Personnel and Program Changes

The last months of 1969 brought changes in several key offices in NASA Headquarters and the centers. Thomas O. Paine, who had succeeded James Webb as NASA administrator less than a year earlier, called George M. Low to Headquarters to become deputy administrator, the agency's second-ranking official.* After guiding Apollo through its most difficult years and at long last establishing the first post-Apollo project (Skylab), George Mueller announced his intent to resign as Associate Administrator for Manned Space Flight at the end of the year. The Air Force reassigned Lt. Gen. Sam Phillips, longtime manager of the Apollo Program Office under Mueller, to command its Space and Missile Systems Organization. As Mueller's replacement Paine named Dale D . Myers, Apollo spacecraft manager at North American Rockwell for many years; Phillips's place was filled by Rocco A. Petrone, director of launch operations at Kennedy Space Center. At Houston, Gilruth appointed Col. James A. McDivitt, command pilot on Gemini IV and commander of Apollo 9, to head the Apollo spacecraft project office and Christopher C. Kraft, Jr., MSC's director of flight operations, to be deputy center director.65 MSC also had a new Director of Science and Applications, Anthony J. Calio, who succeeded Wilmot Hess after Hess's resignation in the fall [see Chapter 10].

New managers faced new problems in the year following Apollo 11's resounding success. Public enthusiasm for lunar missions waned when, with Apollo 12, they began to seem routine. Funding prospects were also bleak. Lyndon Johnson's last budget submittal (in January 1969) requested $3.878 billion for NASA,66 nearly 25 percent lower than the budget for the peak year, fiscal 1965. When Richard Nixon's first budget was submitted in April, that figure was reduced to $3.833 billion. Paine put the best face he could on the situation; the reductions would require "difficult program adjustments," but in the context of the administration's determination to reduce government spending, "the nation can continue a scientifically effective program of manned lunar exploration" and the capability to produce Saturn V boosters would not lapse beyond recovery.67 When the space agency's appropriation bill was signed in November, it provided only $3.697 billion, and the adjustments became even more difficult.68

Besides being economy minded, the new administration was in no hurry to establish a position on space. Early in 1969 the new President appointed a Space Task Group** to study the space program, calling for a report in six months on alternatives for the post-Apollo period. Predictably, the group's report, submitted on September 15, recommended a balanced program of manned and unmanned space activity. Its most radical suggestion was that NASA should adopt a new long-range goal, comparable to the Apollo goal that had sustained space exploration for eight years, to provide the impetus for new developments. For that goal they suggested manned exploration of the planets, specifically a manned landing on Mars by the end of the 20th century. Three options were proposed: an all-out effort, including a 50-man earth-orbiting space station and a lunar base, culminating with the Mars landing in the mid-1980s; a less ambitious program providing for evaluation of an unmanned Mars landing before setting a date for the manned mission; and a minimum program that would develop a space station and a shuttle vehicle but would defer the Mars landing to some unspecified time before the end of the century. Costs were estimated at between $8 billion and $10 billion per year by 1980 for the most ambitious option and from $4 billion to $5.7 billion annually by 1976 for the least.69

Nixon's reaction to the Space Task Group report was not immediately forthcoming. His press secretary declined to predict when the President would make a decision, but said that competing domestic programs and the constraints imposed by inflation would certainly have to be considered in funding any new space ventures.70

Public reaction to the proposal of a manned flight to Mars was generally negative. The Washington Post suggested that such a trip should be weighed carefully in terms of its potential scientific value: "It is knowledge we seek, not spectaculars. . . . "71 A point of view shared by many scientists was expressed at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in December by Gordon J. F. MacDonald, who characterized it as "the utmost folly." Retiring AAAS president Waiter Orr Roberts said that the United States should not set a goal of sending men to Mars "now or ever."72 Even congressional supporters of manned space flight found the proposal unacceptable. The chairman of the House Science and Astronautics Committee told the House that he was unwilling to commit the nation to any specific timetable for sending men to Mars, and the chairman of the Manned Space Flight subcommittee likewise shied away from an endorsement.73

Perhaps the thumbs-down reaction to a Mars flight was to be expected, given the projected cost of such a program, which the Space Task Group estimated at $54:1 billion to $78.2 billion during the 1970-1980 decade. Somewhat surprising was that even Apollo, hitherto all but inviolable, was not to escape the effects of NASA's straitening circumstances. On January 4, 1970, following dedication of the Lunar Science Institute at Houston, deputy administrator George Low announced that Apollo 20 had been canceled and the schedule for the seven remaining flights would be stretched out into 1974. Four would be flown in 1970-1971 at intervals depending on the choice of sites. Lunar exploration would then be interrupted while the three-mission Apollo Applications Program (a rudimentary space station in earth orbit, soon to be renamed "Skylab") was conducted. The last three missions to the moon would be flown in 1973 and 1974. Low denied reports that NASA planned to cancel four Apollo flights, saying that such action would "do away with most of our scientific return and waste the investment we have made." Lunar scientists were reported to have been pleased by Low's announcement;74 they had evidently feared that even more missions would be deleted.

