Apollo's End: NASA Cancels Apollo 15 & Apollo 19 to Save Station/Shuttle (1970)

Edwin Aldrin, Apollo 11 Lunar Module Pilot, stands by the first U.S. flag astronauts planted on the moon, 21 July 1969. Visible in the background is one of the landing legs of the Lunar Module (LM) Eagle, the LM's long, dark shadow, and the flat, cratered-pocked Sea of Tranquility. Image credit: NASA.
On 5 August and 13 August 1970, outgoing NASA Administrator Thomas Paine dispatched letters on the future of the U.S. lunar program to the Lunar and Planetary Missions Board (LPMB) and the Space Science Board (SSB) of the National Academy of Sciences National Research Council. In his letters, he outlined three options for curtailing Project Apollo. Of these options, the first (Option I) would cancel one Apollo mission, while the others would nix two. 

The options he described were in part aimed at avoiding a delay in the Skylab Program, which constituted an important step toward Paine's favorite mid-1970s NASA goal: a 12-man Earth-orbiting Space Station that would be staffed and resupplied using a fully reusable Space Shuttle. Paine also sought to generate alarm in the space science community, which he apparently believed would place pressure on President Richard Nixon. Members of the LPMB and the SSB held an urgent two-day meeting (15-16 August 1970) in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, to develop a response to Paine's letters. 

NASA Administrator Thomas Paine. Image credit: NASA.
By the time they met, NASA had flown three piloted lunar landing missions: Apollo 11 (16-24 July 1969), which landed off-target on Mare Tranquillitatis; Apollo 12 (14-24 November 1969), which landed close by the derelict Surveyor 3 automated lander on Oceanus Procellarum, thus demonstrating the pinpoint landing capability essential for lunar geologic traverse planning; and perilous Apollo 13 (11-17 April 1970), which suffered an oxygen tank explosion in its Command and Service Module (CSM) that scrubbed its planned landing at Fra Mauro. Of these, Apollo 11 and Apollo 12 were mainly engineering missions intended to prove the Apollo system, while Apollo 13 had been intended as the first truly science-focused mission.

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 IB 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 jeep-like 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.
With the goal of a man on the Moon by 1970 successfully attained, pressure had begun to build to cancel some or all of the remaining Apollo lunar missions. In the aftermath of the Apollo 13 accident, some policy-makers — and even managers within NASA — questioned the wisdom of continuing to place astronauts at risk. Apollo 11 had humbled the Soviets on the technological prestige front of the Cold War; future landings could do little to enhance prestige, they argued, but a single lost crew could erase much of what the U.S. had gained by being first on the Moon.

In addition, President Richard Nixon's Office of Management and Budget was eager to rein in Federal expenditures. By mid-1970, the United States was spending roughly the entire $25-billion cost of the Apollo Program every three months to wage war in Indochina. Public interest in U.S. spaceflight had faded rapidly after Apollo 11. Though NASA's budget had decreased to only about $3.7 billion in Fiscal Year 1970 — down from a little over $5 billion in 1966 — the agency still constituted a highly visible and thus highly vulnerable target for new cuts.

This had become evident during Fiscal Year 1971 budget 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 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 — 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.

On 28 July 1970, Paine tendered his resignation effective 15 September 1970. Nixon accepted it with little comment. He denied that his decision to resign had anything to do with the Fiscal Year 1971 NASA budget. 

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 in January 1969, which prepared a report for President-elect Nixon — had advised that NASA should continue piloted lunar exploration throughout the 1970s, and that from 10 to 15 piloted 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 outgoing 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
[w]e 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 similar to Apollo 12 and Apollo 13; the remaining Apollos 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 Apollo 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 Apollo 19 vulnerable to budget cuts. Paine's Option I had cut Apollo 15 and flown the remaining lunar missions before Skylab A.

The LPMB/SSB 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, Apollo 16, and Apollo 17 Command and Service Modules in lunar orbit. Flying the J-class Apollo 18 and Apollo 19 missions would have nearly doubled surface coverage. Image credit: NASA.
As might be expected, the LPMB and SSB favored their Option I, which cut no missions. If, on the other hand, "retreat from Option I proves unavoidable," they recommended their Option III. This would, they explained, sacrifice Apollo 15 to save Apollo 19, which, they explained, would include 20% of the Apollo program's extravehicular time and cover 25% of the total area planned to be included in the Apollo traverses. In addition, by reducing the time between launches, they hoped to limit the costly delay in Skylab A's launch.

They conceded that most of the experiments planned for Apollo could be carried out even if both Apollo 15 and Apollo 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 declared that he had selected his Option II as originally proposed (that is, elimination of both Apollo 15 and Apollo 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/SSB suggestion that Apollo 18 and Apollo 19 fly after Skylab A.

Cutting Apollo 15 and Apollo 19, along with closing down Apollo operations in mid-1972 and terminating Saturn V after the Skylab A launch in late 1972 would, Paine explained, produce "substantial saving over the next four years." The immediate savings from cutting Apollo missions 15 and 19 would amount to only $40 million; if NASA opted to fly both, however, an additional $760 million would need to be spent by the time Apollo 19 returned to Earth.

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, as might be expected, 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 his final public acts as NASA Administrator.

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 David Scott and James Irwin, landed at Hadley-Apennine, on the mountainous fringe of Mare Imbrium. 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.

Apollo 16 (16-27 April 1972) saw John Young and Charlie Duke land 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.

Apollo 17 Commander Eugene Cernan salutes the sixth and last U.S. flag American astronauts planted on the Moon. Visible behind him are the third and final Lunar Rover to reach the Moon (directly behind Cernan), the Lunar Module Challenger (left), and mountains surrounding Apollo 17's complex Taurus-Littrow landing site. Image credit: NASA.
The last Apollo lunar mission, Apollo 17 (7-19 December 1972), touched down at Taurus-Littrow, on the edge of Mare Serenitatis, nearly six months after Paine's mid-1972 Apollo end date. Eugene Cernan and the only professional geologist to reach the Moon, Harrison Schmitt, used the LM Challenger as their surface exploration base while Ron Evans surveyed the Moon from the orbiting CSM America.

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 and 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.

More Information

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)

1 comment:

  1. "...a trait which by and large defined the extent of his interest in NASA." LOL, that explains it all.


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