The Space Shuttle Decision:

Chapter 9: Nixon’s Decision Chapter 9: Nixon’s Decision

The Space Shuttle Decision

by T. A. Heppenheimer

NASA SP-4221
NASA History Series


Richard Nixon liked space flight. “I can remember Nixon coming off a phone conversation with the astronauts,” John Ehrlichman recalls.

And you know, they are up on the moon, and [Nixon was] as high as a kite. He got a big charge out of them. Then when the astronauts would come to the White House for dinner afterwards, he would always be enormously stimulated by contact with these folks. He liked heroes. He thought it was good for this country to have heroes.

Like other presidents before and since, he basked in the reflected glory of spacefarers. When the crew of Apollo 11 returned from the first landing on the moon, he was aboard the aircraft carrier USS Hornet to greet them. He then used this triumph to gain diplomatic advantage, for after hailing the achievement, he set out on a nine-day world tour that took him to capitals in Southeast Asia, India, Pakistan, and Europe. Significantly, he had planned this tour well in advance of the Apollo 11 flight, anticipating its safe return. “The President had rather daringly pegged his trip to the success of this operation,” Tom Paine later remarked.

Had he gone out to the Pacific to be present at the splashdown and had there been some kind of an accident, it might have harmed considerably his ability then to have the successful trip, which was his first trip abroad as President. I was scared to death that we would have a fiasco or even a tragedy. We just wondered whether he knew the odds as well as we did. Well, fortunately Apollo 11 was a success, and in the ensuing world trip, everywhere the President went, the only thing about the United States that anybody wanted to talk about was of course the lunar landing. [Manchester, Glory, pp. 1159-1160; John Logsdon interview, John Ehrlichman, Santa Fe, May 6, 1983, pp. 21, 25-26; Eugene Emme interviews, Thomas Paine, Washington: August 3, 1970, pp. 27-28; September 3, 1970, pp. 13-14.]

Yet while Nixon willingly embraced Apollo, which he had inherited from Lyndon Johnson, he took his time in committing the nation to new initiatives, whether in space or in other areas of technology. Between 1960 and 1980, such civilian initiatives were largely a province of Democrats: Kennedy and Johnson with Apollo and NASA, Jimmy Carter with his ambitious synthetic-fuels program in the late 1970s. When George Shultz presented Nixon with NASA’s plan for the space shuttle and urged him to accept it, he did.

Nixon and Technology

If Nixon had wished to emulate Kennedy by supporting a new push in space, he could have endorsed the September 1969 report of the Space Task Group, with its recommended focus on a piloted mission to Mars. Nixon did no such thing. He did not even respond to this report in a timely fashion, waiting nearly six months before issuing his own statement on space policy. Similarly, the statement did not come from a senior advisor such as Ehrlichman or Henry Kissinger. Instead, it was the work of two middle-ranking staffers, William Kriegsman and Clay Whitehead, who reported to Peter Flanigan.

John Kennedy, while in the White House, had repeatedly spoken of space flight with the ring of a clarion call, and it is appropriate to note the contrast. Here is JFK, speaking at Rice University in September 1962:

The exploration of space will go ahead whether we join in it or not, and it is one of the great adventures of all time, and no nation which expects to be the leader of other nations can expect to stay behind in this race for space.

For the eyes of the world now look into space-to the moon and to the planets beyond-and we have vowed that we shall not see it governed by a hostile flag of conquest, but by a banner of freedom and peace.

We set sail on this new sea because there is new knowledge to be gained and new rights to be won, and they must be won and used for the progress of all people.

But why, some say, the moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask, why climb the highest mountain? Why, thirty-five years ago, fly the Atlantic? Why does Rice play Texas?

We choose to go to the moon! We choose to go to the moon in this decade, and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard. Because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills. Because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win. [New York Times, September 13, 1962, p. 16.]

Similarly, here is Nixon in his statement of March 1970, which amounted to a most uncertain trumpet:

Having completed that long stride into the future which has been our objective for the past decade, we now must define new goals which make sense for the Seventies. We must build on the successes of the past, always reaching out for new achievements. But we must also recognize that many critical problems here on this planet make high priority demands on our attention and our resources. By no means should we allow our space program to stagnate. But-with the entire future and the entire universe before us-we should not try to do everything at once. Our approach to space must continue to be bold-but it must also be balanced….

We must realize that space activities will be a part of our lives for the rest of time. We must think of them as part of a continuing process — one which will go on day in and day out, year in and year out — and not as a series of separate leaps, each requiring a massive concentration of energy and will and accomplished on a crash timetable…. We must also realize that space expenditures must take their proper place within a rigorous system of national priorities.

The statement endorsed the activities that were under way at the moment or were well along in preparation: additional Apollo flights, Skylab, planetary missions, and earth-orbiting spacecraft. It called for further moves toward international cooperation in space. It stopped, however, well short of endorsing the Space Shuttle:

We should work to reduce substantially the cost of space operations [emphasis in original]. Our present rocket technology will provide a reliable launch capability for some time. But as we build for the longer-range future, we must devise less costly and less complicated ways of transporting payloads into space. Such a capability-designed so that it will be suitable for a wide range of scientific, defense and commercial uses-can help us realize important economies in all aspects of our space program. We are currently examining in greater detail the feasibility of re-usable space shuttles as one way of achieving this objective.

This paragraph amounted to a Nixonian blessing for the continued “examining” that would proceed during the next two years. The overall statement, however, endorsed only one new initiative: “Grand Tour,” a program that would take advantage of a rare alignment of the outer planets to visit Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. Moreover, Nixon’s statement specifically supported his budget for FY 1971, which continued a policy of cuts in appropriations that dated to 1966. In 1970, NASA was still in retreat, and this statement underscored this march to the rear. [Nixon, “Statement by the President,” March 7, 1970. Reprinted in Launius, NASA, pp. 216-221.]

Yet amid this retreat, Nixon maintained strong support for his existing program, with the SST being a prime example. In Ehrlichman’s words,

Nixon died very hard on the SST, and he had a commitment to that which had to do with chauvinism, I think, is the proper word. We had to be at the leading edge of this kind of applied technological development. And if we weren’t, then a great deal of national virtue was lost, and our standing in the world and all that. He was terribly troubled to go to an international conference and have the French president arrive in an SST. That was why that was very hard on him.

In an attempt to recoup, Nixon borrowed an idea of the Democrats: that the government should use the resources of aerospace to solve domestic problems. During the second half of 1971, several of his senior advisors tried to launch an effort called the New Technology Opportunities Program (NTOP), which sought to define specific projects that might be ripe for federal support. The key man in this effort, William Magruder, had been Nixon’s head of the SST program. Ehrlichman recalls that Nixon gave an instruction: “Let’s keep in science and technology, and let’s find something good for Magruder to do.” [John Logsdon interview, John Ehrlichman, Santa Fe, May 6, 1983, pp. 2-4.]

The activity began on July 1, when Ehrlichman sent letters to 15 agencies, asking for proposals. The responses went to the Office of Science and Technology, where Edward David’s staff carried out initial evaluations. Then in September, Nixon bypassed David as head of this program, even though David had come up within Bell Labs as a technologist, and even though his purview specifically included technology. In an action that effectively downgraded this side of David’s domain, Nixon named Magruder as head of NTOP. The OST staff continued its assessments, but Magruder broadened the review to include people from the Treasury Department and the Council of Economic Advisers. Magruder also worked with the OMB’s Donald Rice, who assigned a staff member, Hugh Loweth, to work full-time on budgetary aspects.

The effort went forward under tight deadlines, for Ehrlichman wanted to have a finished set of proposals in hand by the end of 1971, in time for inclusion in the FY 1973 budget and the President’s State of the Union message. Magruder expanded his reach by seeking ideas from private industry, sending out hundreds of letters to corporations and trade associations. “We were continually in a crisis situation,” said one OST manager. “Toward the end, we were killing those guys in the OMB, hitting them with more and more proposals every day. Poor Hugh Loweth was working practically a 24-hour day.”

The reviewers quickly discovered, however, that the prospective domestic initiatives carried difficulties that ranged well beyond the merely technical. One important proposal called for full-scale development of high-speed rail transportation in the Northeast, laying new rail and refurbishing passenger stations. The New York Central and Pennsylvania railroads, recently merged into the Penn Central, had allowed this service to deteriorate badly; the Penn Central had gone bankrupt in 1970. Yet its tracks and rights-of-way were still serviceable. [National Journal: October 23, 1971, pp. 2114-2124; October 30, 1971, pp. 2156-2163; May 6, 1972, pp. 756-765; Audacity, Summer 1993, pp. 52-62.

“We pushed that pretty hard,” said Lawrence Goldmuntz, who directed the OST’s proposal evaluations.

And who can argue that it shouldn’t be a high-priority item? But in analyzing that proposal the White House also had to take into account the fact that there are several thousand government jurisdictions involved, that the Penn Central is not the most popular railroad in the country today, that it might get athwart union work rules-and well, a number of complicated issues like this came up.

Another proposal envisioned the development of two-way television, which would foreshadow today’s personal computers with e-mail. Two-way TV would allow individual citizens to communicate directly with city social-service agencies, including health, welfare, and police-protection programs. “But we quickly got caught in a crossfire between the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the Office of Telecommunications Policy, and the cable TV interests,” said Goldmuntz. “The policy questions were just too complex.”

Another concept promised to develop integrated utilities, which would combine sewage and solid-waste disposal, power, heat, and light within a single system. Such systems, built as modules, offered major savings through lower fuel consumption, with the modules being installed in office towers and apartment buildings. Such integrated services, however, would have raised opposition from unionized municipal workers.

Other proposals ran afoul of recent changes in the national mood. The Atomic Energy Commission had a long-running interest in peaceful uses of nuclear explosives. Its officials endorsed a demonstration project that would use multiple detonations to fracture impermeable rock formations that held natural gas. The concept gained high marks from Magruder’s reviewers; the AEC plan even seemed to promise commercial feasibility. However, 1972 was an election year, and with environmentalists showing their strength, the Administration could not touch it.

Still other proposals faced political opposition, such as a plan to build offshore terminals for deep-draft supertankers that drew too much water to enter conventional ports. Such terminals promised to cut shipping costs by eliminating the need to route the supertankers to the Caribbean, where they would transfer their cargoes of oil to smaller tankers of lesser draft. This proposal, however, faced strong opposition from governors of states in the Northeast, who feared oil spills. It also would have tended to push the White House toward endorsing expansion of oil imports, a policy that Nixon was reluctant to support.

