Book Review, Dr. John Logsdon’s “After Apollo”


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Hat Tip to @famousquotenet

The Book

Dr. John Logsdon is an icon in the space policy world.  Dr. Logsdon is the founder and from 1987 to 2008 the director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University. Dr. Logsdon is certainly an authority and noted historian in the arena of NASA and the overall flow of the last several decades of space policy.  His Space Policy Institute has matriculated a very large cadre of the current generation space policy influencers in the United States and the world.  Thus his words and positions have had a major influence for a very long time in American space policy.

I find the book less than it first appears.  The title “After Apollo, Richard Nixon and the American Space Program” would lead one to think that this would be a comprehensive treatise regarding the development of space policy in the post Apollo period.  This timespan begins roughly  from the beginning of the first term of the Nixon administration through his time in office.  The time period is right, but the subject matter is almost exclusively associated with the events in the high level policy realm regarding the decision for the development of the Space Shuttle and the failings of the Nixon administration in this regard.  There is no mention of NASA’s other policy areas such as the Supersonic Transport which was also NASA related, or unmanned spaceflight and the Pioneer, Viking, and Voyager missions.  There has been little treatment at the professional historian level of non human spaceflight policy in this critical period and it would have made the book more interesting and more comprehensive in this regard. The policy decisions in that realm were just as important, far reaching, and long lasting as the decision regarding the Space Shuttle.  Thus to virtually ignore this side of NASA policy development in this same period is a major lack.

The detailed policy level discussions regarding the various political and technical forces involved in the development of the space shuttle is extremely interesting.  I do feel that the setup of the discussion is lacking, undeservedly so.  On page 34 Logsdon states:

NASA itself was a badly divided organization, with its Office of Manned Space Flight and its human space flight centers in Houston, Texas and Huntsville, Alabama planning their own course for the future, while its Office of Space Science and Applications worked with the external scientific community do define a different preferred future, one which would redress the perceived imbalance between human and robotic space missions.  As a result of Webb’s resistance, agency-wide planning for the post-Apollo period began only in early 1968, and its early results were disappointing, reflecting the divisions within the organization.

This is patently untrue.  The effort that is obliquely referenced here was a major presidentially sponsored report from February 1967 called; “The Space Program in the Post-Apollo Period,” A Report of the President’s Science Advisory Committee.  While there were no NASA people involved it did provide a blueprint for NASA’s future. The cover is shown here:

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Figure 1: The Space Program in the Post Apollo Period Report Cover

This was not just a report for addressing the imbalance between manned and unmanned exploration.  It was a roadmap for not just NASA but the nation in space in the post initial Apollo period.  This report was very detailed, definitive and NASA adopted many if not most of the recommendations that were made.  Following are the high level and the lower flow down recommendations.  Under section III “Conclusions and Recommendations” the following recommendations were made.

…Therefore, the Panels favor a balanced program based on the expectation of eventual manned planetary exploration, integrating manned and unmanned efforts to arrive at the following five major objectives:

  1. A limited but important extension of Apollo in order to exploit our anticipated capability to explore the Moon.
  2. A strongly upgraded program of early unmanned exploration of the nearby planets on a scale of time and effort consistent with the requirements for planning future manned expeditions.
  3. A program of technology development and of qualification of man for long duration space flight in anticipation of manned planetary exploration.
  4. The vigorous exploitation (by all appropriate agencies of Government) of space applications for national security and the social and economic well-being of the Nation.
  5. The exploitation of our capability to carry out complex technical operations in near Earth orbit (and on the Moon) for the advance of science, particularly astronomy.

