The Quagmire of The Apollo Space Program

Editor Note: Hyperlinks in this article are direct links to referenced documents discussed in this missive.

Why the Lessons of Apollo Have Still Not Been Learned 50 Years Later

There is an old saying that history is his-story, or the story of whoever the victors are in war or society.  We know that Roman and Greek civilization was superior to others at the time because we have the Roman and Greek records that tell us so.  The Celts or Chinese might have thought differently.  In some respects the same is true of all history.  This is not to indict historians that have written on the subject of space but it is to say that everyone has a viewpoint and sometimes the official history does not fully illuminate a subject.

I have never been satisfied with the “official” NASA history of the Apollo program.  I lived in Huntsville Alabama for a long time and it mystified me to an extreme why we did not at least launch the last two flight worthy Saturn V’s and their payloads, Apollo’s 18 and 19.   Over the years since I left the computer industry in 1987 and moved to Huntsville to begin my space career I have collected a pretty good library of space books and I have read them all.  I have participated in conferences, talked to and worked with many Apollo veterans, and have been a part of NASA’s attempts at new efforts to get exploration beyond Earth orbit going.  None of it has ever made sense to me, so I have spent time researching the history to try to understand why we were able to do it then, and why it has been so hard since Apollo to make progress.

To me the best history is the Pulitzer prize winning book “The Heavens and the Earth, A Political History of the Space Age” by Walter McDougall.  I read the book probably twenty five years ago but did not fully understand its importance.  I re-read it often now.  The official NASA history, NASA SP-4407, “Exploring the Unknown” edited by Dr. John Logsdon is also a great resource.  Chapter two was written by Dr. Logsdon (which is an excerpt of his 1970 book “The Decision to Go to the Moon“) deals directly with the history of the Apollo program.  There is an extensive bibliography of histories but these two encapsulate the prevailing consensus.  However…..

A Tale of Two Space Programs

In rereading McDougall and Logsdon, as well as other books and documents recently I had a revelation.  The U.S. has always had two space programs, the first being the one that the politicians wanted, and the one that was sold to the American people.  This is I call the political space program vs the American space program.

Kennedy Administration Space Priorities

My first piece of evidence in this is derived from a November 21st 1962 White House meeting between president John F. Kennedy, NASA administrator James Webb, associate administrator Robert Seamans, Hugh Dryden, and presidential science advisor Jerome Wiesner.  The issue was the Apollo program, its purpose and priority within the federal government.  This is over a year and a half after the famous May 25, 1961 Kennedy speech  announcing the program and it is interesting the level of ambivalence if not outright opposition that NASA administrator Webb had to having the lunar landing be the priority goal of the agency.  Webb wanted “preeminence” in space.  Here is the beginning of the Kennedy audio tape transcript:

Figure 1: Kennedy/Webb Discussion on Apollo
Figure 1: Kennedy/Webb Discussion on Apollo

Part of Webb’s reluctance was political as well as technical, in that at the time we knew nothing of the surface of the Moon, and this was still four years before the first high resolution images of the Moon from Lunar Orbiter were obtained.  Webb also had a sense that the space program was much more than just the Apollo effort.  Presidential advisor Wiesner echoed these concerns later in the recording.

It is quite clear from the transcripts that if the Soviets had not chosen this battlefield in the global battle of prestige, that Kennedy would not have pushed to give NASA the money to go to the Moon.  Kennedy even put it in context of solving other problems.  Here is his definitive statement:

Figure 2: Kennedy Statement on the Rational for Apollo Prioritization
Figure 2: Kennedy Statement on the Rational for Apollo Prioritization

It does not get any clearer than this.  If it were not, and Webb continued to make the prominence argument, Kennedy shut it down and provided his view on the relative priority of the Apollo lunar landing:

Figure 3: President Kennedy Vs Webb on Preeminence vs Lunar Landing
Figure 3: President Kennedy Vs Webb on Preeminence vs Lunar Landing

Finally, Kennedy was only interested in spending the money, wrecking the budget as he called it, because in his opinion we had to beat the Russians to the Moon.  Also, look at the highlighted text in figure 4 following:

Figure 4: President Kennedy "I'm Not That Interested in Space"
Figure 4: President Kennedy “I’m Not That Interested in Space”

The president directly says that he is just not that interested in space, when it is compared to other priorities, except as a means to beat the Russians in the prestige game for global public opinion that McDougal illuminates so well in his book.

There is additional evidence that points to the prestige game that drove Apollo in a manner not known publicly at the time, but which was given extraordinary weight.  This is embodied in the Webb-McNamara report as it is known or the Recommendations For Our National Space Program: Changes, Policies, Goals.  This was a classified report prepared under the direction of NASA administrator James Webb and Department of Defense head Robert McNamara.  It was the key guidance noted by both Logsdon and McDougall that provided the plan, budgets and the rationale for the Apollo program and the rest of NASA’s portfolio of activities.  It is now available from the national archives.  I collated it and published at this link.  Here is an excerpt from the section called Space Projects for Prestige.

Space Projects for Prestige

All large scale space projects require the mobilization of resources on a national scale.  They require the development and successful application of the most advanced technologies.  They call for skillful management, centralized control and unflagging pursuit of long range goals.  Dramatic achievements in space, therefore, symbolize the technological power and organizing capacity of a nation.

It is for reasons such as these that major achievements in space contribute  to national prestige.  major successes, such as orbiting a man as the Soviets have just done, lend national prestige even though the scientific, commercial, or military value of the undertaking may by ordinary standards be marginal or economically unjustified.

This nation needs to make a positive decision to pursue space projects aimed at enhancing national prestige. (emphasis by the authors)

This is the opening paragraph on planning.


It is vital to establish specific missions aimed mainly at national prestige.  Such planning must be aimed at both the near term and the long range future.  Near term objective along will not suffice.  The management mechanisms established to implement long range plans must be capable of sustained centralized direction and control.  An immediate task is to specify long range goals, to describe the missions to be accomplished, to define improved management mechanism, to select the launch vehicles, the spacecraft, and the essential building blocks needed to meet missions goals.  The long term task is to manage national resources from the national level to make sure our goals are met.

The entire document is filled with this kind of language.  The political space program was basically a global public relations campaign (McDougal goes into this in great detail) aimed at the third world as part of the “fluid battleground” of the cold war.  To achieve this required “centralized direction and control”.  This word usage was conscious as the people involved in the Apollo decision had great faith in the power of government for good.  This is important later on as it was the management process developed for Apollo that was later to be integrated into most government programs of that era through today, including anti poverty programs, the war on drugs, and Obamacare.

To enable the successful execution of the Apollo program, a little known (to the public) prioritization within the federal government was granted.  This same meeting (it had been established earlier with the announcement of the Apollo program) mentioned the Apollo program’s “DX” classification.  According to the Department of Defense (DoD), this is the DX classification’s definition:

The Department of Defense has authority under the Defense Priorities and Allocations System (DPAS) (15 CFR 700) to place industrial priority ratings on its contracts. DoD uses two ratings: “DO” and “DX.” If necessary to meet required delivery dates at any level in the supply chain, DO-rated orders must be given production preference over unrated (commercial) orders, and DX-rated orders must be given preference over DO-rated orders and unrated orders.