Four senior White House officials carried out the final review: John Ehrlichman, head of the Domestic Council; OMB director George Shultz; Peter Flanigan, special assistant to the President; and Peter Peterson, director of the Council on International Economic Policy. They declined to endorse any of Magruder’s proposals, and the main reason was that in the course of the NTOP exercise, key people had come to realize that they truly knew little about the process of technological innovation. By Christmas, NTOP was moribund.

“We did think in the summer that we could do more and do it quickly,” said Peterson. “By December, we were determined to go slow and keep our feet on the ground. I didn’t think we should jump into anything before we knew where we were going.” Edward David added that “one of the things many of us had driven home more clearly than before was that R and D is not the whole story — you’ve got to take into account customs, mores, politics, existing structures, and a whole host of other things when you attack a technological issue.” Raymond Bisplinghoff, deputy director of the National Science Foundation, concluded that this exercise “verified that we do not know how to make major interventions by the federal government in the R and D sector.”

It is a matter of record that as the NTOP fell, the Space Shuttle rose and won Nixon’s approval. The latter event, however, did not follow from the former. Edwin Harper, assistant director of the Domestic Council, told National Journal, “I was at all the relevant meetings and the two programs were never discussed in terms of a trade-off. The timing of the space-shuttle decision had an independent history.” Both NTOP and the shuttle had to stand on their respective merits; in the end, only the Shuttle survived the cut.

NTOP nevertheless was important, for it represented a serious White House attempt to redirect the resources of aerospace toward new domestic priorities. When the attempt faltered, it soon became clear that Nixon would not try to help the beleaguered aerospace industry by having its people work on mass transit or pollution control. Instead, he would give them an election-year gift by keeping that industry’s resources within the realm of aerospace. [National Journal, May 6, 1972, pp. 756-765.]

Space Shuttle: The Last Moves

In mid-November, three weeks after the Director’s Review and three weeks before the OMB would request Nixon’s approval for a downsized Shuttle, Low wrote: “The shuttle configuration is beginning to be focused on a considerably smaller orbiter with external hydrogen and oxygen tanks (but with the same payload size and weight) and with a pressure-fed recoverable booster which might be parallel staged.” The use of a pressure-fed booster was an option dating to the studies of early summer; the possibility of parallel staging, with booster and orbiter engines all burning at liftoff, showed the influence of TAOS. On November 22, in his report to Rice, Low was more definite: “The most promising candidate configuration today is the Mark I/Mark II orbiter with the parallel-staged pressure-fed booster.”

Series vs. parallel burn
Series vs. parallel burn. Series burn calls for conventional staging, with the orbiter engines igniting following cutoff of the first stage. Parallel burn ignites both booster and orbiter engines prior to liftoff. TAOS concepts called for parallel burn. (Thiokol)


Booster candidates
TAOS alternatives: solid rocket motors and pressure-fed liquid boosters, to fly as strap-ons. (Thiokol)


Expendable launch vehicles of the 1970s, intended for replacement by the shuttle. The Titan III-Centaur could carry payloads of 33,000 pounds. (NASA)

Ten days later, the OMB’s Memorandum for the President acknowledged NASA’s recent design revisions but called on the agency to accept a version of the shuttle that would be less costly still:

Last year NASA was proposing a $10-12 B Shuttle. In response to questions from OMB and OST about whether the benefits justified such a large investment, NASA has since designed a $6 B Shuttle which can do all the missions of the larger, more expensive one because it has exactly the same payload capability. (We think both costs are underestimated, perhaps by 50%, i.e., cost overruns are likely on both but more likely on the more expensive version.)

In either case, NASA would plan to replace all of the U.S. expendable booster programs with the Shuttle. Thus, one program, the Shuttle, would dominate NASA for the coming decade, as did Apollo in the 1960’s. This would make efforts to reorient NASA to domestic pursuits more difficult, and tend to starve unmanned earth applications missions for resources.

The Shuttle alternative that is chosen must balance costs, benefits and subjective considerations.

What are the Options? NASA, NASA contractors, OST, PSAC and OMB have all given consideration to alternatives to NASA’s large Space Shuttle proposal. In summary these alternatives run the gamut from:

— large systems with both reusable powered orbiters and boosters ($12 B) to

— small systems with an unpowered reusable orbiter and a non-reusable launch vehicle ($3 B).

Operating costs vary from a high of $30 million per launch for the lowest investment cost option to a low of $5 million per launch for the highest investment cost option.

The revised program proposed in this memorandum would develop a smaller reduced cost version of a manned reusable Shuttle with an investment of $4-5 billion over the next 8 years-less than one-half NASA’s original proposal.

The OMB proposal was not the result of a thoughtless exercise aimed at pressing NASA until the pips squeaked; it represented a serious alternative. With its 10 x 30-foot payload bay and 30,000-pound capacity, the OMB Shuttle would still capture some 80 percent of the payloads of the larger designs. Similarly, the OMB would not permit its shuttle to be all things to all people; its memo to Nixon stated that “for national security purposes, we may not want all our eggs in one basket.” The OMB stated explicitly that the nation was to “retain the reliable Titan III expendable booster to launch the few largest payloads that would not fit the smaller Shuttle. These include space telescopes and large intelligence satellites.” [Low, Personal Notes No. 58, November 14, 1971; letter, Low to Rice, November 22, 1971; OMB, Memorandum for the President, December 2, 1971.]

Nixon took about a week before he read and accepted the OMB memo. On Saturday, December 11, Fletcher and Low met with Rice, David, and Flanigan. These NASA officials learned that Nixon indeed had decided to go ahead with the shuttle — provided that it was the downsized version of the OMB. This brought considerable and heated discussion. Fletcher finally declared that he could not accept such a decision, and that he wanted to see the President. This meeting did not take place, for Fletcher subsequently decided that he would not help his cause by staging a confrontation with Nixon.

Fletcher nevertheless would fight for a larger Shuttle, and in doing this, he would stand for NASA in the fashion of his predecessors. Paine had been the visionary, pushing toward Mars. Low had succeeded Paine; as Acting Administrator, he pushed strongly for two-stage fully-reusable designs. He also sought OMB approval to initiate Shuttle development during FY 1972, and won permission to proceed with the SSME on such a schedule. By contrast, Fletcher had acquiesced to OMB pressure from the outset, abandoning the high-cost alternatives as he struggled to meet the OMB’s stringent cost limits. He still had a limited amount of wiggle room, and he would make the most of it.

Though the OMB memo to Nixon specified a development cost, it did not state a payload size or capacity. The OMB presented its numbers separately in a paper for NASA: 10 x 30 feet, 30,000 pounds. Low responded quickly; on Monday, December 13, he sent a memo to Dale Myers that asked for an in-house assessment of this OMB shuttle, to be completed by the end of the month. In this assessment, Myers was to try once more for the full-capacity Shuttle of 15 x 60 feet and 65,000 pounds, by comparing its merits with those of the OMB’s configuration.

Flanigan also proved helpful, as he sent a memo to Fletcher from the White House: “None of the figures in the paper given to you are set in concrete. Rather, they should be viewed as a new way to approach the problem, against which an initial estimate will be made within a couple of weeks. Obviously, those figures will have to be refined in succeeding weeks.” He added pointedly, “There is no written directive from the President on this subject.” [OMB, “Space Shuttle Program,” December 10, 1971; Low, Personal Notes No. 60, December 12, 1971; memos: Low to Myers, December 13, 1971; Flanigan to Fletcher, December 17, 1971; Science, 30 May 1986, p. 1103.]

Fletcher, however, had to prepare once again to give ground. The OMB was willing to permit NASA to build its shuttle with the SSME; it was willing to bypass the interim Phase I orbiter with its J-2S engines. The OMB also would allow a booster “of the reusable pressure-fed type,” which Low had recommended. Nevertheless, while rejecting the OMB’s small payload size and weight, Fletcher and Low had to find new ways to save money and to cut the developmental cost anew.

With OMB ready to toss the Air Force’s payload bay out the window, and with the OMB calling for continued use of the Titan III for large Air Force payloads, it was appropriate to take a fresh look at another Air Force requirement, which had demanded a crossrange of 1100 nautical miles. This had been a prime reason for the choice of a delta wing for the orbiter, which drove up the weight of the Shuttle and increased its cost by requiring more thermal protection. With the OMB now pressing NASA to return to the payload capacity recommended by Max Faget, the agency had to consider whether it might cut costs by also returning to Faget’s straight-wing orbiter design.

Charles Donlan, acting director of the Shuttle program office, ruled this out. In a memo to Low, he emphasized that high crossrange would be “fundamental to the operation of the orbiter.” It would make the Shuttle maneuverable, greatly broadening the opportunities to abort a mission and perhaps save the lives of astronauts. A high crossrange would also afford frequent opportunities to return to Cape Canaveral in the course of a normal mission, following launch from that site.

Delta wings also promised advantages that were entirely separate from crossrange. A delta orbiter would be stable in flight from hypersonic to subsonic speeds, throughout a wide range of nose-high attitudes. The aerodynamic flow over such an orbiter would be smooth and predictable, with the delta wing thus permitting accurate predictions of heating during reentry and giving confidence in the design of the thermal protection system. In addition to this, the delta vehicle would experience relatively low temperatures of 600 to 800 °F over its sides and upper surfaces.

By contrast, straight-wing configurations would produce complex hypersonic flow fields, with high local temperatures and severe changes in temperature on the wing, body and tail. Temperatures on the sides of the fuselage would run from 900 to 1300 degrees, making the analysis and design of thermal protection more complex. During transition from supersonic to subsonic speeds, the straight-wing orbiter would experience unsteady flow and buffeting, making it harder to fly.

Because of this combination of aerodynamic and operational advantages, Donlan favored the delta wing for reasons that were entirely separate from those of the Air Force. Fletcher, however, still could back off on the issue of payload-bay capacity. A smaller bay would give a smaller and somewhat less costly orbiter. Reducing the payload weight would trim the size and mass of the entire Shuttle, cutting costs even further. Moreover, for the past several weeks Fletcher had been holding in reserve the possibility of such cuts.

He had gone to lunch on October 19 with David Packard, the Deputy Secretary of Defense, and Packard had stated that he felt very uneasy over the Air Force’s design requirements for the shuttle. As Fletcher wrote in a memo to Low,

The requirements which he was particularly concerned about were the cross-range requirement, and payload requirement, and the size requirement. He felt that the cross-range requirement might have been an artificial one and although he didn’t fully understand the implications of it felt that if it were causing difficulties, it could easily be modified. I assured him that the diameter requirement came primarily from NASA and not from the Air Force, but that the length probably came from the Air Force. He knew quite well which program caused the length difficulty and although it can’t be discussed in this memorandum, it is clear to both of us that something could be done in this regard also. We both agreed that the payload requirement was somewhat arbitrary at this point.

Fletcher did not discuss this with Rice or Weinberger, for he was about to engage them in the high-stakes game that followed the Director’s Review, and he did not want to tip his hand. Two months later, however, with Fletcher preparing to play this card of Shuttle capacity, Low’s memo of December 13 directed Myers to compare four cases: the OMB Shuttle, the full-size NASA shuttle, a design of 12 x 40 feet and 30,000 pounds that NASA had studied previously, and a new case of 14 x 50 feet and 65,000 pounds. They all knew, however, that they could not start with a smaller bay and then enlarge it. Donlan had written that such a course “is not considered practical. The most cost effective system is one sized properly at the outset for its intended use.” [Memos: Fletcher to Low, October 20, 1971; Donlan to Low, December 5, 1971; Low to Myers, December 13, 1971.]

In addition to this, with Low presenting new alternatives to the NASA staff for evaluation, Don Rice found himself in a position to add a few alternatives of his own. He had formal channels for receiving information from NASA, but now he opened up some back-channels that gave him access to additional sources. “Some of my information came from the Defense Department, but not very much of it,” he later remarked. “Some of it came from industry. There were clearly some people in industry who were concerned that NASA was going to lead them down the road of another C-5A debacle and that they would end up with nothing.”

Fletcher saw what was happening:

He would come up with his own drawings on what it should look like. He had private sources that he was turning to. Contractors wanting their particular version. Contractors do that. And there is no reason why they shouldn’t. I hate to say this about Don but he really didn’t understand aerospace contractors. Tell him to design a cheaper system, he’d design a cheaper system. He went that far; he came up with his own design.

Fletcher took it in stride: “We kept dealing with him. After all, you have to be polite, because you never know who’s going to be your boss next.” Low also joined in the exchanges. At one point, Rice presented a developmental cost of $4 billion and claimed that it came from a contractor whose name he could not divulge. Low asked him to disclose the contractor, so that NASA could critique his claim. Rice refused, but based on the questions he had asked, Low concluded that the contractor was North American Rockwell. That company had given far more information to NASA than to Rice, and Low determined that Rice’s $4 billion left out company profit and the cost of NASA program support. Indeed, it was the equivalent of numbers that NASA itself had shown.

Every time Rice got a bright idea, he would send it over to NASA for assessment by its staff. The OMB’s William Niskanen, head of its Evaluation Division, chimed in with similar requests of his own. Within NASA, William Lilly was the chief budget officer and was close to the working level where people had to take the time to deal with these matters.

Lilly tried to come between Rice and his staff:

It was some dirty warfare going on at that time. Our approach was to, in essence, to create doubt in their boss’s mind of the value of the work they had done. We did our studies and in many ways in order just to prove that they were biased, and they were wrong and they didn’t know what they were doing. And any way we could embarrass them, we did it.

Lilly took care to control the flow of information from NASA to the OMB, for he knew that a small leak can sink a great ship:

I reached the point, to hell with you, back of my hand to you. I mean, you can’t do your job if I don’t let you in the Agency. And in essence, I probably went about shutting them off from information throughout the Agency. I just told my people that, in a way that they understood, but not really telling them, they weren’t to respond. I wanted to see everything that went over. There was to be no answers to questions given throughout the Agency to OMB without it coming through me personally.

“They kept throwing road blocks on us,” Lilly continues. “Every time we would come up with a study and do what they wanted in terms of comparative analysis. They couldn’t challenge what we had done in many ways, they would turn around and come with studying a new concept.” In time, Niskanen sent a request that went too far: “To be brutally frank about it, the reaction we had or my attitude on it, and what, in essence, I told them? I told them to go shove it up your ass. I wasn’t going to do any such thing. It didn’t make any goddamn sense. I wasn’t about to do such a study, and we never did.”

Fletcher, by then, was using channels of his own: “We were kind of mean to Don in going over his head all the time. But I figured that was the only way we could get this thing done.” He met with Caspar Weinberger “quite frequently,” with Peter Flanigan “almost as often,” and with George Shultz “two or three times.” He also arranged a meeting with John Ehrlichman. [John Logsdon interviews: Donald Rice, November 13, 1975, p. 2; James Fletcher, September 21, 1977, pp. 20-21, 23; John Mauer interview, William Lilly, Washington, October 20, 1983, pp. 28-33; Roger Launius interview, James Fletcher, September 19, 1991, p. 14; Low, Personal Notes No. 61, January 2, 1972.]

These exchanges continued through Christmas. On Monday, December 27, having reviewed the latest contractor studies, Fletcher prepared to play his poker card of Shuttle capacity and to make an offer that would counter the OMB Shuttle of two weeks earlier. “We met all day to discuss the various options,” Low wrote. Low continued those meetings on Tuesday morning, talking with Myers, with Lilly, and with others as well. Following those meetings, Low and Fletcher agreed on the terms of their counteroffer. Fletcher then presented these terms to Weinberger in a December 29 letter:

We have concluded that the full capability 15 x 60′ – 65,000# shuttle still represents a “best buy”, and in ordinary times should be developed. However, in recognition of the extremely severe near-term budgetary problems, we are recommending a somewhat smaller vehicle — one with a 14 x 45′ – 45,000# payload capability, at a somewhat reduced overall cost.

This is the smallest vehicle that we can still consider to be useful for manned flight as well as a variety of unmanned payloads. However, it will not accommodate many DOD payloads and some planetary payloads. Also, it will not accommodate a space tug together with a payload, and will therefore not provide an effective capability to return payloads or propulsive stages from high “synchronous” orbits, where most applications payloads are placed.

An accompanying table compared costs for five options:

Payload bay (ft.)10 x 3012 x 4014 x 4514 x 5015 x 60
Payload weight (lbs)30,00030,00045,00065,00065,000
Development cost ($billions)
Operating cost
Payload costs ($/pound)220223167115118

This table included the four cases cited by Low in his memo to Myers of December 13, and reviewed by Myers. Case 1 was the OMB shuttle; Case 4 was the Shuttle NASA wanted and now apparently would not have. Following standard custom, the option Fletcher proposed was right in the middle as Case 2A. [Letter, Fletcher to Weinberger, December 29, 1971; Low, Personal Notes No. 61, January 2, 1972.]

Fletcher privately knew that he could go still lower. Talking with Low, he decided that they could accept something as small as 14 x 40 feet with 40,000 pounds. The two men then went to an afternoon meeting with White House and OMB officials: Shultz, Weinberger, Flanigan, David, Rice and Rose. Shultz was now the key man; he headed the OMB, he was Rice’s boss, and he had Nixon’s ear.

Shultz looked at NASA’s presentation and decided that the only thing that made any sense, as NASA had said all along, would be the full-size version, Case 4. Shultz, however, did not press this point for Rice objected vigorously. Rice’s staff was still active; only one day earlier, his economist John Sullivan had sent him a memo arguing anew that the most cost-effective system was still the Titan III. The meeting broke up with no decision. Fletcher and Low, however, came away fairly confident that they would at least get Case 2A, which they had recommended. Indeed, Shultz’s support, however tentative, allowed them to hope that they might even win the full-capability Case 4.

Rice again prevailed, as he talked further with Weinberger. In a phone conversation with Fletcher, Weinberger stated that he wanted NASA to look at a 14 x 45-foot Shuttle — with 30,000 pounds of payload, only two-thirds that of Case 2A. In Low’s words, “Fletcher came close to telling Weinberger to go to hell but restrained himself perhaps better than I could.” Fletcher then phoned Shultz and talked with him at length. Shultz remained unwilling to make a decision, but recommended that NASA should take one more look at Rice’s request.

Although Rice was holding firm on a weight of 30,000 pounds, he now was willing to budge slightly on payload size, for Sullivan’s memo had discussed a 12 x 40-foot shuttle with twin solid boosters. Though this configuration would carry no more weight than a Titan III, it could fly with the boosters of a Titan III: 120-inch solid motors that were in production and had known costs. Such a Shuttle still would not match the cost-effectiveness of the Titan III itself, but it would come close. In Sullivan’s own analysis, that Titan would save only $100 million when compared to that Shuttle. Within the OMB, this was as near to an endorsement as any type of shuttle was likely to receive.

Low phoned Rice and asked him to put his questions in writing. Rice replied that he might have further questions subsequently, but he drew up a set of queries and sent it over to Low late on Friday evening, which was New Year’s Eve. Low discussed them with Fletcher and Myers over the weekend; on Monday, January 3, they completed their response. A sampling will illustrate the exchanges:

1. If future budgets for NASA were constrained to $3.2 – $3.3 B, would you want to do a large shuttle?

Answer: The answer is yes. The NASA budget is not committed to exceed the FY 1973 level even if the maximum credible cost overrun occurred.

2. Why should a relatively few space station modules for the mid-1980’s determine the size and weight capabilities of the shuttle? What other missions are really driving the payload size and weight requirements?

Answer: In addition to “a few space station modules,” the payload length is driven above 40 feet by most NASA planetary payloads, most DOD payloads, and a few of the NASA science payloads…. The payload diameter is driven above 13 feet by manned payloads, some NASA science payloads, and some NASA planetary payloads. The payload weight is driven above 40,000 lbs. not only by space station modules but by space station resupply logistic vehicles, as well as sortie cans [small laboratories that would not fly freely in space but would remain within the payload bay and return with the Shuttle orbiter]; a 40,000-lb. payload capability is also exceeded by many DOD payloads, as well as 13 different science, applications and planetary payloads.

4. What capabilities and dollar benefits would be lost by going to a 12 x 40′ (30 – 35,000 lb.) shuttle launched by SRM’s?

Answer: At this size and weight we lose most DOD payloads, all manned payloads (including resupply logistics vehicles), most planetary payloads, and many science and applications payloads.

These exchanges with Rice would feed into a letter that Fletcher intended to prepare for Weinberger on Monday, January 3. On Sunday, however, with no resolution in sight, Low confided privately that “there is nobody in the White House willing to make any decisions.”

