The Space Shuttle Decision:

Introduction Introduction

by T. A. Heppenheimer

The Space Shuttle took shape and won support, and criticism, as part of NASA’s search for a post-Apollo future. As with the Army and Navy in World War II, NASA had grown rapidly during the 1960s. Similarly, just as those military services saw a sharp falloff in funding in the wake of victory, the success of the piloted moon landings brought insistent demands that NASA should shrink considerably. In facing those demands, and in overcoming them to a degree, NASA established itself as a permanent player in Washington.

In civics books, we learn that the three branches of government include the White House, Congress, and the Supreme Court. In making policy and in carrying it out, however, the judiciary rarely plays a significant role. One may speak of a tripartite government with a different set of participants: the White House, Congress, and the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). Though the OMB is part of the Executive Branch and responds to the wishes of the President, its officials have considerable leeway to shape policy in their own right, by cutting budgets. In seeking its post-Apollo future, NASA repeatedly had to accept such cuts, as its senior officials struggled to win support within the White House.

During 1969, with Nixon newly elected and the first astronauts setting foot on the Moon, NASA Administrator Thomas Paine led a push for a future in space that promised to be expansive. He aimed at nothing less than a piloted expedition to Mars, propelled by nuclear rocket engines that were already in development. En route to Mars, he expected to build space stations and large space bases. Almost as an afterthought, he expected to build a space shuttle as well, to provide low-cost flight to these orbiting facilities.

Soon after Neil Armstrong made his one small step in the lunar Sea of Tranquillity, Paine received a cold bath in the Sea of Reality. Nixon’s budget director, Robert Mayo, chopped a billion dollars from Paine’s request. This brought an end to NASA’s hopes for a space base and for flight to Mars. It appeared possible, however, to proceed with the space station and the Shuttle, as a joint project. The Shuttle drew particular interest within the Air Force, which saw it as a means to accomplish low-cost launches of reconnaissance satellites and other military spacecraft.

Congress, however, was deeply skeptical toward the proposed shuttle/station, as both the House and Senate came close to killing it in 1970. NASA responded to this near-death experience by placing the station on the shelf and bringing the Shuttle to the forefront. Its officials needed political support that could win over doubters in Congress, and they found this support within the Department of Defense.

The Air Force now found itself in a most unusual position. Its generals had worked through the 1960s to pursue programs that could put military astronauts in space. These programs had faltered, with the main ones, the Dyna-Soar and the Manned Orbiting Laboratory, being canceled in 1963 and 1969 respectively. Yet here was NASA offering the Pentagon a piloted space shuttle, and promising to design it to meet Air Force needs. Indeed, the Air Force would receive the Shuttle on a silver platter, for NASA alone would fund its development and construction. It is a measure of NASA’s desperation that it accepted the Shuttle project on those terms. The ploy, however, worked. The Air Force gave its political support to the Shuttle, and NASA went on to quell the opposition on Capitol Hill.

The OMB was a tougher opponent. NASA tried to win it over by commissioning cost-benefit studies that sought to support the Shuttle on economic grounds. These studies, however, merely provided more ammunition for the OMB’s critics. In mid-1971, these critics forced NASA to abandon plans for a shuttle with two fully reusable liquid-fueled stages, and to set out on a search for a shuttle design that would cost half as much to develop. Then, when the resulting design exercises promised success in meeting this goal, the OMB responded by arguing that this success showed that NASA could do still more to cut costs. Budget officials demanded a design that would be smaller and less costly, even though such a shuttle would have significantly less capability than the Air Force wanted.

By shrinking the Shuttle, however, NASA won support where it counted. Caspar Weinberger, the OMB’s deputy director, gave his endorsement late in 1971. Nixon also decided that the nation should have a shuttle. On the eve of decision, the key player proved to be OMB Director George Shultz. He decided that since the shuttle was to serve the entire nation, it should have the full capability for which NASA hoped and the Air Force demanded. Shultz’s decision reinforced Nixon’s, putting an end to the OMB’s continuing demands to downsize the design. The consequence was the Space Shuttle as we know it today.