In each of the five areas above there were sets of detailed recommendations that in many respects were followed.  These detailed recommendations in each area are as follows:

(1)

Recommendations.–In the period after the initial two Apollo lunar landings we recommend that a sustained program of lunar exploration proceed as follows:

a. Continue manned expeditions at the rate of between one and two per year.

b. Provide each manned expedition with logistics support as recommended above, shifting over to any alternative system (for example, one based on a direct trip to the moon without rendezvous) when the economics clearly favor it.

c. Provide supplemental unmanned lunar exploration systems. One important component of this program during the early 1970’s will be unmanned spacecraft capable of landing significant scientific payloads everywhere on the Moon, particularly the lunar poles. [my emphasis].

d. Since we expect that it may prove valuable to send manned expeditions to parts of the moon not accessible to the present Apollo system (e.g. the polar regions), planning should be initiated to enable the achievement of this capability in the 1975-80 period.

(2)

Recommendations.–

a. We recommend that particular consideration be given to providing during the 1970 launch opportunity an unmanned planetary mission capable of probing the atmosphere of Venus, as part of an orderly U.S. program of planetary exploration.

b. We recommend and expanded commitment to the Voyager planetary lander program, pointing toward a soft landing of a Surveyor-type module on Mars in 1973 but with the provision for the possibility that a similar mission to Venus may also receive a high priority for the early 1970’s. We recommend that particularly vigorous attention be given to the long development times in designing and preparing components and subsystems necessary for a 1973 Mars soft landing, especially those which must meet rigorous sterilization requirements.

c. We recommend that during the 1970’s unmanned spacecraft be sent to Jupiter and Mercury, accessible planets of great scientific interest.  An opportunity to flyby Mercury as an extension of the recommended 1970 Venus mission should be considered seriously if it does not appreciably decrease the probability of success of the Venus probe.

d. We recommend that NASA conduct as soon as possible a carefully integrated study of the relative effectiveness of man in planetary flyby and orbiter missions to Mars and Venus, considering manned and unmanned modes in all relevant combinations.  One object of this study must be clear identification of how the various Voyager missions proposed for the time period 1975-79 would be related to manned planetary missions which are felt by NASA to warrant serious considerations.  A further object should be the determination of the appropriate ground-based and earth orbital observations required to insure the maximum effectiveness of direct exploratory ventures projected for the 1970’s.  The results of this study should be available by the summer of 1967.

The vast majority of these recommendations were carried out by NASA.  Interestingly for those of us who know the history, the same budget crunches that characterized the manned program were also inflicted on the unmanned program, curtailing the original Voyager Grand Tour of the solar system by precluding the Saturn V as the launch vehicle for the mission.

Next were the detailed recommendations under (3) above:

Recommendations.–In summary, we recommend that:

a. Physiological and psychological studies of man for extended periods in space should be associated with experiments under continuous medical observation, and under conditions which permit these experiments to be useful in predicting performance in interplanetary flight.  Appropriate working environments and bio-instrumentation must be provided.

b. The proposed orbital workshop experiment of the Apollo Applications Program utilizing the spent second stage of the Uprated Saturn I vehicle should proceed.  The launch vehicle and spacecraft for this experiment are already on order, and the opportunity for 28, to 56 day flights in 1968 should be taken.

c. Before substantial funds are committed to the AAP plan to modify Apollo hardware or to utilize the orbital workshops for extended periods, a careful study should be made of the suitability, cost and availability of Titan III/MOL systems for biomedical studies of man for periods of us to 60 days. NASA should also investigate whether delivery of those components could be speeded up without interference with the MOL program if additional funds were contributed to MOL in the formative years of the program.

d. Arrangements should be developed between NASA and the USAF to use the Mol program as an important source of data on the capabilities of man for space missions lasting 14 to 30 days, in addition to experience to be grained in early Apollo Applications missions. Biomedical investigations currently planned by the USAF in these flights are strictly oriented towards 30-day flight requirements and would need to be substantially expanded to take their place in progressive qualification of man for interplanetary flight.  The USAF is therefore urged to take greater advantage of physiological and psychological tests in MOL that would be framed to aid in evaluation of man for planetary flight.

e. The next significant step in biomedical studies will involve extended duration flights of 100 days or more, and will require major redesign of MOL components, or major new developments if based on Apollo hardware.  The determination of the most effective and economic approach requires a detailed study in which MOL components are explicitly considered as a possible alternative.  NASA should initiate such a study as soon as possible.

f. NASA should proceed vigorously with basic bioscience programs in biosatellites and in prolonged manned flights with vehicles suited to care of animals and simple living forms.  In addition to its fundamental value, this information could be important to our understanding and solution of problems in manned flight.