He later wrote:

The single most significant factor was that there was no top-level leadership in the White House. Nixon was unwilling to deal with his agency heads and dealt solely with his staff. This placed a great deal of the decision-making responsibility with the OMB, and by definition the OMB is far more interested in short-range budgetary problems than in the long-range future of the nation. [Memo, Sullivan to Rice, December 28, 1971; “Space Shuttle Questions Provided by OMB on 12/31/71”; Low, Personal Notes No. 61, January 2, 1972; letter, Low to John Logsdon, January 23, 1979.]

The Hinge of Decision

Low did not know it, but the commitment he wanted already was imminent. At a recent budget session held in Key Biscayne near Miami, a decision had been made to include funds for the Shuttle. A subsequent decision called for Nixon to release an announcement at the Western White House in San Clemente, California. He would also meet there with Fletcher, who would hold a press conference. Fletcher learned of this during that New Year weekend. He and Jonathan Rose responded by asking William Anders of the National Aeronautics and Space Council to prepare a draft of this presidential statement.

Monday dawned, with the day’s action items prominently featuring Fletcher’s letter to Weinberger and NASA’s responses to Rice’s question set. People at the Manned Spacecraft Center had been working over the weekend to come up with the answers, but when these responses reached Washington, early that afternoon, they were quite inconsistent. It quickly developed that some of the specialists in Houston had misread some key tables of data. With time pressing, NASA Headquarters gave them only one hour to come up with the right answers, which they did. These answers made it possible for Fletcher to finish his letter:

Our view that the shuttle with the 14×45 – 45,000# capability is the minimum acceptable option is still valid.

The OMB proposed option of a 14×45 – 30,000# shuttle is not acceptable because it will not handle manned space station modules, manned sortie flights or manned resupply missions in a standard space station orbit: in short, it would not provide a manned spaceflight capability for the United States. Also, this shuttle would not handle 28 different science, applications and planetary payloads that could be carried with a 45,000# payload capability.

At 6 p.m., Fletcher and Low met in George Shultz’s office with a group of participants that again included Shultz, Weinberger, Flanigan, Rice, and David. The opponents’ positions remained the same, with Rice calling for a smaller design and David proposing that they put off a commitment for several months, to give NASA time to refine its most recent estimates. Shultz responded differently. Unlike those critics, he had been at Key Biscayne.

He had given Rice full opportunity to raise his objections. Now, in this meeting, he had seen NASA respond to Rice’s questions, with answers that militated strongly against the OMB Shuttle. What happened next proved to be the hinge of decision.

Only Low wrote of this moment soon afterward, and in a terse manner: “Shultz agreed with our position that the 15 x 60′ 65,000 lb. Shuttle should be developed.” Weinberger, Rice, and Fletcher all gave interviews during subsequent years, but did not discuss the events of this meeting. Fletcher and Low, however, spoke of the matter with senior NASA officials, who would present their own recollections [Memos: David N. Parker (White House staff), December 31, 1971; Rice to Shultz, January 3, 1972; letter, Fletcher to Weinberger, January 3, 1972; Low, Personal Notes No. 62, January 15, 1972]:

Lilly: Rice got a little bit confused. There was a feeling with Low and Fletcher that Rice got too carried away, moving toward misstatements, trying to exaggerate some things. George Shultz picked up the phone and called Morgenstern during the meeting and asked him about it. Now, NASA had prepared for this kind of thing-to be sure Morgenstern was fully knowledgeable. And Shultz got off the phone and made the decision-we’ll go this way, and to prepare the papers for the approval.

Donlan: I get this directly from Dr. Fletcher. He was telling his wife the story of how he went over there with the information that I supplied him from our shuttle program studies that showed that there wasn’t all that much to be gained by going 45-foot length and, furthermore, it invalidated a lot of missions that the Air Force claimed they needed for the sizing of the satellites. So Shultz said, ‘Well, what are you fooling around with that 45-foot configuration for? It doesn’t cost that much more. Why don’t you get the one you want — take the 60-foot one.’ And Fletcher came back with that message. That’s how it was settled.

Willis Shapley, NASA Associate Deputy Administrator: George Shultz — he had personally spent almost as many hours going through all the planning studies, and especially this famous economic analysis that Klaus Heiss at Mathematica had done. And he personally called up Oskar Morgenstern and other people there, and he was satisfied, finally, that it was a reasonable proposition. So when it was clear that all the boys made their case, Shultz said, ‘If we’re going to do it, let’s do it right; let’s do the big shuttle and forget about the Bureau of the Budget shuttle.’ So that’s how we ended up with what it was.

It was Christmas in January, for whereas Fletcher and Low had come in hoping for approval of the downsized version that they really did not want, Shultz now was ready to recommend that they receive the full-size version that had not been in play for over a month. Similarly, the views of Rice and David would carry no weight. Shultz, after all, was Rice’s boss, and it was Shultz who would meet with Nixon. David also reported to Nixon, but he had little clout. He had been bypassed in favor of Magruder during the recent NTOP exercise. A year later, amid a post-election White House reorganization, Nixon would abolish his post of presidential science advisor — and would also abolish the OST in the bargain. [John Mauer interviews: Charles Donlan, Washington, October 19, 1983, pp. 33-34; William Lilly, Washington, October 20, 1983, p. 39; Willis Shapley, October 26, 1984, p. 26; Science: 19 January 1973, p. 233; 2 February 1973, pp. 455, 458-459; 16 February 1973, p. 641; 30 March 1973, p. 1311.]

The decision to proceed with the Shuttle became firm during the meeting in Shultz’s office, with Shultz confirming his assent to NASA’s request for $200 million as startup funds for the Shuttle within Nixon’s FY 1973 budget. Flanigan now asked Low and Fletcher to prepare a draft of the presidential statement — which Anders was writing already. In turn, Anders’ statement formed the bulk of the material used in Nixon’s release.

As recently as November, Flanigan had anticipated that any White House announcement would be low-key. At that time, with the $3 billion glider as the likely new initiative, Flanigan expected to see the main coverage limited to the aerospace trade press, thereby reassuring this industry of Nixon’s support while avoiding the high visibility that would draw fire from critics. The Shuttle, however, had metamorphosed now into a $5.5 billion program. As early as the previous Friday, prior to the meeting in Shultz’s office, a White House staffer had already laid out the high-profile announcement that now was scheduled for Wednesday, January 5, 1972.

Fletcher and Low flew out to California, editing two NASA statements along the way. Nixon greeted them at the Western White House, as did John Ehrlichman. Though the President had planned to spend only 15 minutes with his visitors, the meeting ran well beyond a half-hour as he showed strong interest in the Shuttle and the space program. Fletcher had brought a model of a TAOS, and Ehrlichman would remember “Nixon’s fascination with the model. And he held it and, in fact, I wasn’t sure that Fletcher was going to be able to get it away from him when the thing was over.”

Fletcher and Nixon
Nixon meets with Fletcher and approves the shuttle as a program, January 5, 1972. (National Archives)

Nixon stated that NASA should stress civilian applications but should not hesitate to note the military uses as well. He showed interest in the possibility of routine operations and quick reaction times, for he saw that these could allow the Shuttle to help in disasters such as earthquakes or floods. He also liked the idea of using the Shuttle to dispose of nuclear waste by launching it into space. Fletcher mentioned that it might become possible to collect solar power in orbit and beam it to earth in the form of electricity. Nixon replied that such developments tend to happen much more quickly than people expect, and that they should not hesitate to talk about them.

He liked the fact that ordinary people would be able to fly in the Shuttle, who would not be highly-trained astronauts. He asked if the Shuttle was a good investment, and agreed that it was indeed, for it promised a tenfold reduction in the cost of space flight. He added that even if it was not a good investment, the nation would have to do it anyway, because space flight was here to stay. Fletcher came away from the meeting saying, “The President thinks about space just like McCurdy does,” referring to a colleague within NASA’s upper management.

Although his formal statement largely reflected NASA’s views, Nixon edited the draft in his own hand. The final version showed a firmness and sense of direction that had been utterly lacking in his March 1970 statement on space policy. It also featured a grace note that might have suited John Kennedy:

I have decided today that the United States should proceed at once with the development of an entirely new type of space transportation system designed to help transform the space frontier of the 1970s into familiar territory, easily accessible for human endeavor in the 1980s and ’90s.

This system will center on a space vehicle that can shuttle repeatedly from earth to orbit and back. It will revolutionize transportation into near space, by routinizing it. It will take the astronomical costs out of astronautics. In short, it will go a long way toward delivering the rich benefits of practical space utilization and the valuable spinoffs from space efforts into the daily lives of Americans and all people….

Views of the earth from space have shown us how small and fragile our home planet truly is. We are learning the imperatives of universal brotherhood and global ecology — learning to think and act as guardians of one tiny blue and green island in the trackless oceans of the universe. This new program will give more people more access to the liberating perspectives of space….

“We must sail sometimes with the wind and sometimes against it,” said Oliver Wendell Holmes, “but we must sail, and not drift, nor lie at anchor.” So with man’s epic voyage into space — a voyage the United States of America has led and still shall lead. [Low: Personal Notes No. 59, November 28, 1971; No. 62, January 15, 1972; letter, Fletcher to Weinberger, January 4, 1972; memos: David Parker, December 31, 1971; Flanigan to Nixon, January 4, 1972; Nixon, “Statement by the President,” January 5, 1972; John Logsdon interview, John Ehrlichman, Santa Fe, May 6, 1983, p. 1; Low, Memo for Record, January 12, 1972. Reprinted in NASA SP-4407, Vol. I, pp. 558-559.]

It was appropriate to give a name to this new ship of space, and of state. Fletcher, Shapley, and Low had prepared a list that included Pegasus, Hermes, Astroplane, and Skylark. Flanigan passed this list to White House staffers, who picked the name Space Clipper. A draft of Nixon’s statement used this name, which resembled Lockheed’s Star-Clipper. Nixon himself, however, decided that it would be better to refer to the vehicle in the usual fashion, as the “Space Shuttle.” Earlier piloted spacecraft had carried names such as Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo, but the new one would break with this practice.

Criticism of Nixon’s decision came from the usual sources, with Senator Proxmire issuing a press release: “The President has clearly reordered our priorities. But he has reordered them the wrong way.” Senator William Fulbright played the same note: “I believe the shuttle simply cannot rank high on our list of priorities in view of the critical social and economic problems we face.” They, however, were merely outriders within a Democratic Party that had long commanded the center of American politics but now was slipping to the left, and whose presidential candidate, George McGovern, would shortly receive one of the worst electoral drubbings ever administered. Though Congress would perform its constitutional role by voting the funding, it would not become an important source of opposition.

