Nixon Legacy: Space Exploration as "Normal" Part of National Life

Nixon Legacy: Space Exploration as "Normal" Part of National Life

At a June 13 event at the National Archives, space policy expert John Logsdon described how President Nixon’s policy toward space exploration was rooted in framing it as a “normal” part of national life, not something special – a legacy that has influenced the U.S. space program for the last 40 years.

Logsdon, professor emeritus at George Washington University, joined NASA Chief Historian Bill Barry and the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum’s Roger Launius in an event that considered the space program under the presidential administrations of Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford.

Logsdon recounted how when Nixon arrived at the White House, there was a “clear need for decisions” when it came to the space program: what to do in the post-Apollo era. To inform this decision, Nixon created the Space Task Group in 1969, chaired by Vice President Spiro Agnew, that recommended a variety of timelines for an aggressive effort that included development of a space shuttle, a space station, and human spaceflight missions to Mars by 1986, at the latest.

Yet despite having “wrapped himself up” in the euphoria of the Apollo 11 mission, Nixon was not interested in spending money at the pace required to achieve such an ambitious program, Logsdon said.  Instead, he assumed a policy that turned space from being something special to a part of normal life – a policy that Logsdon argues has guided the space program for the last 40 years.

Nixon’s attitude is best captured in a statement he made in March 1970: “we must think of [space activities] as part of a continuing process…and not as a series of separate leaps…what we do in space from here on in must become a normal and regular part of our national life and must therefore be planned in conjunction with all of the other undertakings which are important to us.”

When the time came to decide on the post-Apollo space program, this attitude had a definite influence.  According to Logsdon, Nixon had been “traumatized” by the near-tragic accident of Apollo 13, which turned him away from the idea of return trips to the Moon.  As the 1972 elections loomed, Nixon made the decision to approve the Space Shuttle, a decision that resulted from his belief that the United States should strive for something new in space as well as wanting to avoid the electoral risk of post-Apollo aerospace unemployment.

“Nixon was certainly not going to be the person that took the United States out of the human spaceflight business,” said Logsdon.  His decision to move forward with the Shuttle – the sole element that survived from the ambitious program contained in the Space Task Group’s recommendations, and which was integral to what became the International Space Station — would come to define the direction of the U.S. human spaceflight program.

Before the Shuttle made its first flight in 1981, however, a hallmark event of international cooperation took place: the July 1975 Apollo-Soyuz Test Project (ASTP).  Barry focused on the developments on the Soviet side that explained the shift from competition to cooperation following the race to the moon.  ASTP took place during the Ford administration, but was a Nixon initiative, and represented the end of an era, rather than a beginning, Barry said.  The next cooperative flight would not happen until after the end of the Cold War in the 1990s.  Interestingly, Barry noted that the cooperative practices developed for ASTP were resurrected 20 years later.

Considering the legacies of the Nixon-Ford years is more than just an interesting historical exercise.  According to Launius, who spoke about the role that space has had in U.S. culture, there is now a need to revisit and move on from the decisions made 40 years ago. With the last Shuttle flight already two years in the past and the debate over what to do next still open, Launius argued that the core question facing this generation is why to go into space. With fiscal constraints looming far into the future and a U.S. general public that has never been supportive of expensive human spaceflight missions – even during the Apollo era, as Launius demonstrated based on his research of public opinion polls over the decades — perhaps a related and important question is just how special space will be in the next several decades.

The event was part of the National Archives’ celebration of the centennials of both Nixon and Ford.   An exhibit on “Nixon and the U.S. Space Program” will be on display at its main building in Washington, D.C. through the end of June.

UPDATE:  A webcast of the event is posted on Ustream

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