The above quoted text (provided in the link in the previous paragraph)  is from a DoD document outlining the number of programs as of 2011 that had a DX classification.  There are only 13 DX classified contracts as of 2011 and most of them deal with nuclear weapons.  In my research I have found no time since the Apollo program that space had a DX classification.   This is important as the first call on resources from defense contractors, especially during Vietnam would have been for the war, but the Apollo program was on an equal footing in terms of allocations of manpower, contractor plant and equipment, and federal government support.

Administration’s Various Postures On Apollo

While of course NASA was focused on the Saturn V to the moon, the agency used its priority to push well beyond the limited mandate of Apollo.  This was not done stealthily, and it was part of the sales process to the American people for the Apollo program.  Kennedy himself used the rhetoric of the “New Frontier” to sell not only space but his other priorities. NASA, with the most to gain from this rhetoric, enthusiastically used the frontier meme in its efforts to keep the funds flying.  Another exceedingly interesting book on this subject is Selling Outer Space, Kennedy, the Media, and Funding for Project Apollo, 1961-1963 by James Kauffman.  Here is an excerpt from the Amazon summary of the book that encapsulates the position of the author regarding the rhetoric used to sell the program:

This book examines the Kennedy administration’s rhetoric to understand why Project Apollo received so little opposition. Although the Kennedy administration advanced a number of political, scientific, military, and economic arguments for a manned moon mission, its rhetoric ultimately “sold” the space project as a great frontier adventure story with deep roots in American history and culture. The administration enticed Congress, the media, and the public to think of Project Apollo not in “logical” terms, but as a reaffirmation of the romantic American frontier myth. By describing space as the New Frontier, the Kennedy administration shaped the way Americans interpreted and gave meaning to space exploration for years to come. The frontier narrative subsumed arguments about the technology and economics of the program, and it established a presumption in favor of massive commitments of the nation’s resources to staffed space flight.

The administration, NASA, and their congressional allies used various arguments to sell the Apollo program to congress, especially after the bills started mounting shortly before Kennedy’s death.  To some congress people it was sold as a jobs program, to others for its role in absorbing what would otherwise be a major surplus in aerospace employment as the missile gap closed and spending decreased there. In the sales pitch it was the American space program that was sold.  However, deep down philosophically, the leadership now in place in the Kennedy administration, the generation that grew up on the perceived success of FDR’s New Deal and the government led victory in WWII, it was the faith in the technocratic direction of government itself that drove the plan.  The Apollo program was a tool, to show that government and its skill in organizing, managing, and executing on large programs could do anything.  From McDougall:

…Apollo signaled a new age.  The technology race that began with weaponry now extended to a civilian pursuit, held in turn to be a symbol of overall national prowess.  Where the Eisenhower men doubled and tripled spending on science, education, and R&D, it was their intention to contain as far as possible the effects on traditional values and social institutions and the relationship of the public an private sectors.  The men who launched Apollo came to office dissatisfied with existing state management of the national treasure and talent, and began to view the space program as a catalyst for technological revolution, social progress, and even the “restructuring of institutions” in ways that were dimly foreseen but assumed to be progressive.

How this change occurred in so short a time is not a mystery, but rather that most vexing of historical problems, the “overdetermined event.”  New men arrived and brought with them those ideas of the “seed time” of the 1950’s.  Among those ideas were the notion that  the Third World was the main theater of the Cold war and that in that contest prestige was as important as power.  Their new ideas validated a far greater role for government in planning and executing social change.  The new men also cared more for imagery and felt increasing pressure to display their control over affairs in the wake of early setbacks in foreign policy. Finally, each major figure in space policy—Kennedy, Johnson, Webb, Dryden, McNamara, Welsh, Kerr, and others– saw ways in which an accelerated space program could help them solve problems in their own shop or serve their own interests.  This is not to say that they were petty; it is to say that they were technocratic, applying command technology to political problems.

Stating this in more modern terms, the “overdetermined event” was the challenge of the Soviets in space and as the former chief of staff of president Obama once opined, never let a crisis go to waste.  Thus it can be seen that the Apollo program, from the perspective of the politicians, had nothing to do with the Moon, nothing to do with opening the space frontier, nothing about our future in space.  McDougall captures this betrayal of the people that executed the American space program in his closing paragraph of chapter 15 of his book:

Of all those who contributed to the moon decision, the ones farthest in the background were the engineers of Langley and Goddard and Marshall, many of whom devoted their lives to spaceflight, designing dreams.  Their reports and studies were necessary buttresses to the political arguments: they had to persuade that the thing could be done.  Otherwise, they were absent.  Some of their visionary talk about exploration and destiny found place in the political speeches, but their efforts to stretch the minds and hearts of their fellows, to sow wonder for its own sake, got lost in their very adoption by the technocratic state.  What Constantine’s conversion did to the Christian Church, Apollo did to spaceflight: It linked it to Caesar.  The new faith might conquer the empire, but its immaculate ability to stir hears was accordingly diminished.  Of course, it could not have been otherwise.

In other words, the real American space program was ignored for the political space program and when this program ceased to be useful, the political geniuses like McNamara (the brilliant architect of the Vietnam war), and the rest, especially LBJ, took the money from Apollo and spent it on other political problems that in their perception had more value.  The ironic thing is, that if they had not been so focused on their own rice bowls and had continued the focus on space at the Apollo spending levels, many of the problems that they sought to spend money on other than the Apollo program, could have been fixed.

The American Space Program

The nation made dramatic strides in technology in the 1960’s and foundation of our economic power today derives from these advances.  Solar cells were invented and first used for Vanguard 1, one of the first satellites that the United States placed into orbit.  Integrated circuit development was funded by NASA and DoD space appropriations.  The first real time embedded computers and operating systems were built for the Saturn V by IBM (first surface mount chips) and for the Apollo Command and Lunar Modules.  Precision matching, robotic welding and assembly, all were first implemented for the Apollo program.  These are just the spin off’s, the systems advances were just as dramatic.

I acquired a book that is the official congressional record of the “NASA Authorization for Fiscal Year 1966”.  The book is a record of the Hearings Before the Committee On Aeronautical and Space Sciences United States Senate.  This was from the 89th congress, first session, bill S.927, the NASA Authorization for FY 1966.  This is part 1, Scientific and Technical Programs and Program Management.  There is a lot of interesting testimony in this document, from NASA administrator Webb, deputy administrator Dr. Hugh Dryden, as well as associate administrator Robert Seamans and Wherner Von Braun.

