In 2011, Hollywood had us believe that the crew of Apollo 18 fell victim to spider-like aliens and a sinister conspiracy, spearheaded by the Department of Defense, to eliminate the chance of extraterrestrial contamination. The reality is quite different, for the men who would have flown the real Apollo 18 are alive and well to this very day, and one of them did get to walk on the lunar surface. Further, all but one of the astronauts expected to be assigned to Apollo 19 are still with us. Forty-five years ago, in the summer of 1970, NASA executed one of the most controversial—and perhaps misguided—decisions in its history, by canceling two piloted voyages to the Moon. In so doing, the space agency and a short-sighted Washington administration condemned humanity to at least two generations in which exploration Beyond Low-Earth Orbit (BLEO) was possible only with robotic craft. It was a decision, and a lost opportunity, whose echoes resonate to this very day.
Following the enormous success of Apollo 11—which saw astronauts Neil Armstrong, Mike Collins, and Buzz Aldrin become the first humans to accomplish a piloted lunar landing mission—the future for the program seemed bleak, as the Republican administration of President Richard M. Nixon, keen to seek a timely exit from the bloodbath of Vietnam and the resolution of lingering social issues at home, repeatedly made efforts to slash NASA’s budget. In February 1970, NASA Administrator Tom Paine submitted a proposal for Fiscal Year (FY) 1971 for $3.33 billion, which represented a decrease of more than $500 million on the previous year. As described by William David Compton in the NASA History tome, Where No Man Has Gone Before: A History of Apollo Lunar Exploration Missions, key savings and “hard choices” had already been achieved through the termination of the Saturn V production line, the mothballing of the Mississippi Test Facility (MTF) in Bay St. Louis, Miss., and the reduction of the workforce at the Michoud Assembly Facility (MAF) in New Orleans, La. Additionally, on 4 January 1970, NASA had formally canceled Apollo 20, which until that time might have been the final lunar landing mission.
Worse was to come. Early in July 1970, the Washington Post published a troubling article. Three months after the near-disaster of Apollo 13, it was clear that only a handful of manned lunar missions lay ahead and bumper stickers had already appeared in Florida, bearing the legend “Apollo 14: One Giant Leap for Unemployment.” The Post’s article, however, revealed publicly for the first time that as many as four Apollo missions might face the budgetary ax. After many weeks of House and Senate debate, NASA received an allocation of $3.269 billion for FY71, which necessitated the additional cutting of the Project Apollo budget by $42.1 million to a total of $914.4 million. In mid-July, NASA announced that it would reduce its workforce by 900 personnel by October. When combined with earlier layoffs and natural employee attrition, the effect brought the total number of civil service reductions in the 1968-1970 period to above 5,200, giving NASA a staff of 29,850, its lowest since 1963. By the middle of August, 175 employees were formally released and 185 others were reassigned or placed in jobs at a lower grade.
However, there existed little choice for Tom Paine—who would depart NASA on 15 September 1970 to return to General Electric—and his replacement, Acting Administrator George Low, but to significantly curtail Apollo. One option called for the execution of four of the six remaining lunar landing missions (Apollos 14 through 17), at six-monthly intervals, beginning in January 1971, before taking a break to conduct three long-duration Skylab flights in 1972-1973, then staging the last two Moon voyages (Apollos 18 and 19) in 1974. The alternative was to cancel Apollos 18 and 19 entirely and make their already-built Saturn V hardware “available for possible future uses.” One such use, NASA revealed, might be to insert a large, post-Skylab space station into orbit at some indeterminate time in the future. Even as this decision process was underway, on 28 July, Paine had tendered his resignation to Nixon. “Paine denied that NASA’s immediate funding problems had influenced his decision,” it was noted by Compton. “Probably more decisive was the fact that he saw no prospect of immediate change. From the start of his NASA tenure, Paine’s ideas for the future of the space program were far more ambitious than those of the President and the Bureau of the Budget.”
On 2 September, Paine summoned a press conference to announce NASA’s interim operating plan for FY71, in which he outlined the cancelation of Apollos 15 and 19. These flights were, respectively, the last of the so-called “H”-series and “J”-series of lunar landing missions. The former involved a short-duration Lunar Module (LM), with a stay time on the Moon of no more than 33 hours and two EVAs of approximately four hours’ duration apiece, whilst the latter encompassed a trio of EVAs—each running for five to seven hours—and up to three days on the surface, with the J-series crews assisted in their exploration by a battery-powered Lunar Roving Vehicle (LRV), built by Boeing/General Motors. Additionally, the J-series Command and Service Module (CSM) would benefit from an enhanced Scientific Instrument Module Bay (SIMBay) of equipment for enhanced geophysical and other observations from lunar orbit. Baselined for mission durations of around 12 days, the J-series missions would mark a 20 percent duration hike over their earlier, H-series counterparts. Before the cancelations, NASA envisaged four H-series missions (Apollos 12 through 15) and four J-series missions (Apollos 16 through 19), but after the tumultuous events of the summer of 1970 the manifest changed and the remaining flights were redesignated. Apollo 14 became the last H-series mission and the newly-renumbered Apollos 15, 16, and 17 formed the new J-series. Thus, the two “lost” missions would be popularly (but incorrectly) remembered as Apollos 18 and 19.
