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50 Years Ago: After Apollo, What? Space Task Group Report to President Nixon

On May 25, 1961, President John F. Kennedy, before a Joint Session of Congress, committed the United States to the goal, before the decade was out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth. President Kennedy reaffirmed the commitment during an address at Rice University in Houston in September 1962. Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson, who was instrumental in establishing NASA in 1958, and now served as the Chair of the National Aeronautics and Space Council, worked with his colleagues in the Congress to ensure adequate funding for the next several years to provide NASA with the proper resources to meet that goal. One significant driving force behind the effort was the geopolitical competition with the Soviet Union, who at the time of Kennedy’s speech was well ahead in the race for space. While Kennedy’s challenge led to great scientific and technological advancements, it was at its core a political gambit.

jfk_moon_address_to_congress_1961 jfk_speaking_at_rice_1962
Left: President Kennedy addresses a Joint Session of Congress in May 1961.
Right: President Kennedy addresses a crowd at Rice University in Houston in September 1962.

Following Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963, now President Johnson continued his strong support of the space program to ensure that his predecessor’s goal of a Moon landing could be achieved within the stipulated time frame. But with increasing competition for scarce federal resources from the conflict in southeast Asia and from domestic programs, Johnson was less interested in any space endeavors that would follow the Moon landing. The space agency’s annual budget peaked in 1965 and began a steady decline three years before Kennedy’s goal was met. From a budgetary standpoint, the prospects of a vibrant post-Apollo space program didn’t look all that rosy, the triumphs of the Apollo missions of 1968 and 1969 notwithstanding.

lbj_visit_to_msc_w_gt4_astros_1965 lbj_visit_to_msc_1968
Left: President Johnson presents awards to Gemini 4 astronauts James McDivitt and
Ed White (to Johnson’s right and left, respectively) as NASA Administrator James Webb looks on, in June 1965 at the
Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston. Right: President Johnson addresses a crowd during a March 1968
visit to the Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston.

Less than a month after assuming the Presidency in January 1969, Richard M. Nixon appointed a Space Task Group (STG), led by Vice President Spiro T. Agnew as the Chair of the National Aeronautics and Space Council, to report back to him on options for the American space program in the post-Apollo years. Other members of the STG were NASA Acting Administrator Thomas O. Paine (confirmed by the Senate as Administrator on March 20), the Secretary of Defense, and the Director of the Office of Science and Technology. At the time, the only approved human space flight programs were lunar missions through Apollo 20 and three flights to an experimental space station based on Apollo technology that was later named Skylab. Beyond a general vague consensus that the United States human space flight program should continue, no approved projects existed to follow these missions when they were completed by about 1975.

nixon_introduces_paine_w_agnew apollo_11_to_20_landing_sites_aug_1969
Left: President Nixon (left) and Vice President Agnew (right) introduce Paine as the nominee to be
NASA Administrator on March 5, 1969. Right: Proposed lunar landing sites through Apollo 20, per NASA
planning in August 1969.

Within NASA, given the intense focus on achieving the Moon landing within President Kennedy’s time frame little attention was paid to what would follow the Apollo Program. During a Jan. 27, 1969, meeting at NASA chaired by Paine, a general consensus evolved that the next step after the Moon landing should be the development of a 12-person earth-orbiting space station by 1975, to be followed by an even larger outpost capable of housing up to 100 people “with a multiplicity of capabilities.” In June, with the goal of the Moon landing about to be realized, NASA’s internal planning added the development of a space shuttle by 1977 to support the space station, and truly optimistically, the development of a lunar base by 1976, among other highly ambitious endeavors that included the idea that the US should begin preparing for a human mission to Mars as early as the 1980s. These proposals were presented to the STG for consideration in early July in a report titled “America’s Next Decade in Space.”

stg_report_cover_page_1969 stg_report_to_nixon_meeting_at_wh
Left: The STG’s Report to President Nixon.
Right: Meeting in the White House to present the STG Report to President Nixon.
Credits: Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum.

Still bathing in the afterglow of the successful Moon landing, the STG presented its 29-page report “The Post-Apollo Space Program: Directions for the Future” to President Nixon on Sep. 15, 1969, during a meeting at the White House. In its Conclusions and Recommendations section, the report noted that the United States should pursue a balanced robotic and human space program but emphasized the importance of the latter, with a long-term goal of a human mission to Mars before the end of the 20th century. The report proposed that NASA develop new systems and technologies that emphasized commonality, reusability, and economy in its future programs. To accomplish these overall objectives, the report presented three options:

Option I – this option required more than a doubling of NASA’s budget by 1980 to enable a human Mars mission in the 1980s, establishment of a lunar orbiting space station, a 50-person Earth orbiting space station, and a lunar base. A decision would be required by 1971 on development of an Earth-to-orbit transportation system to support the space station. A strong robotic scientific and exploration program would be maintained.

Option II – this option maintained NASA’s budget at then current levels for a few years then anticipated a gradual increase to support the parallel development of both an earth orbiting space station and an Earth-to-orbit transportation system, but deferred a Mars mission to about 1986. A strong robotic scientific and exploration program would be maintained, but smaller than in Option I.

Option III – essentially the same as Option II but deferred indefinitely the human Mars mission.

In separate letters, both Agnew and Paine recommended to President Nixon to choose Option II. 

illustration_of_space_shuttle_1969 illustration_of_12-person_space_station
Left: Illustration of a possible Space Shuttle circa 1969.
Right: Illustration of a possible 12-person space station circa 1969.

The White House released the report to the public at a press conference on Sep. 17 with Vice President Agnew and Administrator Paine in attendance. Although he publicly supported a strong human spaceflight program and enjoyed the positive press he received when photographed with Apollo astronauts, and initially sounding positive about the STG options, President Nixon ultimately chose not to act on the report’s recommendations. Faced with the still ongoing conflict in southeast Asia and domestic programs competing for scarce federal dollars, the fiscally conservative Nixon decided these plans were just too grandiose and far too expensive. He also believed that NASA should be considered as one America’s domestic programs without the special status it enjoyed during the 1960s. Even some of the already planned remaining Moon landing missions fell victim to the budgetary axe. On Jan. 4, 1970, NASA had to cancel Apollo 20 since its Saturn V rocket was needed to launch the Skylab experimental space station – the Saturn V assembly line had been turned off in 1968 and none were available beyond the original 15 built under contract. In September 1970, reductions in NASA’s budget forced the cancellation of two more Apollo missions, and for a time in 1971 President Nixon considered cancelling two more but these were eventually saved and flew as Apollo 16 and 17 in 1972, the final Moon landing missions.

nixon_and_fletcher_with_shuttle_model_1972 sts-1_launch_apr_12_1981_s81-30498
Left: NASA Administrator Fletcher (left) and President Nixon announce the approval to proceed with
Space Shuttle development in 1972. Right: First launch of the Space Shuttle in 1981.

More than two years after the STG submitted its report, in January 1972 President Nixon directed NASA Administrator James C. Fletcher to develop the Space Transportation System, the formal name for the Space Shuttle, the only element of the recommendations to survive the budgetary challenges. At that time, the first flight of the program was expected in 1979 with the actual first flight occurring two years later. It would be 12 years after Nixon’s shuttle decision before President Ronald W. Reagan approved the development of a space station, the second major component of the STG recommendation, and another 14 years after that before the first element of that program reached orbit. In those intervening years, the original American space station had been redesigned and evolved into the multinational partnership called the International Space Station.