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On Mars: Exploration of the Red Planet. 1958-1978

[185] The summer of 1969 was a time for triumph and despair. Apollo 11 landed on the moon in July, but at almost the same time NASA's budget was cut severely. Despite being an enthusiastic supporter of the Viking project and wanting to pursue an aggressive program of unmanned planetary exploration, Thomas O. Paine, appointed administrator in March, began to preach fiscal restraint to the Viking managers as early as June 1969. He told John Naugle, his associate administrator for space science and applications, that Viking and the other advanced planetary projects would have to be managed wisely because NASA was living in an era of great pressures to reduce the budget. The space agency's expenditures were being subjected to considerable public scrutiny and debate. 50
Paine's worries were well founded. When the House Committee on Appropriations reported 19 June on the NASA budget request, the projected fiscal 1970 funds were nearly $300 million less than the previous year. [186] Five days later, the Senate Committee on Aeronautical and Space Sciences recommended a further reduction of $250 million. Late in July, Paine talked with President Richard M. Nixon about the space program as they flew to the Pacific splashdown site of Apollo 11 . The president said that he personally was very enthusiastic about American space activities, but his administration could not direct large amounts of resources to the space program until the war in Vietnam had been ended. Nixon was reflecting the budget-cutting mood of Congress and the lack of public support for new space initiatives. Reactions to the report of the president's Space Task Group also affirmed the need for a fiscally responsible space program. 51
To develop goals for the post-Apollo period, President Nixon had appointed a special Space Task Group* in February 1969. Although acknowledging that a new rationale for the American space program had to be sought - competition with the Soviet Union was no longer a realistic justification for NASA's activities-the task group rejected the idea that a manned mission to Mars in the 1980s should be the next great challenge accepted by the United States. The negative responses made on Capitol Hill and in the press to the manned Mars goal reinforced the group's decision. A July 1969 Gallup Poll, for instance, found 39 percent of 1517 persons polled nationally favored attempts to land a man on Mars; 53 percent opposed. Of the 21- to 29-year-olds, 54 percent favored the project and 41 percent opposed, but 60 percent of those over 50 opposed. 52
As delivered to President Nixon on 15 September, the Space Task Group's report, The Post-Apollo space Program: Directions for the Future , had backed away from an early manned landing on the Red Planet. The focus for the next decades in space was on the development of hardware and systems that would ultimately support a manned mission to Mars at the close of the 20th century. After a presidential briefing on the report, Nixon's press secretary said that the president agreed with the group's rejection of an overly ambitious program aimed at an early landing on another planet but also with its refusal to propose a program that would terminate all manned space activities in the post-Apollo years.53 Six months were to pass before President Nixon personally reacted to the task group's findings, and by that time Congress, through the appropriation process, had shaped the immediate future for NASA's programs by restricting the agency's budget even further.
As the budget for fiscal 1970 went through successive parings and the public enthusiasm for space projects continued to dwindle, Naugle and his associates at NASA Headquarters grew more and more concerned about the continuing increases in costs for Viking. On 26 August 1969, Naugle wrote Ed Cortright and other top Viking managers to review his "personal [187] philosophy" on the subject. Naugle told the Langley director that "current indications of an increase over earlier estimates are of concern; particularly in light of the need to minimize Federal expenditures." He was especially worried about "cost overruns which in times of tight budgets, will inevitably result in disruption to the Viking Project or to other projects." While the associate administrator recognized the importance of the Mars mission and while he did not care to "establish arbitrary or unrealistic cost ceilings" that could also jeopardize the success of the effort, he did want everyone in the Mars project to ensure "that Viking [was] tight, efficient, well-engineered, and well-managed." Every effort had to he made to use existing technology "to minimize development risks and associated costs." Naugle recommended a very careful study of the proposed test program to determine if any paring could be done in that area. "While we cannot omit necessary development and tests, neither can we tolerate frills." 54
