The Space Shuttle Decision:

Chapter 4: Winter of Discontent Chapter 4: Winter of Discontent

The Space Shuttle Decision

by T. A. Heppenheimer

NASA SP-4221
NASA History Series


On an afternoon in July 1969, while the Apollo 11 mission stood poised for a flight to the moon, Tom Paine found himself confronted by a group of civil rights demonstrators. Their leader was Reverend Ralph Abernathy, president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Abernathy had succeeded Martin Luther King in that post, following the death of King a year earlier. Abernathy now came to Cape Canaveral on the eve of NASA’s triumph.

A light mist of rain fell intermittently, as thunder rumbled in the distance. Paine stood coatless under a cloudy sky, accompanied only by NASA’s press officer, as Abernathy approached with his party, marching slowly and singing “We Shall Overcome.” Several mules were in the lead, as symbols of rural poverty. Abernathy then gave a short speech. He deplored the condition of the nation’s poor, declaring that one-fifth of the nation lacked adequate food, clothing, shelter, and medical care. In the face of such suffering, he asserted that space flight represented an inhuman priority. He urged that its funds be spent to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, tend the sick, and house the homeless.

Paine replied that “if we could solve the problems of poverty by not pushing the button to launch men to the moon tomorrow, then we would not push that button.” He added that NASA’s technical advances were “child’s play” compared to “the tremendously difficult human problems” that concerned the SCLC. He offered the hope that NASA indeed might contribute to addressing these problems, and then asked Abernathy, a minister, to pray for the safety of the astronauts. Abernathy answered with emotion that he would certainly do this, and they ended this impromptu meeting by shaking hands all around. [Paine, Memo for Record, July 17, 1969.]

Their brief conversation brought no lasting consequence. Yet it was heavy with history, for Paine and Abernathy stood as representatives of two deep themes that had marked the nation’s experience before America even existed.

Paine was the technologist, heir to a record of splendid accomplishment. His forebears had built ships, constructed transcontinental railroads, dug the Panama Canal, captured water to allow cities to grow in the arid West, flung power and telephone lines from coast to coast. They had built highways and factories, had put the nation on wheels, had mastered the art of flight. At that very moment, others were winning achievement in the realm of computers.

There was, however, another and far more somber side to America’s history, for the nation had been conceived in the original sin of slavery. Abraham Lincoln had proposed that “every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword”; yet the stain ran so deep that not even the Civil War could expunge it. Like Lincoln, Martin Luther King had grappled with this sin, had sought the moral authority to sway a deeply divided people; and like Lincoln, he had paid with his life, with his goal only partly won.

The Sixties

“The legacy of Apollo has spoiled the people at NASA,” Wernher von Braun remarked in the wake of the moon landing. “They believe that we are entitled to this kind of a thing forever, which I gravely doubt. I believe that there may be too many people in NASA who at the moment are waiting for a miracle, just waiting for another man on a white horse to come and offer us another planet, like President Kennedy.” [John Logsdon interview, Wernher von Braun, Washington, pp. 18-19.]

In 1969, NASA still lived in the shadow of Kennedy, both in its immediate concern with Apollo and in its institutional hopes. Apollo had taken form as an initiative in foreign policy. It could hardly have been otherwise; Kennedy was very much a cold warrior, who had devoted his inaugural address entirely to foreign affairs. There was a reason for this overriding concern: Kennedy, like his party, carried a heavy burden. The party governed under its own shadow, for they had held both Congress and the White House when China fell to communism in 1949.

It is difficult to overstate the dismay with which America faced the communist threat of the postwar years. It was almost as if to say that our victory in the war was meaningless, that we had defeated Japan and Germany only to face the far greater power of Stalin and Chairman Mao. Less than a year after Mao proclaimed the People’s Republic of China, the U.S. was at war in Korea, a war that President Truman would find himself neither able to win nor to end. In turn, this war drove him from office. At home, fear of communism encouraged the excesses of Senator Joseph McCarthy and his allies, who recklessly smeared the reputations of good and decent people because of their political beliefs and activities, real or alleged.

It was the proud boast of Eisenhower’s Republicans that while Truman had lost not only China but Eastern Europe, they had held the line. They had ended the Korean War, and had preserved peace amid subsequent dangers in a perilous world. Kennedy’s main challenge was to continue to hold this line, to deny Moscow and Beijing any further victories. Under the shadow of China, however, he would not proceed with the calm confidence that had marked Eisenhower and his policies. Living in that shadow, Kennedy’s Democrats would find themselves driven to become more anti-communist than the Republicans. In conducting foreign policy, they worked amid gnawing concern that they might prove to be weak, and would compensate by becoming overly bold. [Heppenheimer, Countdown, pp. 177-188 treats the background to Kennedy’s commitment to Apollo; see also Logsdon, Decision.]

The most important consequence was the war in Vietnam. When the French faced defeat in their struggle against Ho Chi Minh in 1954, Ike had had his chance to intervene massively in that country. Declining to do this, he had left the French to their fate. But Vietnam was adjacent to China, in the one area of the world where further communist advance was both most likely and most unacceptable. Kennedy and his advisors accepted the domino theory, which viewed South Vietnam as a linchpin: if it fell, the whole of Southeast Asia would soon go as well. In 1961, General Lyman Lemnitzer, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, warned that if Saigon were to fall, “we would lose Asia all the way to Singapore.” Kennedy, accepting this view, made it a basis for policy. [Fall, Hell, pp. 293-313; Manchester, Glory, pp. 915-923.]

Waging total cold war, Kennedy believed that it was essential to deny Moscow propaganda victories as well as military ones. A prime topic for propaganda was spaceflight, and in no way would Kennedy concede that the Soviets might concentrate resources into this area while failing their citizens in a host of ways that were far more important. The issue was one of national prestige, what in earlier times had been known as national honor: if the world viewed space as important and saw that the Soviets were ahead, then America would have to meet this challenge and take the lead. Time and again, during the campaign of 1960, Kennedy spoke of other nations and emphasized that leadership in space was essential if America was not to forfeit their support:

The people of the world respect achievement. For most of the twentieth century they admired American science and American education, which was second to none. But now they are not at all certain about which way the future lies. The first vehicle in outer space was called Sputnik, not Vanguard. The first country to place its national emblem on the moon was the Soviet Union, not the United States.

If the Soviet Union was first in outer space, that is the most serious defeat the United States has suffered in many, many years. Because we failed to recognize the impact that being first in outer space would have, the impression began to move around the world that the Soviet Union was on the march, that it had definite goals, that it knew how to accomplish them, that it was moving and we were standing still. That is what we have to overcome, that psychological feeling in the world that the United States has reached maturity, that maybe our high noon has passed and that now we are going into the long, slow afternoon. [McDougall, Heavens, pp. 221-222.]

Ike had refused to be drawn into war in Vietnam, leaving that commitment to Kennedy. At a cabinet meeting in December 1960, Ike had also declined a commitment to the moon, turning down a specific plan that closely resembled the eventual Apollo [Logsdon, Decision, pp. 34-35]. When Kennedy accepted that challenge, only five months later, the moon held a threefold significance. It represented a simple and dramatic goal that everyone could understand. It appeared reachable during that decade, and would not impose a prolonged effort that might lose public interest. In addition to this, the moon was demanding enough to call for an entirely new array of launch vehicles and spacecraft, requiring far more power than the Soviet rockets of the day could provide. The Soviet lead in rocketry would not help them; like the Americans, they would have to start afresh. Kennedy believed, correctly, that in the resulting competition the U.S. would prove more capable in coming up with the enormous sums of money that would be necessary to reach the moon.

As the decade of the 1960s progressed, the Cold War lost its sense of imminent threat. In 1961, Nikita Khrushchev had provoked a crisis in Germany, and had built the Berlin Wall. By 1968, however, the Democrats could say that they too had held the line. By then nearly 20 years had elapsed since the fall of China had given communism its last major territorial advance. The Soviets had been stymied in Europe; America and its NATO allies had protected West Berlin, even though that city was entirely surrounded by communist territory. Though Fidel Castro ruled Cuba, he had failed to spread his revolution elsewhere in the Caribbean or in Latin America. In addition to this, communism had received a severe setback in Southeast Asia in 1965, for General Suharto of Indonesia broke an attempted communist takeover and went on to crush his country’s communist party. [Heppenheimer, Countdown, pp. 196-197; Johnson, Modern, pp. 479-480.]

In 1968, the nation was at war in Vietnam. During February, amid the new year celebrations known as Tet, that country’s communist forces launched a massive and widespread series of attacks. Battles raged in Saigon, where they penetrated the grounds of the American embassy. They captured the city of Hue, an ancient capital, and held it for several weeks. They laid siege to a Marine base, Khe Sanh, pounding it with mortars and artillery. Dozens of cities came under assault.

