January 1972: Nixon Approved $5.5B to Build the Space Shuttle with Promise of Cost Savings

It was hopeful thinking, even at the time.  But on January 6, 1972, then US President, Richard Nixon, authorized $5.5B (a fortune in any era) to initiate the space shuttle program with the goal of reducing costs for space travel through partially reusable space vehicles as opposed to the disposable Apollo launchers that had been used up to that point.

In his written statement on the matter, which is still available on NASA’s website, he said, “I have decided today that the United States should proceed at once with the development of an entirely new type of space transportation system designed to help transform the space frontier of the 1970’s into familiar territory, easily accessible for human endeavor in the 1980’s and ’90’s.” 

His big pitch centered on taking the “astronomical costs out of astronautics.” 

According to a Wikipedia article on the subject, Nixon approved the space shuttle program with the idea that launches would come out to be about $188 per pound (or $558 in 2019 dollars), but actually ended up costing something like $27,000 per pound or $1.5 billion per launch. The same article goes into a lot of detail as to why the costs skyrocketed (pun intended).

In addition to being costly, the space shuttle program also had several high profile disasters including in 1986 when the Challenger shuttle burned on the launch pad while millions of Americans watched on television. I was in elementary school at the time and remember the trauma of it all.  And later in 2003, the space shuttle Columbia broke apart upon re-entry.  In both events, the entire crew of each shuttle were killed totaling 14 astronaut deaths overall.  US President, George W. Bush retired the program in January 2004. 

All of that being said, the space shuttle program was instrumental in building the International Space Station and the Hubble Space Telescope, and it did realize one of Nixon’s ambitions, which was to “evolutionize transportation into near space, by routinizing it.”

Additionally, the space shuttle program was more like a bit actor playing a part in the never-ending, complex political drama around how NASA is funded and what projects are green-lighted, which tends to fluctuate depending on who is in the White House.

One other interesting tidbit from Nixon’s original announcement that feels painful to read now is his nod toward using the space program to manage pollution control.  In the full statement, he lines this ambition up with several other items on his wish list. 

“We are gaining the capability to use satellites as tools in global monitoring and management of nature resources, in agricultural applications, and in pollution control,” he said.  While satellite technology has substantively increased our understanding of these issues, it has not gone as far as his sweeping statement might suggest.  

It gets even more eerie and sad when he says, “Views of the Earth from space have shown us how small and fragile our home planet truly is. We are learning the imperatives of universal brotherhood and global ecology learning to think and act as guardians of one tiny blue and green island in the trackless oceans of the Universe.”

Yeah, not so much.

Nixon’s historical legacy is challenging to say the least, and in the long expanse of time, neither the space program nor his hopes that we would use it to become better stewards of the earth are actually his biggest problems.  

To read more on this topic, here are some great resources: