Congress Objects to the Receiving Laboratory

MSC had initially projected the cost of building the lunar receiving laboratory at $6.5 million, but providing for quarantine would increase that considerably. Before going ahead with plans to enlarge the laboratory, George Mueller, no doubt with a view to minimizing the cost increase, directed MSC to conduct a quick survey of quarantine facilities around the country that might serve to isolate crews and support staff following Apollo missions.38 Houston evaluated 12 hospitals and research installations that were equipped for biological containment against the requirements imposed on Apollo, and concluded that none would be satisfactory. Only one, in fact, an Army hospital at Fort Detrick, Maryland (which provided care for personnel working with highly dangerous microorganisms), even came close. Converting it to accommodate Apollo, however, would require major new construction and would interfere with the Army's research programs.39 If the Apollo crews were to be quarantined, NASA evidently would have to build its own isolation ward for the purpose, and in spite of its cost Mueller believed he had adequate justification for it.

But lean years were beginning for manned space flight. President Lyndon Johnson pressed hard for expanded domestic social programs while announcing his intention to keep the federal budget under $100 billion. At the same time the nation's involvement in southeast Asia deepened; troop commitments increased eightfold as the United States sent combat units to Vietnam. Other programs, including space, would be squeezed hard to keep costs down.40

Administrator James Webb went to Congress in the spring of 1966 with an authorization request for $5.012 billion, 60 percent of it for manned space flight. It was an austere budget, Webb said, that provided "no margins of time or of resources to counter the effects of setbacks or failures."41 Manned programs required $54.4 million for construction of facilities - a sharp increase from the previous year's request, but only one-fourth of what NASA had received two years before.42 The largest single amount, $36.5 million, went to Kennedy Space Center, most of it for completion of the Saturn V launch complex. The Manned Spacecraft Center needed $13.8 million, of which $9.1 million was allocated to the lunar receiving laboratory.43

The House subcommittee on manned space flight was generally sympathetic to Apollo's other requests, but it gave the lunar receiving laboratory unusually close scrutiny. In response to questions submitted by the subcommittee after the initial hearings on February 24, 1966, the Office of Manned Space Flight supplied for the record a detailed history, including statements from the Public Health Service, of the requirements imposed by the scientific community and NASA's efforts to satisfy them.44 But when William Lilly, Headquarters Apollo Program Control Director, and George Low, MSC's Deputy Director, faced the subcommittee on March 1, some members apparently had not had time to study OMSF's responses, Congressman Donald Rumsfeld suspected the receiving lab was NASA's attempt to get a foot in the door for substantial expenditures later, and he saw no valid reason to build the lab at MSC.45 Ranking minority member James Fulton of Pennsylvania, like Rumsfeld, did not see why the lab had to be at Houston; but he also faulted NASA for not planning to use existing facilities and questioned NASA's assertion that the laboratory was needed.46 Whatever the reasons for - the congressmen's antagonism to the receiving lab, Lilly and Low had an unexpectedly rough day. Olin Teague, chairman of the subcommittee and an unswerving supporter of manned space flight, did not preside at these hearings, and his absence undoubtedly deprived them of a friendly interrogator who would have helped them make their case. The following week the subcommittee, not convinced that NASA had justified the receiving laboratory, struck it out of the authorization bill.47

The loss of the laboratory was a blow to MSC and to Apollo; without it, NASA could not meet the scientific requirements imposed on the lunar landing missions. Mueller ordered a more detailed study of existing facilities that might serve either to quarantine the crews and samples or to conduct the required scientific studies.48 MSC immediately appointed a site survey board to evaluate possible alternate locations. From a list of 27 facilities a group of 8 was selected for detailed investigation.* The board then prepared a list of detailed criteria for the laboratory, based primarily on its requirements for two-way biological containment, handling of samples under high vacuum, and low-level radiation counting. Secondary but important considerations included space, administrative and technical support services, and availability of utilities. Finally, the board was to consider logistics, principally the problem of travel to and from the site by engineers and others who needed to debrief the astronauts.

Since time was limited, the board split up into two teams, one to survey the eastern sites and one the western. Each team had a member who could estimate the cost of modifying and operating the candidate facilities, During the week of March 16-23 the teams inspected the eight establishments, conferring with officials at each site to assess the impact of Apollo's requirements on local programs and their willingness to accept the project. The board then summarized its findings:

  1. There is no single facility that will meet the criteria standards for any one of the major functional areas of the Lunar Receiving Laboratory, without extensive modification.
  2. There is no single facility that can be economically modified or adapted to meet all the requirements of the Lunar Receiving Laboratory.
  3. The use of any one of the sites investigated will result in reduction or reprogramming of some phase of nationally significant research effort.
  4. An integrated facility is necessary to minimize public health hazards.
  5. Maximum operational effectiveness, as a part of the Apollo mission, and minimum operating costs indicate a Houston location as the most preferred site.49
The final report stressed the last point: efficient management of Apollo required the astronauts, spacecraft, and lunar samples to be as close as possible to Houston's engineers and physicians, especially in the first few weeks after recovery.50

While this survey proceeded, Headquarters gathered more supporting information in preparation for a rehearing.51 On March 31 Mueller, armed with the site survey report and stacks of extra facts, appeared before the subcommittee. In great detail he explained the history of the receiving lab, in particular the emergence of the requirement for quarantine, stressing NASA's cooperation with the Public Health Service and the Space Science Board. Since some subcommittee members apparently felt that NASA had sprung a surprise in proposing the new facility, Mueller pointed out that chairman Teague had been informed of the probable need for a receiving laboratory in August 1965. Col. John Pickering, who had headed the site-evaluation survey, then explained that group's operation and reiterated its conclusions.52

