March 5, 1969 ... President Richard Nixon appoints Thomas Paine as permanent NASA Administrator. Vice President Spiro Agnew is to the right. Image source: Archive.org.
Having finished reading After Apollo? Richard Nixon and the American Space Program for the second time, Dr. John Logsdon's latest work left me musing parallels between NASA's post-Apollo history and the classic Akira Kurosawa 1950 film Rashomon.
The Japanese classic gave us “the Rashomon Effect,” conflicting interpretations of the same event. In the film, witnesses and suspects of a murder recollect inconsistent versions of the incident. The filmgoer is left to ponder not just how these recollections could be inconsistent, but why — ranging from selective memory to lies motivated by self-interest.
One might view After Apollo as Dr. Logsdon's Rashomon. In a bit of personal whimsy, he structured the book as a two-act play, complete with an overture, intermission and epilogue.
The playwright didn't provide a Dramatis personæ, or cast of characters, which might help a reader unfamiliar with all the thespians performing this drama. There's an index of course, but I found myself wanting a page where I could remind myself who a person was, for what agency or executive he worked, and his relationship to other characters. An organizational chart for the various agencies would have helped too, as they related to the man in the Oval Office.
As I wrote in the Part One review, Dr. Logsdon's preceding work John F. Kennedy and the Race to the Moon is a prerequisite for After Apollo. Contrary to mythology, Kennedy was not a space visionary. He was a Cold Warrior reflexively reacting to the perception that U.S. space technology was inferior to the Soviet Union.
NASA's creation in 1958 was also a political reflex, to Sputnik 1 and the political fallout that followed. Senator Kennedy, along with Senate majority leader Lyndon B. Johnson and other Democrats, accused the Eisenhower administration of being weak on defense. Kennedy used the phrase “missile gap” in speeches, defined as the difference in weightlifting capability between the United States and the Soviet Union.
The definition didn't make much sense. The Soviets focused on developing intercontinental ballistic missiles because they couldn't stage air bases near possible European and American targets. The United States had bombers and escort fighters stationed in Europe and the Mediterranean, as well as medium-range missiles. The U.S. was also better at miniaturization. And unknown to the public (as well as ambitious politicians), the Central Intelligence Agency and the Air Force were preparing to launch reconnaissance satellites that could photograph Soviet military sites from orbit.
NASA began on October 1, 1958, a merging of the old National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) with civilian space research programs from the Defense Department. While NASA launched some of the earliest satellites and probes, the real action was still with the military. Even Project Mercury, the first U.S. human civilian spaceflight program, was intended to be no more than early research into the effects of space travel on the human body. The Air Force pursued its own human spaceflight program with the X-20 Dyna-Soar.
If you were to ask today's space enthusiasts about how NASA began, I suspect very few would recall NASA's pre-Kennedy origins, or that human spaceflight was not a priority. The Rashomon Effect would have most people telling us the space program began with Kennedy proposing a human spaceflight to the Moon.
Dr. Logsdon documented in John F. Kennedy and the Race to the Moon that JFK was motivated primarily by “prestige.” Kennedy wanted to demonstrate to the rest of the world that U.S. technology was superior to the Soviet Union. But today's Rashomon, thanks to a half-century of mythology, is that Apollo was a modern-day demonstration of what was called Manifest Destiny in the 19th Century.
After Apollo picks up the story as the Nixon administration takes office in January 1969. Kennedy is the off-stage fallen hero. In my Part One review, I wrote about how Nixon harvested the “prestige” intended by Kennedy, although perhaps not in a way that Kennedy envisioned.
In the first year of their administrations, both Kennedy and Nixon faced critical decisions about what direction to take NASA. The agency is our story's protagonist.
This is where reading both Logsdon books is useful, because together they become a study in how two administrations with distinctly different personalities addressed similar challenges. The decisions made by both can largely be blamed for the sclerotic pork-laden bureaucracy NASA has become today.
Neither President gave NASA much of a priority when taking office. Both appointed their Vice President to head a Space Task Group to determine policy and direction for the space agency. Both Vice Presidents were left politically impotent afterwards once their reports were delivered.
March 3, 1969 ... Vice President Spiro Agnew talks to Wernher von Braun (center) and NASA Associate Administrator George Mueller while awaiting the launch of Apollo 9. Image source: NASA.
Logsdon writes on Page 48 that in February 1969 Nixon directed his science advisor Lee DuBridge to assess how to reduce the cost of space launches, and to recommend a process for reviewing the nation's space programs. Nixon wrote in his memo that “the Department of Defense and NASA be directed to coordinate studies in this area.”
This, in my opinion, is a critical directive, because it results in NASA having to design the Space Shuttle to support DOD missions ... but we'll get to that later.