The Apollo program known to history was called the approved program, which constituted the 15 first production run Saturn V’s (all that were ever built), and their associated support systems, the Command/Service modules (that carried the crew to the moon) as well as the Lunar Module landers.  Many statements were made that the production rate for the vehicles, not just the Saturn V but the Saturn 1/1B as well was 6 per year.  Additionally NASA was moving in the direction of the flight qualification of the NERVA nuclear upper stage, which would have increased the throw weight of the Saturn V to the Moon from 48 metric tons to 98 tons, more that doubling its capability.  Figure 1 here shows a chart from the book (page 251) showing the next step in the Apollo program:

Figure 1: AES_Saturn Capabilities
Figure 1: AES_Saturn Capabilities

This was part of Dr. George Mueller’s testimony.  The AES capabilities shown in the bottom half of the chart would be with only modest increases in Apollo capabilities and or with a dual Saturn V launch.  It is mind blowing to think that in the early 1970’s we could have put two crew persons on the lunar surface in the polar regions for up to a month.  The continued production of Saturn V vehicles and the associated hardware could have been done to support these missions at the ~$5.5-6 billion a year peak NASA budget from FY 1966.  The proof of this is in Dr. Mueller’s testimony (page 256):

…In carrying out the extended lunar missions on the lunar surface it does require, if we are going to use the present equipment, two launches of a Saturn V are required to carry out one mission (fig. 82, p. 210). One of the lunar excursion modules is landed unmanned and is modified to be a lunar laboratory on the surface, and is modified by taking off the ascent propulsion and the propulsion tanks.  Then you land a manned lunar excursion module along side of it, and the men live in this laboratory for the 2 weeks, return to the original lunar excursion module that brought them down, and return in that to the command module….

This is shown in the figure below:

Figure 2: AES Lunar Mission with Two LEM's.
Figure 2: AES Lunar Mission with Two LEM’s.

Here is where we were at with nuclear engine technology in March of 1965:

Figure 3: Nuclear Engine Testing 1
Figure 3: Cold Flow Testing Nuclear Engine
Figure 4: Systems Testing of Nuclear Engine At Lewis (Now Glenn) Research Center
Figure 4: Systems Testing of Nuclear Engine At Lewis (Now Glenn) Research Center
Figure 5: Mars Mission With a Nuclear Engined Saturn V.
Figure 5: Mars Mission With a Nuclear Engined Saturn V.
Figure 6: Clustered Nuclear Reactor Testing
Figure 6: Clustered Nuclear Reactor Testing

These graphics are all from the same Senate hearings from March of 1965.  Can there be any doubt whatsoever that the American space program as it was unfolding was starkly different than what the political space program intended?  

A more formal version of the advanced post approved Apollo program ideas and others for further uprating of the Saturn V for Mars missions was presented to president Johnson and VP Humphrey in February of 1967 as The Space Program in the Post-Apollo Period, A Report of the President’s Science Advisory Committee.  The cover is shown in figure 7:

Figure 7: The Space Program in the Post Apollo Period Report Cover
Figure 7: The Space Program in the Post Apollo Period Report Cover

President Johnson simply ignored this report.  President Johnson had other priorities and was simply unwilling to expend further national capital on sustaining the momentum built up by the Apollo program.  John Logsdon’s history states it this way (page 421 of NASA SP-4407):

Soon after Lyndon Johnson became President, he had asked NASA to begin to identify post-Apollo options. NASA responded by January 1965 with a “laundry list” of future possibilities. (Volume I, III-18) But by that time, “Johnson did not want to hear about the possibilities, nor did he particularly want Congress to hear them.” Recognizing that a second Apollo-like initiative was not in the offing, NASA focused its post-Apollo planning on an interim effort that became known as the Apollo Applications Program.

McDougal strangely enough blames NASA’s lack of a plan for the lack of interest by the White House and congress in pushing forward a new program but in looking at the FY 1966 bill S.927 hearings, it is impossible to sustain that conclusion.  The only caveat to this was (for me) the shocking revelation in Logsdon’s history (page 434) by Robert Gilruth of NASA that no more lunar missions be flown after the successful landing of Apollo 11.  It boggles my mind that anyone inside of the agency, especially one of Gilruth’s stature, would suggest such a thing.  Fortunately, this sentiment was not shared by many, but in recalling some other histories that I have read, I remember that by the time Apollo 17 had flown that there was a lot of concern about the continuing risk and that this may have played a role in the decision to not fly Apollo 18 and 19 with the hardware already in hand.

Just think how the history of the space program would have been different had they flown the Apollo AES mission (the lower half of figure 1), to one of the lunar poles!  As far back as 1969, Dr. James Arnold, of the University of California San Diego, and Dr. Harold Urey (who won a nobel prize in chemistry) postulated, based on their examination of lunar samples and theoretical calculations of thermodynamics, that water could exist in cold traps at the lunar poles.  This has only recently been confirmed, with the current NASA Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO), the LCROSS impactor, coupled with earlier measurements from the DoD Clementine and NASA’s Lunar Prospector, providing the definitive confirmations.  However, if we could have flown the AES to one of the lunar poles, science would have confirmed the water over 40 years ago and indeed the last 40 years of quagmire in lunar exploration could have been avoided.

If We Can Put a Man on the Moon, Why Can’t We Put a Man on the Moon?

This journey into the history of the Apollo program and why we have not followed up on it has been been both satisfying and yet frustrating.  I now have satisfied my curiosity regarding why we have not followed up on the Apollo program, even to today and the current indecision regarding exploration beyond low Earth orbit.  We have not done it simply because the political space program has no interest in it, nor have they ever really been interested.  For the political space program was never more than a tool, the ultimate appeal to authority for what they were really interested in, which has been buying votes, for trillions of dollars that have been spent on “other priorities” over the years.  McDougall goes into this in the closing chapters of his book:

…By 1969 Anderson’s [Democrat Senator Clinton Anderson of New Mexico; ed] colleagues mostly had other hopes and fears than nose of 1961: the fear of social disintegration and the hope that the Apollo method might help alleviate poverty, pollution, decaying cities.  The hope that rode on Apollo was the hope for human adequacy in the face of awful challenges.  NASA had whipped the Soviets, and now technocracy—state-managed R&D, state regulation, state mobilization, and systems analysis—could be applied to “down-to-earth” problems.  Now that the technocratic method was proven out, space travel was becoming dispensable….But the first irony of Apollo was that over time, the means had become more important than the end, even though that means—technocracy–was to prove inapplicable to most of the items on the new national agenda.  Going to the moon was an engineering problem; eliminating discrimination or poverty or even urban blight was not…..

Thus what can be said here is that the Apollo program became the ultimate appeal to authority by those who had the ultimate faith that government could cure all of societies ills.  Indeed, for most of my own youth I remember hearing that used as a clarion call of “If we can put a man on the moon surely we can solve X, Y, or Z!” Today this has crept into the general vernacular in that some writers call the current administration’s Affordable Care Act as Obama’s “moonshot”.  I don’t know McDougall’s politics but he zeroed in on the whole technocratic meme.  Democratic leaning historians such as Logsdon would not go into this subject in the depth of McDougall though he did illustrate the mechanics of what happened accurately.   Here is what Logsdon had to say about the later stages of the Apollo program and Nixon administration’s response to the Space Task Group’s expansive plans for post Apollo (page 436):

This type of recommendation was not at all what the Nixon administration had in mind; its top goal was reducing government spending……Richard Nixon finally responded to the Space Task Group in a statement issued on 7 March 1970, saying, “space expenditures must take their proper place within a rigorous system of national priorities. What we do in space from here on in must become a normal and regular part of our national life and must therefore be planned in conjunction with all of the other undertakings which are important to us.” It was clear that there would be no more Apollo-like space goals set while Nixon was in office.

