Cutbacks and Program Changes

In February 1970 NASA took to Congress a budget proposal for fiscal 1971 for $3.333 billion, down more than $500 million from the previous fiscal year. Administrator Thomas Paine listed for the House Committee on Science and Astronautics the "hard choices" he had been forced to make to stay within that budget while still making progress: suspending production of Saturn V launch vehicles and spacecraft assigned to those vehicles, "mothballing" the Mississippi Test Facility and reducing the work force at the Michoud Assembly Facility where Saturn Vs were assembled, closing the new Electronics Research Center at Cambridge, Massachusetts, and canceling Apollo 20.2 During the following summer it appeared that Congress was in a mood to cut space funding even more. By July rumors were circulating that more Apollo missions, perhaps as many as four, were candidates for cancellation.3 The first bill containing NASA's appropriation (vetoed in August by President Nixon, who objected to the funds provided for another agency) gave the space agency $3.269 billion - a figure that came out of weeks of debate in House and Senate and conference committee and was clearly all the space agency could expect.4

On July 28, while Congress debated the funding issue, Tom Paine submitted his resignation as NASA administrator, effective September 15, to President Nixon. He planned to return to General Electric, the company he had left in early 1968 to become deputy administrator. Paine denied that NASA's immediate funding problems had influenced his decision.5 Probably more decisive was the fact that he saw no prospect of immediate change. From the start of his tenure as administrator, Paine's ideas for the future of the space program were far more ambitious than those of the President and the Bureau of the Budget.

On September 2 Paine called a press conference to announce NASA's interim operating plan for fiscal 1971. Cutbacks and stretchouts in most major programs were the order of the day, among them the cancellation of two more Apollo missions, 15 and 19. The remaining missions, redesignated Apollo 14- 17,* would be flown at six-month intervals in 1971 and 1972. After that would come the three manned Skylab missions (which under earlier schedules had interrupted the Apollo program for two years). Paine noted that he and his managers had made this decision reluctantly and in spite of the conclusions of special reviews by the Space Science Board of the National Academy of Sciences and the Lunar and Planetary Missions Board, both of which had strongly recommended that all six remaining missions be flown. Paine's main consideration had been "how best to carry out Apollo to realize maximum benefits while preserving adequate resources for the future post-Apollo space program."6 For whatever consolation scientists might get from it, one of the canceled missions (Apollo 15) was the last of the limited exploration missions the three remaining after the cut would all have considerably extended capability, including a surface roving vehicle. Left unanswered was the question of what was to be done with the three Saturn V boosters that no longer had missions to fly.7

Criticism of the decision to shorten Apollo was immediately forthcoming. A New York Times editorialist called the decision "penny-wise, pound-foolish," noting that the savings would amount to less than 2 percent of NASA's fiscal 1971 budget and less than 0.25 percent of the total investment in Apollo. "The budgetary myopia which forced this . . . decision can only vindicate the critics who have insisted that Apollo was motivated by purely prestige considerations, not scientific goals," said the Times writer. While the Times had for years opposed Apollo's high priority, "now that these huge sums have been spent the need is to obtain the maximum yield, scientifically and otherwise, from that investment."8

This argument was typical of the reaction voiced by many after the cutback. Particularly upset were lunar scientists. Astronomer Thomas Gold of Cornell University likened the decision to "buying a Rolls Royce and then not using it because you claim you can't afford the gas." The grand old man of lunar science, Harold Urey, said the $40 million saved on operational costs was "chicken feed" compared to the $25 billion already spent.9 To the Washington Post he wrote,

It cost us . . . one half of one per cent of our gross production. . . . Now we wish to finish a job which has been beautifully begun. And we get stingy. Because of an additional cost of about 25 cents per year for each of us we drop two flights to the moon recommended by scientific committees composed of men who personally profit from the expenditure little or not at all. How foolish and short-sighted from the view of history can we be?10
Gerald Wasserburg, a highly respected Caltech geochemist and member of the lunar sample preliminary examination team, protested in the Los Angeles Times,
. . . this decision threatens our existing investment in planetary exploration during a period when we are obtaining maximum returns and makes doubtful the scientific justification of the manned space program. The total effect appears to indicate a return to the dark ages of planetary science. . . .11
None of the protesters, however, could offer a reasonable alternative to the cutbacks. The New York Times editorial writer suggested that NASA seek participation, including financial contribution, by the Soviet Union or our European allies in long-tem lunar exploration - surely an unrealistic suggestion at best.