The various stakeholders came to the table, participants in a Space Task Group chaired by Vice President Spiro Agnew. NASA had the most at stake; Kennedy's prestige program morphed NASA from an aerospace research and development agency into a propaganda organ. NASA management takes the propaganda to heart, believing that “if we can put a man on the Moon,” as the saying goes, they are capable of any technological achievement.
But there's also a subtle thread of entitlement that runs through the book. Logsdon writes on page 55 that, “The creation of the Space Task Group (STG) was a blow to NASA's hopes to get early approval of a major new space initiative; the president not surprisingly took the position that he would wait until he received the STG recommendations before making any commitment to new space ventures.”
Indeed, NASA Administrator Thomas Paine responds with disappointment to NASA's early STG submission, directing NASA Associate Administrator Homer Newell to work on “a more exciting prospectus,” according to Logsdon. ”During June, a strategic focus began to emerge in Newell's plan — exploration of the solar system with both robotic and human missions. This was perhaps the first time that exploration — going to new places to learn about them — was put forward as a justification for moving forward in space, distinct from scientific discovery,” Logsdon writes.
Before Kennedy, NASA's raison d'être was simply as an aerospace R&D agency. During the 1960s, Kennedy morphed it into a propaganda organ. And now in the 1970s, NASA management hoped to turn the propaganda into reality, building Starfleet to boldly go.
All of this was unconstrainted by budgetary or political reality.
The Space Task Group report was issued in September 1969. It foresaw a “Space Transportation System with technical, operational, and economic characteristics satisfying the needs of both NASA and DoD.” Although it would eventually devolve into the Space Shuttle design, the STS originally included a “reusable chemically fueled shuttle operating between the surface of the Earth and low-earth orbit in an airline-type mode” as well as a “chemically fueled reusable space tug or vehicle for moving men and equipment to different earth orbits” and a “reusable nuclear stage far transporting men, spacecraft and supplies between Earth orbit and lunar orbit and between low Earth orbit and geosynchronous orbit and for other deep space activities.”
All of this would support a space station “base” occupied by “50-100 men.”
A Grumman Aerospace artist's early concept for a Space Shuttle with a reusable booster and orbiter.
The STG report concluded, “NASA has the demonstrated organizational competence and technology base, by virtue of the Apollo success and other achievements, to carry out a successful program to land man on Mars within 15 years.” But there was no real-world evidence to support this. Was this a Rashomon Effect caused by NASA believing its own propaganda?
Logsdon on page 83 calls the report “a marketing document ... Like any other sales prospectus, it made the most positive case possible for investing in its proposed activities, without comparing that investment to alternative uses of available funds.” No one questioned the illogical assumption that placing people on a cargo ship would somehow make operation cheaper.
It's a pattern that would repeat itself throughout NASA's future — from the Space Shuttle to Space Station Freedom to the the National Aero-Space Plane to the X-33 to the Constellation program and now the Space Launch System.
Our story's second primary character is the Department of Defense. By President Nixon's directive, the DOD would participate in determining NASA's future.
While NASA captured all the publicity with Project Mercury, the U.S. Air Force had pursued its own human spaceflight program with the X-20 Dyna-Soar. Kennedy's Defense Secretary Robert McNamara concluded that the USAF “did not have any real objectives for orbital flight” and cancelled the X-20 in December 1963. It was replaced by the Manned Orbiting Laboratory (MOL), which would be a crewed reconnaissance platform. MOL was cancelled by the Nixon administration in June 1969 because the Bureau of the Budget concluded automated reconnaissance satellites could do the job more safely and cheaply.
Twice thwarted in its efforts to establish its own human spaceflight program, the DOD could now have crewed access to space through the Space Transportation System.
Despite NASA claims that it could develop a cheap reusable launch system, the calculations concluded that Shuttle would have to fly about fifty times a year to bring down the cost through volume. Military launches would also have to use the Shuttle to reach that number; Logsdon documents that “military and intelligence satellites launched by the national security community comprised almost half of the U.S. demand for space launches, and there was no way that the shuttle could be cost effective unless that community abandoned its own launch vehicles and committed to use the shuttle once its feasibility had been demonstrated.”
An artist's concept of the X-20 Dyna-Soar. Image source: Wikipedia.
Even though NASA would pay for Shuttle development, it needed DOD support to make Shuttle financially viable on paper. With the upper hand, the military imposed its own design specifications on a civilian spaceplane at no cost. The orbiter's final 60 foot by 15 foot payload bay dimensions were dictated by DOD to accommodate a projected future National Reconnaissance Office spy satellite — that was never built.