Certainly there was politics aplenty in Nixon’s decision. He wanted to help the aerospace industry during the upcoming election year, and the staffer Jonathan Rose, reporting to Flanigan, had been monitoring that industry’s unemployment. Fletcher, in a letter to Rose of November 22, had written that an early start on the Shuttle “would lead to a direct employment of 8,800 by the end of 1972, and 24,000 by the end of 1973.” Ehrlichman would recall that this was

a very important consideration in Nixon’s mind. There are what we call battleground states; they are the pivotal states that control big blocks of electoral votes. So when you look at unemployment numbers, and you key them to the battleground states, the space program has an importance out of proportion to its budget.

The politics also reached a much higher level, touching the matter of presidential decisions that could stand as a legacy, with consequences that would reverberate through coming decades. Theodore White, a chronicler of presidents, had written in 1965 that “on the far edge of the plateau lie problems which we in this decade cannot conceive of as political.” These included “the moon and space. How large a part of American energy should be invested in this exploration with no definable certainty except the certainty that it will change the lives of all our children?”

Weinberger had made an important point in his memo to Nixon of August 12: the United States, as the world’s great reserve of strength, could do more than merely add bricks to the welfare state. Such policies might suit the British, of whom the former secretary of state Dean Acheson had said, “Great Britain has lost an Empire and has not yet found a role.” They would not suit America.

One could view Nixon’s decision as a straightforward exercise in daily work at the White House. Nixon had a strong interest in management; he had set up a staff system, which included a strengthened OMB, that could weigh policy alternatives with considerable effectiveness and present him with well-researched options for his decision. As one Flax Committee staffer put it, “Once they decided to do it, Nixon and Ehrlichman weren’t going to argue with NASA whether it ought to be a 60 or a 45-foot-long bay, or 12 or 15 feet. If the head of NASA is telling them that it has to be this size and they want to go ahead with the project, they are going to say go ahead.” The demise of NTOP also helped. While the Shuttle stood on its merits and did not simply replace NTOP as a backup, Nixon and Shultz had been prepared to include funding for NTOP initiatives in the FY 1973 budget. When no suitable proposals came forth, that made it easier to shift the putative NTOP funds over to the Shuttle, and to approve a larger Shuttle as well.

Yet while the Shuttle could not match the significance of Nixon’s opening to China, it drew on more than good staff work. In Ehrlichman’s words, “There wasn’t anybody who made those final decisions except Nixon, in this kind of area. Defense, space, certain kinds of domestic problems — he was the final arbiter.” The Shuttle carried Nixon’s personal stamp because it carried his personal decision. [National Journal, August 19, 1972, p. 1329; John Logsdon interviews: Dave Elliot, p. 4; John Ehrlichman, Santa Fe, May 6, 1983, pp. 9, 32-33; White, 1964, pp. 476, 478; Oxford, p. 1; letter, Fletcher to Rose, November 22, 1971. Reprinted in NASA SP-407, Vol. I, pp. 555-558.]

Loose Ends I: A Final Configuration

Now that Shultz had handed NASA its Shuttle on a silver platter, the agency had to decide how it would look. The question of choosing a booster was still up in the air, and it was far from clear that the Shuttle indeed would be a TAOS; liquid-fueled boosters designed as conventional first stages were making a strong comeback. Similarly, the agency could not simply walk away from Fletcher’s alternative of 14 x 45 feet and 45,000 pounds; NASA itself had proposed it, and it merited additional attention because it offered the potential advantage of being able to use existing 120-inch solid rocket motors. Further study of this design would also discourage the OMB from complaining that NASA once again was abandoning a good possibility with unseemly haste.

Though the issue of payload size and weight was still open, the basic design of the orbiter was approaching a definitive form. During the fall of 1971, when the Mark I/Mark II approach was still in the forefront, the contractors had worked from a Max Faget configuration known as MSC-040A. It elaborated the earlier MSC-040 by adding small liquid-fuel engines for orbital maneuvers, along with thrusters for attitude control that were mounted at the tips of the wings and tail.

The Mark I/Mark II concept, however, with its phased technology, had never been more than an artificial stratagem to reduce peak funding by stretching out the development, while accepting serious compromises in design. With Shultz’s support, NASA now was free to build an honest orbiter, one that would be right the first time. MSC-040A had called for four J-2S engines; a variant of January 1972, MSC-040C, replaced them with three SSMEs.

Other decisions shaped the orbiter’s structure and thermal protection. Though hot structures now looked like an open invitation to a cost overrun, everyone knew how to build an aluminum airplane, and the orbiter indeed would take shape as an aircraft built largely of this metal. It, however, still needed thermal protection, and NASA now placed its hope in the still-unproven tiles. Though recent research had increased confidence that they indeed would serve, what made tiles more attractive yet was that NASA could count with reasonable assurance on using ablative heat shields as a backup. Ongoing work with ablatives had cut their cost dramatically while reducing their weight to 15 pounds per square foot, matching the weight of the tiles. A year later, Eugene Love, a director at NASA-Langley, would write, “Ablators are baselined as a confident fall-back solution (temporary) for both leading edges and large surface areas, should development of the baseline approaches lag.” [AIAA Paper 73-31; Jenkins, Space Shuttle, p. 115; memo, Taft to Rice, January 27, 1972; letter, Low to Rice, January 11, 1972.]

Though the choice of booster was still unsettled, during the early weeks of 1972 there was excellent reason to believe that NASA’s eventual selection would take good care of the Marshall Space Flight Center. The winged S-IC would have done splendidly, but even Boeing, which had built the basic S-IC and knew this concept best, had been unable to drive its development cost low enough to compete with alternatives such as TAOS. It fell by the wayside around the end of 1971, amid criticism even within the Shuttle community. John Yardley, who headed the work at McDonnell Douglas, told Aviation Week, “You just could not build the world’s largest airplane without all the problems that would go with a 700,000-pound craft. And it doesn’t buy you much flying it back if you can do the same job in a cheaper way.”

Boeing and NASA-Marshall, however, would not be denied, as they proposed a new alternative: a pump-fed booster. Though this again was to be an S-IC variant, it would be without wings, tail, jet engines, landing gear, or crew compartment. Instead it amounted to the standard S-IC, fitted out to land in the ocean by using parachutes. A retro-rocket was to cushion its impact in the sea; it then would float like a ditched airplane as it awaited rescue. After refurbishment, it would fly again.

TAOS concepts were still very much in the running, with solid motors receiving a share of attention. The liquid-fueled TAOS, however, with twin pressure-fed boosters flanking the external tank, had lost favor. A key group of Shuttle design reviewers, at the Manned Spacecraft Center, had come around instead to recommending a single pressure-fed booster that would take the form of a conventional first stage. This, too, would provide grist for the mill of NASA-Marshall, for that center would manage development of both the booster and its engines.

Within the OMB, Daniel Taft, who worked with the NASA budget, saw an opportunity — and smelled a rat. The opportunity existed because NASA’s own estimates proposed that a suitable solid rocket motor would cost up to a billion dollars less to develop than a pressure-fed booster. In addition to this, the Air Force had already developed the 120-inch solids of the Titan III, thus providing a base of experience along with confidence in the validity of the new cost estimates for solids. Pressure-fed versions carried no such experience and no such confidence, for they had never been built before.

NASA, however, wanted a pressure-fed booster, and Taft knew that to lead it to solids would not be easy. In a memo to Rice, late in January, he laid out the issues. He wrote that “NASA’s schedule for the selection of the final configuration…is extremely tight (March 1).” Drawing on Rice’s back-channels to the contractors, Taft noted that one such source had recommended that pressure-fed designs should be studied for six to twelve months. Taft also asked “whether NASA can overcome its instinctive dislike” of solid rocket motors. He added:

NASA has recently let contracts with the four major solid rocket contractors ($150 K each) for quick (1 month) studies of development and production costs and technical aspects of SRMs. This is truly a hasty last minute effort by NASA which can hardly be expected to make up for NASA’s failure to study SRMs seriously in the past.

Of course, the requirement for Marshall’s involvement in the shuttle program would be quite weak if SRMs were selected. Ironically, Marshall, which has little understanding of SRMs and much to lose by their selection, is managing the SRM contractor effort….

If left to their own desires, NASA would probably select the 15 x 60′ orbiter with the pressure-fed booster. This is regrettable because we consider the pressure-fed booster to be a high risk option from the standpoint of both investment cost and operating cost….

At this time I believe that we should lay our cards on the table and explain frankly to NASA our concerns about the risks involved in the pressure-fed booster…. [Aviation Week: January 10, 1972, pp. 15-16; January 24, 1972, pp. 36-37, 40-41; Low, Personal Notes No. 61, January 2, 1972; letter, Low to Rice, January 11, 1972; memo, Taft to Rice, January 27, 1972; Report B35-43 RP-30 (Grumman).]

Meanwhile, there was the irksome matter of the budget. Nixon’s message to Congress included NASA’s full amount of $228 million for the Shuttle: $200 million for the program per se, $28 million for construction of facilities. NASA’s FY 1973 request totaled $3.379 billion in new obligational authority, $3.192 billion in outlays. In a letter to Fletcher dated February 9, Weinberger, however, emphasized that the second of these numbers was the one that counted: “For planning purposes an annual spending level of $3.2 billion should be assumed for the foreseeable future” — that is, through FY 1978. A week later, Shultz repeated this and added, “We also fully expect NASA to develop a shuttle system within the $5.5 billion estimate.” The billion-dollar difference in development costs, pressure-fed versus solid, came to nearly one-fifth of this total. Choosing solids thus would give much needed leeway. [Aviation Week, January 31, 1972, pp. 24-25; letters: Weinberger to Fletcher, February 9, 1972; Shultz to Fletcher, February 16, 1972; memo, Low to Fletcher, March 22, 1972.]

During the subsequent week, contractors presented briefings and gave their recommendations concerning the choice of booster. Low wrote that these briefings “yielded the recommendations for each contractor that were most predictable based on vested interests.” They also were predictable based on the contractors’ choices during a similar exercise six months earlier, when they had compared expendable boosters for interim use. On both these occasions, Boeing’s recommendations had been particularly egregious.

