Presidential decisions and the post-Apollo space program
Richard Nixon is the President all good liberals love to hate – the Darth Vader of American politics: paranoid, suspicious, duplicitous and just plain evil. It should come as no surprise then that his legacy in regard to the American civil space program would come under critical scrutiny by those who idolize his opposite number, a charming, virtuous and courageous John Kennedy. JFK sent America to the Moon on a towering pillar of flame, capped by the sleek, white needle of the thundering Saturn V. Nixon consigned us to permanent space mediocrity, lumbering our way to orbit on the short, squat ugly Space Shuttle, a vehicle that brings to mind nothing more than the adage that a camel is a horse designed by a committee. Kennedy is remembered as the cool kid on the block, the budding rock star; Nixon is recalled as the old man on the corner, yelling at you to turn down your stereo and get off his lawn.
The new book by John Logsdon, the “Dean” of American space policy historians, is titled After Apollo? Richard Nixon and the American Space Program. It is an engrossing read, but perhaps not in the way its author intended. As I made my way through the narrative, I continually recognized a different way to interpret events. That is not necessarily a criticism of the book per se, but as Logsdon is apparently intent on drawing “policy lessons” from the history of the decision to build the Space Shuttle, we should carefully consider exactly what those lessons might be.
The familiar story of the post-Apollo space program is well known to space advocates. As it is told in some circles, the brilliant achievement of the lunar landings was squandered by the skinflint Nixon in deciding against a manned mission to Mars (the next obvious goal). To his credit, Logsdon does not advance this popular mythology; his take is more subtle. He carefully outlines how Nixon took full advantage of the international prestige and goodwill that America received from the success of Apollo 11, but notes that Nixon did not have any particular interest in or love for the space program in general (but then, neither did Kennedy). How to move forward on a constrained and limited budget was the fundamental problem the American space program faced after Apollo. That the budget would be lower than Apollo (and in fact, much lower, although the exact amount was unknown at the time policy decisions were made) was a foregone conclusion. In September of 1969, a report from the Space Task Group (chaired by Vice President Spiro Agnew) advocated that a manned Mars mission should be America’s next major space goal. But that program direction was a non-starter in the White House, a non-starter on the Hill and a non-starter with the public.
Given this level of ambivalence, what was possible for America’s civil space program in the post-Apollo era? As more had to be done with less money, many believed that lowering the cost of space access was critical. This led to the idea that a reusable space plane would assure both lower costs and routine access to orbit. Although routine flight was achieved with the Shuttle, the technology needs for low cost were not fully understood and never really possible. Mythology has it that the completely reusable, winged booster + shuttle design of Max Faget was passed over for a cludgey, partly reusable drop-tank camel design of the eventual Shuttle. In fact, the fully reusable design was a “bridge too far” and would not have worked then (and even today, its feasibility is questionable). But even the partly reusable Shuttle could not live up to the high hopes for a low cost option of the “sophisters, economists and calculators” (in Edmund Burke’s memorable phrase).
In great detail, Logsdon traces the debate within the Executive Branch, an ongoing argument between NASA, the White House Science Advisor (later OSTP, Office of Science and Technology Policy) and the Bureau of the Budget (later OMB, Office of Management and Budget). To sell the Shuttle, NASA had to recruit multiple customers (most famously the Department of Defense). Logsdon notes that bringing DoD onboard levied specific requirements on payload sizing and cross-range capability (i.e., the ability to move the landing trajectory left or right of its descent path). One myth of Shuttle design is that this cross-range requirement led to the adoption of the large “delta-wing” configuration of the orbiter (increasing its mass and cost greatly). But NASA engineers had decided that this configuration helped to alleviate thermal issues during reentry and would have gone to something similar anyway.
The chronology and description of this decision process is valuable and I learned much from this section. The principal weakness of the book is in its conclusions, which are all too clearly colored by Logsdon’s disdain for Nixon. Logsdon levies the blame on Nixon’s shoulders for not setting a visionary, exciting space goal for the nation. But it is “perfectly clear” from his own narrative that there was no mood in the country for anything more than Shuttle. Moreover, you will search the book in vain for any detailed discussion of the opinions and influence of liberal Democrats in Congress regarding the space program (which were highly negative in the extreme). People like Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield, Senators Proxmire, Mondale, and most notoriously (the brother of JFK) Ted Kennedy, all made negative and disparaging statements about the space program around the time of the first Moon landing. Nixon’s presidency spanned six Congressional terms, all of which transpired under majority control of both houses of Congress by the Democratic Party.