But the costs for Viking continued to grow. When first presented to Congress in March 1969, the Viking price tag had read $364.1 million, an unsound estimate. At the time, the design of the spacecraft had not been clearly defined. By August, the expected cost had risen to approximately $606 million, with an additional $50 million for the launch vehicles. In testimony before the Subcommittee on Space Science and Applications of the House Committee on Science and Astronautics in October, Naugle admitted that the total cost of Viking would run about $750 million. Representative Charles A. Mosher of Ohio asked Naugle what he meant when he said that the $750 million "included an allowance for a minimum number of changes." The NASA spokesman responded that past experience with planetary programs indicated that the agency could expect a 15 to 20 percent increase in the cost of a given project. "So, in the case of Viking, we are including in this $750 million estimate about $100 million for mandatory changes or for trouble that we may get into in the project." NASA was using $650 million as its target, but Naugle told the congressmen that "we are only so wise and only so able to foresee into the future."
Representative Thomas N. Downing of Virginia expressed his concern about these projections since they had already grown more than 30 percent to little more than a year. Naugle noted that the figures presented in 1968 were based on a still poorly defined spacecraft. "What we have foundŠis that we underestimated the weight of both the orbiter and the lander." The additional weight could be translated into more man-hours of labor, which to turn could be translated into more dollars. On top of that, the cost of those man-hours had also increased. All the congressmen were disturbed. Joseph E. Karth, the subcommittee chairman, pointed out that his group had to sell these cost escalations on the House floor and it would not be easy. Naugle's statements that everything was being done to keep costs in line were not all that reassuring to Karth, who believed that NASA had "so far failed miserably in that regard." After trying to convince the subcommittee that the agency had "made a substantial effort to accurately determine [188] funding requirements before beginning hardware development," Naugle and his staff renewed their attempts to control the project managers. Since Congress would not suffer another project with a huge cost overrun, Don Hearth and others working for Naugle sought to establish controls over Viking that would prevent sudden and unexpected expenditures by the engineers in the field. 55
For all their concern and activity, the men at NASA Headquarters could not prevent the budget crisis. When President Nixon signed the fiscal 1970 appropriations bill on 26 November, the total amount - $3.697 billion- was $299 million less than appropriated the previous year. At the same time, the Bureau of the Budget was already beginning to chip away at the dollars the space agency was seeking for 1971. Robert P. Mayo, director of the Bureau of the Budget, found himself in an awkward position; he had promised President Nixon a balanced budget, but finding places where he could reduce expenditures was very difficult. Throughout the fall of 1969, a stiff debate ran between the space agency and the budget people, and some of the meetings Paine, Mayo, and their staffs held were not pleasant.
In light of the Space Task Group's report, Paine reasoned that he could not recommend a budget of less than $4.25 billion for NASA. He told Mayo in a letter: "This is a difficult time. Please do not think me unfeeling toward the many claimants for your scarce budgetary resources." But Paine thought that inefficient agencies were being rewarded with increased budgets while NASA was being penalized. "The people of NASA have produced outstanding resultsŠwhile reducing costs and personnel more than any other area of government. . . . .Space offers the President now a highly productive program and his greatest leadership opportunity." Unfortunately, the dollars did not go to the successful. 56
For Viking, the budget cut was devastating. Before Congress had a chance to consider the budget, Nixon's administration cut $20 million from the amount requested for the Mars lander project for 1971. The picture was unpleasant. With the decline in resources, aggravated by inflation, Administrator Paine had to reduce expenditures. 57


