Pruning the Apollo Program

While 1969-71 were the harvest years - four missions that put men on the moon, and the safe return of Apollo 13 after its breakdown in space - they were not so kind to Kennedy Space Center and the men who worked there. Congress cut the NASA budget, NASA cancelled Apollo missions, KSC and its contractors laid off thousands of employees - not in one fell swoop but in a succession of smaller blows. Space enthusiasts had hoped to go on to a manned landing on Mars in the mid-1980s; it was not to be. American public opinion was shifting its priorities to other matters: civil disorders, Vietnam, decaying cities, campus unrest, and inflation. And Apollo was a victim of its own success. For laymen, one moon landing after another was a little boring. Noting the public's limited interest in Apollo 12, the New York Times concluded that a collective sense of anticlimax was "perhaps predictable considering the intense national emotion spent on the first moon landing four months ago."49

Probably the biggest reason for Apollo's decline was the detente in American-Soviet relations. In 1961, amid cold war animosities, the United States was trailing the Soviet Union in the world's most widely publicized form of competition, manned spaceflight. Eight years later, the United States had clearly demonstrated its superiority. Despite the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia, relations between the two nations had improved. Americans seemed less eager to spend "whatever it took" to surpass the Russians in space. Agreement on a U.S.-U.S.S.R. rendezvous mission (the Apollo-Soyuz flight of 1975), signed before the end of the Apollo program, clearly indicated a new policy of cooperation in space.

NASA budgets marked the contour intervals of Apollo's descent. Appropriations had exceeded $5 billion in the mid-1960s; in fiscal years 1969 and 1970 they fell below $4 billion. Apollo research and development funding declined from $2.9 billion in FY 1967 to $2 billion in FY 1969. Initially, NASA's follow-on programs to Apollo-Skylab, an earth orbital laboratory; Voyager, an unmanned Mars mission; and Nerva, a nuclear rocket engine - bore the brunt of the cutbacks. Funding for space programs to follow Apollo appeared in the Johnson administration's 1968 budget. Congress sharply reduced Nerva and Apollo Applications (Skylab) appropriations, cutting the latter from $454.7 million to $253 million. Voyager was eliminated entirely, while Apollo funds fell by less than 2%. For FY 1969 the Johnson administration budgeted $439.6 million for Apollo Applications, $38 million for 1971 and 1973 unmanned missions to Mars, and $41 million for Nerva. Again all three programs were cut sharply: Skylab eventually received $150 million that year. Apollo received all but $14 million of its $2.039 billion request. After the first lunar landing, however, Apollo lost its immunity to cutbacks, and further tight budgets brought reductions there as well.50

The Apollo flight schedule that was published on the eve of the first lunar landing called for nine additional flights before June 1971-a launch every 11 weeks. Apollo 12-15 would develop man's capability to work in the lunar environment; 16-20 would extend the astronauts' stay time on the moon to three days and increase their range of exploration. A primary purpose of the latter missions was to study the technological requirements for a potential lunar base.51

American lunar scientists opposed the rapid pace of the launches. They wanted 6-12 months between flights to study moon samples and plan future experiments. Dr. Lee A. DuBridge, Presidential Science Advisor, expressed the scientists' viewpoint in congressional testimony on the FY 1970 NASA budget: "Nothing can do more harm to support for the space program than to have a series of missions for which there are no clear objectives - such as a series of manned revisits to the moon without providing the capability to perform new scientific experiments and to exploit interesting new lunar features."52 Three weeks after the first lunar landing, John Noble Wilford, space correspondent for the New York Times, publicized the dispute over Apollo's future. The scientific community, according to Wilford, sought a larger role in mission planning and more scientist astronauts, as well as more time between missions.53

The July 1969 schedule had included an alternate plan that extended the nine remaining launches by 18 months and provided a launch interval of 4-5 months. Following the success of Apollo 11, NASA officials approved the compromise schedule. In defending the choice, George Mueller acknowledged the scientific arguments but cited other major factors. Among these, Mueller included "operational considerations in keeping a steady workload through the Cape" thereby "minimizing the cost."54

While NASA debated the pace of the remaining Apollo missions, a Space Task Group examined the future of America's space program. What lay beyond Apollo was the subject of their September 1969 report, "America's Next Decades in Space." The report's sponsors, a panel including Vice President Spiro T. Agnew and NASA Administrator Thomas O. Paine, recommended a balanced manned and unmanned space capability. The group listed three possible NASA programs leading to a manned landing on Mars before the end of the century. The most ambitious plan called for a lunar orbiting station by 1978, a lunar surface base and a 50-man, earthorbiting station in 1980, and the first Mars mission in 1983. The cost of all this would reach an annual $8 billion by 1976. The least ambitious plan postponed the lunar base and earth-orbiting station by three years and left open the date for the initial Mars expedition. The funding estimates for this second plan ran slightly more than $4 billion a year during the 1970s. Apollo missions would lay the groundwork for the lunar surface base. The report generated little support, and NASA's budget slipped to $3.3 billion the following year.55

The decline in Apollo funding was even more severe; a reduction of nearly 50% dropped the program's budget below the $1 billion mark for the first time in eight years. While much of the decline represented an expected slowdown in costs, the shortage of funds forced drastic program changes. Edward Mathews, KSC's Apollo Program Manager, notified Debus in March 1970 that FY 1971 funding constraints had eliminated the Apollo 20 mission. There would be an average interval of six months between launches, with Apollo 18-19 put off until 1974 after a year of Skylab missions. Further budget cuts in September included a $50 million reduction for Apollo. NASA officials reluctantly cancelled missions 18 and 19. The flight of Apollo 17 in late 1972 would bring the program to a close.56

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