This time the subcommittee was convinced and restored funds for the laboratory to the authorization bill.53 Fulton, however, held out. He put his objections on record in the full committee's report to the House, discounting the danger of back-contamination, asserting that the site survey teams had been packed with members predisposed to choose Houston as the site for the lab, and disputing the need to centralize all the operations in one place. Contrary to NASA's own findings, many other facilities in the country could be used with minor modification, Fulton said.54 When the authorization bill came to the House floor, it passed with the lunar receiving laboratory's $9.1 million intact, though Fulton tried once more to kill it. "We simply have no facts," he told his colleagues, "on which to build a practical foundation and a laboratory."55

The lunar receiving laboratory survived the authorization hearings but fared somewhat less well in the Appropriations Committee,** which cut out $26.5 million in construction funds. The committee did not eliminate or reduce any specific projects; it was simply not convinced that they should all be started immediately. Some projects (presumably the receiving laboratory, although it was not mentioned by name), the committee report pointed out, would not be needed until after the lunar landing.56 The Senate Committee on Aeronautical and Space Sciences was more specific, reducing funds for the laboratory by $1 million and warning NASA to keep a tight rein on its costs and provide only the necessary minimum of specialized facilities.57 In the final appropriations bill passed by Congress, NASA's budget request for fiscal 1967 was cut by $44 million, bringing funding for space below $5 billion for the first time since fiscal 1963.58 Research and development, the category that covered most of the agency's expenses for space flight hardware and operations, suffered the smallest reduction, only $1.6 million out of $4,246.6 million requested. Construction of facilities was reduced by $18.2 million and administrative operations by $23.9 million59; both of these reductions would have a considerable impact on construction and operation of the lunar receiving laboratory.

* USPHS Communicable Disease Center, Atlanta, Ga.; Army Biological Center, Ft. Detrick, Md.; National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, Md.; Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Oak Ridge, Tenn.; USAF School of Aviation Medicine, Brooks AFB, Tex.; NASA Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif.; Navy Biological Laboratories, Oakland, Calif.; and Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory, Los Alamos, N. Mex.

** Manned space flight (and the Manned Spacecraft Center) had lost a powerful friend in Congress a few weeks earlier. Representative Albert Thomas of Houston, chairman of the subcommittee that passed on NASA's appropriation bills, died on February 15, 1966.

38. Deputy Dir., Space Medicine (OMSF), TWX to McLane, Nov. 22, 1965; McLane to A. C. Bond, "Hqs. Request for Quarantine Fac[ility]. Study," Nov. 22, 1965.

39. Faget to Col. Jack Bollerud, "Study of Existing Personnel Quarantine Facilities," with encl., "Apollo Personnel Quarantine Facilities Review," Dec. 8, 1965.

40. W. David Compton and Charles D. Benson, Living and Working in Space: A History of Skylab, NASA SP-4208 (Washington, 1983), pp. 40, 99-100.

41. House Committee on Science and Astronautics, 1967 NASA Authorization, Hearings on H.R. 12718, 89/ 2, pt. 1, Mar. 10, 1966, p. 6.

42. Ibid., p. 36.

43. Idem, 1967 NASA Authorization, Hearings before the Subcommittee on Manned Space Flight on H. R. 12718, 89/2, pt. 2, Mar. 1, 1966, p. 465.

44. Ibid., pp. 417-21.

45. Ibid., p. 476.

46. Ibid., pp. 477-79.

47. Arthur Hill, "Lab Delay May Slow Mission To the Moon," Houston Chronicle, Mar. 10, 1966.

48. Robert F. Freitag to George M. Low, Mar. 14, 1966.

49. MSC, "Site Investigation Study, Lunar Receiving Laboratory," draft report, Mar. 24, 1966, unpaginated. The final version was distributed on Apr. 7.

50. Ibid.

51. Paul E. Purser to Gilruth and Low, Mar. 29, 1966; Purser to Freitag, "Supplementary Information on the Lunar Receiving Laboratory," Mar. 30, 1966.

52. House, 1967 NASA Authorization, pt. 2, Mar. 31, 1966, pp. 1207-59.

53. Charles Culhane, "Panel for Restoring Funds for Moon Lab," Houston Post, Apr. 1, 1966.

54. House Committee on Science and Astronautics, Authorizing Appropriations to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, House Rept. 1441, 89/2, Apr. 20, 1966, pp. 121-24.

55. "$4.9-Billion Is Voted For NASA By House," New York Times, May 5, 1966.

56. House Committee on Appropriations, Independent Offices Appropriation Bill, 1967, House Rept. 1477, 89/2, May 5, 1966, pp. 13-14.

57. Senate Committee on Aeronautical and Space Sciences, NASA Authorization for Fiscal Year 1967, Senate Rept. 1184, 89/2, May 23, 1966, pp. 81-83.

58. NASA Off. of Legislative Affairs,, "Legislative Activity Report," vol. V. , no. 141, Aug. 24, 1966.

59. Jane Van Nimmen and Leonard C. Bruno, with Robert L. Rosholt, NASA Historical Data Book, 1958- 1968, vol. I: NASA Resources, NASA SP-4012 (Washington, 1976), p. 117.

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