As a military engagement, this Tet Offensive failed. Powerful counterattacks routed the communists, retaking Hue, while the Marines held Khe Sanh. As a political exercise, however, the offensive succeeded brilliantly. It drove home the fact that North Vietnam was in the war to stay and would not be defeated by any means short of additional massive escalation. In 1961, Kennedy had declared that America would “pay any price, bear any burden” to prevail. By 1968, it was clear that the nation would do nothing of the sort, at least not in Vietnam. In the wake of that offensive, the question facing America was not how to win, but how to withdraw. In turn, this reflected the waning of foreign affairs as a paramount concern, for withdrawal clearly meant that the nation would leave the battlefield on terms short of victory. [Time, February 9, 1968, pp. 15-16, 22-33; Newsweek, February 12, 1968, pp. 23-33; Manchester, Glory, pp. 1124-1126; White, 1968, pp. 3-5, 10-13; Tuchman, Folly, pp. 348-352.]

While foreign affairs lost their life-and-death character, the public turned to domestic concerns with considerable passion. Now these issues that had languished since the late 1930s, amid wars and military preparations, would have their day. Foremost among them was race.

We remember the 1960s for the civil rights revolution. Its roots, however, went back an additional decade, and embraced all three branches of the federal government. In 1954, the Supreme Court showed that it would rule unanimously in upholding the rights of black America, as Chief Justice Earl Warren led his associate justices in handing down the landmark ruling, Brown v. Board of Education, that struck down the segregation of schools. Three years later, President Eisenhower showed that he would enforce a desegregation order using federal troops, as he sent elements of the 101st Airborne Division to quell a dangerous mob in Little Rock, Arkansas. Also in 1957, Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson rallied two-thirds of his fellow senators to break a filibuster and enact a civil rights bill. Though the bill was weak, its significance was great; it was the first such measure enacted since Reconstruction. [Manchester, Glory, pp. 734-737, 799-809; Branch, Parting, pp. 220-222.]

In the lives of most black and white people, however, nothing had changed. Though the Supreme Court ruling represented binding precedent as case law, it lacked the force of a federal statute. Federal civil rights law remained so weak that the Justice Department lacked the legal standing to initiate lawsuits aimed at achieving desegregation. The civil rights movement had an episodic character; when Ike sent troops to Little Rock, for instance, that city’s crisis ended as quickly as if the Seventh Cavalry had come riding to the rescue in a John Wayne movie. Similarly, when Kennedy sent a federal force against armed white rioters at the University of Mississippi in 1962, this news story blazed up and died in a matter of days. Such events made it easy to believe that all was well, that federal marshals would preserve order, and that America could continue without fundamental change.

Then in April 1963, Martin Luther King took his movement to Birmingham, Alabama, which he described as “the largest segregated city in the United States.” Opposing him was the city’s powerful police commissioner, Eugene “Bull” Connor, an ardent racist. King launched a succession of protest marches and demonstrations that grew in size as the month progressed; Connor struck back by arresting and jailing the demonstrators. King himself became a prisoner; still the protests continued to grow. By early May, Connor had literally run out of jail cells, and when the demonstrations continued, he lashed at them with police dogs and with fire hoses forceful enough to peel bark from a tree.

Television networks that had been covering Birmingham as an ongoing news story, now showed their power. When viewers saw nonviolent protesters under attack by vicious dogs and equally vicious police, the nation shuddered in dismay. This marked a breakthrough in the cause of civil rights, for that movement now held America’s full attention, and would not let it go. A month later, Kennedy himself addressed the nation, calling for a sweeping law that would protect the rights of black citizens. Kennedy took this stand before the election of 1964 and not after, for he expected to win a second term. In turn, his reelection was to vindicate his leadership on this most controversial of issues. [Manchester, Glory, pp. 943-952, 976-978; White, 1964, pp. 199-215.]

The historian Bruce Catton writes that during the Civil War, newly-freed blacks “were men coming up out of Egypt, trailing the shreds of a long night from their shoulders.” For many of their descendants, the passage of a century had brought little change. Thus in 1964, a black woman named Fannie Lou Hamer told of her attempt to register to vote as a resident of Mississippi:

I was carried to the county jail. I was placed in a cell. After I was placed in the cell I began to hear sounds of licks and screams. I could hear the sounds of licks and horrible screams, and I could hear somebody say, “Can you say, “Yes sir,’ nigger? Can you say “Yessir’?”

They beat her, I don’t know how long, and after awhile she began to pray and asked God to have mercy on these people.

And it wasn’t too long before three white men came to my cell.

I was carried out of the cell into another cell where they had two Negro prisoners. The State Highway Patrolman ordered the first Negro to take the blackjack.

The first Negro prisoner ordered me, by orders from the State Highway Patrolman, for me to lay down on a bunk bed on my face, and I laid on my face.

The first Negro began to beat, and I was beat until he was exhausted. The State Highway Patrolman ordered the second Negro to take the blackjack. The second Negro began to beat and I began to work my feet. I began to scream, and one white man got up and began to beat me on the head and tell me to “hush.”

All this is on account we want to register, to become first-class citizens. [Catton, Stillness, p. 259; White, 1964, pp. 332-333.

Yet if federal legislation could extirpate such evils, the nation now would certainly make the attempt. The Civil Rights Act, which became law in mid-1964, proved to be only the beginning. A year later, Congress complemented it with a far-reaching Voting Rights Act. In turn, these laws were part of a surge of domestic legislation that was virtually unparalleled. Trust in government was at a peak, and President Johnson, supported by powerful majorities within a willing House and Senate, would make the most of this.

Aid to education topped his list of priorities; over 40 bills dealt with this topic. Congress enacted a law establishing Medicare, which complemented Social Security in addressing the needs of retirees. Johnson had declared war on poverty; Congress responded with a law that set up a new Office of Economic Opportunity, with the rural poor of Appalachia as a particular concern. Other bills established a National Foundation for the Arts and Humanities and a Cabinet-level Department of Housing and Urban Development. Still others fought heart disease, stroke, and cancer. A new immigration law opened the door to newcomers from Asia, heralding a change in the centuries-old predominance of immigration from Europe. To pay for it all, Johnson won a major tax cut that would stimulate economic growth. [Manchester, Glory, pp. 1041-1044; White, 1964, pp. 470-476.]

Johnson was not about to promote these new programs at the expense of existing ones; hence NASA and Apollo would receive their due. As the nation turned its attention toward these domestic concerns, however, it became increasingly clear that Apollo represented a response to a Soviet challenge that was about to run its course. Apollo was a creation of its time, and by decade’s end that time had come and gone. Events soon demonstrated that Apollo was a program that the nation would neither renew nor long continue. In turn, these events weighed heavily upon Paine’s pursuit of Mars. They took the form of budget cuts, imposed within the BoB.

Mars: The Advance

At Gettysburg in 1863, General George Pickett led a charge that reached the top of Cemetery Ridge, only to be driven back by superior strength. NASA’s pursuit of Mars would show a similar character, with the contested ground being the budget allocation for FY 1971. NASA accounted for some two percent of the federal budget. While this was far below the allocations of the Pentagon or Health, Education, and Welfare, it was enough to justify the continuing attention of small groups of staffers within both the White House and the BoB.

Peter Flanigan, Assistant to the President, served as the White House link to NASA. He reported directly to Nixon and was one of the more powerful of the presidential assistants. Flanigan had been a Wall Street investment banker; his father had been chairman of Manufacturers Hanover Trust. Following Nixon’s election, Flanigan had drawn on his broad social and professional acquaintances and had recruited some 300 appointees for high-level Administration positions. His White House responsibilities were correspondingly broad, and he relied on five staff assistants. These included Clay Whitehead, a graduate of MIT, who dealt with the space program as part of his day-to-day concerns. Whitehead had worked on Apollo at the Rand Corp. and helped to plug gaps in Flanigan’s experience, for Flanigan had no prior background in space.

Within the BoB, the director Robert Mayo and his deputy, James Schlesinger, were the only political appointees; the rest of the Bureau consisted of permanent Civil Service staff. Schlesinger was also a Rand Corp. alumnus; he worked closely with Whitehead during 1969 in reviewing the NASA budget. This budget fell within the purview of BoB’s Economics, Science and Technology Programs Division, where a small professional group specialized in the pertinent issues. [Logsdon, Apollo, Chapter 5, pp. 14-15; National Journal, February 28, 1970, pp. 422-425.]

The Space Task Group (STG) was to submit its report to Nixon in September 1969, in time for its recommendations to influence the FY 1971 budget that Nixon would send to Capitol Hill the following February. However, initial exchanges concerning this budget were under way as early as April 1969, barely two months after the inauguration. On April 4, Mayo sent a letter to Paine that asked: “Should the U.S. undertake the development of a long duration manned orbital space station in the FY 1971-73 period?” Attached to this letter was a full page of questions. Paine had recently tried to bypass the budget process by seeking Nixon’s approval for a space station in his memo of February 26, but Mayo’s letter showed that Paine could still hope to win approval by working within this process. The list of questions amounted to an invitation to justify such a project in detail, with an understanding that when NASA made its case, Mayo’s staff would give it close scrutiny. The BoB would give particular attention to its cost. [Letter, Mayo to Paine, April 4, 1969.]