Several of these recommendations were adopted as well and even today we are still involved in studies of the effects of long term spaceflight on humans.

(4)

Recommendations.–

a. We recommend that the government adopt as a primary goal in the application of space technology for scientific purposes as program leading to the establishment in earth orbit of a number of astronomical facilities, which by the end of the decade of the 1970’s will constitute on orbiting astronomical observatory capable of—

  1. exploring the full range of the spectrum not accessible from the ground with all attendant advantages of instruments in orbit such as diffraction-limited resolution and coherent detection over large base lines,
  2. scientific control directly by astronomers on the earth, and
  3. extend useful life through intermittent maintenance and modernization by servicing in orbit using trained engineering personnel.

b. We recommend as the initial step (to be accomplished by 1970 if possible), the construction of a 0.1 arc-sec resolution telescope of about 40 inches aperture with guidance and auxiliary instrumentation superior to that planned for OAO, and construction of a first generation set of specialized telescopes for the previously inaccessible wavelength regions designed to make preliminary surveys and demonstrate the feasibility of instruments of higher resolution and aperture.  In this first group of instruments the cost will be dominated by the optical telescope.

c. We recommend for the middle 1970’s a second generation of X-ray, gamma ray, sub-millimeter, and radio wave-length instruments, utilizing the experience gained from the 1st generation instruments.

d. We recommend that around 1970 a decision be taken regarding the optimum evolution of an optical telescope of ambitious size.

e. We recommend that NASA study suitable arrangements for working with the scientific community for the purpose of making most effective use of the investments in this astronomy program, and note that the ad hoc committee appointed by Mr. Webb in the spring of 1966 and chaired by Professor Norman Ramsey made a valuable step in this direction.  The nucleus of a suitable organization should be formed as soon as possible, and should be charged with assisting NASA in the formulation of the detailed goals, and recommended facilities to achieve them, for the earth orbital astronomy program.

f. We recommend that attention be given to the excellent opportunity for international cooperation which is inherent in this space observatory concept.  Not only can the time this instrument is used be shared with observers from other nations, but they could develop their own specialized auxiliary instrumentation to be placed for a period of time in the focal plane of the space telescope, thus providing them with unique data obtained through instruments of their own design without the tremendous cost of the launch vehicles and telescope construction.

g. We note that the trend of recent years has very substantially reduced the fraction of the total cost of low earth-orbit unmanned space science missions which is invested in the launching rocket.  The high cost of solving quickly the very troublesome problems of integrating a variety of independent scientific payloads into a large multipurpose satellite (such as OGO) may not be worth the advantages of using fewer but larger boosters.  Thus we find that the independently planned and executed small satellite or sounding rocket experiment has great utility and we recommend that adequate provision be made for a sufficient number of rocket probes and small satellites per permit the testing on a modest scale of the new observing concepts in order to be sure that our major facilities represent the very best instruments that ingenuity permits.  Nonetheless, we see the advantages of larger “palette” type payloads, with weight to spare in order to gain higher reliability and short response time; and urge studies to find means for minimizing the payload integration problems so that such multipurpose spacecraft can prove cost effective.

h. Finally, to insure the scientific effectiveness of its work in earth orbital astronomy, we recommend that NASA take the initiative necessary to insure that space-based and ground-based astronomical facilities and research programs are developed in consistent and complementary ways.  In particular, we foresee the need for much more extensive ground-based observing capability, particularly in the southern hemisphere, if the recommended program of earth orbital astronomy is carried out. 

This of course is what led to the great observatory programs and the Hubble Telescope. Thus if you look at these recommendations, they were almost all carried out but mostly in the 1980’s.

