Reclaiming Our Future in Space….


The Path of History

The above quotation was from an article critical of the space program in life magazine from August 15, 1969, barely two weeks after the return of the Apollo 11 from its historic journey.  It illustrates in a concise nutshell the disconnect between the goals of NASA and the perception of the value of space to American public in the late 1960’s.  How did this happen?  This disconnect has never truly been overcome and it must, because the money that was spent on the space program then, and since, has been the downpayment on the future of mankind.  How different these visions are!

Anyone today who understands the history of the period understands that money was not taken away from children and shot to the Moon.  Mrs. Reynolds, featured in Life magazine, could not understand why we were spending money on the Moon.  As those of us who know the media understand, the journalist of the day was using her statement as an illustration of an attitude that was becoming widespread at the time, which was that the government had lost touch with the people and that money was being spent on things of no concern to our lives.

The 1950’s

This shift in the perception of government was profound as it was rapid.  In 1960, the last full year of the Eisenhower administration, trust in government was probably at an all time high.  The former five star general and commander in chief of allied forces in WWII had successfully steered the United States through a very tough era in global politics and who actually ended one war (Korea) and kept us out of another one (Vietnam).  This while at the same time leading a revolution in the ability of the United States to wage war by investing heavily in advancing technology in aircraft, warships, nuclear power and space assets for reconnaissance.  At the end of the 1950’s defense expenditures were fully 50% of the federal budget, yet not one American had died in combat since the end of the Korean conflict seven years earlier.  All of this swiftly changed with the Camelot presidency and the era of LBJ.

The 1960’s

After the Sputnik moment of October 1957 space expenditures jumped for the military and the new civilian agency NASA. The 1960’s saw an even greater explosion of government activism in R&D as well as social programs.  Huge sums of money were spent not only on NASA but on military space development as well.  Few people know today that the development of the Thor (Delta), Atlas, and Titan and the satellites that flew on them for reconnaissance and communications cost the same order of magnitude as the Apollo Moon landing.  Eisenhower remarked on these expenditures in his farewell address and so did General Bruce Medaris (Von Braun’s Army boss).  This is while at the same time the expenditures for the Vietnam war were escalating rapidly

In 1957 federal spending on science, space, and technology totaled $122 million dollars. Nine years later FY 1966 spending in the same category was $6.717 billion dollars, a number that was not equaled until the Reagan administration in 1982.  As a comparison, Education, Training, Employment, and Social Services (ETESS) spent $479 million in 1957 and by FY 1966 this total had increased to $4.363 billion.  Most interesting, only four fiscal years later (FY-1970) the General Science, Space, and Technology budget had dropped to $4.511 billion mostly due to the Apollo draw down and the ETESS budget had increased to $8.634 billion dollars, almost double the budget that included NASA as well as all other federal science spending.  Other budgetary line items went up by similar amounts during this period while NASA and science declined. (source:

The rational that was given was that the budget was in a deficit and that we had to make sacrifices.  When NASA Director James Webb tried to get LBJ to reverse the direction of the cuts in the FY-1968 budget the reply was:

Under other circumstances, I would have opposed such a cut, [but] the times demand responsibility from us all.

I recognize–as also must congress–that the reduction in funds recommended by the House Appropriations Committee will require the deferral and reduction of some desirable space projects.  Yet in the face of present circumstances, I join with the Congress and accept this reduction. (Source: Defining NASA: The Historical Battle Over the Agency’s Mission)

This shift is understandable though if you consider it within the context of Mrs. Reynolds statement.  It wasn’t just her as the turmoil of the 1960’s, the racial problems, the Vietnam war, the problems with urban decay as it was called, all factored into a huge shift in priorities for the government.


With the budget numbers in hand today it is quite simply that LBJ lied to Webb and NASA.  It was not an issue over the budget, it was an issue of priorities.  Here we are 46 years later and what do we have?  The same budget line for General Science, Space, and Technology this fiscal year has a budget of $30.991 billion dollars.  This is NASA, plus NSF, plus other general science and technology spending.  The comparative budget for the same ETESS segment in FY-12 is $139.212 billion dollars.   Again, it is not an issue of money, it is an issue of priorities.

The budget has been used time and time again as a means to bludgeon NASA into accepting lower budgets under the guise of deficit reduction.  However, as can clearly be seen in the budget data, the deficit has almost never decreased as a result of the cuts and the real issue is the allocation of national resources.  I would argue here that it is that allocation itself that is the problem.  Is our educational system improved over what it was in 1966?  Are our social services better?  Is employment training better?  Think about this, what if the budgets were reversed and during that entire time from FY-1967 until today, how would our nation and our world be different?

Historical Turning Point and an Alternate History

What if NASA’s budget and the General S&T budget followed the trajectory of the ETESS budget?  Here are a few charts from Von Braun and Webb’s FY 1966 budget hearings with  the Appropriations Committee of the House.