Boeing was home to the S-IC and was teamed with Grumman. In their report of September 1, they had proposed that the standard S-IC, which needed no development, would give lower costs in an interim program of up to 30 shuttle flights. (Boeing had built only 15 S-ICs for the whole of Apollo.) Now, in February, Boeing continued to root for the home team by coming out in favor of its pump-fed booster. This report also came out strongly against solid rockets, urging that they “should be eliminated from further consideration.”

By contrast, Lockheed was a major builder of solids. In September, it merely had weighed the merits of competing sizes and arrangements of solids, drawing on this in-house expertise. Now, however, it compared a range of alternatives that included liquid boosters — and found again that solids were best. The February briefing from North American Rockwell was also in character. In September, that company had found no reason to choose between the alternatives of the day. Now it hedged anew, stating that one could choose either solids or a conventional liquid first stage, depending on what cost goals were most important.

McDonnell Douglas also liked solids. It certainly had long experience with liquids, having built the Thor missile, the Delta launch vehicle, and the S-IVB, the third stage of the Saturn V. It also was familiar with solids, being accustomed to use them to provide the widely-used Delta with extra boost at launch. It had endorsed solids in September; it now did so again. In addition to this, its report carried a lengthy review of their safety.

The review covered 2128 solid-motor firings, as Delta strap-ons, Titan III boosters, Minuteman ICBMs, and the small four-stage Scout. Thirteen had failed, in ways that were pertinent to the Shuttle, and McDonnell Douglas took care to note both the causes of the failures and the changes in design or in quality-control procedures that could prevent them from recurring. The report noted particularly that in the event of such recurrences, it would usually be possible to safely abort a Shuttle launch. However, there was an exception.

This would happen if the hot, high-pressure gas within a solid motor succeeded in burning through its casing. Large solids were built in segments, pinned together at their joints, and such joints posed particular hazard of a burnthrough. The report noted [Reports: B35-43 RP-21; Evaluation (quote, p. 211) (Grumman): LMSC-A995931, -D157302 (Lockheed); Interim Report; Design Review (briefing chart, p. 60) (McDonnell Douglas); SV 71-40, SV 72-14 (North American Rockwell); Low, Personal Notes No. 65, February 27, 1972]:


Like a distant flash of lightning on a pleasant summer day, this briefing chart clearly foreshadowed the loss of the Challenger, 14 years later.

On the whole, contractor studies found no advantage in the smaller orbiter, no offset to its compromise of NASA’s ability to carry DoD payloads. This removed the last questions as to whether NASA would get the full-size version that it wanted. But with the booster recommendations ranging over the map, NASA once again had no clear way to proceed. Six months earlier, a similar confusion over choice of boosters had worked to NASA’s advantage, by opening the door to new possibilities that included the winged S-IC. The situation now was different; the agency wanted to narrow its alternatives, not expand them. Yet within the contractors’ reports, data on costs gave an overriding basis for a decision.

Between January and March, while the development cost of a pressure-fed booster stayed virtually constant, the SSME escalated sharply and the orbiter went higher still. An internal OMB memo, from the economist Sullivan to Rice, summarized NASA’s own estimate of the changes, in millions of dollars:

.1/3/72 Estimate
Pressure-fedCurrent Estimates



Orbiter3,0583,660 3,660



Main Engine450



580 580580
Booster1,3901,400 1,080350
Program Support602570 560470
Total5,500 6,210 5,880 5,150
Cost/flight7.7 9.3 8.610.4

The situation was not completely bleak; the increased cost of the orbiter, as much as $700 million, included $260 million for specialized solid rockets that might be useful in abort. Sullivan noted that the justification for this abort system “seems weak,” and it soon was dropped from the design. As a result, these estimates could be reduced.

When, however, NASA officials confirmed these estimates, they threw in the towel. Both Weinberger and Shultz had insisted that NASA stay within a $5.5 billion development cost, and it would be most unseemly if the program were to start with a projected cost overrun that would violate this limit. This would happen quite severely with the pressure-fed option; it would also happen with the less costly pump-fed booster, even with the abort system deleted. Moreover, while the projected costs for the solids drew on Air Force experience and were both low and firm, estimates for either of the liquid-fueled options were dodgy and likely to increase by the next design review.

The strong case of a solid motor also gave a strong case for choosing the solid motor. No one had previously tried to recover and reuse a solid booster; those of the Titan III had simply plopped into the deep, to provide homes for fishes. Early in January, a NASA official had said, “It is not contemplated at this time that a solid-rocket booster would be recoverable.” Yet the modest staging velocity of the solids, as low as 4000 ft/sec, meant that their heavy casings could easily serve as a heat sink. They also could withstand the stress of dropping by parachute into the ocean. NASA-Marshall and its contractors found that reusability of these solids would cut the cost per flight to around $10 million, allowing the Shuttle to maintain its advantage and to capture its traffic from expendables. [Aviation Week: January 10, 1972, p. 15; March 20, 1972, pp. 14-16; memo, Sullivan to Rice, March 13, 1972; letter, Low to Rice, January 11, 1972.]

NASA also had to consider the danger of the sea, for inevitably, some boosters would be lost. The high cost of a liquid booster meant that losing even one of them would be quite expensive. Moreover, although the pump-fed booster would save on development costs through its use of the existing F-1 engine, its thin-walled structure would easily sustain damage while afloat. The casing of a solid booster would cost much less. It would be relatively impervious to damage, and the occasional loss of such a casing would not compromise the program’s overall economics.

Low write that at the end of February, “Dale Myers presented the OMSF and OMSF/Center recommendation, which was to go with…solid rocket motor boosters.” Fletcher took the news to a meeting with David, Anders, Flanigan, and Rose. In Fletcher’s words, “There was uniform agreement in the group that we had made the right choice.” He also met with Weinberger, who “seemed quite receptive” to NASA’s decision. Weinberger also agreed that there was no need to make a new decision on the size of the orbiter; that choice had already been made in early January. Low met with Rice and wrote that “he appeared to accept our conclusions, almost as though he had invented them himself.” [Memos: Fletcher to Low, March 3, 1972; Rice to Shultz and Weinberger, March 13, 1972; Fletcher, Memo for Record, March 3, 1972; letters: Fletcher to Weinberger, March 6, 1972; Weinberger to Fletcher, March 13, 1972; Shultz to Fletcher, March 17, 1972; Low: Memo for Record, March 8, 1972; Personal Notes No. 66, March 12, 1972; Donlan, Space Shuttle.]

The director of NASA-Marshall, Eberhard Rees, had expressed hope that the shuttle would use a liquid booster, because that would provide more work for his center. Although he had been deeply involved with liquid rockets since the wartime V-2 effort, he now would have to change with the times. The Shuttle would use two 156-inch boosters, which were as large as could travel on American railroads [a year later this specification changed to a diameter of 142 inches, due to a reduction in the design weight of the orbiter; Loftus et al., Evolution, p. 26; Astronautics & Aeronautics, January 1974, p. 72]. Only nine such solids had been test fired — five by Thiokol, four by Lockheed — and Marshall would have plenty to do in bringing them to a level of reliability that would allow them to carry astronauts. Marshall also would manage the development and production of the SSME and the external tank. This center thus would not wither on the vine.

Budget officer William Lilly went over the estimates and came up with a development cost of $5.15 billion, well below the target of $5.5 billion. Myers objected, insisting that he could accept no lower figure than $5.34 billion, but Low sided with Lilly and persuaded Myers to accept his number. Naturally, this was the one that went to the OMB. It did, however, include the $260 million for the abort system that later was discarded, and thus carried a margin for further reduction. [Aviation Week, March 20, 1972, pp. 14-16; Low, Personal Notes No. 66, March 12, 1972.]

With this, the Shuttle took form in the shape that NASA would build and that flies to this day. Ironically, though it was a NASA project from the start, its main design features reflected pressures from outside that agency. The Air Force had pushed for the large payload capacity and the high crossrange that called for a delta wing; while NASA later accepted these features and made them its own, the initial impetus had come from the Pentagon. Similarly, the solid boosters came from the OMB. Left to its own devices, NASA surely would have picked a liquid booster such as the fully-reusable winged heat-sink type that flourished during the second half of 1971. In this fashion, the Air Force and OMB crafted a design that NASA would construct and operate.

Loose Ends II: NERVA and Cape Canaveral

NASA now was not only ready to proceed with the orbiter it wanted; it also could look ahead to having most of the principal elements of George Mueller’s integrated space program of 1969, which he had planned to culminate in piloted missions to Mars. That program envisioned a Space Shuttle, approval for which was in hand. It called for a space tug, which was on the agenda as part of the development of the operational Shuttle. Mueller had looked ahead to astronaut-tended spacecraft, including a Large Space Telescope that would take shape as today’s orbiting Hubble instrument. These, too, were in prospect in 1972. Space station modules, launched by the Saturn V, were key elements in his scenario, with variants of these modules evolving into portions of Mueller’s eventual Mars ship. Though the Saturn V would fly no more, Fletcher had pushed successfully for a shuttle that could serve to build a future space station. This effort would come to the forefront during the 1980s.

NASA needed one more element to make this framework complete. It needed the NERVA nuclear rocket, which would power the Mars mission. Work in Nevada with experimental nuclear engines had brought this technology to an advanced level that was ready for mainstream development, and NERVA held influential support in Congress. If this program could go forward, NASA might yet be able to set sail for the Red Planet.

During FY 1970, NERVA moved into a phase of detailed design and hardware fabrication. The goal now was not further research, but rather the development of a flight-qualified engine with 75,000 pounds of thrust, at a cost of $860 million over a period of eight to nine years. The program received $88 million in FY 1970 and $85 million in FY 1971, with the funds coming jointly from NASA and the Atomic Energy Commission.

On Capitol Hill, its political support was unassailable. The program had a research center at Los Alamos, New Mexico. The National Journal described that state’s Senator Clinton Anderson as “NERVA’s most zealous and watchful guardian over the years.” Anderson was one of the most senior Democrats in the Senate, and chaired its space committee. The test area was in Nevada; hence the program also held strong support from that state’s Senator Howard Cannon, another influential Democrat who was also a member of the space committee. Indeed, support for NERVA was bipartisan. Westinghouse was building its reactors in Pennsylvania, home to another key supporter: the leader of the Senate’s Republicans, Hugh Scott. In the House, the Pennsylvania congressman James Fulton was the most senior Republican within that chamber’s space committee. He took a strong stand for NERVA as well.