Though the work of the STG was separate from the budget process, the two activities went forward in parallel. On June 11, Nixon sent a memo to Mayo that made his own attitude perfectly clear:

Substantively, the continuation of a restrictive fiscal policy to combat the critical problem of inflation will be controlling in formulation of the 1971 budget, and this policy should be applied to the budget requests of all departments and agencies. I want it made clear to all departments and agencies that the budget going to Congress will be my budget and that it should reflect the goals and objectives of my Administration. [Memo, Nixon to Mayo, June 11, 1969.]

Two weeks later, Whitehead sent a memo to Flanigan:

As you know, I have expressed in the past some uneasiness about the review of the future of our space program. My main concern is that NASA and others will use the enthusiasm generated by a success of Apollo 11 to create very strong pressures on the President to commit him and the Nation prematurely to a large and continuing space budget.

The immediate problem is that the space task group chaired by the Vice President appears to be homing in on a single recommended space program that will involve immediate commitments to high levels of lunar exploration simultaneously with a large manned space station program. This may be appropriate and may be the President’s ultimate choice. However, a strong case can be made for constraining the NASA budget to its present level or slightly lower….

The President should be informed that NASA is making strong public statements about future commitments in space and that there is significant danger that he may find himself in a very difficult situation in the next few months unless he asserts an interest in assessing the desirability of alternative space programs in a considered way without unnecessary pressure being generated by NASA in the press and on the Hill. [Memo, Whitehead to Flanigan, June 25, 1969.]

The NASA appropriation for FY 1970 was $3.7 billion. Whitehead noted that “the President is personally interested in a serious evaluation of several alternative NASA budget levels, including one in the vicinity of $2.5 to $3 billion.” He proposed that “you or I call Bob Mayo to emphasize the importance” of treating such a level as a formal budget option. He also suggested that Flanigan send a memo to Nixon recommending “that NASA be calmed down during the enthusiasm of Apollo 11, pending a systematic review this fall.” [Ibid.; NASA SP-4102, p. 188.]

Mayo was not about to chop NASA down to $2.5 billion, at least not at the moment. However, his staff would certainly consider what it would mean to impose cuts to that level, and to even lower levels. Late in August the director of the BOB’s Energy, Science, and Technology Programs Division learned of a conversation between Whitehead and the BOB’s deputy director, James Schlesinger:

Mr. Whitehead expressed the view that the President was not eager to proceed with an expanded space program and in fact would like to see it significantly reduced in the near future. Mr. Whitehead had discussed this view with other White House people…and found none of them to be advocates of increased space spending and none who indicated any real problem with significant reductions in the space program….

Mr. Flanigan claimed to have telephoned Dr. Paine and instructed him to stop public advocacy of early manned Mars activity because it was causing trouble in Congress and restricting Presidential options. According to Dr. Schlesinger, Mr. Flanigan believes the President would like options even lower than $2.5 billion. Also according to Dr. Schlesinger, Mr. Flanigan is basing his comments on personal conversation with the President. In the light of these events, Dr. Schlesinger asked me to define a $1.5 billion per year space program. [Logsdon, Apollo, Chapter 5, pp. 15-16.]

His staff set forth budget options in an internal BoB paper. The options would bear comparison with those favored by Paine; but whereas Paine started with the current budget and hoped to go upward, the BoB staff started at the FY 1970 level and considered the consequences of tilting sharply downward.

One alternative, at $3.5 billion per year, eliminated NERVA and stopped production of Saturn V and Apollo spacecraft. This option, however, would maintain a vigorous program in piloted flight, featuring Skylab with three visits as well as six additional Apollo lunar missions. Better yet, such a budget would accommodate “Space Transportation System and Space Station module development with launch of both in 1979.”

Two other options, at $2.5 billion, also permitted flight of Skylab with its three visits, along with the six Apollos. There could even be a space station in 1980, with Titan III-Gemini for logistics. However, there would be no space shuttle. NASA-Marshall would close, while activity at the Manned Spacecraft Center would fall substantially.

At $1.5 billion, the piloted space program would shut down entirely: “All manned space flight ceases with Apollo 14 in July 1970.” Not only NASA-Marshall but the Manned Spacecraft Center would close, with the Saturn launch facilities at Cape Canaveral shutting down as well. Yet NASA would continue to maintain a vigorous program of automated space flight. Even at $1.5 billion, the agency could send six Viking landers to Mars, and could take advantage of a rare alignment of the outer planets to send spacecraft to Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto. NASA would conduct “at least one planetary launch each year in the decade,” and would pursue “a relatively ambitious science and applications program with 95 launches in the decade.” [Budget Bureau, “NASA Issues Paper,” undated; late August 1969.]

Here, in stark contrast, were two visions for NASA’s future: Paine’s, who hoped for as much as $10 billion and an early expedition to Mars, versus Mayo’s, who would consider cuts to one-seventh of that level and a total shutdown of piloted flight. Yet while such options might represent the shape of things to come, Mayo, at least for the moment, would give Paine considerable leeway to argue for his preferred budget. If Paine’s arguments proved inadequate then Mayo could lower the boom. However, he would not hasten to do this.

On July 28, Mayo sent a letter to Paine that carried a decidedly mixed set of messages:

The inflationary outlook, combined with the budgetary momentum of prior commitments and existing laws, make it imperative that we adopt a very restrictive fiscal policy in the 1971 budget.

Federal spending plans for 1971 must conform to the President’s declared intention to eliminate the income tax surcharge. The resulting loss in revenue will make a balanced budget impossible unless we apply a firm brake on the growth of expenditures. Since a balanced budget is essential to our effort to cope effectively with continuing inflationary pressures, we must maintain a tight rein on budget outlays.

Accordingly, a stringent and frugal approach must characterize our 1971 budget proposals. Very few program expansions and new starts can be accommodated.

An attached sheet gave recommended budget figures. Mayo presented “budget authority,” or funds to be appropriated by Congress; he also gave “outlays,” which could tap unspent funds from prior years or lay aside such funds for use in the future. He cited an “official target”: “the maximum amount that would be available for NASA under the current fiscal outlook for 1971.” He also proposed an “alternative target” that represented “a higher resource level, in case subsequent events enable changes in current plans”:

.Official Target Alternative
.Budget AuthorityOutlaysBudget AuthorityOutlays
Funding in millions:$3,470$3,500$4,500$4,200

The official target assumed that both budget categories would remain constant at $3.5 billion per year from 1972 to 1978. This would impose a new cut, because the FY 1978 budget stood at $3.7 billion. The alternative target, however, assumed a gradual rise to $6 billion in 1978 that would allow Paine to get a head start toward Mars. Moreover, Mayo suggested in his letter that he might be even more generous: “If you feel that you must request 1971 budget authority or outlays greater than either of these planning figures, you may, of course, do so.” [Letter, Mayo to Paine, July 28, 1969.]

Given an inch, Paine would willingly take enough miles to reach the planets. He proceeded to disregard both Mayo’s opening paragraphs, with their words of caution, and his official target of $3.5 billion. Instead, Paine instructed his associates to prepare their final FY 1971 budget proposals in accordance with Program B within his position paper for the STG. This plan aimed to reach Mars as early as 1983, and represented the option that he hoped Nixon would approve. [Logsdon, Apollo, Chapter 4, pp. 60-62; Chapter 5, p. 8.]

Paine also faced the issue of having the STG accept his position paper as the basis for the official report that would go to Nixon. The staffer Russell Drew prepared a draft of this report; it was ready on August 27. The members of the STG—Paine, Agnew, DuBridge, Seamans—met anew on September 3, and reached agreement on several basic principles, with all members concurring. This had the important consequence that the STG would not present majority and minority views, but would stand united behind their final report.

They agreed that any program they might recommend was not to include merely the use of existing capability such as Skylab, Titan III, and Saturn V; it was to include the development of new capability. In particular, the STG accepted the eventual development of both the space station and Space Shuttle. This represented a defeat for Seamans, who had rejected the station and had accepted the shuttle only with misgivings. Nevertheless, Seamans agreed not to press his objections.

The members also accepted the concept of an eventual expedition to Mars as the focus for development of the new capability. However, they did not specify the meaning of “eventual,” other than to say that it would be prior to the year 2000. This brought DuBridge into the fold, as he too accepted the goal of Mars.

Mayo, sitting with the STG as an observer, insisted that the report present a low-cost option that would reflect Nixon’s suggestions. DuBridge agreed with Mayo, and Paine agreed to add another alternative, Plan E. It resembled the BoB options at the $2.5 billion level, protecting Apollo and Skylab but shutting down piloted flight. This option offered neither the station nor the Shuttle. However, it did include a strong program of automated spacecraft, with emphasis on planetary missions.