Logsdon uses the excuse here of the Nixon administration’s desire to cut the budget, but that is only true of the NASA budget.  Nixon’s first budget, for fiscal year 1970 came in at $195.649 billion total dollars.  Nixon’s last budget, FY 1975 was $332.332 billion, an increase of over $138 billion per year in that period.  Another three billion to keep NASA at its 1966 level would have not even been noticed.  The bold text above indicates that it was not a desire to reduce the general federal budget, which obviously did not happen, but a shift in national priorities that started years before by LBJ and Nixon just continued the trend.  The numbers I use here are from the historical federal budget as obtained from the White House OMB website.  Table 1 shows the NASA budget in comparison with other large federal agencies.

Table 1: Normalized NASA Budget vs Other Federal Agencies
Table 1: Normalized NASA Budget vs Other Federal Agencies

I have published this before but it bears repeating.  I normalized the NASA budget to 1 and then compared the other budgets as a fraction of NASA’s budget.  In FY-1966 only the DoD had a higher proportion of the budget than NASA.  By FY 1970 the Department of Education, Health and Human Services, Labor, and Department of Transportation all had higher budgets.  By FY 1975 this list included the Department of Housing and Urban Development, Energy, DoD Civil Programs, International Assistance, and even the Office of Personnel Management had higher budgets than NASA.  The Department of Health and Human Services budget was over ten times that of NASA by FY 1975.  Thus it is absurd to make the claim that it was some general effort to reduce the budget that NASA had to take, along with the rest of government.

NASA’s budget had already been cut from its peak of $5.933 billion in FY 1966 to $3.752 billion for Nixon’s first budget.  There has been this fantasy, repeated by Logsdon, that somehow the Saturn V production line could have continued to operate and that the final decision to end production was not until 1972. However, as far back as 1968 and the completion of subsystems and with the main contract only for 15 flight units, the subcontractors had long been shut down by then.  As early as mid 1968 conference papers were indicating a loss of employment of 4-5000 per week in critical areas.  Saying that the Saturn V production could have continued as far down the road as 1972 is as absurd as saying that Space Shuttle flights could have been continued without interruption by the last flight in 2010.

It is exactly this shift in priorities that has not been substantially changed since that era.  The Reagan and Bush 1 administration’s more than doubled NASA’s budget but by then, with inflation and the growing sclerosis of the American aerospace industry, the increases, while allowing NASA to fly the Shuttle up to 9 times in 1985 and start on the development of the Space Station Freedom, was not as effective as before.  There was some shift at the policy level with Reagan advisor Dr. George Keyworth and George H. Bush in 1989 boldly began the Space Exploration Initiative (SEI).  However, by then the partisanship in congress was so bad that the democrat caucus strongly opposed any increased spending on  space, so much so that with large majorities in 1992 forced through a budget recission that specifically cut funds for the first lunar orbiter since Apollo (the Lunar Resource Mapper that yours truly was a PI on) after the production contracts were signed with Boeing.  Again the excuse was deficit reduction, but during the Clinton years the federal budget increased from $1.46 trillion dollars to $1.87 trillion dollars while NASA’s budget for a time was reduced by almost a billion a year.

In 2004 the Bush II administration began another attempt at an expanded space program with the Vision for Space Exploration.  George W. Bush’s administration increased the NASA budget from the last Clinton budget of $14.092 billion (still less than the last Bush 1 budget of $14.305 billion), to $19.17 billion in the last Bush budget in FY-09 to support the completion of the International Space Station and the beginning of what became the Constellation program.  When the Obama administration came into office the Constellation program was immediately cut, and the budget was again cut, by $2 billion a year by FY 2013, recovering this year but still less (at about $18.5 billion) than the last Bush budget.

It should be indisputable to any rational observer that the reason for the Apollo quagmire is that the politicians in our government, both congress and the White House, simply have other priorities.  Our federal budget has increased by over a $1.5 trillion a year since the Bush announcement in 2004 while NASA’s budget has declined in the past five years of the current administration.  The Augustine commission’s Review of Human Space Flight Plans Committee in their final report stated that for NASA to be able to execute on its beyond earth orbit human spaceflight efforts, it would need an additional $3 billion a year, over and above the $19.1 billion dollar budget.  Instead, the budget decreased, again in the name of deficit reduction, which is counterfactual considering how much the federal budget has increased.

Thus, in conclusion, the only conclusion that we can draw is that the political space program has been a failure.  It was a failure in concept, brilliant for a few years in execution in landing men on the moon, and then a failure in philosophy, spirit, and execution since that time.  The truth of the matter is that if the political space program had been in actuality what the American space program was in spirit, many of the political problems that money was diverted from the Apollo program to solve, would probably have been solved by a continued emphasis on space development.  It was only with the George W. Bush administration that an articulation of the American space program was finally made.  Here it is from a speech by Dr. John Marburger at the Goddard symposium in 2006:

The ultimate goal is not to impress others, or merely to explore our planetary system, but to use accessible space for the benefit of humankind. It is a goal that is not confined to a decade or a century. Nor is it confined to a single nearby destination, or to a fleeting dash to plant a flag. The idea is to begin preparing now for a future in which the material trapped in the Sun’s vicinity is available for incorporation into our way of life.

This is the first articulation in the political sphere that I have ever seen of a true American space program.  Indeed Marburger took a slap at the whole prestige rational in his above statement.  Unfortunately, the NASA administrator who understood Marburger and who had the ear of the president, gave way to an administrator and a program (Constellation) that was a throw back to the Apollo program, but without the funding profile to match.

This also goes back to my opening about his-story.  I first started noticing discrepancies between the official NASA history, some other written histories, and my personal experiences and relationships with the people involved.  This was reinforced in my personal participation in both the Space Exploration Initiative and the Vision for Space Exploration.  I also gained insight by going back over the writing of people who were opposed to the technocratic character of the Apollo program like Ralph Cordiner, CEO of General Electric, president Eisenhower, and Von Braun’s army boss, General Bruce Medaris.  Though I don’t like what I found, it does make sense.  The politicians of the era, especially those like whiz kid Robert McNamara who had a lot of influence on space policy, simply had no vision of what our first steps into the cosmos meant.  There were many of that era who did, but this did not penetrate the self assured intellect of the new men that surrounded Kennedy and later Lyndon Johnson.

I hope that the reader, in following the links that I have provided here, as well as the development in this missive of the idea of the political vs American space program, can gain insights on why we have been stuck in this quagmire for so long.

Just this past week an article was published in Aviation Week by Marcia Smith, regarding the anniversary of yet another report, the National Commission on Space report.  Chaired by then former NASA administrator Tom Paine (who I had the honor of having lunch with in 1989), it was another attempt at pushing on the government space program an expansive effort, this time with the focus on Mars.  She wonders why, after thirty years, that we still have these questions about destinations and NASA’s direction.