Finally.. for (5)

Recommendations.–In summary we recommend:

a. That a far more intensive effort be carried out to examine the applicability of satellite technology to the missions of all the Federal agencies.  Such studies should take into account not only technological possibilities but the benefits, economic and other, which might be derived from satellite technology as compared with other methods.  For many purposes, it would appear that unmanned satellites are the preferred way to meet such possible requirements.

b. That, whether the proposed space applications systems are manned or unmanned, a reasonable clear case of potential utility must be made, which includes an assessment of potential economic benefit, before significant development costs are assumed.  This is particularly important since the successful development of advanced technologies has greatly expanded the opportunities for space applications programs.  With the wealth of opportunities available, it has become increasingly important to provide for an optimal selection of those which are suitable for continued support.  We must emphasize that a great deal of space technology has passed the point where the demonstration of mere feasibility of a particular space application has any technological or prestige significance. 

c. That, before a manned earth resources survey is included in the Apollo Applications Program, detailed cost-benefit studies be completed which treat manned versus unmanned methods for accomplishing these tasks.

d.  That a careful examination be made of the potential role of man in the weather satellite program.

For those who know anything about the history of NASA the above sets of recommendations were pretty much carried out, though some not until the 1980’s.  Logsdon pretty much ignored this exceptionally important report from 1967.  It formed the basis for much NASA policy separate from the decision for the Shuttle.

Lest the reader conclude that this was from an outside agency and not NASA, there is further evidence to present.  From March 8-12th an 15th, 1965 there was several days of congressional testimony regarding the future of NASA.  These hearings, on the NASA FY 66 budget (S 927), were extensive.  It covered in exceptional detail NASA’s plans philosophy, and future efforts.  Figure 2 shows the cover of the proceedings from the hearings.

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Figure 2: NASA Hearings for Senate Bill S 927 FY 1966

As Logsdon was focusing on the Nixon era he might be excused for not starting in 1965.  However, much of his premise that NASA was disorganized and with no plan simply does not bear scrutiny.

What is the case is that the cuts in the Apollo program, dating as far back as FY 1965 at first slowed the program’s progress (Webb stated to congress in the congressional testimony that previous cuts eliminated the ability to fly the first 15 Apollo missions before the end of 1969).   From the testimony:

In conducting this program at a budget level of $5.25 billion as it approaches its maximum instead of an optimum maximum considerably higher, we have thereby necessarily stretched out certain elements of the program.  As a result, all 15 Saturn V – Apollo flights that are included in our plan will not be accomplished within this decade.  In our original plan, 15 flights were scheduled within the decade to provide assurance that we could achieve the goal of manned lunar landing by 1970.  We believe, however, that the effective close control system we have established, and the early indications of better than predicted results from our testing programs and with the flight successes achieved with the Saturn I vehicle, we have good reasons to expect that we still have some possibility of carrying out a manned lunar landing within this decade. (page 20)

The budget cutting that started even before the peak funding year of FY 1966.  After FY 1966 the budget became progressively worse for the agency dropping far faster than Logsdon stated on page 34.

There is much in the book about preserving the production of the Saturn V and that it was finally Tom Paine who sacrificed the Saturn V for the promise of the Space Shuttle.  This is only true from one sense of the situation.  I compare it to the end of the Space Shuttle program itself.  It was decided to end the Space Shuttle program not very long after administrator Mike Griffin came on the job.  The process was the same as for the Saturn V. First the subcontracts are terminated for the third/forth tier contractors and their last hardware delivered.  Then the larger subcontractors such as Lockheed for the External tank does not get any more orders for tanks.  This happens years in advance of the last flight.  I lived next to the head of procurement for the Shuttle tanks and efforts to wind down those contracts happened in 2006.  The same thing happened with the Saturn V.