Within these options, now numbering five, Paine and Agnew still hoped to have the report include a strong recommendation for Plan B. The full STG finessed this issue by agreeing not to recommend any particular program to Nixon. This allowed each member to maintain his own views of appropriate budgets, schedules, and pace, without requiring anyone to yield to others. [Ibid., Chapter 4, pp. 63-65.]

The next move came directly from the White House. John Ehrlichman, one of Nixon’s closest advisors, describes what happened in his memoirs:

One morning in early September 1969 I had to leave the senior staff meeting early to go see the Vice President. Peter Flanigan had alerted me that Agnew’s Space Advisory Committee [sic] was about to make some recommendations to the President that Flanigan knew Nixon could not live with. Peter had been unsuccessful in dissuading the President’s science advisor, Lee DuBridge, from agreeing with the staff of Agnew’s Advisory Committee that there should be a very costly manned mission to the planet Mars in 1981. So Flanigan had asked for a meeting with Agnew, the ex-officio chairman of the committee, in the hope that we could persuade him to kill it.

I had read a briefing paper on the question the evening before, and it seemed obvious to me that Agnew and DuBridge owed it to the President not to include a proposal our budget couldn’t pay for. A Mars space shot would be very popular with many people. If the committee proposed it and Nixon had to say no, he would be criticized as the President who kept us from finding life on Mars. On the other hand, if the committee didn’t recommend it, we avoided the problem altogether.

DuBridge was perhaps to be forgiven for failing to understand such a political argument, but I saw no excuse for Agnew’s insistence that the Mars shot be recommended. At our meeting I was surprised at his obtuseness. It was, he argued, a reasonable, feasible option. That was what his committee was supposed to come up with, and that was what they intended to do.

I had been wooed by NASA, the Space Administration, but not to the degree to which they had made love to Agnew. He had been their guest of honor at space launchings, tours and dinners, and it seemed to me they had done a superb job of recruiting him to lead this fight to vastly expand their empire and budget.

I finally took off the kid gloves: “Look, Mr. Vice President, we have to be practical. There is no money for a Mars trip. The President has already decided that. So the President does not want such a trip in the Space Advisory Committee’s recommendations. It is your job, with Lee DuBridge’s help, to make absolutely certain that the Mars trip is not in there.”

Mr. Agnew was not happy to be told what to do by me. He demanded a personal meeting with the President. This was a matter for Constitutional Officers to discuss.

I overlooked the obvious innuendo that I was lying to Agnew about what the President had decided. “Fine,” I said. “I’ll arrange it at once, and someone will call you.”

Flanigan and I left Agnew about 9:45 a.m. At 10:00 a.m. the Vice President called me. He had decided to move the Mars shot from the list of “recommendations” to another category headed “Technically Feasible.”

When I saw President Nixon later that day I told him about our session with Agnew and his telephone call.

“Good,” Nixon said. “That’s just the way to handle him; use that technique on him anytime.” Nixon looked at me vaguely. “Is Agnew insubordinate, do you think?” [Ehrlichman, Witness, pp. 144-145.]

The STG staff proceeded to modify the draft of the final report, but only slightly. NASA’s Plan A, with its mission to Mars in 1981, lost the status of a formal option. Plan E, which excluded new programs in piloted space flight, also was downgraded. This left Plans B, C, and D, which were redesignated as Options I, II, and III. Because the middle option would remain the one for Nixon to choose if he wished, this reshuffle amounted to delaying the Mars mission from 1983 to 1986—but retaining this expedition as the centerpiece. [Logsdon, Apollo, p. IV-66.]

The STG’s final report thus showed a close similarity to NASA’s position paper of a month earlier. Plan A, with Mars in 1981, appeared with the designation “Maximum Pace.” The STG rejected it with regret, presenting it “only to demonstrate the upper bound of technological achievement.” Plan E, described as “Low Level,” was one with which “the interests of this Nation would not be served.”

With these caveats, the report presented Mueller’s integrated plan in full. It described the major elements: space shuttle, space tug, nuclear shuttle, space station module. In turn, these would represent “development of new capabilities for operating in space.” The three main options would lift NASA’s budget from its 1970 level respectively to $5.5, $7.65 and $9.4 billion, a decade later.

Three levels of space activity studied by the Space Task Group in 1969. (NASA)

PROGRAM I (in billions of dollars)
Program I

PROGRAM II (in billions of dollars)
Program II

PROGRAM III >(in billions of dollars)
Program III

Graphs, published with the report, presented curves of funding for all five plans, giving particular attention to the three main options. Separate curves traced funding levels through 1979 for Plan C; they showed clearly that the Shuttle and station, pursued concurrently, would dominate expenditures for new starts through 1976. Their costs would then diminish, while spending for additional new starts—space base, space tug, nuclear shuttle, lunar orbiting station—would rise rapidly to prominence. Spending for a 1986 Mars expedition would also increase sharply beginning in 1978. The report concluded,

As a focus for the development of new capability, we recommend the United States accept the long-range option or goal of manned planetary exploration with a manned Mars mission before the end of this century as the first target. [Newell, chairman, America’s Next Decades; Agnew, chairman, Post-Apollo; reprinted in NASA SP-4407, Vol. I, pp. 522-543.]

Agnew decided that Russell Drew, who had drafted the report, would brief Nixon on its contents. This briefing took place on September 15; Nixon listened attentively, and met as well with STG members and observers, giving them opportunities to comment. These panelists stated that they had rejected the “extreme options” of Mars in 1981 and of eliminating plans for post-Apollo piloted programs. Nixon’s press secretary, Ronald Ziegler, then reported that the President “had concurred wholeheartedly in the panel’s rejection of the two extremes.” [Logsdon, Apollo, p. IV-66; New York Times, September 16, 1969, pp. 1, 21.]

While Nixon’s response fell well short of a Kennedy-type commitment to Mars, even as an option for future presidents, it did represent a significant straw in the wind. By endorsing the STG’s rejection of Plan E, with its phaseout of piloted flight, Nixon hinted for the first time that he would want more than the Apollo and Skylab missions that he had inherited from previous administrations. He would want a piloted program of his own, and Agnew, as brash as Paine in these matters, promptly sent a letter to Nixon that strongly recommended Plan C (designated Option II in the report), which anticipated Mars in 1986. This letter amounted to an endorsement of Mueller’s integrated plan in its original version, which had also called for Mars in 1986. Paine received the bolder thinking for which he had called. It was clear, however, that this boldness had merely given him leeway to back off to the far-reaching plan that Mueller had proposed in the first place. [Letter, Agnew to Nixon, September 15, 1969.]

Below, detail of Program II, calling for simultaneous development of a space station and shuttle, followed by a buildup for a Mars expedition in 1986. (NASA)

Phasing of Decisions (in billions of dollars)
Phasing of Decisions

Mars: The Retreat

When Nixon met with the STG, Robert Mayo was among those present. He did not need to say much. Everyone knew he had the authority to deal with NASA in his own good way. He already had a staff report that came close to asserting that NASA should follow Plan E, or something very similar. This report had outlined the consequences of holding NASA to future budgets as low as $1.5 billion.

This staff report treated the Space Shuttle at some length, comparing it with upgrades of the Titan III as an alternative. It concluded that even with an active flight schedule of 55 flights per year, the Titan III would represent the less costly way to proceed, with its advantage growing markedly at lower flight rates. The reason for this was that while the Shuttle would reduce the cost of space flight, it would take time and cost money to develop. To the BoB, dollars in future years held less value than present dollars. This was not due to inflation, but rather it reflected the fact that those future dollars would have to earn interest to match the worth of present ones.

NASA had proposed that the Shuttle replace most of the expendable boosters that were currently in use, excluding only the Saturn V. Mayo’s staff doubted that NASA and the Pentagon in fact would do this, even if a shuttle became [171] available. They noted “the existence of strong vested interests and established working relationships in the existing boosters and facilities.” Their report stated:

Recommendation: We recommend against Presidential endorsement of the Space Transportation System at this time.

Other conclusions were similar: “We recommend against endorsement of a space station now—at least until the orbital workshop [Skylab] is further along in development—perhaps until it has flown.” “We recommend against endorsement of the manned planetary expedition (Mars) goal either with or without a target date. In summary, we believe the Mars goal to be much more beneficial to the space program than to the nation as a whole.”

The BoB staff showed a similar iconoclasm in its overall view of piloted space flight:

The crucial problem with manned space flight is that no one is really prepared to stop manned space flight activity, and yet no defined manned project can compete on a cost-return basis with unmanned space flight systems. In addition, missions that are designed around man’s unique capabilities appear to have little demonstrable economic or social return to atone for their high cost. Their principal contribution is that each manned flight paves the way for more manned flight….

NASA equates progress in manned space capability with increased time in space, increased size of spacecraft, and increased rate of activity. The agency also insists upon continuity of operational flight programs, which means we must continue producing and using current equipment concurrently with development of next generation systems. Therefore, by definition, there can be no progress in manned space flight without significantly increased annual cost.

Staff members also reviewed the STG report in draft form. Their comments were scathing, virtually dismissing it out of hand:

The report is inadequate as
– a basis for Presidential decision,
– a published justification of Administration decision….