To the reader of this missive, the answer is clear, it is not a priority of the political space program.  There was no money provided in the 80’s for it, or in the 90’s or 2000’s, even with the dramatic expansion of the federal budget in this same time period.  Mars simply has not be placed in the proper context of the economic development of the solar system.  It has been considered a province of science alone for decades.  Any base on Mars built by NASA will look like the National Science Foundation’s base in Antarctica, the sole province of science.  It is hardly remarkable that this does not cross the threshold of a positive tipping point in government funding when compared against competing earthly priorities.

Marburger had it right, but he is dead, and the other real or perceived sins of the George W. Bush administration has consigned the brilliant construct of the economic development of the solar system to yet another speech lost to the ether.


I added this a couple of days after the original post of this article.  It helps to drive the point home even more, and here it is, out of the mouth of the former president of the United States, specifically that he wanted to use the management techniques that proved effective for the Apollo program and use them for “world peace” and other progressive ideals.

The American Space Program

Stated simply, the goal of the American space program is the economic development of the solar system, beginning with the industrialization of the Moon, free space, and asteroids, with settlement of Mars.  With the death of the Apollo program the American space program moved outside of NASA.  Dr. Von Braun, after his retirement from NASA, helped found the National Space Institute, which later merged with the populist L5 Society, to form the National Space Society.  Von Braun’s goal with the founding of the NSI-NSS was to educate the American people on the value of space, beyond the confines of the political space program.   It is here where I will pick up in my next missive.  I will just leave the reader with the thought that it is the American space program that is growing at this time while the political space program is dying.  That is a good thing.




47 thoughts on “The Quagmire of The Apollo Space Program

  1. Outstanding comprehensive history, particularly the documentation. Thanks for getting the story out there in such an accessible way.

    Strangely, earlier today I was daydreaming an alternate scenario where we hadn’t done Skylab, and instead used the bucks and remaining Saturns on one dual lander mission as you allude to above. But even as a last “fling”, that wouldn’t have fit with the general political priority of _ending_ Apollo and any extension of it in particular. But in retrospect I think it would’ve been a MUCH better use of available $ than Skylab.

    1. Charles, thanks that is high cotton praise! Skylab was a great program. I hate like hell that they did not launch the second flight article, the one that was in the Smithsonian Air and Space museum. Same thing with the dual launch Saturn to the moon. This is probably the strongest argument that I can think of against government directed technocratic programs (besides Obamacare of course). If you look at this history, Obamacare is the logical conclusion of the technocratic meme that began with Apollo. The thing that the brilliant ones in government never figured out is that there is a fundamental difference between an intrinsically technical project like Apollo (or the Panama Canal, the Hoover Dam, etc) and social programs. Our founding fathers and presidents like Lincoln, Roosevelt, Coolidge, and Eisenhower understood the difference, but the new men of Kennedy/Johnson, born and bred on FDR didn’t.

      1. Creating social advancement by frontal assault mechanisms analogous to those for an “intrinsically technical project” assumes at some level that people can be treated as mechanisms. We all know where that can go at its worst… because the response is rarely to reevaluate, it’s to double down.

        BTW, I didn’t mean to deride Skylab, per se. I’ve walked through that 2nd Skylab and had to explain to people that yes, _this was a real flight article_, cause they were incredulous that it had been built but hadn’t flown. Don’t recall if I mentioned the LM structures out in the Long Island junkyards…

        1. Charles, yea I know. I would have preferred the lunar mission myself, though Skylab was a very good mission. I got a tour of the engineering mockup at MSFC in 1974 when it was fully operational, supporting the third Skylab mission. It is heartbreaking to see it rotting in the rain in Huntsville.

          As I said in another forum, the Saturn V dual launch lunar mission to the lunar polar region would have been a fantastic way to end the Apollo program and would have put to rest the naysayers about lunar water that it took until just the last few years to put to rest.

  2. As Charles said, outstanding, and this explains so much. I tracked the space program through childhood and college, ended up working briefly at NASA (for one of the contractors [Link Simulations] on the Space Shuttle flight simulators, prior to the first Shuttle launch), then worked next door for a while at the Lunar & Planetary Institute. It was clear to me by then that NASA had gone off in a wrong direction; the Shuttle was complex, expensive, fragile, and wouldn’t really reduce cost-to-orbit. Meanwhile, I drove by the Saturn V on its side at the entrance to NASA/JSC just about every workday for two years.

    As Heinline put it in his ‘Future History’ timeline, the ‘False Dawn of Space Travel’. We’re finally picking up where we should have been 30-40 years ago, turning space over to private industry.

    1. Thanks for that, but for the purposes of the article, to make absolutely clear the points made, these screen shots are needed. This is especially the case for those that don’t notice or follow the link that I provided to the actual audio file.

  3. Great work, Dennis!

    I was aware that Kennedy was only interested in space as propaganda (i.e. demonstrating to the world that capitalism trumps communism) but was unaware of its role as a ‘blue print’ for technocratic control for a ‘brave new world’.

    Considering the original ideas of von Braun (i.e. reusable shuttles servicing space transportation nodes/stations), it’s clear that Kennedy’s Apollo was never conceived as a real space programme: it was designed to do one thing only (i.e. land a man on the moon) and it did it spectacularly well. Unfortunately, its success was also its downfall… and the subsequent years have simply been an effort to find some use/justification for the industrial base that it spawned.

  4. Dennis, this deserves wide readership. Excellent arguments, and links to the source material. This will be a source for many for years to come

    1. Thanks Michael. Did a lot of research on this one. Interesting how it reads when you tie the threads together don’t it.

      I also think that Logsdon, who is a democrat, did not want to delve into this facet of the history of Apollo where McDougall did.

  5. Great post. A phenomenal post! I’ve bookmarked your site; I’m thinking about bookmarking it again to hit this one post for future reading.

  6. Several things strike me in retrospect. One was an estimate I came across a few years back, that in the age of Elizabeth I, the British spent about 1.5% of their GNP on exploring and colonizing the New World. Okay, we gotta mumble a bit here — nobody measured GNP before the middle of the 20th Century, nobody even had a clear idea of what GNP might involve or why it mattered, and nobody was really tracking expenditures of the English government the way economists do now, and the way the state spent its funds in a strong monarchial setup wasn’t anything close to present day governments. Yadda yadda yadda. Still, it’s a ballpark. 1.5% of GNP — that’d be 250 billion dollars per year in 2015. And with that much money, we’d be colonizing the moon, exploring Mars and planning colonies, tapping the asteroid belt for resources, scouting Mercury and the moons of Jupiter for automated factory locations, etc,

    Government spending, private spending, corporate spending. It wouldn’t have to come out of the same pocket. But a big big chunk would probably come from the feds, either through NASA or as subsidies in some form for corporations.

    And it occurs to me that different portions of the US government might find this … unappealing … even perilous. First of all, 250 billion is a chunk of change. Spending it would be contentious. Republicans and Democrats would squabble about how it should be split. The Tea Party would have an opinion — maybe several opinions — about how it should be spent, or if it should be spent. Etc. Does the USA really need another subject for arguments?

    Secondly, colonies are seriously Serious Business. You can’t throw in the towel after a few years with the whole world watching and tell a few thousand people to pack up and leave the moon. Once you’re in with that 250 billion dollar penny, you’re in for 250 trillion dollar pound. Maybe you can fiddle with the figures, but it’s still an awfully imposing notion. A real space settlement wouldn’t be something as easily discarded as Apollo.