Nevertheless, NERVA faced opposition within the OMB. As one of its officials said, “Here we had a high technology program that was expensive as hell, averaging $100 million a year. It had a long-term potential, but NASA didn’t know for a long time what they were going to do with it. It was a logical place in the budget to raise questions.”

Late in 1970, amid preparation of the FY 1972 budget, NASA and the AEC requested a total of $88 million. By then, however, NASA was abandoning Mueller’s bold Mars plan. There was no need for rapid development of NERVA, which was likely to be ready long before any mission could use it. NASA decided to slow it down by lowering its priority. The OMB responded by treating it as a splendid opportunity to save money by canceling it outright. When the smoke cleared, the budget request for NERVA was down by four-fifths, to only $17.4 million.

Late in January 1971, at a NASA budget briefing, George Low went out of his way to deny that his agency still was looking ahead to a piloted mission to Mars, saying, “We have in our program today no plans for a manned Mars landing.” He actually had plans aplenty, but he was telling the truth; they were not in the program. NERVA stood at their core, and NERVA by then was dying.

Congress, exercising its power of the purse, appropriated $69 million for the program. Nixon, however, held the right to impound funds and refuse to spend them. A few years later, that power would be curtailed by the Impoundment Control Act, but in this fashion he released only $29 million for FY 1972, withholding the rest. That did it; when Fletcher sent his FY 1973 budget request to Shultz, in September 1971, he abandoned hope of building a nuclear-powered engine suitable for Mars.

This decision ended a longstanding NASA policy of developing advanced engines well before there was need for them. The agency had contracted with Rocketdyne to build the F-1 as early as January 1959, over two years before Kennedy called for Apollo. Development of the J-2 dated to September 1960. The demise of NERVA meant that nobody would be flying to Mars, perhaps not even within our lifetimes. [National Journal: March 13, 1971, p. 541; May 29, 1971, pp. 1156-1165; May 6, 1972, p. 787; Data Sheets: F-1 Rocket Engine; J-2 Rocket Engine (Rocketdyne).]

There also was a good deal of politics in another issue: where to launch the Shuttle. Though NASA had an obvious interest in using the Apollo launch facilities at Cape Canaveral, the Shuttle was not the Saturn V and plenty of people in other areas of the country were ready to propose that they could offer sites having unique advantages. All these people demanded careful attention, for they had congressmen and senators as well as access to local newspapers.

The merits of Cape Canaveral were undeniable. In addition to its Apollo facilities, it was on the Intracoastal Waterway; hence barges could bring oversize rocket stages from such locations as NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility, a government-owned plant near New Orleans that had built the S-IC. The southerly latitude of the Cape also meant that rockets launched from this site would benefit from the earth’s rotation, which would impart a velocity of up to 914 mph while a vehicle sat on its pad.

The Cape, however, had disadvantages as well. Though many military launches demanded a polar orbit, but Canaveral could not accommodate rocket flights to due north or south; they might drop spent stages on the Carolinas or Cuba. The Air Force had built its own separate facilities at California’s Vandenberg Air Force Base to get around this. The Cape was subject to corrosion from salt air. It needed a 10,000-foot runway to land the Shuttle, and while this was feasible, the Cape often had cloudy or rainy weather. Lying at sea level, it required rockets to blast their way through the entire thickness of the atmosphere.

As early as April 1970, NASA’s Tom Paine set up a 14-member Space Shuttle Facilities Group, which went on to evaluate both the Cape and the alternatives. NASA also contracted with the Ralph M. Parsons Co., a major heavy-construction firm, to provide independent outside advice. Some 20 states went on to propose over a hundred possible locations, though many bidders had little idea of what NASA needed. Mill Creek, Oklahoma invited NASA to use its town airfield; Brownsville, Texas put in a word for the nearby Cameron County Airport. Another bid came from Michigan’s upper peninsula. The source was an unemployed truck driver who told the New York Times, “Some of my friends and I were drinking it up a little at the town bar, and this guy came in who had just read about the space base competition…”

Nevertheless, there was at least one serious alternative: the Army’s White Sands Missile Range with its adjacent Holloman Air Force Base. Holloman offered existing runways along with a 4000-foot elevation to complement its southerly latitude, thus giving a double boost to a shuttle. Located amid high desert, its weather was virtually cloudless and its flying conditions nearly ideal. An arid climate discouraged corrosion. The remoteness of White Sands also stimulated thoughts of all-azimuth launches, whereby this single facility would fire the Shuttle into both NASA and Air Force orbits. A community of missile specialists had worked here since World War II. This location had another important resource: the powerful Senator Clinton Anderson of New Mexico, its home state, who was ready to fight vigorously for its selection.

Anderson, however, was not the only Washington baron with eyes on this prize. Another was Congressman Olin Teague, chairman of the Subcommittee on Manned Space Flight within the House space committee. A committee staffer noted that early in 1970,

NASA and industry spokesmen suddenly began pointing out that the shuttle potentially could be launched from almost anywhere in the United States. At that juncture, a number of congressmen discovered that they had phased-down or abandoned facilities or Air Force bases in their districts. So Teague and the subcommittee decided they had better make their position — and that of the full committee — clear from the outset.

In December, he came out strongly in favor of Cape Canaveral, reacting with vigor against the suggestion that the Shuttle might go anywhere else. He warned, “Unless I am convinced that NASA is making maximum use of existing facilities, I intend to oppose any money for the shuttle in every way, form or fashion.” He later added that NASA had better put the base at Canaveral, “or come up with a goddamned good case for its removal.”

NASA thus had to do a lot of stroking. In October 1970, George Low assured Senator Anderson that White Sands would receive close scrutiny. The following March, Dale Myers reaffirmed that the competition was far from over, and described White Sands as the closest challenger to the Cape. When, however, NASA announced its decision, in April 1972, it stated clearly that it was not about to build a national Shuttle site in the New Mexico desert. It awarded the palm to Cape Canaveral, with Vandenberg AFB to serve for military launches.

In announcing the decision, George Low said that it would cost $150 million to modify the existing Apollo facilities, which included the Vehicle Assembly Building and Pads 39-A and -B. Though Vandenberg had nothing resembling the VAB that it could convert, it did have a big Titan III launch facility, Space Launch Complex 6, known as Slick-Six. This site would require $500 million, with the Air Force paying the bill. That service had no intention of sharing the cost of Shuttle development with NASA; NERVA might have received its budget partly from NASA and partly from the AEC, but the Shuttle would be entirely a NASA project even though the Air Force was to receive many of its benefits. By promising to pay for its own launch facility at Vandenberg, this service showed that it too would become actively involved.

The rejection of both NERVA and White Sands, at nearly the same time, was a double defeat for Senator Anderson. He was, however, 76 years old and in poor health. In 1972, he announced that he would retire from the Senate and would not run for re-election. As chairman of that chamber’s space committee, he had done much for NASA. He would not be receiving any major base or program in New Mexico, to serve as his monument. [National Journal: April 24, 1971, pp. 869-876; April 24, 1972, pp. 706-707.]

Awarding the Contracts

The presidential campaign was in full swing in mid-1972, and on July 31 Jean Westwood, chairing the Democratic National Committee, issued a statement [Westwood, “Statement,” July 31, 1972]:

Three days ago, the Nixon Administration awarded the $2.6 billion space shuttle contract to the North American Rockwell Corporation in California.

I regard this decision as the latest, and perhaps most blatant, example of President Nixon’s calculated use of the American taxpayers’ dollars for his [427] own re-election purposes….

The award of this contract to North American Rockwell also raises questions of ethics. Why is it that five of the current directors of the corporation happened also to be major contributors to Richard Nixon’s election in 1968?

I ask Democratic members of Congress for a full airing of this contract award….

Ms. Westwood’s press statement included a list of the “major contributors,” whose 1968 donations had mostly come to $1000. One wealthy man, Henry Mudd, had given all of $2000. Yet while stating explicitly that Nixon could be bought and sold for the price of a Volkswagen Beetle, she missed a potentially more significant story: Dale Myers, who had spent his career at North American, had put together the selection board that had picked this company as the winner of the contract.

Myers was NASA’s Associate Administrator for Manned Space Flight. He was clearly aware of the potential for conflict of interest, for in Washington, it is well understood that the person who picks the membership of a review board can often determine its decisions in advance. George Low also saw the potential for conflict, and discussed the matter with colleagues. He later wrote that Myers “had fully divested himself of all his connections with North American and since this activity is so closely tied to all that he is going to do over the next several years, it was necessary that he should be involved.”

Myers put together this board in January, while the choice of booster was still open. He picked its members based on their positions within NASA and their responsibilities within the Shuttle program; the only non-NASA members were from the Air Force. A senior attorney provided legal counsel. Low wrote that he “concurred fully and formally in the selection” of the members. He and Myers also emphasized that the board “will conduct its business in strict accordance with the provisions of the Source Evaluation Board Manual.”

The Request for Proposals went out on March 17, shortly after NASA had wrapped up the choice of the booster. Responses were due on May 12, and four companies replied: North American Rockwell, McDonnell Douglas, Lockheed, and Grumman. Fletcher and Low-but not Myers-then reviewed the findings of the board during July, and met with the bidders’ corporate officers. With them was another NASA official, Richard McCurdy. He had just returned from vacation; his secretary had flown to Spain to give him documents so he could read them on the way back. These three men then made the final decision.

Lockheed ranked fourth in the competition. Though its bid was only $40 million more than North American’s, this proposal looked like another attempt at buying in. Its shuttle was heavy, and Fletcher wrote that its design had “unnecessary complexity.” Lockheed left a 65-second gap during ascent with no provision for abort. It proposed an overly high landing speed, a structure that could accumulate moisture, and a program management that would rely on subcontractors to do much of the detailed design. “We didn’t see how they were going to drive all those horses and keep the costs down,” said McCurdy. “We ended up not believing their proposal on costs.”

Lockheed also was the only bidder with no experience in building piloted spacecraft. By contrast, McDonnell Douglas had been a mainstay in this area, for McDonnell Aircraft had built the Mercury and Gemini capsules while Douglas Aircraft built the Skylab space station. This very breadth of experience, however, worked against this merged company, for the concepts within the proposal came partly from Douglas in Huntington Beach, California and partly from McDonnell in St. Louis. “Their proposal was almost like two company proposals,” one source confided. “They gave the impression of never having consummated their marriage, and we couldn’t live with that.”

