|NASA Administrator Thomas Paine. Image credit: NASA|
Paine had already canceled one Apollo mission, Apollo 20, in January 1970, so that its Saturn V rocket could launch into low-Earth orbit Skylab A, a Saturn S-IVB stage converted into a temporary space station. That left six moon landings before the program concluded with Apollo 19.
The program meant to extend piloted lunar exploration deep into the 1970s, the Apollo Applications Program (AAP), had taken repeated funding hits since 1966, and so had abandoned its lunar ambitions. It became the strictly Earth-orbital Skylab Program in February 1970. Some concepts proposed for AAP lunar missions – for example, three-day lunar-surface stays and a manned roving vehicle – would find their way into Apollo before its end, but when Apollo ended, so would end piloted lunar exploration.
|Space Science Board chair Charles Townes. Image credit: National |
Academy of Sciences
This had become evident during Fiscal Year 1971 deliberations. Despite Paine's strident protests, the Nixon White House had on 2 February 1970 submitted to Congress a NASA funding request of only $3.33 billion, of which $110 million was devoted to Station/Shuttle. The U.S. House of Representatives added $80 million to Station/Shuttle in committee. An amendment debated on the House floor on 23 April 1970 then sought to cut Station/Shuttle entirely; the amendment's supporters argued that the program was a foot in the door for an expensive piloted Mars mission. The amendment failed (per House rules) in a tie vote of 53 to 53 - that is, by the narrowest possible margin.
The Senate trimmed Station/Shuttle funding back to $110 million in committee. Repeated amendments on the Senate floor sought to delete all Station/Shuttle funds. Though in the end Station/Shuttle kept its $110 million, NASA's budget suffered other cuts. In early July 1970, House and Senate conferees settled on a NASA budget of $3.27 billion for Fiscal Year 1971.
In their joint response to Paine, dated 24 August 1970, LPMB chair John Findlay and SSB chair (and Nobel Laureate) Charles Townes reminded Paine that past scientific advisory boards - including one Townes had chaired, which prepared a January 1969 report for then-President-elect Nixon - had advised that NASA should continue manned lunar exploration throughout the 1970s, and that from 10 to 15 manned moon landings should be flown. They cited this when they refused to consider cutting more than one Apollo mission. The SSB had, incidentally, in its January 1969 report expressly opposed Paine's large Earth-orbiting station.
Apollo, they told the NASA Administrator, was of the greatest scientific importance. They explained that "the Apollo missions do not simply represent the study of a specific small planet but rather form the keystone for a near term understanding of planetary evolution." They then wrote that
We respect the serious fiscal and programmatic constraints…. However, it should be recognized that any reduction in the number of missions will seriously threaten the ability of the total Apollo program to answer first-order scientific questions. We are on the very beginning of a learning curve, and it is clear that the loss of one mission will have much greater than a proportional effect on the instrumented experiments and, more critically, on the design and execution of the geology experiments involving the astronauts.Findlay and Townes explained that at Woods Hole the LPMB and SSB had jointly considered their own trio of options for Apollo's future, all of which were different from Paine's. Option I was to fly missions 14, 15, 16, and 17 about six months apart, fly missions to the Skylab A Orbital Workshop over a period of about 20 months, and then carry out Apollo missions 18 and 19 six months apart.
Missions 14 and 15 would be H-class walking missions, as had been 12 and 13; 16 and subsequent would be J-class missions. The latter would include a Lunar Module (LM) capable of increased lunar surface stay time, a rover, improved lunar surface experiments, remote sensors on the CSM in lunar orbit, and a CSM-released lunar subsatellite. The long gap between Apollo 17 and 18 would permit lunar scientists to digest data from the previous missions and to design new experiments for the final mission pair. Findlay and Townes noted, however, that the gap might also make Apollo 18 and 19 vulnerable to budget cuts. Paine's Option I had cut Apollo 15 and flown all the remaining lunar missions before Skylab A.
The LPMB and SSB's Option II was to cut Apollo 15, fly 14, 16, 17, 18, and 19 about six months apart, and then fly the Skylab A missions. Their Option III was to cut Apollo 15, fly 14, 16, 17, 18, and 19 five months apart, and then fly Skylab A. Paine's Options II and III had both omitted 15 and 19.
|Regions of the moon surveyed using instruments on board the Apollo 15, 16, and 17 Command and Service Modules in lunar orbit. Flying the J-class Apollo 18 and 19 missions would have nearly doubled surface coverage. Image credit: NASA|
They conceded that most of the experiments planned for Apollo could be carried out even if both Apollo 15 and 19 were cut. However, an automated station in the passive seismic network would be lost, surface samples would not be obtained from two geologically significant locations, and several experiments would be flown only once, so would have no backup. They concluded by reiterating that the cuts Paine envisioned could prevent lunar scientists from answering first-order questions about the moon, and added that "the consequences of such failure for the future of [NASA] and, we believe, for large-scale science in this country are incalculable."