    Third, as they say in Washington DC, that 250 billion would ne “discretionary spending.” Pretty hard for the average Congressman to tamper with social security or medicare, but discretionary spending …. think of that as 250 billion bucks of pork dropped in front of 535 starving wolves. The money for a big space program might not be well spent, almost certainly wouldn’t be.

    The fourth thing is, it would be distracting. There’s stuff the US government does and which seem important to it. Providing energy to industry and consumers. Protecting citizens from a deteriorating environment. Improving medical care. Enforcing patents and copyrights. Keeping terrorists at bay. Preserving peace in East Asia and Central Europe. And so on. Runing the world, basically, or at least those parts that interest us. And to have 250 billion bucks of spending vanish into silly rockets and astronauts and outer space colonies is not going to help — it’s not a just a waste of moeny that properly ought to go to the State Department and DoD, it would soak up thousands — millions — of bright creative people who ought to be applying their minds to the REAL concerns of the US government.

    Fifth and finally, it could be dangerous. Space colonization opens up a new venue for great power rivalry. It’s sure to provoke envy and maybe enmity among nations too small or too technologically underdeveloped to participate in space. It might give birth to nations and alliances outside the earth with interests at odds with us. It might offer opportunties for survival and expansion to organizations we abhor — think of an Al Quaeda of Mars! The future is always perilous. Why should the USA make it worse!

    You get the idea, I trust. Maybe it isn’t an accident that the US has been reluctant to push its manned space program, and that the Europeans, who on paper could have an active manned space program, have been unwilling to fund one.

    1. If we kept the FY 1966 spending level that is about $130 billion a year in today’s dollar. The point is that we spend far more than this on other crap that does nothing for the economy or the good of the American people. If the 1966 spending level had held for just another ten years we would have hit a major tipping point in space exploration.

    2. Most of the “unappealing…even perilous” consequences you cite are so far beyond the radar of the pols that they’d never think of them, and they’d call you a scifi kook for mentioning them in their presence.

      Space is just not important to them (as Rand S. repeatedly points out), or to the wider public, to date. Humanity still hasn’t digested the thought of a post-Copernican universe beyond an impersonal abstraction. It’s too easy to resort to spinning elaborate reasons when other basic ideological, power, and personal consequences people do care about more than suffice to tell the tale.

  7. That was really outstanding, and your explanation of Public, Political, and American space programs really was sort of an epiphany for me. Certainly, I don’t think I’m alone in sensing the three distinct flavors of space program we have in our midst, but I’ve never seen it stated so plainly. Or so well backed up. Thank You!

        1. It just shows that the press has always been the lapdogs of the liberals as this premise is utterly fallacious. It would have been the equivalent of saying that the guys that built Hoover dam would do just fine curing poverty.

  8. Two things, first LBJ got what he wanted out of the Space Program via the re-industrialisation of the South. Note where a majority of the non-launch dictated NASA sites went.
    Second, he was a *politician*. What the frak did anyone expect?

    Also, war/defense was the driver (what drove the checkwriters .. plus the whole thing is good ):

    1. That is absolutely not the case, in terms of LBJ and reindustrialization of the south. If he or the democrats had cared about that, they would not have laid of 5,000 per month, even before he left office. This is one of the myths that Logsdon perpetuates, which is to blame Nixon for the end of the Apollo program as it is absolutely indisputable that it was a fait accompli well before Nixon was elected.

      The manned space center went to Texas because of duh. MSFC built the Saturn booster because of John Sparkman. And California did most of the work because that is where the electoral votes were.

  9. I read this as us commoners have very little influence. Most of us space buffs are techies but almost all politicos are business and lawyers. Go to a party of businessmen and lawyers, you will find starting a conversation about space exploration (unless emphasis is about money), you will find such interest will last no more than 15 seconds.

    1. Not at all. What it does illuminate is that there sometimes are agendas that are facades for the real purpose of a program. I will be writing about the alternate timeline space program that we could have had, had we listened to people like Ralph Cordiner from GE and other writers…. I am going to throw you this nugget… This was from the Webb_McNamara report…

      …Enormous strides have been made, particularly in our space efforts and in the development of related ballistic missile technology on a “crash” basis. We have, however, incurred certain liabilities in the process. We have OVER-ENCOURAGED the development of ENTREPRENEURS and the PROLIFERATION OF NEW ENTERPRISES. As a result, key personnel have been thinly spread. The turnover rate in U.S. defense and space industry has had the effect of removing many key scientific engineering personnel from their jobs before the completion of the projects for which they were employed…..

      (emphasis mine)

      So big aerospace wanted slaves, and making Apollo the only game in town secured them.

      1. Have you read some of the alternate history work on the subject? There are a number, but the most technically accurate is probably Eyes Turned Skyward.

  10. Maybe I’ve posted this in one of your other articles, sometimes people bring up the topic that China one time had a huge ocean-going navy but gave it up (and what if they did not?). Talking with a friend from Taiwan, she wrote the following to me last year about why a naval fleet was not considered necessary in the time of Ming dynasty. Plus some other opinions of the space program:

    Sure I like to see NASA embark on more space missions. Maybe China can be a good buddy to spur constructive competitive spirits like Russia did to USA’s space project with their Sputnik. JF Kennedy may not have made the bold decision to get on the Moon as soon as possible if it weren’t sparked by the “we have to do it before the Russians do it” mind set.

    However you have to have enough budget to burn. USA is wasting money in many aspects. Need to learn to be frugal like many other countries and also improve efficiency in many country sub structures in order to save enough budget for space programs. Too many Americans live on unrestricted borrowing and leave behind debts to following generations. This system would eventually crash in a disaster for the poor last generation. I saw some reports that each new born baby will have to share a large sum of debts before they can take their first look of the world when they are born. While medical advance allow retired seniors to live longer and longer while the economy is weak and fewer and fewer babies are born and successfully raised the shrinking work force would be hard pressed to feed themselves plus the growing number of retired mouths, let alone supporting any budget black holes like a moon project.

    I think when the decision was made to reduce naval fleet size in Ming dynasty time the European sea power was still in their infancy. However power balance changes with time. Ming dynasty had more immediate threats from land. Manchuria, the rising nomad land power with superior cavalry and archery skills and stronger political leaders had their eyes set on the fertile farm lands guarded by the great wall.
    Looking back you can see that the decision maker made sensible decision at their time to reduce naval expense because the western sea power was not bothering them until much later and it was near the end of the Chin dynasty when western steam ships with powdered cannons really caused headache a few hundred years later.

    …etc not only self – sustaining but can live a good life. Even to this day China still have greater potential in natural minerals and agricultural potential than Europe. Europe on the other hand was lacking resources and space so they had the urge to expand. As luck would have it, complacency, corruption brought the demise of a past world power and new world powers come to fill in its gap. The Asia mainland is so rich in resources and agricultural potential people there have their hands full just fighting with each other to control the vast land. Once you control good portion of the Chinese territory you can live well by yourself without connection to the outside, like the decades after Red China was born till it opened up to the world. Open to the world makes life better but not necessary for survival. In Europe even if a strong power conquers the whole Europe it would still be starved to death without resources from outside colonies, like the Nazi Germany and Napoleon’s short lived European dominance. Both were defeated by British (and later American) blockade to cut off resources supply and trading outside of Europe.

