Beyond the Atmosphere: Early Years of Space Science

[294] The very success that James Webb had had in selling Saturn and Apollo as projects to develop a powerful national capability to operate in and use space as the country might decide in the national interest set the stage for the dismal lack of success in the first attempts to plan for a follow-on to Apollo. For it had not been. foreseen that Apollo and Saturn hardware would have to be regarded as "first generation," highly experimental, and much too costly to maintain as the basis of a continuing national space capability. Naturally the manned spaceflight people wanted to stay in business, and Webb's reluctance to let go of his original dream fostered planning to continue to use Apollo hardware. Paine's desire to swashbuckle reinforced the efforts to keep the Saturn and Apollo manufacturing lines open. That scientists openly opposed any continuation of the Apollo kind of operation was ascribed to their usual idiosyncrasies. That the scientists kept insisting they could not come up with any real requirements for science in a space station was overlooked, and planning went [295] ahead. First Mueller proposed a "wet workshop," in which the spent S-IVB stage of Saturn would be dried out in orbit and outfitted there for use as a temporary space station. Later that was replaced with the "dry workshop," in which the Saturn stage would be outfitted on the ground and then launched into orbit for the same purposes. In a vague way the workshop was thought of as a transition to a more permanent program of using Saturn and Apollo hardware for the continuing exploration and investigation of space.
Not until NASA finally recognized that Saturn and Apollo had to go, could a way to the future be plotted. Then the Skylab workshop could emerge as a limited project that, with the Apollo-Soyuz mission, would wind up the Apollo era. Once the decision had been taken to close out Apollo and to concentrate on reducing the costs of operating in space, the Space Shuttle could fall into place as the keystone of the future.
During NASA's first 10 years-when the agency had led with a reasonable and acceptable, yet aggressive, program-NASA had enjoyed a strong followership. But in the late 1960s when NASA had attempted, in a totally unsuitable climate, to continue to use the costly Apollo hardware, that followership was almost lost. In a country at the moment only peripherally interested in space, James Webb had found it impossible to generate a national debate that might furnish some guidance for the agency. Thomas O. Paine's efforts in 1969 and 1970 to gain approval for a very large, very expensive program including space stations, lunar bases, and shuttles had gained neither administration nor grass roots support. But the fourth administrator, James C. Fletcher, found the country willing to support an imaginative program as long as costs could be kept down. In a program dedicated to economy and usefulness, Fletcher was able to include the development of a Space Shuttle which would put manned spaceflight to use in serving the agency's scientific and applications objectives. NASA then recaptured the leadership that for a brief time had faltered.
Thus, with a program dedicated to service and economy, NASA emerged from the confusion and uncertainties of the late 1960s with a renewed commitment to a strong U.S. presence in space. Starting with an uncertain lease on life, with each passing year the Shuttle strengthened its position in NASA's future. In the light of the Shuttle's advancing development, the 1970s became a period of transition from the pioneering era of the 1950s and 1960s to the 1980s, when many expected space operations to become routine.