Lost in Space - What Went Wrong with NASA?


Yet Kennedy was not free to propose in too sweeping a spirit. Democrats held both houses of Congress, but the real power lay in a coalition of Republicans and conservative Southerners, many of whom held key committee chairmanships. As a consequence JFK would fail to win passage of so basic a reform as the law establishing Medicare; it went down to Senate defeat in mid-1962 by a vote of 48 to 52. But those same Southern barons who opposed much social change were great supporters of major aerospace projects, particularly if they involved contracts for their states or districts. Aerospace fitted with their general high regard for things military. And while the Apollo program, the moon-landing project, was civilian from start to finish, it involved people, equipment, and industries that all had close links to the world of longrange missiles.

As the decade progressed, a continuing series of manned orbital flights, increasing in intricacy, kept public attention focused on the moon. The death of JFK brought a widespread view that Apollo should go forward as a monument to him. His successor, Lyndon Johnson, was quite likely even more of a space buff than Kennedy, having apparently decided as early as 1957 that it represented an issue that could help reclaim the White House for his party. Kennedy in turn had rewarded Johnson’s fealty by placing NASA’s crown jewel, the Manned Spacecraft Center, close to Houston. Johnson, on reaching the White House, proceeded to legislate on a scale that few if any Presidents had ever attained. There would be civil rights bills, Medicare, a tax cut, a war in Vietnam, and much more. As one pundit remarked at the time, LBJ was promising health, wealth, and the moon.

Triumph and Eclipse

In 1969, as Neil Armstrong was leading his crew to the first lunar landing, Vice President Spiro Agnew went to Cape Canaveral and announced that NASA’s next goal would be to land men on Mars. Back in Washington, Agnew’s Space Task Group set forth a space program to exceed Apollo both in scope and expense. Its report, published that September, listed three main program options for the 1970s and 1980s. All three called for the development of a small twelve-man space station, a fifty-or hundred-man space base, a reusable space shuttle, lunar orbiting stations, and a station on the moon itself. Two of the three also called for the first manned expedition to Mars, during the 1980s, with the astronauts to fly aboard a nuclear-powered rocket.

The report amounted to NASA’s wish list, but Mars was not in the ascendancy, and in Washington even the moon was waning. During the Apollo years NASA had grown to expect virtual carte blanche with its budget requests; in the wake of the Space Task Group report, the agency’s officials were shocked to see their fiscal 1971 budget rejected out of hand. The Office of Management and Budget slashed more than one billion dollars from it.

The reason lay in Nixon’s priorities, which contrasted sharply with those of Kennedy and LBJ. Nixon faced inflation, a serious deficit, and continuing costs for the Vietnam War. He had to pull in his horns, spending more carefully and launching new initiatives only in the areas of greatest demand. The environment would qualify, and in 1970 he set up the Environmental Protection Agency. Mars would not.

As winter deepened and the 1960s came to an end, NASA had to face seriously the question of what it would do next. It possessed the world’s most extensive array of launch vehicles, and it could have fallen back on a policy of promoting their maximum use. That would have brought forth a host of unmanned craft, serving needs in communications, weather, earth observations, and planetary exploration. But the agency had grown fat on the manned Apollo project, and a new manned venture appeared essential to its leaders.

In 1969, as Neil Armstrong headed toward the moon, Vice President Agnew announced that NASA’s next goal was Mars. But in Washington even the moon was waning.

NASA’s immediate task was to respond to Nixon’s cutback by lowering its sights yet still save as much as possible of the manned Mars effort. In the administration’s judgment such projects as the big space base, the lunar stations, and the Mars spaceship would be too costly for the foreseeable future. But there still was hope for the space station and the shuttle, both classic concepts in the lore of space flight.

The space station was to be a permanently crewed center for research, somewhat like those in Antarctica. It might feature laboratories where scientists would work in weightlessness, using the absence of gravity to create new medicines. (Advocates sometimes got carried away with this prospect. Krafft Ehricke, a leading rocket scientist with no medical background, declared that “we could find a beautiful cure for cancer in space.”) More to the point, an orbiting station could repair aging satellites. It also could serve as an assembly point for large spacecraft, a task best suited for the now-abandoned Mars effort.