When Richard Nixon assumed the presidency, one of the questions he faced was what to do with the space program he had inherited. To study that question, he established a Space Task Group in February, 1969 headed by Vice President Agnew. The mandate for the group was to develop some options for a post-Apollo space program that President Nixon could affix his name to, much as President Kennedy had done with the Apollo moon landing program.
In September, 1969 the Space Task Group presented its recommendations. They offered three scenarios based on different levels of funding. The major differences in the three funding levels concerned the year a Mars expedition would take place. In the first scenario, in which NASA funding would rise to $8 to $10 billion (in 1969 dollars) per year by 1980, people would have departed to Mars in 1981. In the second scenario, spending would peak at $8 billion in the early 1980s and the Mars expedition would take place in 1986. The third scenario would defer the Mars expedition indefinitely. While there was some verbiage about continuing and even expanding the Apollo program and its associated Apollo Applications Project, the third option would have concentrated on building a space station and a reusable space shuttle.
President Nixon did not comment on the report until March 7, 1970, in which he appeared to regard the recommendations of the report favorably, but was somewhat vague about how his administration would respond to them. He outlined six objectives for the space program going forward:
“1. We should continue to explore the moon. Future Apollo manned lunar landings will be spaced so as to maximize our scientific return from each mission, always providing, of course, for the safety of those who undertake these ventures. Our decisions about manned and unmanned lunar voyages beyond the Apollo program will he based on the results of these missions.
“2. We should move ahead with bold exploration of the planets and the universe. In the next few years, scientific satellites of many types will be launched into earth orbit to bring us new information about the universe, the solar system, and even our own planet. During the next decade, we will also launch unmanned spacecraft to all the planets of our solar system, including an unmanned vehicle which will be sent to land on Mars and to investigate its surface. In the late 1970’s, the “Grand Tour” missions will study the mysterious outer planets of the solar system-Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto. The positions of the planets at that time will give us a unique opportunity to launch missions which can visit several of them on a single flight of over 3 billion miles. Preparations for this program will begin in 1972.
“There is one major but longer-range goal we should keep in mind as we proceed with our exploration of the planets. As a part of this program we will eventually send men to explore the planet Mars.
“3. We should work to reduce substantially the cost of space operations. Our present rocket technology will provide a reliable launch capability for some time. But as we build for the longer-range future, we must devise less costly and less complicated ways of transporting payloads into space. Such a capability-designed so that it will be suitable for a wide range of scientific, defense, and commercial uses–can help us realize important economies in all aspects of our space program. We are currently examining in greater detail the feasibility of reusable space shuttles as one way of achieving this objective.
“4. We should seek to extend man’s capability to live and work in space. The Experimental Space Station (XSS)–a large orbiting workshop–will be an important part of this effort. We are now building such a station–using systems originally developed for the Apollo program–and plan to begin using it for operational missions in the next few years. We expect that men will be working in space for months at a time during the coming decade.
“We have much to learn about what man can and cannot do in space. On the basis of our experience with the XSS, we will decide when and how to develop longer lived space stations. Flexible, long-lived space station modules could provide a multipurpose space platform for the longer-range future and ultimately become a building block for manned interplanetary travel.
“5. We should hasten and expand the practical applications of space technology. The development of earth resources satellites-platforms which can help in such varied tasks as surveying crops, locating mineral deposits, and measuring water resources–will enable us to assess our environment and use our resources more effectively. We should continue to pursue other applications of space-related technology in a wide variety of fields, including meteorology, communications, navigation, air traffic control, education, and national defense. The very act of reaching into space can help man improve the! quality of life on earth.
“6. We should encourage greater inter. national cooperation in space. In my address to the United Nations last September, I indicated that the United States will take positive, concrete steps toward internationalizing man’s epic venture into space–an adventure that belongs not to one nation but to all mankind. I believe that both the adventures and the applications of space missions should be shard by all peoples. Our progress will be faster and our accomplishments will be greater if nations will join together in this effort, both in contributing the resources and in enjoying the benefits. Unmanned scientific payloads from other nations already make use of our space launch capability on a cost-shared basis; we look forward to the day when these arrangements can be extended to larger applications satellites and astronaut crews. The Administrator of NASA recently met with the space authorities of Western Europe, Canada, Japan, and Australia in an effort to find ways in which we can cooperate more effectively in space.“
The message seems to be an endorsement of much of the recommendations of the Space Task Force. However the writing was already on the wall insofar as large-scale space projects in the 1970s. By the time Nixon had issued this statement, the Apollo 20 mission had already been cancelled. Apollos 18 and 19 would follow to the chopping block. The only vestige of the Apollo Applications Project that survived was Skylab, the space station that hosted three crews of three astronauts after Apollo 17’s last flight to the moon.
Nixon did wind up endorsing the space shuttle project. Despite congressional reluctance to fund expensive space projects, the president concluded that the United States could not not have a space program. Ending human space flight entirely would have devastated America’s aerospace industry. The space shuttle would provide a practical benefit for the space program, lowering the cost of space travel which, in turn, would make future space missions, such as a space station, more feasible. Nevertheless it was a near run thing and the space shuttle was barely approved in Congress in 1972.
In any event, this meant that any lunar expeditions post-Apollo would be delayed indefinitely. While there have been a number of attempts to jump-start a return to the moon program, these thus far have floundered on the shoals of politics. The last human being to walk on the moon departed in December, 1972. Thus far no one has been back since.
Mark R. Whittington is the author of The Man from Mars: The Asteroid Mining Caper, The Last Moonwalker and Other Stories and the Children of Apollo trilogy .