What are we asking the President to decide? This is not clear from reading the report. For example, does Presidential acceptance of the objective “Developing new capabilities for operating in space” amount to go-ahead decisions on a large earth-orbiting manned Space Station and a Space Transportation System involving three major new systems development for manned and automated systems with both chemical and nuclear engines? The report is susceptible to both “yes” and “no” interpretations.

The central issue – “What is the future of civilian manned space flight activities” is not directly addressed.

A good catalogue of technical possibilities for the future is provided. However, in our view these are very optimistic possibilities. For example, ESTP Division staff believe it highly unlikely that a manned Mars mission could in fact be undertaken in 1981 or that a space shuttle…could in fact be developed in five years….

The report is lacking in identified outputs for the large-scale manned program recommended. There is therefore little on which to base value judgments.

Justification for large-scale manned space effort is only loosely derived. It is based on
– challenge to our spirit of adventure
– challenge to our national competence in engineering

The view then is that a space program supported by national acceptance of these challenges can be used to enhance our national
     – welfare
– security
– enlightenment

In our view, an unmanned flight program, because of its demonstrated output and lower costs, can be justified directly on the basis of returns to our security, economy, and advancement of science.

It is the costly, large-scale manned flight program that requires some overriding decisive force to keep it going….

No low-cost options. The report does not contain any program options with annual costs less than current levels. In our view, such options should be identified in the report, and evaluated in terms of returns to the nation – not in terms of entrancing opportunities passed up. [Budget Bureau, “NASA Issues Paper,” undated; late August 1969.]

Armed with this staff review, Mayo wrote a letter to Nixon on September 25, presenting the BoB’s assessment of the final STG report. He described it as having “several shortcomings” that “impair its completeness as a vehicle for your final decision.”

Mayo noted an excessively narrow scope that ignored “the relative standing of the space program in our full range of national priorities” as well as “the future economic context within which the recommended space expenditure increases would have to be considered.” He suggested that Nixon have the report reviewed by the Cabinet and perhaps the National Security Council as well. Such reviews would take time, and would give Nixon excellent reason to avoid rushing into any hasty commitments.

Mayo then warned that the report’s estimates of the costs of future programs appeared to be “significantly underestimated.” He also had other words of caution:

The report does not clearly differentiate between the values of the manned space flight program versus a much less costly unmanned program with its greater emphasis on scientific achievement and potential economic returns….

The report is written in such a way that your endorsement of any of the recommended program options implies endorsement of major new long-term development projects, which are included in all three of the program options. Therefore, in a practical sense, the report gives you little flexibility except as to timing (and therefore annual costs)…. All the defined options involve significant budget increases over current levels….

Because the Space Task Group report has now been published, your endorsement now of any specific option will commit us to annual budget increases of at least the magnitudes specified in the report. Therefore, you could lose effective fiscal control of the program.

I am convinced that a forward-looking manned space program can be developed for you that does not involve commitments to significant near-term budget increases. [Memo, Mayo to Nixon, September 25, 1969. Reprinted in NASA SP-4407, Vol. I, pp. 544-656.]

This letter, circulated within the White House, drew a succinct response from Ehrlichman: “I concur with the Director’s recommendations.” It also won support from Henry Kissinger, the national security advisor and head of the National Security Council [Memo, Ehrlichman to Staff Secretary, October 7, 1969; memo, Kissinger to Whitaker, November 17, 1969]. With this, Mayo was ready to receive Paine’s budget request for FY 1971.

Paine had begun by assembling his associates’ wish list that totaled $5.4 billion and included $1.0 billion in new starts. This was too much even for him; he responded that their requests were “not consistent with the recommendations made to the President” by the STG, and “far exceed the dollar level that can be reasonably expected.” He met with his colleagues, cut their dollar amounts, and presented his proposed budget to Mayo in a letter dated October 8. Paine requested $4.2 billion in outlays and $4.497 billion in new budget authority, with these levels matching those of the “alternative budget” in Mayo’s letter of late July. [Letter, Paine to Mayo, October 8, 1969; Logsdon, Apollo, Chapter 5, pp. 19-20.]

Mayo and his staff, however, had no intention of granting such largesse. In a staff paper dated November 13, the BoB gave NASA a tentative allowance of $3.349 billion in budget authority and $3.515 billion in outlays. The first of these would require congressional appropriation; it represented a cut of over a billion dollars or more than 25 percent in Paine’s request.

Such a budget meant that, at least in FY 1971, NASA would receive no commitment to either a space station or a shuttle. It would cut the launch rate for Apollo missions to as low as one flight per year, and would slam the door on continued production of the Saturn V. It would so restrict NASA that it would prohibit any new starts even in automated spacecraft. [Logsdon, Apollo, Chapter 5, pp. 20-22.]

Paine hit the roof. In a letter to Mayo on November 18, he declared that “the allowance and rationale are both unacceptable.” He then followed standard procedure by filing a “reclama,” a request for review. This too was part of the budget process; it was far from unusual for a department or agency head to receive a cut in a proposed budget. Rather than compromise, however, Paine stuck to his guns, and to his requested budget levels. He got nowhere in a November 21 meeting with Mayo. One participant states that the meeting “broke fairly quickly because we couldn’t accommodate anything.” Another participant adds that Paine “went away angry.” [Ibid., pp. 22-23; letter, Paine to Mayo, November 18, 1969.]

One should not see this as a personal fight between Paine and Mayo. Paine later noted that “Bob Mayo’s son has his wall plastered with NASA posters,” adding that while Mayo was “a little hard-headed about things,” he was “an easy person to get to know. I was always very comfortable going over and talking to Bob.” Rather than keep matters at an impasse, they now agreed that NASA and BoB staffers were to work together to try to narrow their differences.

Mayo proceeded to raise NASA’s allowance to $3.7 billion, matching the appropriation for FY 1970. Paine’s staff developed alternative budgets that ran as low as $3.91 billion, though he insisted to Mayo that an appropriation of $4.25 billion “is the lowest level you and I can responsibly recommend to the President.” This left a gap of over half a billion dollars between their positions. [Letter, Paine to Mayo, December 5, 1969; Logsdon, Apollo, Chapter 5, pp. 23-24; E. M. Emme interview, Thomas Paine, August 3, 1970, p. 30.]

The reclama procedure called for Mayo to meet personally with Nixon to present the BOB’s budget recommendation, and then to inform Nixon of areas of disagreement between BOB and the agency. Paine was not to be present; Nixon did not wish to act as a referee. The meeting took place on December 5. Three days later, Paine talked by telephone with Flanigan, who presented Nixon’s decision: “The President says that he doesn’t have enough money within the next couple of years and must accept limitation of activity, doing the best he can within the $3.7 limitation.” Nixon had come down strongly on the side of Mayo. [Covert (secretary to Paine), Memo for Record, December 8, 1969; Logsdon, Apollo, Chapter 5, pp. 24, 28-29.]

Paine still had one more card to play, as he wrote to Nixon directly, urging a “curtailed and spartan” level of $4.075 billion that would keep the Saturn V in production, or a level of $3.935 billion that would suspend Saturn V production but provide startup funds for a space station and shuttle. The two men met just before Christmas, and again Nixon stood firm. Paine would have to accept the BoB figures of $3.7 billion in budget authority and $3.825 billion in outlays. These were the numbers that would go to Congress in the President’s budget. [Letter, Paine to Nixon, December 17, 1969; Logsdon, Apollo, Chapter 5, pp. 29-30.]

Ordinarily that would have been the end of the matter, with NASA absorbing this cut and making the best of it. In fact, the cuts for FY 1971 were only beginning, and the first new one came from Flanigan. He had tried to develop an independent White House view of an appropriate NASA budget, with his staff member Clay Whitehead digging into details of this agency’s projects. In a letter to Nixon, Paine had warned that at $3.7 billion, “U.S. manned flight activity would end in 1972 with an uncertain date for resumption many years in the future.” Flanigan and Whitehead wondered if things were really that serious.

As they pursued their investigations, they became convinced that NASA indeed could live with $3.7 billion, could even receive a budget below that level and still avoid dire consequences. Flanigan advised Ehrlichman of this. Ehrlichman also received counsel from another presidential advisor, Bryce Harlow, liaison with Congress, who warned that a $3.7 billion figure would not win support on Capitol Hill. Ehrlichman discussed the matter with Nixon, and they agreed to seek further cuts.

Amid a flurry of activity within the White House and BoB, Paine soon learned that the $3.7 billion figure that he could not live with now stood at a level higher than what he would have to accept. Early in January 1970, Flanigan presented the news: $3.53 in budget authority, $3.6 billion in outlays. The latter figure represented a cut of $225 million from an earlier estimate of $3.825 billion in outlays. Flanigan’s memo also stated that “there is no commitment, implied or otherwise, for development starts for either the space station or the shuttle in FY 72. That is a matter to be discussed when the “72 budget is developed.” [Letter, Paine to Nixon, December 17, 1969; memo, Flanigan to Paine and Mayo, January 6, 1970; Logsdon, Apollo, Chapter 5, pp. 27-28, 30-32.]