So DOD's Rashomon was that, after a decade of aborted military crewed space programs, here was finally an opportunity to have crewed access to space. The beauty of it was that NASA would bear the cost, and suffer the political heat if the program fell flat on its face. Such a deal.
In addition to NASA and DOD, the third actor in our space Rashomon was the Bureau of the Budget. Reorganized by the Nixon administration in 1970 into today's Office of Management and Budget, I'd argue that OMB might be the hero of the drama. OMB was the only actor to openly question the assumptions being made by NASA and DOD about the cost-effectiveness of the Space Transportation System.
Logsdon writes on page 161:
When NASA in its September 30, 1970, budget proposal to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) characterized the space shuttle as “cost-effective,” it was responding to pressure from the budget office to demonstrate that the combination of the costs of developing and operating the reusable shuttle would, over the period of shuttle use, produce a cost savings over the use of existing or new expendable launch vehicles to launch the same missions. This requirement was unprecedented; in the 12 years since NASA had begun operations, it had never been required to show that one of its programs could be justified in economic terms.
One OMB staffer went so far as to suggest a commercial Space Shuttle, decades before the commercial cargo and crew programs that came out of the Bush administration in 2005. Dr. Logsdon writes on page 214 of an October 7, 1971 NASA hearing with OMB:
William Niskanen, head of the OMB Evaluation Division, made two provocative suggestions. The first was to finance the NASA program through revenues raised by selling the material returned from the Apollo missions to the Moon. The second was to have the private sector, using its own financial resources, develop the next generation space transportation system, and then sell transportation services to NASA and the Department of Defense (DOD) to recoup that investment. The staff of the Evaluation Division was even more skeptical of the value of NASA's human space flight program than were OMB's mainline budget examiners, and Niskanen a year earlier had been an opponent of any hint of a commitment to the space shuttle ...
As you might suspect, NASA rejected the idea, as did Niskanen's superiors who realized that ending the government human space flight program wasn't politically viable. Niskanen left OMB shortly thereafter.
In his 2011 obituary, The New York Times called Niskanen “a blunt libertarian economist” who throughout his career had a penchant for floating unpopular ideas.
A video played at William Niskanen's memorial service. Video source: catoinstitutevideo YouTube channel.
And now we turn to the villain of our play, Richard Milhous Nixon.
It's easy to vilify Nixon. He was, after all, the only President to resign in disgrace. His many sins for decades have been a part of this nation's historical record.
But the best villains in fiction are the ones who are totally convinced of their righteousness, who perhaps bring a bit of raw truth to the tale.
Nixon was a politician of national stature. For all his demons, Nixon understood the politics of election — and re-election.
Logsdon writes that Nixon paid close attention to opinion polls. Contrary to mythology, the public majority opposed spending more on human space flight stunts. Space historian Roger Launius wrote in 2003:
... [M]any people believe that Project Apollo was popular, probably because it garnered significant media attention, but the polls do not support a contention that Americans embraced the lunar landing mission. Consistently throughout the 1960s a majority of Americans did not believe Apollo was worth the cost, with the one exception to this a poll taken at the time of the Apollo 11 lunar landing in July 1969. And consistently throughout the decade 45–60 percent of Americans believed that the government was spending too much on space, indicative of a lack of commitment to the spaceﬂight agenda.
With Kennedy's challenge answered, the majority of the public saw no need to continue funding human lunar flights.
But a consequence of Kennedy's challenge was that it created a space-industrial complex. By one recent estimate, “At the beginning of 1966, at least 420,000 people were working directly or indirectly for NASA.”
It was the first step towards what General Electric CEO Ralph J. Cordiner called in 1961 a “nationalized industry in space.”
As we step up our activities on the space frontier, many companies, universities, and individual citizens will become increasingly dependent on the political whims and necessities of the Federal government. And if that drift continues without check, the United States may find itself becoming the very kind of society that it is struggling against — a regimented society whose people and institutions are dominated by a central government.
Cordiner, a Republican, had supported Nixon during the 1960 presidential race and would go on to chair Barry Goldwater's Finance Committee during the 1964 presidential election.
By 1970, nearly a half-million Americans depended on NASA for their jobs — “dependent on the political whims and necessities of the Federal government,” as Cordiner had warned.
In his epilogue, Dr. Logsdon cites three principal space policy decisions by the Nixon administration:
- To treat the space program as part of the daily activities of the federal government, its budget determined in competition with other national priorities.
- To not issue another challenging space goal, ignoring the recommendations of the Space Task Group and the dreams of NASA management.
- To authorize the Space Shuttle without a long-term strategy for its use.
Nixon personally admired the astronauts and, like most Americans, had some passing interest in NASA affairs, but declared privately, “ I am not one of those space cadets.”
