.
  44. R. Jeffrey Smith, “Squabbling Over Space Policy.”
  45. Philip E. Culbertson, “Current NASA Space Station Planning,” pp. 36-43, 59.
  46. M. Mitchell Waldrop, “NASA Wants a Space Station,” Science 217 (1982):1018-21, 1021.
  47. “What’s In a Step,” Aviation Week and Space Technology, February 28, 1983, p. 15.
  48. Astronautics and Aeronautics, March 1983, pp. 28-68, and David Dooling, “Space Station Faces Difficult Birth,” Astronautics and Aeronautics, March 1983, pp. 14-18.
  49. Craig Covault, “Space Station Pivotal in NASA Future,” Aviation Week and Space Technology, March 14, 1983, pp. 83-89.
  50. Letter from Louis D. Friedman, Aviation Week and Space Technology, May 2, 1983, p. 110.
  51. “Keyworth Calls for Bold Push in Space,” Science 221 (1983):132.
  52. Craig Covault, “NASA Chief Foresees Space Station Approval,” Aviation Week and Space Technology, July 25, 1983, pp. 18-21, 18.
  53. “AIAA/NASA Space Station Symposium,” L-5 News, November 1983, pp. 3-4, 3.
  54. Undated letter from Spacepac, Summer 1983.
  55. M. Mitchell Waldrop, “The Selling of the Space Station,” Science 223 (1984):793-94, 794.
  56. Interview with James Muncy, March 8, 1984.
  57. The author was present.
  58. M. Mitchell Waldrop, “The Selling of the Space Station.”
  59. “Interview: John Glenn,”Omni, October 1983, pp. 127-32, 190.
  60. See M. Mitchell Waldrop, “Spacelab: Science on the Shuttle,” Science 222 (1983):405-7.
  61. “Space Station View,” Aviation Week and Space Technology, August 15, 1983, p. 17.
  62. “No Consensus Yet on a Space Station,” Science 222 (1983):34.
  63. Johan Benson, “Science Board Urges Hold on Space Station,” Astronautics and Aeronautics, November 1983, p. 77 and “No Consensus Yet on Space Station.”
  64. T. M. Donahue, “Science and a Space Station,” The Planetary Report, July/August 1984, p. 7.
  65. Space Applications Board, Practical Applications of a Space Station (Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press, 1984). See also “Space Applications Board Takes Supportive Stand on Space Station,” Aerospace Daily, December 21, 1983, p. 269.
  66. Interview with James Muncy, March 8, 1984.
  67. Speech by President Reagan, October 19, 1983, in Weekly Compilation of Presidential Documents, October 24, 1983, pp. 1460-63, 1462-63. See also “Reagan Urges NASA to be More Visionary,” Aviation Week and Space Technology, October 24, 1983, p. 25.
  68. See Robert C. Toth and Sara Fritz, “Reagan Likely to Back Permanent Station in Space,” Los Angeles Times, November 17, 1983.
  69. “Soviet Threat,” Aerospace Daily, November 21, 1983, p. 105.
  70. “Reagan to Get Space Station Options Soon, NSC Staffer Says,” Aerospace Daily, November 29, 1983, pp. 139-40.
  71. The author was present at the meeting.
  72. See “Space Station,” Aviation Week and Space Technology, November 28, 1983, p. 17; “President Hears Space Station Options,” Aerospace Daily, December 2, 1982, p. 164; “Washington Roundup,” Aviation Week and Space Technology, December 5, 1983, p. 15.
  73. M. Mitchell Waldrop, “The Selling of the Space Station.”
  74. “President Hears Space Station Options,” Aerospace Daily, December 2, 1983, p. 164.
  75. See “Station Decision Overrode Strong Opposition,” Aviation Week and Space Technology, January 30, 1984, p. 16.
  76. “The Attorney General’s Space Shot,” Newsweek, January 30, 1984, p. 11.
  77. M. Mitchell Waldrop, “The Selling of the Space Station.”
  78. “Space Station,” Aerospace Daily, December 12, 1983, p. 210.
  79. “ESA Pursuing Space Station Role,” Aviation Week and Space Technology, December 5, 1983, pp. 16-20; “Japanese Firms Study U.S. Space Station,” Aerospace Daily, December 13, 1983, p. 223.
  80. Philip M. Boffey, “President Seems Near Commitment on Space Station,” New York Times, December 14, 1983.
  81. “Cooper Predicts OSD Backing of Space Station if Reagan Supports It,” Aerospace Daily, December 15, 1983, p. 235.
  82. See “Senator Gorton Urges Presidential Go-Ahead on Space Station Proposal,” Aerospace Daily, January 9, 1984, p. 37.
  83. Letter from Mark M. Hopkins, December 9, 1983.
  84. Postcard from Campaign for Space, postmarked December 10, 1983.
  85. Undated letter from Benjamin Bova.
  86. Memorandum from Gregg Maryniak dated January 12, 1984.
  87. L-5 Society release dated January 24, 1984.
  88. The author was present at the meeting.
  89. Press release from the National Coordinating Committee on Space, January 24, 1984.
  90. “The State of the Union,” in Presidential Documents, volume 20 (January 30, 1984), pp. 87-94, 90.
  91. John Newbauer, “Away Space Station,” Aerospace America, March 1984, pp. 12-13.
  92. Letter from Mark M. Hopkins.
  93. Letter from Hans Mark, April 4, 1984.
  94. Circular letter from Mark M. Hopkins and David Brandt-Erichsen, April 16, 1984.
  95. “New Task Force to Involve Scientists in Space Station Use Study,” Aerospace Daily, January 20, 1984, p. 107.
  96. Press release from Scientists for a Manned Space Station, April 30, 1984.
  97. Kenneth J. Frost and Frank B. MacDonald, “Space Research in the Era of the Space Station,” Science 226 (1984):1381-85.
  98. Speech to National Space Club Luncheon, November 14, 1984.
  99. Civilian Space Stations and the U.S. Future in Space (Washington, D.C.: Office of Technology Assessment, 1984).
  100. Peter E. Glaser, “Space Station – A Boon to Industry,” Aerospace America, November 1984, p. 4.
  101. James M. Beggs, “Space Station: The Next Logical Step,” Aerospace America, September 1984, pp. 47-52, 48.
  102. Interview with Brian Duff.
  103. Interviews with Victor Reis and James Muncy.

Reaching for the High Frontier:     Table of Contents     Chapter 14