The Real End of the Saturn V

As early as 1968 the subcontractors for the Saturn V engines were being shut down.  In March of 1968 a paper was presented at the Fifth Space congress in Coca Beach Florida where the first real effects of the funding drawn down were being felt at NASA MSFC and for the engine manufacturer Rocketdyne.   The title of the paper is “Maintenance of Technical Capability During a Period of Retrenchment”.  From the paper:

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Figure 3:Problem Statement For Referenced Paper

Job losses from the paper:

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Figure 4: Monthly Job Losses in the Apollo Program Estimated by July 1968

These job losses, which was 1/3rd of the entire program was the consequence of a NASA budget that declined from $5.933 billion in FY 1966 to $3.752 billion for FY 1970, which was the last budget by the LBJ administration.  That is a 37% decrease.  The paper by Brown and Brown has a graphic showing that the engine program had a budget decline of 50%.

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Figure 4: Brown & Brown Paper on Managing Engineering During Retrenchment

If you look at the extrapolation in the chart, by the time the big discussion was going on (1971), employment in the Saturn booster segment of the program would have been down by over 80%.  It is not stated in Logsdon’s book directly, but this is the reason that Rocketdyne was given the Space Shuttle Main Engine (SSME) contract well before the final decision on the Shuttle.  The reason given was that Rocketdyne would go bankrupt without that contract.

While it may be true that in Washington among the political types, they thought that turning on and off major programs like Apollo was like flipping a switch, those of us who understand the intellectual capital lost during a major retrenchment like this is devastating.  Reviving the Saturn V in 1971 would have been as difficult as reviving the Shuttle program in 2010, i.e. possible but exceptionally expensive, something that the budgeteers of the era would have never accepted.  Thus I think that we can conclude that decisions made well before the advent of the Nixon administration sealed the fate of the Apollo program.

The above is just the beginning of the evidence that NASA was not in disarray regarding future plans, at least in the 1965-68 timeframe that Logsdon uses as his touchstone regarding the beginning of his story.  Furthermore, it was budget decisions made years before that constrained what Nixon was going to be able to do regarding the Shuttle.

The Shuttle Decision Itself

The Budget

Much is made of the budget deficit and the role of the (then) newly created White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) in constraining the decision matrix for the new Space Shuttle program.  NASA clearly wanted a two stage reusable system but there was zero chance that the $6-10 billion dollar price tag for that system would get through congress.  In Logsdon’s book the vast majority of the onus was put on the Nixon administration but all he was doing was as Logsdon accurately observes was reading the tea leaves regarding what would get through congress.  Another thing that Nixon did do, and this would have been logical no matter who was president, was to reduce the priority of the Apollo program from basically the equivalent of war materials priority to a normal priority, having to compete with other programs.  Though this was necessary, it opened the floodgates of competing interests vying for NASA’s budget.

Logsdon quotes on page 210 my favorite smoking gun memo from OMB head Caspar Weinberger to Nixon:

Present tentative plans call for major reductions or change in NASA, by eliminating the last to Apollo flights (16-17), and eliminating or sharply reducing the balance of the Manned Space Program (Skylab and Space Shuttle) and many remaining programs.

I believe that this would be a mistake.

  1. The real reason for sharp reductions in the NASA budget is that NASA is entirely in the 28% of the budget that is controllable.  In short we cut it because it is cuttable, not because it is doing a bad job or an unnecessary one.

  2. We are being driven, by the uncontrollable items, to spend more and more on programs that offer no hope for the future: Model Cities, OEO [Office of Employment Opportunity], Welfare, interest on the National Debit, unemployment compensation, Medicare, etc.  of course, some of these have to be continues, in one form or another, but essentially they are programs, not of our choice, designed to repair mistakes of the past, not of our making.

  3. We do need to reduce the budget, in my opinion, but we should not make all our reduction decisions on the basis of what is reducible, rather than on the merits of individual programs.