Logsdon criticizes Nixon for using the space program as a political pork barrel and vote-getter, with California’s aerospace industry being a major beneficiary of the Space Shuttle program (Nixon needed to carry the state in the 1972 election). But space pork didn’t start with Nixon; the location of the NASA Manned Spaceflight Center in Houston derives from the influence of two powerful southern Democrats in Congress, Lyndon Johnson and Albert Thomas of Texas. Nixon proposed much lower space budgets than those of the Apollo days, but most forget (and Logsdon doesn’t mention) that much of the Apollo era spending went to build permanent infrastructure (such as launch, assembly, and testing facilities), assets used by all other subsequent space programs. By design, those sunk costs were never to have been repeated. Logsdon repeats the standard line that “Nixon stopped building the Saturn V” but it was President Johnson who shut down Saturn production in 1968 after a review determined that we already had the number of vehicles necessary to accomplish the goal of a lunar landing.
Logsdon concludes that the decision to build the Shuttle was a “policy mistake,” but one should consider the alternatives. Apparently, Logsdon would have favored the “small shuttle-glider” design proposed by OMB during the policy debate. What if that path had been taken? We would have found that many of the technologies needed for a full-sized shuttle were more difficult to perfect than we thought. Besides, the shuttle-glider prototype was nothing more than the current “Flexible Path” approach (i.e., get technology first, destinations and goals later). Would that have led to the building of more capability or less? Perhaps we might have gone back to the capsule and big rocket days of Apollo (as we have apparently done now), but that would have meant no space station and it most certainly would have meant no manned Mars mission (the elusive Holy Grail space program that has kept us from doing anything of lasting value beyond LEO for more than forty years).
A hidden gem in the book (page 214) deserves special mention. William Niskanen, an analyst with OMB, describes two libertarian ideas – changes he believed would inject more money into the space program and help unburden the taxpayers. One idea was to bring rocks back from the Moon and sell them to the public, using those funds to support further space efforts – a plan, while inventive, that would not have generated anywhere near enough money. Niskanen’s other idea was for NASA to get out of the launch and spaceflight business and let the private sector develop the next generation of launch capability. Then, the federal government could contract for launch services from American business. In response to this suggestion, legendary NASA engineer and manager George Low told Niskanen that “the reason for not doing it is that it simply won’t work; if the idea is to cancel the space program, this might be a way to do it.” I almost bust a gut with laughter at that passage.
Laying the blame for 40 years of perceived mediocrity in space at Nixon’s feet may be satisfying, but it’s not particularly enlightening. The reason that there was no visionary goal for space after Apollo is because Apollo was not about space – it was about beating the Soviet Union in the Cold War. Once accomplished, there was no need for any crash space program, especially one as difficult and expensive as a manned Mars mission. Thus, NASA fell back on the classic von Braun architecture: the systematic extension of human reach into space through the consecutive building blocks of a shuttle-station-moon tug-Mars mission. Shuttle was intended as the first part of an extensible, permanent space faring system; it was never meant to be the “ultimate space vehicle” but rather, the first leg of a long journey. As for money for space, 40 years of funding at less than one percent of the federal budget might suggest to an objective observer that this level of spending is politically sustainable (even if it’s not the level that space buffs would want). The corollary to this recognition is that it is our challenge to construct an approach that makes progress with such funding levels, not to whine about our belief that it isn’t enough.
Still, this new book is worth reading, with the reservations expressed above. I cannot help but think that Logsdon’s conclusions – steeped in Beltway conventional wisdom – are driven more by his opinions of the presidency of Richard Nixon than by an objective evaluation of the historical facts surrounding Shuttle development. That the development of the Space Shuttle was a “policy mistake” is his long-held opinion and certainly one way to read the record. But other readings are possible and for all of its faults, that space program of recent memory was arguably better than the one we have now. I couldn’t help but think of an image: Dick Nixon’s space program as Pat Nixon in her good Republican cloth coat; Jack Kennedy’s space program as Marilyn Monroe, seductive in a mink coat.