Ten days later, after preliminary discussions on the fiscal 1971 budget, administrator Thomas O. Paine revealed more changes in space exploration. Saturn V launch vehicle production was to be suspended indefinitely after the fifteenth booster was completed, leaving NASA with no means of putting really large payloads into earth orbit or continuing lunar exploration. The last Saturn V was reassigned from Apollo 20 to Skylab. Unmanned explorations of Mercury and Mars were reduced or deferred. Some 50,000 of the estimated 190,000 employees of NASA and its contractors would have to be laid off, and many university scientists would find their projects without funds. Though the new plans imposed real austerity, Paine noted that they did provide for a start on the next project, development of a reusable spacecraft to shuttle crews and payloads between earth and a space station in earth orbit.75

Apollo still had supporters in Congress, however, and they tried their best to add $130.5 million to the administration's budget for lunar exploration in fiscal 1971. But the Senate would not go along, and after a vigorous debate, the conference committee reported an authorization bill containing an increase of only $38 million for Apollo.76 After the first two lunar landings, Congress and the nation were ready to get on to other things - but nothing so expensive as a flight to Mars. A congressional historian who served on the House space committee described the dawn of the 1970s as "the worst of times for the space program," and then summarized the budget debates: By hindsight, it seems unlikely that even the strongest and most adept mobilization of the supporters of more manned flights to the Moon could have successfully overcome the adverse feeling in the country in the early 1970's. Congress and the Nation could be persuaded to support Skylab, the Space Shuttle, and a modest level of activity by NASA in many other areas. But . . . Von Braun's dream of a manned flight to Mars was not in the cards for the 20th century, at least.77

* At the time Low, who took over as manager of MSC's Apollo spacecraft project office after the AS-204 fire in April 1967, was serving as special assistant to MSC Director Robert R. Gilruth.

** Chaired by Vice-President Spiro T. Agnew, the group included Robert C. Seamans, Secretary of the Air Force and former deputy administrator of NASA; Thomas O. Paine, NASA Administrator; and Lee A. Dubridge, Science Adviser to the President. Observers were U. Alexis Johnson, Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs; Glenn T. Seaborg, chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission; and Robert P. Mayo, director of the Bureau of the Budget.

65. National Archives and Records Service, Weekly Compilation of Presidential Documents, Nov. 17, 1969, p. 1597; NASA Releases 69-151, Nov. 10, 1969, and 70-4, Jan. 8, 1970; NASA Announcement, Aug. 31, 1969; MSC Releases 69-66, Sept. 25, 1969, and 69-70, Nov. 26, 1969; Thomas O'Toole, "Petrone, Launch Director at Cape, Promoted to Head Apollo Project," Washington Post, Aug. 23, 1969; "Mueller Leaves NASA Dec. 10; Paine Lauds His Apollo Role," ibid., Nov. 11, 1969.

66. NASA Release, Jan. 15, 1969.

67. Presidential Documents, Mar. 21, 1969; NASA Budget Briefing, Apr. 15, 1969, transcript.

68. Presidential Documents, Dec. 1, 1969.

69. Space Task Group, The Post-Apollo Space Program: Directions for the Future, report to the President, Sept. 15, 1969.

70. "Nixon Backs Mars Flight but Rejects All-Out Drive," New York Times, Sept. 16, 1969.

71. "Before We Start to Mars," unsigned editorial in the Washington Post, Aug. 8, 1969.

72. Victor K. McElheny, "NASA Adviser: Sending Men to Mars 'Utmost Folly'," Boston Globe, Dec. 19, 1969; Cohn, "Cut in Space Program Urged," Washington Post, Dec. 29, 1969.

73. U.S., Congress, House, Toward the Endless Frontier: History of the Committee on Science and Technology, 1959-79 [by Ken Hechler] (Washington: U.S. Govt. Printing Office, 1980), p. 269.

74. "Apollo Missions Extended to '74," New York Times, Jan. 5, 1970; "Experts Hail Schedule for Moon Trips," Washington Post, Jan. 6, 1970. Rumors that four Apollo missions might be canceled circulated in late 1969; see O'Toole, "Nixon to Give Space Goals; Modest Program Expected," Washington Post, Dec. 22, 1969; "Scientists hit threat to cut 4 Apollo flights," Boston Sunday Globe, Dec. 28, 1969. For the effects of budget cuts on Skylab, see W. David Compton and Charles D. Benson, Living and Working in Space: A History of Skylab, NASA SP-4208 (Washington, 1983), Chap. 4.

75. Richard D. Lyons, "50,000 NASA Jobs to Be Eliminated," New York Times, Jan. 14, 1970; O'Toole, "Cutbacks Planned by NASA," Washington Post, Jan. 14, 1970.

76. Astronauts and Aeronautics, 1970: Chronology on Science, Technology, and Policy, NASA SP-4015 (Washington, 1972) p. 203.

77. Toward the Endless Frontier, pp. 313-14.

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