These complaints, well founded though they were, were far too late. By mid-1970 NASA was operating on its lowest budget since fiscal 1965, under an administration determined to reduce the federal deficit, while trying to get started on a new generation of spacecraft and programs toward which administration budget officers were less than enthusiastically committed. Complicating the problem of living within a restricted budget, NASA's record in holding program costs to preprogram estimates was not good, a fact often brought up in congressional budget hearings. (That had very nearly cost the agency the Mars landing project, Viking, at the end of 1969.12) Public and congressional support for purely scientific missions, no matter how spectacular or important, had begun to erode before Apollo 11. Whatever the fact may say about the nation's commitment to the space program, NASA now lived or died by the perceptions of Congress and the administration of the short-term value of its projects. Political pressure on the space program was shifting in the direction of using space to solve earth's problems.13

In mid-September 1970, 39 scientists who had long been associated with Apollo's science program formally protested the cutbacks in a letter to the chairman of the House Committee on Science and Astronautics, Representative George P. Miller. They pointed out that the reduction in the number of missions might cause the lunar science program to "fail in its chief purpose of reaching a new level of understanding" of the origin of the earth and moon. As best they could tell, the money saved in the "approved and scientifically most fruitful lunar program" was intended to support a post-Skylab manned earth-orbital project - "an as yet unapproved program for whose scientific value there is no consensus, and whose purpose is unclear" (i.e., the space shuttle). They concluded by expressing the hope that the decision to cancel two Apollo missions was not yet final.14

In reply, Miller called the scientists' attention to his committee's long record of support for Apollo, pointing out that the committee had tried to get $220 million more for lunar exploration into the authorization bills for fiscal 1970 and 1971. "However, the [Nixon] Administration, in realigning national priorities, has relegated the space program to a lesser role." Undoubtedly the two canceled flights would have provided additional scientific information, Miller said, but that had to be balanced against assuring the rational development of future space programs. In conclusion he mildly reproved the scientists: "Had your views on the Apollo program been as forcefully expressed to NASA and the Congress a year or more ago, this situation might have been prevented." But it was too late to offer any serious hope of reinstating the two missions.15

As the launch date for the next flight approached, lunar scientists faced hard choices. Plans for Apollo 14 had reached the stage where no major changes were possible. With three missions remaining instead of five, landing sites had to be chosen to give the best hope of answering the most important scientific questions. Experimenters and flight planners had to make the best possible use of the extra payloads that the last three missions would be able to land on the moon.

* At the time, Apollo 14 had not yet flown. New mission numbers were 15, 16, and 17, with science plans corresponding approximately to those of the old 16, 17, and 18.

2. Idem, 1971 NASA Authorization, vol. 1, p. 7. The Electronics Research Center (ERC) in Cambridge, Mass., proposed in 1963, had provoked serious opposition from the start. Nonetheless, ERC was approved and began operation in 1965 while permanent buildings were being constructed. By late 1969, when ERC was abolished, some $80 million had been invested in buildings and equipment. The facility was transferred to the Department of Transportation in March 1970. See House Committee on Science and Technology, Toward the Endless Frontier: History of the Committee on Science and Technology, 1959-79 (Washington: U.S. Govt. Printing Office, 1980), pp. 219-31.

3. Thomas O'Toole, "3 Apollo Cancellations Weighed for Big Skylab," Washington Post, July 9, 1970.

4. National Archives and Records Service, Weekly Compilation of Presidential Documents, Aug. 17, 1970, pp. 1056-57; cited in NASA, Astronautics and Aeronautics, 1970, p. 263.

5. Thomas O'Toole, "NASA Head Quits, Plans to Rejoin GE," Washington Post, July 29, 1970; Richard D. Lyons, "Paine Quits Post in Space Agency," New York Times, July 29, 1970.

6. NASA, "FY 1971 Interim Operating Plan News Conference," Sept. 2, 1970, transcript; Thomas O'Toole, "2 Moon Landings Canceled by NASA," Washington Post, Sept. 3, 1970.

7. "FY 1971 Interim Operating Plan News Conference." One Saturn V was earmarked for the launch of Skylab; later NASA built a backup Skylab orbital workshop and committed another Saturn V to launch it. Never used, the workshop is now in the National Air and Space Museum and its launch vehicle was put on exhibit at Kennedy Space Center. The third Saturn V is on display at the Johnson Space Center beside a Mercury-Redstone - relics of the heroic age of manned space flight; John E. Naugle to Dir., JSC, "Disposition of Residual Apollo Hardware," June 17, 1977.

8. "Retreat From the Moon," New York Times, Sept. 4, 1970.

9. Richard D. Lyons, "Scientists Decry Moon Flight Cut," New York Times, Sept. 4, 1970, and "New Cuts For Apollo: 'No Gas for The Rolls Royce?'," ibid., Sept. 6, 1970.

10. Harold C. Urey, Washington Post, Sept. 17, 1970.

11. Gerald J. Wasserburg, Los Angeles Times, Sept. 15, 1970. "Return to the dark ages of planetary science" seems to overstate the consequences of canceling two lunar exploration missions, but as a veteran observer of science politics noted, scientists were insecure about financial support and inclined to rhetorical extravagance when lamenting cutbacks in funding: "they recognize no territory between paradise and hell." Daniel S. Greenberg, "Mr. President Meets Mr. Wizard," Washington Post, Dec. 6, 1976.

12. Edward Clinton Ezell and Linda Neuman Ezell, On Mars: Exploration of the Red Planet 1958-1978, NASA SP-4212, pp. 185-92. See also House, Toward The Endless Frontier, pp. 272-76.

13. Compton and Benson, Living and Working in Space, pp. 182-85.

14. Letter to George P. Miller, signed by 39 lunar scientists, Sept. 10, 1970, copy included in House Committee on Science and Astronautics press release, Sept. 21, 1970.

15. Miller to multiple addressees, Sept. 21, 1970, House Committee on Science and Astronautics press release, Sept. 21, 1970.

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