Paine’s initial response was to order the closing of the Electronics Research Center, a NASA facility in Cambridge, MA. Though it was not a center on a par with the likes of NASA-Marshall, it had a staff of 800 and would be missed. Paine then held a press conference on January 13. He stated that total employment, within NASA and its contractors, would fall from 190,000 to 140,000 during 1971. (As recently as 1966, this total had approached 400,000.) Production of the Saturn V would cease, Apollo lunar missions would fly only at six-month intervals, and Viking missions to Mars would fly in 1975 rather than in 1973, as earlier planned. [NASA press release no. 69-171, December 29, 1969; Paine, statement, January 13, 1970; Logsdon, Apollo, p. V-33.]

Meanwhile, back at the White House, a Cabinet meeting was reaching decisions that would lead to further cuts. The economist Arthur Burns, a presidential counselor, had urged Nixon to bring the overall federal budget into line with new and lower estimates of revenue. He had won support from George Romney, secretary of Housing and Urban Development. Romney now called for a uniform reduction of 2.5 percent in all department budgets, along with restrictions on salaries and pay raises. On January 13, as Paine was meeting the press, Nixon met with his cabinet officers and directed them to make such cuts. He put Burns in charge of this effort, which they called Operation Paring Knife.

Nixon directed Mayo to inform Paine that NASA would have to reduce its budget by another $200 million. Paine received the news just as he was arriving at a banquet. He later recalled that

while I grandly entered this big ballroom for this event the loudspeaker boomed out that I was to call the White House. And I went with sinking heart knowing damned well that they weren’t calling to say that we had more money. [Logsdon, Apollo, Chapter 5, pp. 33-34; interview, Thomas Paine, September 3, 1970, pp. 15-16.]

Paine tried to get by with a cut of only $51 million; Mayo agreed to present this to Nixon. Paine told Flanigan of this, and Flanigan responded angrily, “You mean Mayo capitulated?” But Paine’s ploy collapsed within hours, as Nixon rejected his compromise. Paine now had no choice but to take the full reduction of $200 million.

This left NASA with $3.33 billion in budget authority and $3.4 billion in outlays. As recently as October, Paine had requested $4.497 billion and $4.2 billion, respectively. This budget authority represented a cut of 10 percent from the FY 1970 appropriation of $3.697 billion, with inflation eroding its value further. This was merely Nixon’s requested budget; Congress was free to make further cuts. [Letter, Paine to Nixon, January 15, 1970; letter, Paine to Mayo, January 16, 1970; Logsdon, Apollo, Chapter 5, pp. 34-35.]

The Turn of Congress

The Budget Bureau was part of the permanent Washington bureaucracy, staffed by members of the Civil Service who took pride in a tradition of nonpartisan concern for the national interest. By contrast, Congress was as partisan an institution as that city could offer. Its members paid keen attention to public opinion. When Agnew showed up at the Apollo 11 launch and called for flight to Mars, key senators were quick to respond.

Mike Mansfield, the Senate Majority Leader, declared that he would rule out such efforts “until problems here on earth are solved.” Following the safe return of the Apollo 11 astronauts, Clinton Anderson, chairman of the Senate space committee, stated that “now is not the time to commit ourselves to the goal of a manned mission to Mars.” Senator Margaret Chase Smith, a Republican member of that committee, added that the government “should avoid making long-range plans during this emotional period,” following the first moon landing. She warned against becoming involved “in a crash program without the justification we had for Apollo.” [New York Times, July 16, 1969, p. 22; Congressional Record, July 29, 1969, p. S8739; Logsdon, Apollo, p. IV-53.]

There was similar sentiment in the House. Congressman George Miller, chairman of that chamber’s space committee, warned against decisions that would “commit ourselves to a specific time period for setting sail for Mars” and proposed that such decisions might be deferred until “five, perhaps ten years from now.” Joseph Karth, a space subcommittee chairman, asserted that the success of Apollo would not “translate directly into an urgent mandate to put a man on Mars by 1980 or, for that matter, any other magical date.” He declared that NASA was showing “complete lack of consideration for the taxpayer.” Congressman Olin Teague, chairman of the powerful Subcommittee on Manned Space Flight, said a year later that “the easiest thing on earth to vote against in Congress is the space program. You can vote to kill the whole space program tomorrow, and you won’t get one letter.” [Logsdon, Apollo, p. IV-54; Aviation Week, August 18, 1969, pp. 16-17; John Logsdon interview, Olin Teague, Washington, August 15, 1970, p. 5.]

These people were members and leaders of the congressional space committees. If they were willing to take such candid views, what would the rank and file do within the House and Senate? Certainly they would pay close attention to public-opinion polls – which were strongly adverse to NASA. Following Apollo 11, a Gallup Poll took a nationwide survey of views concerning flight to Mars. Fifty-three percent of the respondents were opposed to such a program; 39 percent were in favor. A few weeks later, a Newsweek poll found that 56 percent of the public wanted Nixon to spend less on space. Only 10 percent wanted him to spend more. [Congressional Record, August 13, 1969, p. H7361; Newsweek, October 6, 1969, p. 46. See also NASA SP-4407, Vol. I, p. 546.]

While Paine did what he could to plead his case, he faced entrenched opposition. He met with Senator Edward Kennedy, brother of the late President, and suggested that Apollo astronauts might carry some memento of JFK to the moon. He quickly learned that the senator had no interest “in identifying Jack Kennedy at all with this landing. He more or less gave me the impression that he felt that this was one of President Kennedy’s aberrations.”

Unable to sway his critics, Paine soon was dismissing them out of hand:

One of the games that some people on the Hill might play would be to say, gee, let’s hit the space program and wipe it out, and keep the sewers and so forth in. The idea was that, well, the reason the country was so crummy was because we went to the moon, and by God, if we had only spent that money on all these other things that we needed to do, then we would have a great country and a crummy space program. Wouldn’t it be better than a great space program and a crummy country. This was the line of reasoning they slipped into. [Paine, Memo for Record, July 1, 1969; interview, Thomas Paine, August 12, 1970, pp. 14, 16; E. M. Emme interview, Thomas Paine, Washington, September 3, 1970, pp. 6-7.]

Nixon sent his budget for FY 1971 to Capitol Hill on February 2, 1970. The first step was for the space committees to hold hearings, where NASA’s officials included a new Associate Administrator for Manned Space Flight. George Mueller, who had held that post since 1963, resigned from NASA in December 1969 and left government service to become a vice president at General Dynamics. His replacement, Dale Myers of NAA, had managed the Navaho missile program in the long ago. Myers had been a vice president in the Space Division and had been general manager of Apollo. He also had directed his company’s studies of the Space Shuttle.

Now, in congressional testimony, he spoke of a “shuttle/station” and described it as a single integrated program, offering “the first elements of a transportation system.” The shuttle would “transport a crew of two, and twelve passengers, into low orbit.” In addition to supporting the station, it would accomplish “propellant delivery, satellite repair, short-duration orbital missions, deployment of satellites,” and the launch of automated “planetary probes.”

The space station would have a crew of 12, “seven men working and five men operating the vehicle itself,” and would have “an operational life of ten years, with resupply.” It would fly atop a Saturn V, with both the Shuttle and station entering service by 1978. Significantly, Myers noted that the FY 1971 budget held no funds for even preliminary studies of a piloted mission to Mars. NASA officials understood that such studies and plans could only hurt the agency. [Logsdon, Apollo, Chapter 5, pp. 41, 43-44.]

NASA was requesting $110 million for the Shuttle/station, up from $18.5 million in FY 1970. These funds would pay for extensive design work on both projects, including early work on a new engine for the Shuttle. In its original proposal to the BOB in October 1969, NASA had requested over $250 million for these projects. Olin Teague, the most powerful of the space subcommittee chairmen and a power within the full committee as well, was in an expansive mood and was far from willing to accept the BoB’s cuts. Proposing to add $80 million for the Shuttle/station, he asked Myers what NASA would do if it had more money for piloted space flight. “I don’t think we have to rubber-stamp something the Bureau of the Budget does,” he argued.

We are going along with the people halfway, going along with the people who are supposed to know something. That was the President’s Task Group. What should we do, just sit back on our cans and let the Bureau of the Budget dictate every damn thing we do? We are right, you know we are right, and we know more about it than they do, and I bet you this subcommittee of mine knows more about this program than the Bureau of the Budget does. [Ibid., pp. 43-44; AAS History Series, Vol. 4, pp. 245, 247-248.]

The structure of the House space committee paralleled that of NASA. NASA had a powerful Office of Manned Space Flight and a much less influential Office of Space Science and Applications (OSSA) that dealt with automated spacecraft. These offices had counterparts among the House subcommittees, with Teague chairing the one on piloted space flight. A separate subcommittee dealt with the concerns of OSSA; its chairman was Joseph Karth. Karth lacked the clout of Teague, much as OSSA had to defer to OMSF. Nevertheless, he was ready to confront Teague, and NASA, when he felt this was necessary.