Why was NASA so vulnerable?  Logsdon says little about it other than noting that Nixon stated that the nation was becoming more introspective.  Well it goes much farther than that.  The 1999 NASA “The Space Shuttle Decision” (NASA SP-4221) by T.A. Heppenheimer has a much more balanced set of characters to blame for the decision that gave us the Space Shuttle and its policy than Logsdon.  Congress was very much opposed to a continuing expansive NASA.  As the cadre of original NASA supporters who were allies of Lyndon Johnson either retired or defected over the Vietnam war and the demands of escalating social programs, congress decisively turned against NASA.  Just one small example from SP-4221, a quote from a speech from democratic senator Walter Mondale:

This item involves a fundamental and profound decision about the future direction of the manned spaceflight era.This is, in fact,the nextmoon-type program. I believe it would be unconscionable to embark on a project of such staggering cost when many of our citizens are malnourished, when our rivers and lakes are polluted, and when our cities and rural areas are dying. What are our values? What do we think is more important? [page 183]

Some powerful democrats in Congress at this time was dead set against the space program in any form, but not against spending in general.  Table 1 shows the relative growth and or decline of the space budget from FY 1966 through FY 1972 when the Shuttle program was finally approved:

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Table 1: Normalized NASA Budget vs Other Federal Agencies

In the table (click on it to expand) this is the Federal historical budget from the White House website.  In the lower set of numbers NASA’s budget was normalized to 1.00 while the relative budgets of other agencies was allowed to be compared against it on a year by year basis.  In FY 1966 only the defense budget was higher than the NASA budget of out the 18 budget lines compared.  By 1972 seven domestic agencies had higher budgets than NASA.  The department of Health and Human Services increased from just a little under parity with NASA in 1966 to over 7 times NASA budget in just six years.  The Department of  Agriculture’s budget was a little less than NASA’s in 1966 and over three times as large by 1972.  The entire federal budget grew from $134.5 billion to $230.7 billion in just six years, close to doubling.  Thus there is little doubt that the budget deficit, except in general terms, was a myth as an excuse for constraining NASA. Thus congress was probably the biggest impediment but not the only one.

The OMB turned out to be a major enemy of NASA.  Logsdon recounts an observation by Jonathan Rose, assistant to Peter Flanigan, an assistant to president Nixon regarding the OMB effort to either kill or downsize the Shuttle program: [page 260]

…While NASA may not historically have effectively studied the smaller shuttle, I became convinced that Jim Fletcher [NASA administrator] had in the time given to him done the best he could.  In the last analysis, that is all one can ask of an honest agency head.  He should not be brutalized on a continuing basis by the budget process of by the White House staff when such pressure appears to reach the point of diminishing returns.

The essence of judgement is to know when to stop.  I simply think that Don Rice [from OMB] failed us here.  He viewed the political situation as well as the plight of the contractors very lightly.  He was far more interested in pursuing the marginal cost savings which his staff led him to believe were possible.  Thus in turn finally led him to some highly shoddy tactics in ex parte lobbying.

The gist here is that the OMB did some highly questionable things in beating NASA down on the budget for the Shuttle program up to an including colluding with one of the aerospace contractors (no one has ever found out which one) to come up with designs and financial numbers of unknown provenance.  This is outside of the realm of the job of the OMB and it caused NASA terrible difficulties.  This is what eventually led to the choice of the TAOS Space Shuttle design that we have been left with for several decades.

Logsdon seems to excuse this behavior and indeed laud them and come to his own judgement about the TAOS Space Shuttle that was built:

…What is clear is that they did state their case with vehemence, that short term considerations related to aerospace employment in advance of the 1972 presidential election played a crucial role in the final decision to approve the full capability shuttle, that Rice and David were on the losing side of the argument, and that, with the benefit of hindsight, they were full justified in their opposition.

This is where Logsdon is going with the book.  It seems here that his argument is that a smaller Shuttle would have been a better and more cost effective one.  There is zero evidence for this position.  Infrastructure is infrastructure and if the smaller Shuttle with the 12′ x 40′ cargo bay had been built, there would have been zero difference in operational costs as those costs are dominated by the standing army required to service the vehicle and that would have been exactly the same as with the larger 15′ x 65′ cargo bay vehicle.  Additionally NASA and the outside economic advisors both stated that the even smaller Shuttle that could fly on a Titan III would have an even higher operational cost per mission than the TAOS Space Shuttle.