Table 32

NASA Appropriations, FY 1968-1971 (in billions $)

Budget Item

FY 1968

FY 1969

FY 1970

FY 1971

Total NASA budget





Lunar & Planetary Programs:





Mariner Mars 71





Viking 73





Mariner Venus Mercury 73






[189] Paine was convinced that the only alternative to the delay of Viking was its cancellation. At noon on 31 December 1969, Paine told John Naugle that further analysis of the federal budget for 1971 by the Bureau of the Budget had disclosed a $4-billion problem; NASA had been asked to reduce its request by $225 million. The administrator and his associates considered three ways to cut dollars-delay Viking from 1973 to 1975; cut the Viking orbiter completely and reduce further the Office of Manned Space Flight budget; or eliminate manned flights after the final Skylab flight in 1973. The second and third options would not provide the necessary reduction, and the Bureau of the Budget, with President Nixon's agreement, thought that deferral of Viking was the best step. Naugle spent the rest of that day working out the details of Viking's slip, taking time out to note for the record: "1 left at 4:30pm to welcome the New Year and the new decade in a bleak mood-feeling that two years of careful planning for Viking had been wiped out in four hours by a combination of a budgetary error and the article in the [Washington] Post on Monday, 29 December, by Cohn stating that scientists at the [American Association for the Advancement of Science] Meeting had advocated a reduction in the NASA science program." NASA's space projects were under criticism as part of a general outcry against federal spending that did not contribute to the solution of social problems like pollution and feeding the poor. While scientist Carl Sagan pointed to the Defense Department as the real source of budget misallocations, other "authorities" questioned NASA's current proposals to send manned missions to Mars. Caught in the midst of the antimilitary, antitechnology furor was Viking. During the last hours of 1969, NASA nearly lost another opportunity to land on Mars at all. 58
After two weeks of scrambling to reorganize the space agency's programs, Tom Paine made a public statement of the changes the 1971 budget would require. Mindful of recent criticisms, he commented:
We recognize the many important needs and urgent problems we face hereon earth. America's space achievements in the l960's have rightly raised hopes that this country and all mankind can do more to overcome pressing problems of society. The space program should inspire bolder solutions and suggest new approachesŠ..NASA will press forward in 1971 at a reduced level, but in the right direction with the basic ingredients we need for major achievements in the 1970's and beyond.
While NASA diminished its total activities, the agency would "not dissipate the strong teams that sent men to explore the moon and automated spacecraft to observe the planets." Paine listed the following actions as being consistent with the requirements of the 1971 budget:
l. We will suspend for an indefinite period production of the Saturn V launch vehicle after the completion of Saturn V 515.
2. We will stretch out the Apollo lunar missions to six-month launch intervals, and defer lunar expeditions during the [Apollo Applications [190] Program] space station flights in 1972 [actually flown in 1973, as Skylab flights.]
3. We will postpone the launch of the Viking/Mars unmanned lander from 1973 to the next Mars opportunity in 1975.
With the closing of the Electronics Research Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts, these actions would reduce the number of persons (including contractors) working on NASA projects from 190 000 at the end of fiscal 1970 to about 140 000 at the end of fiscal year 1971. 59
Although Viking survived, there was considerable confusion at first over what the modified project would be. Henry Norris and his orbiter teammates officially learned about the change in plans on 12 January 1970. 60 At the Viking Orbiter Staff meeting in Pasadena the next day, Norris explained that they had been asked to examine two alternatives for 1975 Viking missions- the basic 1973 orbiter-lander mission rescheduled for 1975, or a direct-entry lander mission. This renewed debate over what was called "Options A and B" brought a sense of deja vu among the working people. 61
Besides an additional direct dollar cost of about $102.2 million, JPL learned from the program office at headquarters, other problems were associated with deferring Viking to 1975. Steps would have to be taken to bolster morale among the scientists and engineers. The several false starts on Viking's predecessors and the cancellation of Voyager had already discouraged many. As with all complex projects, a strong and highly motivated team was essential for success, and a limited sum of money would have to be made available during fiscal 1970 and 1971 to hold the existing team together and permit some meaningful work on the aspects of the mission that would pose the greatest technical challenges. The balance of the Viking project would be budgeted at 1970 levels, but slipped two years. An additional five percent would be added to compensate for possible inflation.