With their automated orbiters and landers, the Viking missions to Mars fell within Karth’s purview. However, he strongly opposed piloted flight to that planet. In 1967, he had been working to win support for Voyager, with its even more ambitious orbiters and landers, when he learned that NASA was requesting proposals for studies of piloted missions to Mars and Venus. He stated that this act left him “absolutely astounded. Very bluntly, a manned mission to Mars or Venus by 1975 or 1977 is now and always has been out of the question – and anyone who persists in this kind of misallocation of resources at this time is going to be stopped.” [Logsdon, Apollo, Chapter 1, pp. 13-17; Chapter 4, pp. 47-48; Aviation Week, September 11, 1967, pp. 26-27.]

He responded similarly to the work of the STG. In March 1970, addressing a meeting of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, he described its plans as

totally unrealistic. Based on my experience with Ranger, Centaur, Surveyor, Mariner, Viking and even Explorer, NASA’s projected cost estimates are asinine. NASA must consider the members of Congress a bunch of stupid idiots. Worse yet, they may believe their own estimates—and then we really are in bad shape.

He opposed Teague’s motion in committee, and when Teague prevailed, nailing the $80 million increase to the authorization bill, Karth took his opposition to the floor of the House. Teague viewed this as an unprecedented breach of congressional practice, for Karth, who chaired a subcommittee that did not deal with piloted space flight and who had not participated in the hearings of Teague’s own subcommittee, was taking a strong stand against the recommendations of that subcommittee of which he was not a member. Teague became so angry that he vowed that, although Karth was among the most senior members of the full committee, he would personally see to it that Karth would never become its chair.

Karth’s amendment called not only for the elimination of Teague’s $80 million increase; it demanded elimination of all funds for the Shuttle/station, and chopped another $50 million from piloted space programs as well. The entire House took up this amendment on April 23, with Karth insisting that NASA’s plans were premature: “Before the Space Shuttle can be a reality, many difficult technological advances must be made in such areas as configuration and aerodynamics, heat protection, guidance and control, and propulsion.” Then he dropped a bombshell, suggesting that approval of the Shuttle/station would necessarily imply much more: “This in my judgment at least—and there is a great deal of evidence to support the theory—is the beginning of a manned Mars landing program.” He spoke of a “back door” to that planet, adding that a decision to “embark upon a $50 billion to $100 billion manned space flight landing program to Mars is something I think we ought to debate loud and clear.”

The House had no love for Mars; indeed, even the automated Viking program was controversial. Congressman Edward Koch, a member of Karth’s subcommittee and a future mayor of New York City, had stated, “I just can’t for the life of me see voting for monies to find out whether or not there is some microbe on Mars, when in fact I know there are rats in the Harlem apartments.” In the floor debate, however, the BoB’s budget cuts now worked ironically in NASA’s favor, for these cuts had eliminated all funds directed toward such a piloted expedition.

“There is no money in here for a manned trip to Mars,” countered Don Fuqua, a member of Teague’s subcommittee. A Republican member, Richard Roudebush, added: “I am puzzled by the statement that the Shuttle is in some way mixed up with the Mars landing, when nothing is further from the truth.” George Miller, chairman of the full committee, also stated authoritatively that there was no relation between the Shuttle/station and a Mars expedition.

These reassurances helped to defeat Karth’s amendment, but only by the narrowest of margins. Only about one-fourth of the 435 members of the House were present and voting, and the final tally was a tie: 53 for, 53 against. Under House rules, this meant it had failed to pass. Other amendments followed, along with other votes, but the opponents of NASA went down to defeat more handily. The full $190 million for the Shuttle/station survived—to face new opposition in the Senate. [AAS History Series, Vol. 4, pp. 246-251; Logsdon, Apollo, Chapter 5, pp. 45-48; Congressional Record, April 23, 1970, pp. H3384-H3423; Aviation Week, May 25, 1970, p. 27.]

Like Karth, Senator Walter Mondale was a Democrat of Minnesota, with the two men being close colleagues. The Senate had no counterpart of Olin Teague, no one who would push successfully to add funds for the Shuttle/station in the authorization bill; the bill that reached the Senate floor contained only the Administration request of $110 million. Mondale nevertheless moved to strike this entire amount, and offered an impassioned plea:

This item involves a fundamental and profound decision about the future direction of the manned space flight era. This is, in fact, the next moon-type program. I believe it would be unconscionable to embark on a project of such staggering cost when many of our citizens are malnourished, when our rivers and lakes are polluted, and when our cities and rural areas are dying. What are our values? What do we think is more important? [Logsdon, Apollo, Chapter 5, pp. 48-49; Congressional Record, May 6, 1970, pp. S6768-S6817. For Mondale quote see also Chaikin, Man, p. 336.]

The Senate debated Mondale’s amendment for four hours, then sent it to defeat by a vote of 29 to 56. Mondale tried anew in July, when this chamber turned to the appropriations bill. This bill totalled nearly $18 billion and included funds not only for NASA but for the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Senators thus faced a potentially irresistible opportunity to add funds to meet the needs of the nation’s cities, and to subtract funds from the space program.

Mondale’s colleagues quickly did the former, adding $400 million for urban renewal and for sewer and water projects. Mondale then offered his amendment again, as he sought to delete the $110 million for the Shuttle/station as an appropriation. After several hours of debate, his amendment lost—by a margin of only 28 to 32.

With debate resuming the next day, Paine knew that he faced an imminent threat from similar amendments. He discussed the situation at a meeting on Capitol Hill with Senator Hugh Scott, the Republican leader. In Paine’s words,

we decided that the best chance of defeating that would be to offer the people who would be on the floor who had to more or less vote against increases in space, a bill to vote against. And once they had voted against NASA, then when the other bill came up proposing to cut us, that they might feel free and a little easier in not voting to cut us, since they had already voted against us once.

The Senate appropriations bill called for a level of spending slightly below the President’s budget, and they decided to seek a member of the Senate space committee who would introduce an amendment to bring it back up to Nixon’s request of $3.333 billion. They quickly settled on Barry Goldwater, an active space proponent, as the man they wanted. At that moment, Goldwater was on the Senate floor; they sent him a note, and he met Paine and Scott in the latter’s office. He agreed with the strategy and invited them to prepare an amendment that he would introduce.

“We went into the outer office,” Paine recalls. “We got the girl to put an amendment form into the typewriter there, and she banged out an amendment. Barry folded it up, put it in his pocket, and walked out.” Scott then invoked Senate procedure and arranged for Goldwater to introduce his measure after everyone was back from lunch. It met resounding defeat, 15 to 58—as Paine had expected.

Following this vote, NASA’s opponents launched their onslaught. William Proxmire, an ally of Mondale and a strong critic of NASA in his own right, noted that the House had approved a NASA budget that was $136 million below the Administration request. This cut had not been aimed specifically at the Shuttle/station, but had been spread among a variety of programs. Proxmire now introduced his own amendment, calling for a cut to this level in the Senate appropriation. He asserted that the money saved could “provide a subsidy for the building of some 125,000 to 150,000 new low- and moderate-income housing units.” This amendment also failed, 34 to 39.

Senator William Fulbright then introduced yet another amendment, demanding a cut of $300 million for NASA. Nixon had described the Senate as “spendthrift” for having added $400 million to the bill the previous day, for urban programs. “We should all have an opportunity to help balance the current bill,” this senator said, adding that his cut in funding for the space program would do precisely that. He presented an explicit appeal to take money from NASA and spend it on the cities: “We voted for sewers. Certainly sewers are more important than going to the moon.” Again Paine found the support he needed as Fulbright’s measure went down, 32 to 37.

The final Senate appropriation passed easily, 68 to 4. It provided $3.319 billion for NASA, for a cut of only $14 million from the President’s budget. This bill went to conference with that of the House; the conferees gave NASA a final appropriation of $3.269 billion. They also granted $110 million for the Shuttle/station, eliminating Teague’s proposed increase but matching Nixon’s original request. [Logsdon, Apollo, Chapter 5, pp. 49-51; Congressional Record, July 6, 1970, pp. S10603-S10625; July 7, 1970, pp. S10681-S10700, S10721-S10727; E. M. Emme interview, Thomas Paine, July 9, 1970, pp. 7-9; Low, Personal Notes No. 27, July 18, 1970; Paine, statement, September 2, 1970 (with summary of FY 1971 budget).]

This appropriation represented a drop of $428 million from the level of FY 1970, with inflation reducing the 1971 allocation even further. It marked the fourth year in a row of such cuts, and while no one had a crystal ball, this budget at least would offer the solace that future cuts would be considerably less severe. NASA funding finally hit rock bottom in FY 1974, barely above $3 billion. In constant dollars, this represented only one-third of NASA’s peak in the mid-1960s. Subsequent budgets stayed close to that level, with adjustment for inflation, and continued at that constant-dollar level through the mid-1980s. [NASA SP-4012, Vol. III, p. 12; Scientific American, January 1986, p. 34.]