Much of After Apollo is about the Nixon administration's deliberating what should happen to NASA human spaceflight after the Moon landings. In the end, it boiled down to Nixon not wanting to be known as the President who ended U.S. human spaceflight, nor did he want to be blamed for the loss of hundreds of thousands of NASA-related jobs.
NASA leadership failed to convince Nixon to support its grandiose vision for expanding humanity across the solar system. But they did have an interest in protecting their workforce, and here they found common ground with the Administration. Once perpetuating employment emerges as the agency's raison d'être, it dovetails nicely with the Nixon administration's 1972 election strategy to protect California aerospace jobs.
January 5, 1972 ... NASA Administrator James Fletcher meets with President Nixon to announce the formal approval of the Space Shuttle program. Image source: Wikipedia.
Logsdon blames Nixon for creating an environment where NASA to this date is on a “goal-less voyage.” He writes on page 300:
Nixon and his closest advisers gave little attention to the longer term consequences of their decision to put the NASA full-capability space shuttle at the center of the post-Apollo space program. Those consequences were compounded by approving a shuttle design that from NASA's standpoint was a step toward an eventual space station. The consequences were exacerbated by setting out an approach to determining the NASA budget that was very likely to result in funding insufficient to support efficient development and operation of both the space shuttle and the space station while also funding the space activities they were designed to serve. It was difficult to rally public and political support for the capability-driven approach inherent in the Nixon approach to the post-Apollo space program, and the lack of broad public support for the space program has persisted.
I would argue that some of the blame should go to President Kennedy, for morphing NASA into something it was never intended to be.
The original National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958 created NASA, “To provide for research into problems of flight within and outside the earth's atmosphere, and for other purposes.” It lists a series of objectives to which NASA may “contribute materially.” The Act doesn't require NASA to launch humans into space, to send them to other worlds, or even to own its rockets.
NASA was intended to be an aerospace research and development agency. Kennedy recast NASA as a propaganda organ, a bloodless front in the Cold War. When he proposed the human lunar program to Congress on May 25, 1961, he did warn of the enormous expense and invited Congress to assume the political risk with him. By 1963, as Logsdon wrote in John F. Kennedy and the Race to the Moon, Kennedy was increasingly concerned about the program's cost. Some evidence suggests he was looking for a way to alter the challenge, perhaps by turning off the end-of-decade clock, but he was assassinated on November 22, 1963, so we'll never know what might have happened during the 1964 election campaign or in a second Kennedy term.
In any case, Nixon inherited the space-industrial complex Kennedy unwittingly created.
When Kennedy stood on the floor of Congress in May 1961 to propose the human lunar space flight, no one raised a hand to ask, “What will you do with all this when we're done?” I wish someone had. We've been searching for an answer for nearly fifty years.
Unlike Dr. Logsdon, I don't blame Nixon for selecting the more bloated Shuttle design. Nixon and his advisors were not aerospace experts; those who were, in NASA and the DOD, were looking out for their own interests. OMB seemed to be the only character in this space Rashomon seeking the truth, but were thwarted by the politics of the 1972 presidential election campaign. Nixon created his own shadow staff outside the government bureaucracy, which he famously distrusted, and this saga shows why.
In my opinion, Nixon really had no viable alternatives. He did what most leaders do when faced with a decision — he appointed a committee to recommend a direction. The Space Task Group gave him one in September 1969, but it was delusional.
After Apollo doesn't offer much insight into who may have been the key Congressional players if the Administration had proposed more radical reforms, such as closing space centers or privatizing spaceflight. Were there early 1970s equivalents of today's Senator Richard Shelby (R-AL) and Rep. John Culberson (R-TX) who would have blocked any attempts to reform the space-industrial complex? Nixon didn't seem much inclined towards reforming NASA anyway, but I'd like to know what might have been his chances had he tried.
Bill Niskanen's commercial space proposal was before its time. In future decades, libertarian-minded politicians would pass legislation through Congress attempting to enable commercial space, but always faced a headwind from NASA and its political protectors. Only after the Columbia accident in 2003 did the notion of “building a robust space industry” take hold, with the 2004 Aldridge Commission report that recommended how to implement President George W. Bush's Vision for Space Exploration. That led to the creation in November 2005 of NASA's Commercial Crew/Cargo Project Office, the first commercial cargo contracts in 2006 and the first commercial crew contracts in 2010.
Dr. Logsdon faults Nixon for not giving NASA a voyage with a goal. I think a more fundamental question should be posed — Why should NASA have a voyage with a goal when it wasn't designed to have one?
Dr. John M. Logsdon speaks May 6, 2015 about his book at the California Institute of Technology. Video source: KISSCaltech YouTube channel.