William J. Schatz of the JPL Propulsion Division pointed out two other problems caused by the delay. A mission in 1975 would require a longer flight time; Mars's position relative to Earth would require a different trajectory. Previously, the mission analysis and design people had used Voyager 1973 work to plan for the 1973 Viking flight. A 1975 launch would require the specialists to start trajectory and flight path analyses from scratch. New calculations would demand more manpower and computer time, both of which cost money. Hardware alterations would also be required. Changes in the materials used for the propulsion systems might be necessary to ensure their reliability, and the use of helium as a pressurant would have to be reevaluated. But beyond these technical considerations was the economic impact of the stretchout. "Of prime importance," said Schatz, was the retention "of a qualified team of engineers at the rocket engine contractor during the stretchout period." The engine manufacturer, Rocketdyne, a division of North American Rockwell, was already laying off [191] personnel, "jeopardizing their ability to support our development program." Other vendors were either closing their doors or dropping assembly lines for certain components because of the general poor condition of the economy. JPL was planning to procure many items it needed for Viking as soon as possible and place them in bonded storage until it was ready to assemble the spacecraft. 62
During late January and early February, NASA Headquarters, Langley, and JPL personnel continued to evaluate the future course of Viking. After receiving a 28 January briefing by various Viking staff members, John Naugle decided on 10 February that the agency would pursue its original plan to fly an orbiter-lander combination. Positive words of support for the Viking team were put on record by George M. Low, NASA deputy administrator, and Naugle. Both men knew that the real work had just begun, but they appreciated the teamwork displayed during the latest crisis. Low told his colleagues, "Viking holds the highest priority of any project or program in NASA's Planetary Program. Viking holds a high priority among all of NASA's programs." 63
The Space Science Board of the National Academy of Sciences also underscored the value of continuing with Viking, but the board's endorsement carried some reservations. Philip Handler, president of the Academy, had suggested to NASA Administrator Paine in mid-November 1969 that a Space Science Board review panel be established to evaluate the balance among the scientific disciplines supported by space agency funds. The last such review had been held in July 1966 at a time when National Academy and NASA personnel had assumed that the budget for space activities would continue to increase. Paine accepted Handler's offer, but advised him and his colleagues to weigh carefully the impact of any recommendations to shift money from one project to another. Any recommendations to cancel programs that had already gone through an elaborate approval process within NASA would, in the existing budgetary climate, "almost certainly lead to the curtailment of the on-going [programs] with little chance that additional funds [would] become available for [any] program which the Board feels should be increased." 64
The Space Science Board team that evaluated NASA's space science activities was known as the Viking Review Panel, reflecting the amount of money being spent on the Mars project and the concern generated by the postponement of the Mars landing. The panel report issued on 24 March 1970 combined praise and concern. NASA was complimented for its work to defining a project that accurately reflected the payload recommendations of the Space Science Board's 1968 study, Planetary Exploration, 1968-1975 . Cost projections, however, caused some division among the members of the panel. Some believed that the potential return from the Mars mission was so great that $750 million was justified. Others expressed concern that "within the extremely restricted budgetary climate, NASA must set much more limited goals for itself in order to achieve a balanced scientific effort." This [192] latter group feared that Viking's high cost would cause the space agency to lose other "less costly by equally valuable missions."
Some participants in the review were worried about the complexity of the Viking science payload, the most sophisticated payload planned to date, with many new experiments. A two-year delay of the Viking launch might indeed be beneficial. "The additional two years can be devoted to an extensive test of the abilities of the payload, increasing confidence in [it]."
Since it appeared that future budgets for space activities would be low, the Viking Review Panel recommended that "considerably more modest planetary missions" be initiated in the years to come. Single, complicated, expensive projects like Viking were too risky-politically and technologically. Realistically appraising the Viking Review Panel's pronouncement, John Naugle told Paine, "It is, I think, in view of the talk by the scientific community these days, an accurate and as good a statement about Viking as we could expect." 65

* The membership included Vice President Spiro T. Agnew, chairman; Secretary of the Air Force Robert C. Seamans; Administrator Thomas O. Paine; Science Adviser to the President Lee A. Dubridge; and, as advisers, Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs U. Alexis Johnson, Atomic Energy Commission Chairman Glenn T. Seaborg, and Bureau of the Budget Director Robert P. Mayo.