In his reply to Townes and Findlay, dated 1 September 1970, Paine announced that he had selected his Option II as originally proposed (that is, elimination of both Apollo 15 and 19). He explained that Option I was not feasible because earlier budget cuts had forced a change from four-month to six-month gaps between Apollo moon flights. This might be reduced to five months "at some added cost," he wrote. Even with the gaps between flights reduced, however, a delay of seven or eight months in the launch of Skylab A would occur, "requiring a high, non-productive expenditure to retain the [Skylab] teams beyond the scheduled launch date." Paine did not address the LPMB and SSB's suggestion that Apollos 18 and 19 fly after Skylab A.
Paine argued that his cuts placed NASA "in a better position to keep our total program costs down while still pressing forward with our future plans for scientific and application programs and an integrated, low cost space transportation system." Paine referred, of course, to the large Earth-orbiting Space Station and the reusable Space Shuttle he favored.
Paine invoked Apollo 13, then argued that selecting the minimum Apollo program option would enhance safety. Rather than arguing that fewer missions meant fewer chances for failure, he maintained that making cuts up front would preserve "momentum and morale," keeping the NASA/industry team focused and thus reducing risk to crews. He asserted that "rather than risk the integrity of the entire program by cutting out a mission at a time in response to budgetary constraints, we feel we must now take a stand on what constitutes the minimum viable program and then carry it out effectively."
The following day (2 September 1970), Paine held a press conference during which he announced his Apollo program cuts. It was one of Paine's final public acts as NASA Administrator; on 28 July he had tendered his resignation effective 15 September 1970. He denied that his decision to resign had anything to do with cuts in the Fiscal Year 1971 NASA budget.
Apollo 14 (31 January-9 February 1971), the last H-class mission, landed at Fra Mauro. Alan Shepard and Ed Mitchell pushed the limits of walking astronauts by attempting to climb to the rim of Cone Crater, where geologists hoped that they could sample ancient rocks from deep inside the moon.
Apollo 16, the first J-class flight, was renumbered Apollo 15 and launched on 26 July 1971. The Apollo 15 LM Falcon, bearing astronauts Dave Scott and James Irwin, landed at Hadley-Apennine, on the mountainous fringe of Mare Imbrium, on 30 July. They conducted three Lunar Roving Vehicle (LRV) traverses. Meanwhile, on board the CSM Endeavour in lunar orbit, Al Worden released a subsatellite and turned remote sensors and cameras toward the lunar surface. Apollo 15 splashed down in the Pacific Ocean on 7 August.
On Apollo 16 (16-27 April 1972), John Young and Charlie Duke landed at Descartes in the heavily cratered Lunar Highlands. As they deployed their LRV from the side of the LM Orion, Ken Mattingly ejected the panel covering sensors and cameras on board the orbiting CSM Casper.
The last Saturn V rocket to fly launched Skylab on 14 May 1973, again about six months after Paine's planned date. Three crews docked with and worked aboard Skylab between May 1973 and February 1974. A second Skylab, Skylab B, was built, but was not launched even though a Saturn V for launching it and Saturn IB rockets, Apollo CSMs, and astronauts for staffing it were available. Skylab B would become an exhibit in the National Air & Space Museum.
Nixon opted to replace Apollo and Skylab with the partially reusable Space Shuttle (but no Space Station). He had in fact never supported Paine's Station/Shuttle plans. Nixon liked to be seen with astronauts, a trait which by and large defined the extent of his interest in NASA; partly because of this, U.S. space policy drifted and was often confused and contradictory during much of his time in office.
Nixon postponed announcement of his Space Shuttle decision until the Presidential election year of 1972. By then, he had nominated and had confirmed James Fletcher as NASA's fourth Administrator. Fletcher read Nixon's Shuttle announcement to reporters on 5 January 1972, in the place where Shuttle Orbiters would be built: California, a state critical to Nixon's reelection bid. The Space Shuttle, Nixon promised, would generate thousands of aerospace jobs.
|NASA Administrator James Fletcher (left) and Nixon pose with a model of an early version of the semi-reusable Space Shuttle stack, January 1972. Image credit: NASA|
Letter, Charles Townes, Chairman, National Academy of Sciences Space Science Board, and John Findlay, Chairman, Lunar and Planetary Missions Board, to Thomas Paine, NASA Administrator, 24 August 1970
Letter, Thomas Paine, NASA Administrator, to John Findlay, Chairman, Lunar and Planetary Missions Board, 1 September 1970
Chapter 3, The Space Shuttle Decision, NASA SP-4221, Thomas A. Heppenheimer, NASA, 1999
What If Apollo Astronauts Became Marooned in Lunar Orbit? (1968)
McDonnell Douglas Phase B Space Station (1970)
Where to Launch and Land the Space Shuttle? (1971-1972)
Skylab-Salyut Space Laboratory (1972)