    [ later message ]

    I think when the decision was made to reduce naval fleet size in Ming dynasty time the European sea power was still in their infancy. However power balance changes with time. Ming dynasty had more immediate threats from land. Manchuria, the rising nomad land power with superior cavalry and archery skills and stronger political leaders had their eyes set on the fertile farm lands guarded by the great wall. Plus, internal political corruption and natural disasters spurred pheasant uprising from within. The most successful rebellion group even took the imperil palace and chased away the Ming dynastic emperor. It was then a Ming dynasty general decided to call help from forces of Manchuria to restore law and order so he opened up the gates of the great wall and invited the Manchuria forces into Beijing, the capitol of Ming dynasty. The Manchuria forces took the chance to take over and the Chin dynasty replaced the Ming dynasty. The word “Mandarin” is a verbal translation from Mandarin Chinese which literally means Nobles from Manchuria because they are the minority race (Man) ruling over the majority (Han) race in China for the last 300 years and became the last dynasty in China before the first Republic of China was established in 1911. The western image of Chinese people with bolded forehead and long pig-tail hair style for men is actually signature of Manchuria and they enforced this style for the conquered people to the point that if you do not switch hair style you lose your head. @_@ The official language “Mandarin” is also enforced to become the official language and is different from the many dialects the majority of “Han” people spoke for thousands of years before the conquest. Only the written characters remains because Man people did not have their own elaborate writing system so they adopted the writing just like Korean and Japanese people do to some extent.

    Actually it was the Chin dynasty, pestered by fleeing Ming forces to near by island like Taiwan mounting sporadic sea raids on the coastal lines they ordered all sea going businesses to be under strict government control which really killed the sea activities. Chin dynasty has their eyes on conquering more central Asia and expanded Chinese territory to places like Tibet and the vast central Asia territory they now call “New Territory” to the west of Mongolia. This vast open grass land and desert is test ground of Chinese nuclear and space programs now.

    Looking back you can see that the decision maker made sensible decision at their time to reduce naval expense because the western sea power was not bothering them until much later and it was near the end of the Chin dynasty when western steam ships with powdered cannons really caused headache a few hundred years later. However one can always imagine how history would be changed had they decided to do something different.

  11. Dennis,
    We met several years ago at an ISDC conference where I was autographing my book on the nuclear rocket (To the End of the Solar System: The Story of the Nuclear Rocket). That is both a political and technical history of the program and I go into great detail with original sources to document it. The politics is particularly fascinating as it is traditional politics, of ‘good old boys’ and political bulls in the Senate working to craft and carry out a space program. Forget the McDougall “technocracy” mumbo-jumbo. You need a keen understanding of the exercise of political power to realize how the process works both from a formal organization to organization perspective as well as a personal level. In other words, you don’t p*ss off Senate bulls. They are vital to getting your whole program through. For example, did you know Senator Clinton P. Anderson wrote Lyndon Baines Johnson in 1954 after he had a near fatal heart attack that he would become president. When LBJ became president a decade later, he needed Anderson to get his agenda through Congress, foremost of which was Medicare, which was the first piece of legislation introduced in 1965, showing how important it was. To think that Johnson would then p*ss on the space program, which Anderson helped craft and which Anderson helped get through Congress as Chairman of the Senate Space committee, is simply not realistic. Moreover, I think your write-up of the Kennedy-Webb preeminence needs a great deal of context; I hope you read my analysis of it. In short, from the perspective of the Senate bulls, JFK was only a young’un more interested in getting laid than someone who knew how to work the levers of power in Washington.

    So I cannot share your analysis of the ’60s, and hope you find time to read my first book. However, I think we are in agreement on the need for different structure for a future space program, one in which the private sector had a dominant role; I would add to that that NASA would become sort of a 21st century version of NACA and support the private sector. It would give up some operational responsibilities but assume others quite different. In my second book (The Nuclear Rocket: Making Our Planet Green, Peaceful and Prosperous) I lay out a strawman to provoke debate and dialogue. It starts, obviously enough, with a reconstituted nuclear rocket program in which the private sector has the lead, not NASA or the DOE (the successor to the Atomic Energy Commission). I also have a 29-page analysis I can send you that argues just how profitable it could be. That I can send you via email if you like.

    If you want to contact me to discuss this further, David Livingston could provide my telephone number. I don’t want to leave it here in a public forum.

    1. James

      I remember meeting you and I am pretty sure that I have a copy. I am more than happy to go back and read it but I have to maintain the contention that McDougall was right on the Money in his analysis. Sorry, but the historical record does support that by the latter part of the Johnson administration he no longer cared about the space program. If you look in the comments section of this article, there is a video of LBJ and Walter Cronkite on the day of the launch of Apollo 11 where he says exactly what a committed democrat that no longer cared about the space program would say, which is that the resources used for the space program and the process used to get us to the Moon can now be turned to “solving world peace” as LBJ said it. Watch the video, this is exactly what McDougall was talking about.

      Long before the Space Task Group report in 1969 that Logsdon focuses on the earlier A more formal version of the advanced post approved Apollo program ideas and others for further uprating of the Saturn V for Mars missions was presented to president Johnson and VP Humphrey in February of 1967 as The Space Program in the Post-Apollo Period, A Report of the President’s Science Advisory Committee. The cover is shown in figure 7.

      LBJ simply ignored this February 1967 report. The images that I show of the nuclear rocket program in this article come from the Von Braun/Webb/Mueller testimony before the Senate for the FY 1966 budget, the last full budget NASA has ever received. Before Nixon’s first budget NASA had already lost $1.5 billion a year funding while the federal budget as a whole continue dot increase.

      I am quite sure that nuclear engines and nuclear power in space is the key to the future. However, it will not start on the Earth, but on the Moon and Mars. This is simply the political reality of the situation.

      Please feel free to send me an email. Kinda busy right now so I would like to delay till later in the month.

      1. Dennis,
        Regarding McDougall, please review my analysis of his “technocracy” in Chapter 17 of To the End of the Solar System. His thesis is pretty thin gruel.

        Likewise, the enshrinement of Kennedy and “his” space policy is pretty thin gruel also. Kennedy
        had little knowledge of how Washington worked and was out-maneuvered by Johnson and his allies. Witness in December 1960, Robert Kerr announced he would chair the Senate space committee, which was a minor committee. Now why would the most powerful man in the Senate want to chair a minor committee if a “fix” wasn’t in the offing. The next shoe to drop was James Webb being named head of NASA. Where did Webb come from? Well, he worked at Kerr-McGee Oil and was handpicked by the senator. No scientist or engineer to run the agency, but someone the insiders trusted. The final shoe to drop, was Johnson being named chair of the Space Council, giving him a statutory responsibility for space policy. Once these lined up, then things moved fairly quickly and Kennedy only found out later he had been bamboozled. For a most telling quote, read footnote 5 in Chapter 17 of my first book on the nuclear rocket.

