What Do You Do for an Encore after You’ve Been to the Moon?

NASA Administrator James E. Webb meeting with President Lyndon B. Johnson.

NASA Administrator James E. Webb meeting with President Lyndon B. Johnson.

As early as January 1964 NASA administrator, James E. Webb, had been asked by President Lyndon B. Johnson for a well-developed proposal of future space objectives after the Apollo Moon landings. Webb did not want to respond; instead he tried unsuccessfully to obtain another commitment from the President for a major space effort after the Moon landing. The consequence was that there were virtually no “new starts” for NASA during this period, and certainly nothing on the order of a new piloted launch system. This was reflected in the NASA budgets of the era.

NASA Administrator James E. Webb, who served between 1968 and 1968.

NASA Administrator James E. Webb, who served between 1961 and 1968.

Even though the NASA Administrator declined to define a serious plan for NASA’s future, the President’s Science Advisory Committee (PSAC) proved willing to do it for him. PSAC issued a report in February 1967. The Space Program in the Post-Apollo Period did not endorse anything as specific as continued exploration of the Moon, and certainly not a rush to build a Moon base. Rather it proposed an organizing theme: “a program directed ultimately at the exploration of the planets by man.” Without a commitment to continued aggressive efforts in space, when he left the space agency in October 1968 Webb was embittered by what he saw as a retreat from the aggressive space program of Apollo.

When Richard Nixon took office, he appointed a Space Task Group to study post-Apollo plans and make recommendations. Chartered on February 13, 1969, under the chairmanship of Vice President Spiro T. Agnew this group met throughout the spring and summer to plot a course for the post-Apollo space program. The politics of this effort was intense. NASA lobbied hard with the Group and especially its chair for a far-reaching post-Apollo space program that included development of a space station, a reusable Space Shuttle, a Moon base, and a human expedition to Mars.

The NASA position was well reflected in the group’s report on September 15, 1969, but Nixon did not act on the Group’s recommendations. Instead, he was silent on the future of the U.S. space program for more than a year after he took office. Finally, Nixon issued a March 7, 1970, statement that clearly announced his approach toward dealing with NASA and space exploration, “we must also recognize that many critical problems here on this planet make high priority demands on our attention and our resources.”

Post-Apollo planning demonstrates a negative impact of the Moon landings—an object lesson on how not to develop and sustain a long-term strategic program of human space exploration. It seems that in part because of the pressures to achieve Apollo on the schedule mandated by JFK, the technical solutions were not sustainable. At some level the program may not have been sustainable because it was so exceptional.

NASA Administrator James C. Fletcher meeting with President Richard Nixon on January 5, 1972, corning approval of the building of the Space Shuttle.

NASA Administrator James C. Fletcher meeting with President Richard Nixon on January 5, 1972, corning approval of the building of the Space Shuttle.

The central question for NASA at the successful completion of Project Apollo was how best to continue its overall space exploration mission. This was a consideration especially important at the time because of the environment in Washington. In 1969 the newly installed administration of Richard M. Nixon was already consumed with other crises: urban unrest, race riots, the Vietnam conflict and the anti-war movement, political radicalism of the left and the right, economic recession, welfare problems, and runaway budgets.

Most importantly, Nixon had to deal with a complex debate over the consensus of a vision of America as it had been articulated for more than a generation. This sustained criticism of national character and meaning plunged the U.S. into fundamental changes, political turmoil and activism of all stripes, and a counter-culture that rejected middle-class perceptions and social construction during the 1960s.

The result was a decision to retrench. NASA’s aggressive desires to undertake a space shuttle, a space station, a lunar base, and a mission to Mars never had much chance of success. The Space Shuttle did emerge from that process, but not in the manner in which NASA engineers believed would be the case. The United States is now nearly half a century since those events and still do not have a clear direction for the human exploration of space. Where might efforts go in the future?


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1 Response to What Do You Do for an Encore after You’ve Been to the Moon?

  1. mike shupp says:

    Where might efforts go in the future?

    Does our thinking matter? As things stand, standalone manned space programs like Apollo aren’t part of the American future, perhaps not even part of the human future. Back to the Moon, off to Mars, into the Asteroid Belt? We will all go together when we go, Americans and Russians and Chinese and Europeans and “militant Islamic terrorists”.

    As long as the voters are convinced 28% of the Federal budget is spent on space programs, this isn’t likely to change. And even among better educated voters, there isn’t much sentiment for human space flight leading to colonization or even too much distant “exploration.” Robots can do the hard work of flying about far off planets or mining the occasional asteroid. And nobody talks about “spin-offs” in the advanced modern economy — economists have known since the 1990s that R&D is pointless! Human flights are all about politics that’s all, demonstrations of national strength or international alliances.

    Societies change over time, it’s true, but slowly. I think it’s going to take fifty years or more to make ambitious human space programs politically acceptable, and I’m doubtful that the US will be more than a follower when that happens. Maybe China will lead, maybe India, maybe Nigeria, maybe some alliance of nations, for reasons which are inexplicable today.

    Bummer, ain’t it?


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