Moreover, the proposal projected a relatively high cost, and showed technical weaknesses. It divided the flight testing between Edwards Air Force Base and Cape Canaveral in a way that required full data-handling capability at both sites. Its discussion of ground operations did not reflect recent company experience in the Apollo program. In addition to this, although Douglas had designed its DC-10 airliner for easy maintenance, the provisions in the proposal for maintainability of the Shuttle failed to adequately make use of this background.

The company might have strengthened its bid with a good presentation to Fletcher, Low and McCurdy, but this did not go well. Low wrote that this briefing

really did not answer any questions. For example, we still don’t know who the Chief Engineer on the Shuttle will be. Answers in general were broad, generalized, and weak. The attitude displayed was “we are a great company and you had better give us the job because we will do the best job for you.”

McDonnell Douglas came away ranked third in the competition.

That left Grumman and North American, which together had built the piloted spacecraft of Apollo. “Theirs is the most recent, the most intense and the most demanding experience with manned space flight,” McCurdy said. “There’s no question it helped them formulate their proposals.”

Grumman actually gained the highest score in the technical areas. Its configuration was not perfect, with Fletcher noting “complex designs” in guidance, control, navigation, and data processing. He, however, wrote that “Grumman’s design went to a greater depth of detail than those of the other companies. Its detailed weight estimates were substantiated by the design details.” Its structural layouts showed “a thorough understanding of potential problems and positive solutions,” and were simple and straightforward. “Grumman did a very good job in proposing design features to enhance maintainability,” he added. “The provisions it made for access throughout the vehicle were outstanding.”

Grumman, however, was less outstanding in cost and management. Its proposed cost was higher than NASA liked. Fletcher saw why: the firm planned “to build up its work force rapidly to an early manpower peak. This poses the risk of premature hardening of the specifications and premature commitment of resources during the course of the program.” Grumman came in a strong second overall; its excellent design did not outweigh its shortcomings in these other areas.

North American’s concept showed weaknesses, such as a crew cabin that would be difficult to build. Ironically, its overall strength stemmed in part from a near-disaster: the flight of Apollo 13, which had an onboard explosion and barely survived. Fletcher wrote that this company’s “good understanding of all electric power subsystems reflected the very thorough studies that North American made following the Apollo 13 accident, which had its origin in an electrical subsystem.”

It “provided the lightest dry weight of any of the designs submitted.” It “presented an excellent analysis of maintainability from the standpoint of design criteria and goals to achieve optimum turnaround conditions and timing between flights. It designed its orbiter vehicle with very good overall accessibility for maintenance.” For the critical functions of guidance, control, and navigation, North American provided a “simple design with minimum interfaces.”

In addition to this, the proposal was particularly strong in cost and management. Its projected cost was the lowest of the four, and Low noted “the universal opinion that North American, indeed, will wind up with the lowest cost.” It achieved this in part by proposing a more measured approach to buildup of employment. “We were impressed by the way North American had thought through the personnel buildup,” said McCurdy. “The others attacked this problem a little more like a cavalry charge. North American had the lowest number of man-years in its shuttle proposal. Man-years is where you save money, nowhere else.”

This company also gained an edge through its approach to minority hiring. A confrontation with black employees in 1969 had left North American determined to take the lead in promoting equal opportunity, and in 1972 this firm had more blacks, Hispanics, and Asians than any of the three competitors. NASA viewed this as advantageous, for as McCurdy put it, “We’re not crusaders for civil rights. But the fact that North American moved forward on this front tells us something about how the company is thinking ahead.”

Fletcher, Low, and McCurdy picked this winner on the afternoon of July 26. In Low’s words, “we very quickly determined that all three of us wanted to select North American Rockwell on the basis of the highest score” and “the lowest cost.” They then made phone calls to spread the news. When Fletcher phoned North American, just after lunchtime in California, he found that this company’s executives already had gotten the word. Their local congressman, Del Clawson, had received his own phone call from NASA earlier that afternoon, and beat Fletcher to the punch with a call of his own.

Winning shuttle concept
The shuttle concept that won the contract, July 1972. (Rockwell International)

Had Nixon’s hand steered the choice? “The lack of White House interest in this selection had been remarkable,” Low wrote. Prior to that week’s round of meetings, he had asked Fletcher “whether he had any commitment to inform the White House what was going on and whether they wanted to get into the act in any way whatsoever. His answer was an emphatic no to both questions.”

At the company briefings, Low asked the bidders to comment on the fairness of the competition. In Low’s words, three of these firms “all indicated that this had been the best and fairest competition they had ever participated in.” Sanford McDonnell, president of his firm, reserved the right to lodge a protest, and Low noted that “in effect, Sandy McDonnell said that the competition was a fair one if we select McDonnell Douglas, and unfair if we select somebody else.” However, he accepted the final decision. [O’Toole and Dash, Space Shuttle; memo, Myers to Manned Spacecraft Center Director, February 23, 1972; Source Evaluation Board: Report of Findings, June 23, 1972; General Summary; Low, Addendum to Personal Notes No. 75, July 29, 1972; Fletcher et al., “Selection of Contractor,” September 18, 1972. See also Reports SV 72-19, SSV 72-2 (North American Rockwell).]

His conduct thus contrasted with that of Pratt & Whitney, which had made just this type of formal protest a year earlier, on losing the SSME competition to Rocketdyne. This complaint had the legal status of a lawsuit, directed not against Rocketdyne but rather against NASA, which allegedly had performed wrongful acts in selecting that contractor. With Pratt as the plaintiff and NASA as defendant, Rocketdyne held the role of a highly interested witness whose testimony could help NASA in seeking to uphold this award. The proceedings did not take place in federal court, but rather went forward under the Comptroller General, Elmer Staats. He issued his decision at the end of March 1972, while preparation of proposals for the complete Shuttle was under way.

Pratt’s attorneys, who were highly capable, argued that NASA had “failed to conduct meaningful negotiations.” NASA’s discussions with the bidders “did not include the pointing out of deficiencies or weaknesses and did not afford offerors an opportunity to improve their proposals.” Staats would have none of this:

It is also unfair, we think, to help one proposer through successive rounds of discussions to bring his original inadequate proposal up to the level of other adequate proposals by pointing out those weaknesses which were the result of his own lack of diligence, competence, or inventiveness.

Had NASA “erroneously and illegally accepted a nonresponsive proposal?” Though this introduced engineering issues, Staats found “no basis to object to the technical judgment reached.” Was it true that “NASA’s determination of Pratt & Whitney’s deficiencies was arbitrary and capricious?” Pratt charged that NASA had failed to respond to requests for information, had unfairly penalized certain technical deficiencies in its proposal while giving Rocketdyne something of a free ride, and had failed “to read and fully comprehend” this proposal. Staats wrote, “The administrative report contains a detailed rebuttal of these contentions.” NASA’s evaluations “provided a sound basis for selecting the most advantageous proposal.”

Pratt also complained that “selection of Rocketdyne wastes eleven years” of its experience. Though Pratt indeed had devoted much effort to its XLR-129 rocket engine, Staats concluded that NASA had fairly weighed the merits of this engine and had not overlooked its advantages in determining that “Rocketdyne offered the superior technical approach.” NASA had been obliged to give due weight to the experience of Pratt, and had done this.

Staats disagreed with another contention: that Rocketdyne’s design invited a cost overrun. He concluded that Rocketdyne’s cost estimates had been well substantiated. Similarly, he did not accept that Rocketdyne had “obtained an unfair competitive advantage by diversion of Saturn funds to the SSME proposal effort.” He cited an audit by which “Rocketdyne determined the amount involved to be $2,526, and that it has made appropriate adjustments to the respective contracts.” [Letter B-173677, Staats to Fletcher, March 31, 1972.]

He concluded, “We believe the procurement was conducted in a manner which was consistent with applicable law and regulations and was fair to all proposers.” The contract award to Rocketdyne would stand; Pratt’s attempt to overturn it had failed. Rocketdyne indeed would design and build the SSME. Because this division was part of North American Rockwell, the subsequent award of the main Shuttle contract to this company’s Space Division gave this firm responsibility for the entire Shuttle orbiter, including its engine. This was more than North American had carried during Apollo, more than it had held since the days of Navaho some 20 years earlier.

Now that Rocketdyne had the SSME, it intended to keep it. On receiving the initial contract award the previous July, William Bergen, president of North American, had approached Pratt & Whitney, inviting that company to share in the engine development. Pratt chose instead to pursue its appeal, and Low wrote in April 1972 that “there may be a lot of bad blood between the 2 companies. Certainly it is not our intent to force a marriage at this time between Pratt and Whitney and Rocketdyne.”

In building the orbiter, however, the Space Division would generously share the work by awarding important subcontracts to its rivals. In March 1973, North American — now known as Rockwell International — gave Grumman responsibility for the orbiter’s delta wing, and granted McDonnell Douglas the right to build the small onboard rocket system that would be used for on-orbit maneuvers. NASA conducted additional contract competitions during 1973, choosing Martin Marietta to build the external tank and selecting Thiokol for the solid rocket boosters. [Ibid.; Low, Personal Notes No. 68, April 17, 1972; NASA SP-4012, Vol. III, p. 49, 122-123.]

The events of 1972 brought an end to NASA’s search for a post-Apollo future. The search had begun in 1965, when George Mueller had set up his Apollo Applications program office. This effort led to Skylab, but that offered no more than one more year of piloted missions. Characteristically, Mueller responded by seeking a larger space station that could fly atop a Saturn V. The Shuttle then grew out of this new pursuit, initially as a logistics vehicle but growing to take on a life of its own.

Why, finally, did Nixon decide to build the Shuttle? One must not underestimate the tendency of the federal government to look after its own; few major Washington programs reach an end, to vanish into the night. Nixon had no wish to shut down piloted space flight; he wanted to keep it alive. He also was concerned over aerospace employment. Yet he could have addressed such issues with nothing more than Big Gemini riding atop a Titan III-M, to fly occasionally and show the flag.

The key to the Shuttle was its well-founded prospect of low cost and routine operation. This promise did not rest on the cost-benefit studies of Mathematica, which the Flax Committee largely refuted and the OMB rejected out of hand. Rather, it rested on technical developments: automated onboard checkout, reusable thermal protection, rocket engines with long life. No OMB internal memo or White House report ever denied this promise; only experience would do that, years later. The Shuttle thus could find its way to approval, within a nation and government that remained willing to embrace the new.

During 1972, the Shuttle entered a new phase, as a mainstream aerospace program. The debates and arguments were finished. NASA now held its future in its own hands, with responsibility for executing what it had planned and delivering what it had promised.