        Likewise, the 1967 PSAC study you referenced is also pretty thin. In draft, it recommended killing the nuclear rocket; when published that was gone. Why the difference? Simply this, in Washington, elected officials and those confirmed by the Senate make policy, including space policy. Everybody else supports this. This also means that Presidential announcements are not enshrined in gold as untouchable, be space or any other policy, the Congress will have its input. So your statements on Johnson’s backing off space policy when he was out of office need tempering; ex-Presidents can say a lot of things and have no bearing whatsoever on policy. Witness Jimmy Carter. Had Humphrey won instead of Nixon, space policy might have been quite different. Humphrey, though a liberal, was also an insider in that “holy of holies” that ran the Senate.

        Now Donald Hornig, head of PSAC (a White House office created by Executive order) wanted to kill the nuclear rocket. Clinton P. Anderson, that powerful Senate bull elephant, was its strongest supporter. Guess who is going to win, an unelected academic or an elected official, one of the Senate’s most powerful. Interestingly, Hornig henceforth was excluded from the budget markup process – the death knell for this office because marking up the budget is really where the rubber meets the road. PSAC withered until Nixon finally killed it. On the other hand, Nixon wanted to kill the Space Council, but couldn’t since it was established by legislation so they starved it of money until the law could be changed.

        Finally, I disagree with your belief that nuclear engines will not start on Earth but on the Moon or Mars. This condemns the space program to chemical rockets with their low payload fractions forever. Using nuclear rockets to push payloads into space and beyond means bigger and bigger payload fractions and faster and faster speeds. In other words, $100 per pound to LEO is only a transitory target; as better nuclear engines are developed, and there is a lot of room for improvements, then the figure will go lower. So now nuclear engines would be justified not on manned Mars missions but on their ability to transform the space program as well as solving many environmental and other problems on Earth. It’s money and jobs and a lot of money and a lot of jobs to boot.

        I hope you would find time to review this perspective, found in my second book on the nuclear rocket and in that 29-page paper I mentioned. I’d welcome a dialogue.

        1. ….So your statements on Johnson’s backing off space policy when he was out of office need tempering; …

          He backed off while he was in office. It is 100% clear that he put a lot of pressure on NASA and told Webb to cut the budget. That is why Webb left and Paine was appointed in his place. Sorry but you need look no farther than the budget. In FY 66 it was $5.9 billion and by FY 1969 it was $4.2 billion, an almost 30% cut while other budget lines increased far more. Logsdon’s book goes into this in some detail. The ability to produce Saturn V’s was gone by the time that LBJ left office.

          If you go back and look at McDougall, it was stated up front (as it was in the Webb McNamara report) that large projects like space were to be done as a means to show that the state could do this scale of thing and that this could then be applied to other problems. This is exactly what LBJ said many times. This is where the phrase “If we can put a man on the Moon, surely we could do X, Y, or Z. Sorry, but these are the facts on the ground and no matter what the rhetoric is, the budget tells the tale.

          The 1967 study comprises about 80% of what is in the 1969 Task Group Study. I don’t know how you would consider that thin. Hell man they could not even get the budget to do the Apollo AES mission when they had two flight ready vehicles to do it!

          No matter the technical merits of nuclear propulsion, the political opposition will kill it. It simply is not going to happen with an Earth fueled system. We have been beating our heads against the wall on this since LBJ with zero appreciable progress. I have the FY 1966 Senate testimony, I also have somewhere the 1964 testimony where Von Braun was talking about the VAB design and how it was built with fueling nuclear rockets in mind. We got close to the goal line and then it simply did not happen.

          Barring an asteroid coming our way or a new generation with two brain cells to rub together regarding the future in politics, we are not going to get there. I have watched an entire generation of engineers and scientists age to and beyond retirement, hoping for something to change. Frankly I am tired of waiting. I and other know what to do to make this happen commercially and by God we will make it happen!

          I will look your books up. Sorry just really busy raising money right now!

          1. Dennis,
            You’re pretty busy now so let’s continue this discussion when you have had time to read my two books and 29-page analysis which I’ll send when you are ready. I think you’ll have your views challenged, including the reason why Webb left NASA. It was really about NERVA and getting at cross-purposes with Anderson. You should find this provocative.

            Meanwhile, since you are busy, I’ll include that LBJ quote I mentioned (Footnote 5 of Chapter 17). These are LBJ’s actual words, not my paraphrase. “Jack Kennedy, he (Johnson) said, ‘never learned how things operate around here (Congress)’ and ‘all those Bostons and Harvards’ with whom Jack was surrounding himself ‘don’t know anymore about Capitol Hill than an old maid does about fuckin.'” Caro, Master of the Senate, p. 1036.

            1. James

              Thanks, and if you want to send the 29 pager please go ahead. It does not matter what Kennedy’s experience was. He was dead for years by the time that LBJ stuck a knife in the heart of the space program. LBJ and the people around him in the administration absolutely wanted to take the aura of authority that came from a successful Moon landing and take the money and government power and use it to build his utopia. It is all over the writing of the 1960’s by the democrat powers that be.

              The horrible fact is that your generation was betrayed by LBJ and the democrats. They stole your hearts with the promise of the great future in space and then took that and used it for their own ends.

              It is time to cast off the failed promises of the past, and move forward for something that can work.

              1. Dennis,
                I hope the 29-pager is included. You may share it with anyone.


              2. Dennis,
                The article wouldn’t post so I sent it to David Livingston who in turn forwarded to your email address. You may post it here if you can or otherwise use it as you see fit.

  12. Very cool article. What I find most amazing about the space program is how America was actually able to get the job done with such limited technology. It’s kind of sad that the NASA today can’t even shuttle astronauts to the ISS, let alone try attempting something as grand as we did in ’69. Is it just me or is there no will power left in America to do great things? It’s not even a financial issue. Look at the cost of going to the moon in 69′ – the ENTIRE space program budget and adjust it for inflation. Then look how much it cost the U.S. during Bush’s presidency to plan a new mission to the Moon. Billions were spent and nothing happened. I don’t think America could go back to the moon even with an infinite budget. The will power isn’t there.

    1. A very interesting theory and I mostly agree with it. The thing that I have gleaned from reading about LBJ and his machinations related to the space program is that space was a tool for gaining power and then after that tool served its purpose, it was discarded. Space could not be completely eviscerated but close enough after 1967.

  13. I found this article’s comment right to the point; “This is exactly the type of thinking, and reaction, by Mars advocates that has kept America stuck in LEO for the last 45 years.”

    Whitfield: Essay In Favor Of Moon Over Mars Flawed.
    In an article for the Space Review (6/1), consultant and technical writer David Whitfield countered the “dubious claims and flawed reasoning” in an essay by Madhu Thangavelu of the University of Southern California claiming that the moon was a better place to send astronauts next, rather than Mars. Whitfield repeatedly notes how Thangavelu’s arguments are “wholly incorrect” or even “completely false,” explaining why a Mars mission should still possible. Whitfield believes that “an integrated approach” could result in both Mars and the moon being open to astronauts, especially if the US follows a path “based on Robert Zubrin’s Moon/Mars Direct architecture.”

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