Phasing of Decisions
NASA’s actual budget in constant dollars, 1960-1985. (Scientific American)

Yet even in 1970 the final cut, from $3.333 billion to $3.269 billion, gave a clear view of congressional attitudes toward Apollo and, by extension, to the challenges that might lie beyond the moon. This reduction of $64 million represented only two percent of the Administration request, but NASA was already so hard-pressed that it had significant consequences. Paine now saved $42 million by canceling two planned Apollo moon landings. This amounted to a down payment; those two missions would have cost $800 million, spread over several years.

The Apollo program had spent $23.85 billion through mid-1970, and had accomplished the two moon landings of Apollo 11 and 12. The equipment was in hand for six more. Hence, to save 3.3 percent of the program cost – $800 million out of nearly $24 billion – Paine sacrificed one-third of the remaining missions. The loss in lunar science was greater still. Lunar landings were visiting rugged regions of interest to geologists; indeed, a professional geologist, Harrison Schmitt, flew to the moon aboard Apollo 17. The final Apollo missions were able to stay longer on the moon, as astronauts ranged widely by driving a battery-powered vehicle that resembled a dune buggy.

Such waste is inconceivable unless one understands that, to Congress, Apollo was a means to achieve national prestige. By 1970, the nation had reached the moon and had won whatever prestige it was likely to get from this. Members of Congress could look at the moon and say “been there, done that.” Each Apollo flight cost up to $400 million. Such a sum, following the estimate of Senator Proxmire, could provide housing for as many as a million people. In an era when people looked to Washington to do such things, Apollo would fail totally in any competition. [Paine, statement, September 2, 1970; Low, Personal Notes No. 30, September 6, 1970; Aviation Week, September 7, 1970, pp. 18-19; NASA budget data, February 1970; for later Apollo missions see Chaikin, Man.]

Paine Leaves NASA

During the year that followed the landing of Apollo 11 in the Sea of Tranquillity, NASA received a cold bath in the Sea of Reality. Yet the experience left Paine unmoved; he remained as ebullient as ever in his hopes. He not only continued to cherish the goals of the STG; he sought to define further goals reaching to the year 2000, three decades in the future. He set up a three-day meeting at which space experts were to brainstorm on such goals; the invitees included Wernher von Braun, Arthur C. Clarke, Robert Gilruth of the Manned Spacecraft Center, and astronaut Neil Armstrong.

Calling for “a completely uninhibited flow of new ideas,” Paine offered an “operating manual” for “Spaceship NASA.” He wanted new types of engines, “to achieve Werner’s Metaphysical Goals of extending terrestrial life within the solar system and out into the galaxy.” He hoped for an “Intercontinental Space Plane,” able to fly “anywhere on earth in an hour.” He proposed “Global Telecommunication/Supercomputer Networks” that indeed would take shape as the Internet. Another concept called for “Food Manufacture,” synthesizing food from fossil fuels and “freeing man from his 5000 year dependence on agriculture.” The list concluded: “Understand Man’s Origin and Destiny” (that word again). He envisioned “the future evolution of terrestrial life to other worlds with eventual communication with other intelligence.”

He called for “swashbuckling buccaneering courage” and proposed “fighting ships: both naval and buccaneering” as a model for NASA. Having served personally in the Navy, he proceeded to issue orders:

Consider NASA as Nelson’s “Band-of-Brothers”—Sea Rovers—combining best of naval discipline in some areas with freedom of action of bold buccaneers in others—men who are determined to do their individual and collective best to moving the planet into a better 21st Century.

Must be competent and hard working, sensitive but steady nerved, visionary but tough minded, determined and thoughtful. No room for ideology.

Know the ocean, storms, rocks and shoals you will face. Know your ship, men and fleet commander; keep your watch, quarter and stations bill up to date as casualties and rotation take place. Continuously study your course, position, consumables and destination. Keep a sound man with keen vision and a good glass stationed in the foretop.

Buccaneer captains with letters of marque and reprisal live dangerously. This danger can be reduced by alert lookouts, fast sailing, superior seamanship, winning the respect and loyalty of the crew. Complete your homework before talking or issuing orders. Be careful of ideology and amateur social science and economics.

The meeting took place in mid-June of 1970. Paine followed with a letter to Nixon: “The results are exciting and I would like to request an appointment to present to you our best current thinking…. The purpose is…to give you a heretofore unavailable Presidential level long-range view of man’s future potential in space.” [Memo, Paine to Addressees, May 25, 1970; Memo for the President, Paine to Haldeman, July 9, 1970.[

Then in July, he received an attractive job offer from Xerox. The offer appealed to him, for his government salary was $42,500 per year. As he put it, “with four children in school, I can certainly use a little more money to help support this family and give them a good start in life.” He called Jack Parker at General Electric, an old friend and a member of the board of directors, and asked for advice. Parker replied, in Paine’s words, “that they would be very anxious to have me come back,” and that GE might be able to offer him a very promising position. Paine then talked to the chairman of the board and learned that the position would call for him “to head up all of General Electric’s power generation activities including both the conventional steam turbine business and also the nuclear power plants.” Paine expressed interest and suggested that he could take the post early in 1971; the chairman replied that GE would need him that summer. There was nothing pressing to keep him at NASA, and on July 28 he sent Nixon his letter of resignation, to become effective on September 15. Having left GE only two and a half years earlier, he now returned, with his tenure at NASA representing merely a brief interlude within a career at GE that spanned nearly three decades. [Biographical data, Thomas O. Paine papers, Library of Congress; Logsdon, Apollo, p. V-53; E. M. Emme interview, Thomas Paine, August 3, 1970, pp. 10-14.]

He had been a liberal Democrat in an administration of Republicans, a Lyndon Johnson appointee held over to serve Nixon’s loyalists. In addition to this, he had spent much effort fighting for his own agenda, rather than promoting that of the President. Yet he did not leave Washington under a cloud. Peter Flanigan described him as a “good soldier” who “accepted decisions after getting a full hearing.” Ehrlichman compared NASA’s bold proposals to a spring that “had to be stretched in order for it to come back to where it belonged.” Nixon, on receiving Paine’s letter of resignation, wrote that “the course you have done so much to set will help guide our efforts for years to come.” [Logsdon, Apollo, p. V-55; John Logsdon interview, John Ehrlichman, Santa Fe, New Mexico, May 6, 1983, p. 15; letter, Nixon to Paine, July 28, 1970.]

His push for Mars fell short, but even within the STG report, he expected to defer the serious pursuit of this goal until 1976. Although Congress and the BoB cut his budget, this schedule left time for them to experience a change of heart. In the words of Dale Myers, “Hope springs eternal. After we came off the Apollo peak, it was very difficult to accept that we’d be at a level half or a third of that. We always wanted to think that next year would be better.” [Author interview, Dale Myers, Leucadia, California, December 6, 1996.]

With all his swashbuckling, what did Paine accomplish at NASA? Though he did not build this agency in the manner of his predecessor, James Webb, he was the captain on its bridge during the run-up to the moon landings. He pushed successfully for the dramatic Apollo 8 mission that orbited the moon at Christmas in 1968; he approved the dry workshop for Skylab. He was at the helm when the landings took place.

Amid his setbacks, Paine followed the lead of George Mueller and steered NASA onto the new course that Nixon noted. Mueller had tried and failed to build a major post-Apollo effort, Apollo Applications, based on use of Saturn-class launchers and Apollo spacecraft. This effort was in tatters by mid-1968. Mueller responded by envisioning a space shuttle as a focus for the future. Paine took this vision, made it his own, encouraged Mueller to strengthen it with bolder thinking, and sold it to the STG.

Though Mars provided a long-term goal, the Shuttle/station was to represent the main work of the 1970s. When budget cuts hit home, Paine held to this plan, preserving options for the future by sacrificing those of the past as he shut down Saturn production and canceled Apollo moon landings. Congress also signed on for the Shuttle/station, appropriating $110 million to start the work during FY 1971.

As that fiscal year began, however, in mid-1970, NASA’s situation was tenuous in the extreme. Funding for the Shuttle/station had survived by votes of 53-53 in the House and 32-28 in the Senate, which left the program vulnerable to even a slight increase in anti-space sentiment. Similarly, Paine had not won the endorsement of Nixon for this program. Lacking such endorsement, NASA could proceed with detailed studies of the Shuttle/station, but could not award the contracts that would build it.

Arthur Cleaver, a leader in British rocket development, quoted the Duke of Wellington in describing the votes in Congress as “a damn close-run thing—the nearest run thing you ever saw in your life” [Astronautics & Aeronautics, October 1970, pp. 70-72]. If NASA was to avoid meeting its own Waterloo, it would need new sources of strength. It would find them by abandoning the plans of the STG, dropping the space station, placing all hope in the Space Shuttle as a separate project, and making common cause with the Air Force.