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Review: After Apollo

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After Apollo? Richard Nixon and the American Space Program
By John M. Logsdon
Palgrave Macmillan, 2015
hardcover, 368 pp., illus.
ISBN 978-1-137-43852-2

Most people in the space community, asked to name the president with the greatest influence on the nation’s space efforts, would likely pick John F. Kennedy. After all, he established the goal of landing a man on the Moon by the end of the 1960s, creating a blueprint for bold space ventures that many space advocates have, for decades since, sought to achieve again. He became a symbol of a leader who appeared to be a strong supporter of NASA, even if, as archives later revealed, he wasn’t as interested in space has his public statements led people to believe.

In 1971, Nixon told an advisor he supported the space program because it was “exploring the unknown,” but added, “I don’t give a damn about space. I am not one of those space cadets.”

Kennedy, though, may not have been the most influential president in the long run in the realm of space policy, particularly regarding NASA’s human spaceflight program. In After Apollo?, historian and space policy expert John Logsdon argues that Richard Nixon’s decisions about NASA’s future after Apollo from 1969 to 1972, including but not limited to the development of the Space Shuttle, were more influential. “The decisions made then have defined the U.S. program of human space flight well into the twenty-first century,” he writes.

Logsdon reviews those decisions in two parts. The first covers the early efforts of the Nixon Administration to develop a plan for the future of NASA’s human spaceflight efforts. Nixon took office as NASA was on the cusp of achieving Kennedy’s goal of landing humans on the Moon, yet there was little in the way of planning for what would come next: NASA wanted to remain focused on achieving that lunar landing goal. This led to the formation of the Space Task Group in early 1969, with the charge of developing plans for NASA’s future after Apollo.

The group, led by Vice President Spiro Agnew, is perhaps best remembered for developing an ambitious human spaceflight concept that included human missions to Mars as soon as the 1980s. However, the group also developed several lesser plans, including one ultimately recommended that represented “the minimum consistent with continuing technological advance.” Even that, though, was overly ambitious in retrospect: it included plans for 50- and 100-person space stations in the 1980s, along with a lunar base; an initial Mars expedition could fly as soon as 1986.

Space, though, was not a priority for the Nixon Administration, which struggled in general to get organized after taking office. While Nixon was happy to celebrate the success of Apollo 11, he did not necessarily care for space that much: for example, the White House reported that Nixon watched the 1971 launch of Apollo 15 on television, when in fact he had slept through it. In 1971, Nixon told an advisor he supported the space program because it was “exploring the unknown,” but added, “I don’t give a damn about space. I am not one of those space cadets.”

That lack of interest was reflected in the search for NASA’s leaders. The administration struggled to find a replacement for James Webb, who resigned in the fall of 1968, ultimately selecting the acting administrator, Thomas Paine. There was a similar gap in 1970 after Paine resigned, with George Low serving as acting administrator for several months before the administration nominated James Fletcher. (One of the candidates the Nixon Administration did consider for the job in 1970 was an up-and-coming Texas congressman by the name of George H. W. Bush.)

The result of those deliberations on NASA’s future in the 1970s was what Logsdon calls the “Nixon space doctrine.” That statement effectively put an end to the idea that spaceflight was a national priority that should receive special attention and funding. “We must also recognize that space expenditures must take their proper place within a rigorous system of national priorities,” Nixon’s statement read, shunning the idea of “separate leaps, each requiring a massive concentration of energy and will and accomplished on a crash timetable.” In other words, there would be no more Apollos, at least under Nixon.

“The decisions made then have defined the U.S. program of human space flight well into the twenty-first century,” Logsdon says of the 1969–1972 period.

Apollo continued through the final lunar landing mission, Apollo 17, in late 1972, but several additional missions were cancelled, a decision endorsed by NASA as a means of saving money. Even as late as 1971 Nixon was weighing cancelling Apollos 16 and 17, fearing the effect an accident would have during an election year. While Nixon gets blamed for ending Apollo and shutting down production of the Saturn V, Logsdon doesn’t believe he bears the sole blame. “The United States decided in 1970 to retreat from exploring the Moon; that decision had several parents, not just Richard Nixon.”

The Nixon space doctrine set the stage for the next major policy decision, involving the Space Shuttle. With no major budget increase in sight for NASA, the shuttle was the one element of the Space Task Group’s plans that the agency could actually afford to implement. However, actually determining what the shuttle would be capable of, and how much it would cost, was the subject of debates in 1970 and 1971, concluding only with Nixon’s announcement in January 1972 that NASA would develop the vehicle. Even in December 1971, after Nixon had signed off on the shuttle’s development in a private meeting, there was still debate between the Office of Management and Budget and NASA on exactly what shuttle concept the president had approved.

While NASA tried to sell the shuttle on its ability to dramatically reduce the cost of space access, Logsdon notes that those economics arguments were not a factor in the Nixon Administration’s ultimate decision. Instead, it was the desire to continue human spaceflight, the potential national security applications of the shuttle, and a push to employ aerospace employees in California, which Nixon deemed a key state in the upcoming 1972 election. Judged on those metrics, the shuttle program offered mixed results: it did create national pride, but it was “a very expensive detour” for national security space applications and gave the space program the appearance of a jobs program.

Logsdon, in the book’s conclusion, judges the shuttle program to be a “policy mistake” by the Nixon Administration, in large part because it uncritically accepted NASA’s ability to develop something as fundamentally advanced as the shuttle at the costs it projected. It chose NASA’s “full capability” shuttle over a less advanced, but less expensive, option championed by OMB. “Nixon and his top advisors chose the wrong option,” Logsdon writes.

After Apollo? is a rigorously researched book on Nixon’s space policy legacy, which lays out a strong argument that the real roots of NASA’s human spaceflight program today—and the problems and uncertainties it faces—date back to the end of Apollo, and not its beginning. (The book’s focus is on the human spaceflight program; robotic missions are mentioned only in passing.) At the end of the book, Logsdon references the current uncertainty about the purpose and direction of human spaceflight at NASA. “That situation,” he concludes, “is Richard Nixon’s most fundamental space heritage.”