Was the Shuttle a “Policy Failure”

The title here reflects Logsdon’s judgement on the issue.  From the book:

Was the shuttle program itself a failure? Or was it the Nixon administration decision to approve the NASA full capability space shuttle that was the policy failure?  I was not very clear in what I wrote in 1986, but it was my judgement then, and now, that the later alternative is the case  As the preceding paragraphs have suggested, the record of the Space Shuttle program is a mixture of success and failure.  But there were in 1971 better alternatives to developing a full capability shuttle, and thus that approval is better described as a policy mistake, rather than a policy failure.

I would say that this is incorrect.  To claim that the smaller alternatives were “better” is the judgement of an armchair designer, not reality.  As stated previously, it is highly unlikely that the smaller shuttle would have been less expensive to operate considering that it would use the same NASA infrastructure and processes as the Shuttle.  Another judgement made that I don’t think is fully accurate is:

…Although NASA recognized by mid-1971 that a two-stage full reusable shuttle design was not feasible financially or technologically, there was little emphasis on investigating, less ambitious, less expensive, alternatives to an advanced technology shuttle orbiter with a variety of means for boosting into space.  There was essentially no attention given at the engineering level to concepts such as the glider favored by the Flax committee or the smaller shuttle proposed by OMB, or even to the Mark I, less technologically ambitious, shuttle proposed by NASA headquarters.[page 296]

Logsdon spent considerable ink earlier in the book stating that the only way that they got DoD support was by fixating on the 15′ x 65′ cargo bay.  Later in the book there was a discussion with David Packard (HP co-founder and Deputy Secretary of Defense from 1969-71) regarding smaller alternatives that he would favor, but none of this would have mattered as Packard left DoD in December of 1971 and all of the lower levels, including the then super secret NRO liked the big cargo bay.  Indeed Logsdon at multiple points alludes to the requirements  of spy satellites as drivers in the design.  Thus to claim that the Shuttle policy decision to build the full sized orbiter was a mistake has little real merit.  The bigger issue is that there were very few who actually understood what the full sized Shuttle could do were part of the upper echelons that made the decisions.

Lack of Imagination

The title of this book review regarding the decisions after Apollo should be “Lack of Imagination” There was almost no one at the level where these decisions were made, between OMB, NASA, and the White House who actually understood the capabilities that were being designed into the Shuttle.  There was George Mueller and his team at NASA JSC who did a marvelous job on the design of the orbiter and its cargo bay is never once given the chance to really present the reasons for the design at the right level.

In designing Space Shuttle, NASA’s George Mueller’s engineering team developed a brilliant cargo bay implementation to enable space station construction, spacecraft servicing, and large spacecraft assembly. Figure 4 illustrates this innovation.

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Figure 4: Space Shuttle Cargo Bay

Instead of payload loads being concentrated across a single X/Y plane as in conventional launch vehicles, they are also distributed longitudinally along the axes of the cargo bay. There are 124 possible payload trunnion attach points to the longeron bridge fittings along the sill of the fuselage for X/Z loads. There are also 104 attach points for +/- Y loads along the keel. Mueller successfully argued that this design allowed for the maximum flexibility in designing space station modules, trusses, and components. The multiple attach points and load distribution capability enabled the cargo bay to become a platform for constructing advanced large space systems. The construction of the ISS vindicated this concept yet these attributes were never fully exploited.

Another tragic loss is that Wernher Von Braun and his team was almost completely excluded from the design effort.  Von Braun was promoted to NASA headquarters ostensibly to be a lead planner for NASA.  This worked when Tom Paine was the NASA head but his input was not welcome by George Low.  Von Braun stated in the beginning that the political forces would not support the two stage fully reusable system.  It was not a technical issue.  George Low did not want to hear this but eventually thanked Von Braun as he was leaving to go to Fairchild space according to Logsdon. [page231].  Not utilizing Von Braun and his team was a major mistake during that period.

