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NASA and the Decision to Build the Space Shuttle, 1969-72

By Launius, Roger D. | The Historian, Autumn 1994 | Go to article overview

NASA and the Decision to Build the Space Shuttle, 1969-72


Launius, Roger D., The Historian


The Technological prowess of the United State's was symbolized by what became known as the space shuttle, which the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) began to work on in the late 1960s. With the shuttle program NASA planned to facilitate its aggressive space-exploration effort by providing low-cost, reusable transportation to and from Earth's orbit. NASA officials compared the space program's traditional use of expendable launch vehicles to throwing away a railroad locomotive after every train trip, whereas a reusable shuttle would offer cost-effective, routine access to space. Approval of the shuttle initiative required complex political maneuvering by NASA and its supporters between 1969 and 1972. The twists and turns in the approval process actually shaped the final direction that the shuttle program took, demonstrating the pitfalls of decision making by compromise and the challenges of managing large-scale technology programs within the federal government.(1)

After the successful completion of the Apollo mission in July 1969, NASA had to determine how best to continue its space-exploration mission. Crises in the nation directly influenced NASA planners: newly installed President Nixon confronted urban unrest and race riots, the Vietnam conflict and the antiwar movement, as well as economic recession and a runaway federal budget. Moreover, the breakdown of the nation's vision of itself and of its role in the world, as well as a decade of sustained criticism of the national character, had plunged the country into wrenching change, political turmoil, and the ascendancy of a counterculture that rejected middle-class perceptions and values.(2)

In such a political environment, achieving a consensus on how to channel national resources proved almost impossible. Thomas Paine, NASA administrator during the first part of the Nixon administration, thus faced a daunting task in obtaining support for a far-reaching space effort. At a somber meeting in January 1970, Paine was told by the president that both public opinion polls and political advisors had indicated that the mood of the country demanded major cuts in the space program. A 1969 Harris Poll reported that 56 percent of Americans believed the costs of the Apollo program were too great and that 64 percent believed that $4 billion a year for NASA was too much. Nixon regretted but still made cuts based on this analysis. "You can certainly tell your people that the cuts in NASA were made most reluctantly," he commented, "and that I am committed to the space program for the long-term future."(3)

Without presidential leadership, NASA forged ahead alone with plans for a reusable space shuttle. The economics of the shuttle outweighed any other considerations. In a memorandum to the NASA leadership in January 1970, George Low, NASA's deputy administrator, said, "I think there is really only one objective for the Space Shuttle program, and that is 'to provide a low-cost, economical space transportation system.' To meet this objective, one has to concentrate both on low development costs and on low operational costs."(4)

Struggling to create a viable, low-cost shuttle program eventually resulted in a decision to build a shuttle far different from the one NASA originally envisioned. After haggling over a myriad of specific issues, decision makers with widely different views on the goals and demands of the program arrived at a compromise that most could tolerate, but none fully endorsed. No dear winner emerged from the negotiations, in which all those involved gave up what they believed in order to agree on a program in which none strongly believed.

The shuttle debate marked the first time that NASA was forced to participate in a political decision-making process for an expensive and far-ranging initiative. Other federal agencies were seasoned veterans in what was required to get programs approved and funded, and their staff members had cultivated the crucial ability to navigate the Washington political waters.

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NASA and the Decision to Build the Space Shuttle, 1969-72
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