Screen Shot 2013-01-07 at 4.53.15 PM

Figure 1: Payload Performance Increase for the NERVA Nuclear Stage on the Saturn V

Screen Shot 2013-01-02 at 5.11.23 PMFigure 2: Mission Capabilities Increase from the Use of the NERVA Nuclear Stage

Clustered ReactorsFigure 3: NASA Clustered Space Nuclear Reactor Experiment (1964)

Clustered Nuke Stages

Figure 4: Artist Depiction of a Clustered Nuclear Stage in Orbit Around the Moon

Take a good look at figures 1-4.  These were not just charts that the guys in Preliminary Design at MSFC cooked up to sell a program, these were projects in progress when these presentations were made to Congress in March of 1965 for the FY-1966 budget, the last budget where NASA got what it wanted. (Source: NASA Authorization for Fiscal Year 1966; Hearings Before the Committee on Aeronautical and Space Sciences, United States Senate, Bill S. 927)

ApolloALSSLESA lem5 lem6 lem7 lem9 lem10 lem12Figure 5-11: AAP Graphics for Extended use of Apollo Hardware

These are all graphics, drawings, and designs that I have dug up during the course of my extended research on the subject of the 1960’s space program.  It is an absolute falsehood that NASA had no plans for space.  The problem was never the ideas or the follow through, it was the money and the reallocation of the Apollo program money to fund domestic social programs.

I leave the reader with one thought and question.  In the last almost half century and tens of trillions of dollars in social spending, are we better off than we would have been had we instead allocated just the ETESS money to space?  Today we would have the beginnings of a civilization on Mars, we would have lunar industrialization, we would have ubiquitous operational capabilities for humans anywhere in the inner solar system.

Think of that…..


10 thoughts on “Reclaiming Our Future in Space….

  1. This article does capture the key to expanded space exploration and exploitation, government _priorities_, not government budgets.

    How NASA, over the 50+ years of the space program, have not mastered the art of selling space to the public when considerably less able groups have managed to sell people on cigarettes, greasy food and activities that are proven to be bad for them never ceases to amaze me. If 1% of the money being spent to make having an iPad cool were spent on getting kids & their parents to think space activities were cool, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.


    1. Paul

      Yep, and I don’t think that it will, not through the normal channels. NASA does have a base of support at about the funding level it has now and there is a considerable interest from the public. The throngs of people at the Shuttle retirement sites makes this absolutely clear. The thousands of people that came to see Curiosity land on Mars also speaks to deep levels of support for the agency. Paul Spudis makes a good case that NASA gets a certain amount of money no matter what and it is NASA’s job to take that money and to do the most that they can with it.

      The problem is that it is harder to buy votes with NASA money than for various and sundry things that bring no lasting benefit to the republic but do buy votes.

  2. The point is, of course, why don’t NASA’s activities “buy votes”? It’s because NASA can’t convince enough people that spending money on exploration (or rather, that exploring by spending money in various disctricts on the jobs that create development and hardware) is of more worth to the people in those disctricts than the money spent on services to people out of work in those same districts.

    There is still the impression that space exploration is achieved by putting great wads of cash into a rocket & blasting that into orbit. That the money evaporates to no net effect as soon as NASA gets their hands onit. NASA simply has not been able to create the meme that space exploration is the end product of spending money on certain types of activities. Roads and harbours are the end product of spending money on other types of activites. Why are those activities fundamentally valued higher than than the end product of space exploration & exploitation?

    We look at the costs of developing new hardware & ooo & ahhh when the SLS budget tops $15 billlion. People p!ss & moan that the money is all a waste. The Big Dig in Boston harbour cost $10 billion in that city alone. People in Mass. see it as reasonable value for money. They were OK with it. $15B is not as big a number as it once was and NASA simply _has_ to find a way to show “Joe 6-pack” that the money spent on space is showing up in his country as jobs & services that, in the end produce something of great value and relevance to Joe 6-Pack.


  3. Very interesting article. Great discovery of those pictures.

    I think that the key here is to use NASA’s current budget in such a way so as to create virtuous cycles of increasing value. If we can develop off-Earth resources in a way that reduces the costs of space activities then the greater quantity of space activities will produce yet more space activity until there is a break-out on a path towards the development and settlement of the solar system.

    The ice at the lunar poles and lunar metals are exactly those resources. Develop the ice sufficiently to fuel our own cis-lunar transportation system and the lunar metals for the bulky parts of teleoperated ice mining equipment and you increase the quantity and lower the price of ice-derived fuel at LEO. Since most of the IMLEO mass for BEO activities is fuel, having that already available at LEO means that launches from Earth to LEO is reduced in mass to those launchers which the market is already demanding (i.e. share the cost with the market).

    I personally think that the amount of money that NASA has right now is sufficient and the public’s level of support seems sufficient to keep that about what it is. So, what we need to do is to be smart in how we use that until we reach the point where space development is paying for itself. When we achieve that, the solar system will open up to us in an irreversable way.

  4. To Mrs. Dorothy Reynolds, I would have liked to have asked, “do you want to feed them money?” Because money isn’t food, and allocating resources to NASA did not reduce the amount of food available.

    The average lay person is hobbled by the illusion that money has intrinsic value, rather than being merely a medium for commerce. Like electrons. Money facilitates the flow of commerce, just as electrons facilitate the flow of energy. But, there is never an actual shortage of electrons, just as there is never any real shortage of money. There is only ever a shortage of production, and the bottleneck in production lies in human initiative in envisioning, organizing, and implementing it.

  5. I’ve worked in Huntsville for several years now and I had NO IDEA until visiting your site that nuclear thermal rockets ever even existed. Thanks for maintaining this blog; I’m both fascinated and absorbed. Glad you posted on WUWT or I’d never have found this, BTW, and I hope Skycorp both makes you a fortune and helps get our feet firmly planted up there somewhere!

    Best regards.

    1. Mark

      Thanks, it is a secret buried in the past. The flight NERVA I stage was at the Space and Rocket center for several years. They took it back out to MSFC a few years ago to play with.

  6. Dennis — Good job, as always. However, in your opening sentence, can you correct “life magazine” to LIFE® magazine? Some of your younger readers may not be aware of the grammatical difference (or the publication).

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