Part of Logsdon’s argument against the TAOS Shuttle is the downstream history.  Yes, it never fulfilled its promises relative to operating costs, but it had major capabilities that were not even close to harnessed until the construction of the International Space Station (ISS).  There was zero budget for the experimentation and utilization of the capabilities of the Shuttle until the Reagan era when NASA’s budget doubled between 1981 and 1989 and then increased by another 50% during the H.W. Bush administration and the beginning of the ISS program.  It takes time to ramp these kinds of things up and due to a starvation budget between the decision to build the Shuttle and the Reagan era, little time was had for doing some of the really interesting things the Shuttle was capable of doing by the time the Challenger disaster happened.

Another thing that happened is that in the design of the Shuttle, it was supposed to have as a companion a “Space Tug” or what eventually was called the OTV/OMV.  This made a lot of sense in that if you had a system that could take a GEO satellite from low earth orbit to GEO, then return to the Shuttle to be reloaded into the cargo bay for return to the Earth and refueling, then considerable further cost savings for the early commercial era of the Shuttle when it was launching GEO satellites would have been very interesting, provided some amazing operational capabilities, and would have shifted the economics of the vehicle considerably.  This project was cancelled when continuing budget crunches of the 1970’s precluded NASA’s development of that system.

The only person who was at the appropriate level and who was also technically competent for looking at the broader economics of the Space Shuttle seems to be Robert Lindley.  Logsdon mentions Lindley who was from the Office of Manned Space Flight and ran one of the study teams that Klauss Heiss from Mathematica was also a lead on.  He seems to have understood, as George Mueller did, that the Shuttle cargo bay had a lot more uses than simply as a payload carrier:

There was, however, an interim in-house NASA study managed by Robert Lindley of the Office of Manned Spae Flight.  Lindley had been one of he first people within NASA to suggest that “payload effects”– the cost savings from reusing or repairing satellites and initially designing them for the less demanding characteristics of a shuttle launch–might be as important a benefit from shuttle development as lower launch costs.  In terms of overall space program costs, payload development accounted for 80 percent of total costs; launch only 20 percent, and thus lowering payload costs could have a greater impact than lowering launch costs.  Lindley’s study produced positive results, but Paine was correct.  It had little credibility when it was submitted to the new Office of Management and Budget (OMB) in August of 1970.

To me this is the icing on the cake of why OMB was the wrong group to be the judge of the Shuttle’s technical capabilities.  If this had been heeded at this time, then there is a a very large chance that the history of NASA spaceflight in the Shuttle era would have been dramatically different.

Wrap Up

So Logsdon’s book is interesting for its focus on the high level political decisions and machinations regarding the decision for the Shuttle.  It is non existent in the broader policy area for the post Apollo era.  For a truly comprehensive treatment of the same time, the NASA SP-4221 is the superior treatment both from a policy and technical level.  It is still good for the book shelf and overall I do recommend it as to me it shows that there is a dire need for very good technically competent people who also are at the upper echelons of the decision makers.  From the book there is little understanding of how the Shuttle could have changed things for payloads for example.   This is both an example and a warning to the incoming administration that these high level policy silos are the wrong places to be setting space policy without the input and approval of the technical community.

It is my goal to take the Logsdon book and later take a look at other policy committees and silos and show how decisions made at those levels, without someone or groups with extreme technical competence will always result in policy mistakes regarding technical disciplines.  In the post Apollo decision making process people of this technical ability were around and indeed some of the earlier groups reports such as the Joint Space Panel’s report illustrated above had just as much if not more long term policy influence on NASA as a whole than the Shuttle decision.  Thus Logsdon’s book is part of the pantheon of books on this subject, but it is not the definitive work on NASA space policy after Apollo.

 

 

 

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One thought on “Book Review, Dr. John Logsdon’s “After Apollo”

  1. Fascinating read. I’d skimmed the Logsdon book, but not nearly with as much perspective and knowledge as you’ve shown here. I’d wondered why AFTER APOLLO? got so little attention from space historians after Logsdon’s books about Kennedy and space; I think now I know why it has been so neglected. Hmmm…

    Thank you.

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