The launch schedules for the remaining missions—the now-renumbered Apollos 14 through 17—would also be stretched out from January 1971 through December 1972. In making the announcement, Paine stressed that his decision had been made reluctantly and in spite of conclusions of several major reviews by the Space Sciences Board of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) and the Lunar and Planetary Missions Board, both of which had strongly recommended that all remaining flights should have remained untouched. Paine’s main consideration, it was noted by Compton in his historical survey, was “how best to carry out Apollo to realize maximum benefits while preserving adequate resources for the future post-Apollo space program.” One saving grace was that one limited-capability H-series mission (the original Apollo 15) would be upgraded to J-series status, with a far broader scope in terms of scientific exploration of the Moon.
For many observers, though, it was not enough. The New York Times condemned the decision as “penny-wise, pound-foolish” and stressed that the “budgetary myopia” of the savings from the two canceled missions amounted to just 2 percent of NASA’s FY71 budget and a mere 0.25 percent of the total investment in Project Apollo. “Now that these huge sums have been spent,” the Times scathingly added, “the need is to obtain the maximum yield, scientifically and otherwise, from that investment.” Others, including Cornell University astronomer Thomas Gold, likened the decision to buying a Rolls Royce, “then not using it because you claim you can’t afford the gas,” whilst the Nobel Prize-winning chemist Harold Urey described the $42.1 million savings as “chicken feed” in comparison to the $25 billion already spent on Apollo. “It cost us … one half of one percent of our gross production,” Urey wrote in the Washington Post. “Now we wish to finish a job which has been beautifully began and we get stingy. Because of an additional cost of about 25 cents per year for each of us, we drop two flights to the Moon, recommended by scientific committees. How foolish and short-sighted from the view of history can we be?”
Responding to a letter from 39 lunar scientists that September, Rep. George P. Miller—then-chair of the House Committee on Science and Astronautics—pointed out that he had attempted to get an additional $220 million into the FY70 and FY71 authorization bills, but that the Nixon administration, “in realigning national priorities, has relegated the space program to a lesser role.” Rep. Miller added a mild, yet clear note of rebuke to the scientific lobby that “had your views on the Apollo program been as forcefully expressed to NASA and the Congress a year or more ago, this situation might have been prevented.”
With the cancelation of Apollos 18 and 19, the astronauts who might have performed the missions were already in place; at least, that is, in their backup capacity for other flights. Under the planning of Deke Slayton, head of the Flight Crew Operations Directorate at the Manned Spacecraft Center (MSC) in Houston, Texas, there existed a three-mission rotation system during Project Apollo, whereby a backup team for a given flight would move into the prime crew slot three flights later. Thus, on 26 March 1970, when the Apollo 15 crews were announced, it could be anticipated that the backups—Commander Dick Gordon, Command Module Pilot (CMP) Vance Brand, and Lunar Module Pilot (LMP) Jack Schmitt—would rotate into the Apollo 18 prime assignment. Apollo 19 was a little harder to determine, for the prime and backup crews for Apollo 16 were not formally announced until 3 March 1971, by which time Apollo 19 had already been canceled. However, with Commander John Young, CMP Ken Mattingly, and LMP Charlie Duke already having begun training as the Apollo 16 prime crew, Commander Fred Haise, CMP Bill Pogue, and LMP Gerry Carr dug in as their backups in the summer of 1970. Had Apollo 19 survived, there is a high degree of likelihood that Haise, Pogue, and Carr would have formed its prime crew.
In the hot, violent summer of 1970—a summer haunted by President Nixon’s controversial incursion into Cambodia, despite pledges to withdraw U.S. troops, and resultant student protests, most notably at Kent State University in Ohio—the astronauts provisionally pointed toward Apollos 18 and 19 worked feverishly for a pair of missions which they knew might never come to pass. As recounted by historian Andrew Chaikin in his book A Man on the Moon, astronaut Pete Conrad had warned his buddy Dick Gordon that his best chance of another mission lay with Skylab. However, Gordon elected to persevere for a lunar landing of his own—a decision which ultimately led nowhere.
Reading between the lines of Bill Pogue’s words in his NASA oral history, the largely unspoken knowledge that the last few Apollos might vanish from the funding manifest did not make the actual hammer-blow any less devastating. “I was … put on a “phantom” backup crew, they called it, for 16,” Pogue reflected. “They did not want to announce us, and for good reason, because it looked pretty bad in Washington, as far as budget was concerned. We [went] … on geology field trips and we were out on one in Arizona. We came back to Flagstaff [and] stayed at a motel. The next morning … I walked out the door of the motel and Fred was holding this newspaper and it said ‘Apollos 18 [and] 19 Canceled’. That’s how we found out about it!” By the time the Apollo 16 crew was formally announced on 3 March 1971, Pogue and Carr had already been diverted to begin training for the Skylab program, although their official assignment would not come until January 1972. In the meantime, Fred Haise elected to remain as Apollo 16 backup Commander, joined by CMP Stu Roosa and LMP Ed Mitchell, both of whom had recently returned from Apollo 14.
Although one final Saturn V would rise to orbit after the end of the lunar program, delivering Skylab into orbit—though not without incident—on 14 May 1973, the stages and hardware of the two other vehicles subsequently and depressingly ended their days as museum pieces at JSC in Houston, the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida, the Michoud Assembly Facility (MAF) in New Orleans, La., and at the National Air and Space Museum (NASM) in Washington, D.C.
From his perspective, veteran flight director Chris Kraft—who became MSC Director in January 1972 and oversaw its transition to today’s Johnson Space Center (JSC)—stressed in his autobiography, Flight, that everyone at NASA would have fought much harder to save Apollos 18 and 19 if they had known that humanity would be waiting half a century, or more, before bootprints again dotted the lunar terrain. “None of us,” he wrote, “thought that America would turn into a nation of quitters and lose its will to lead an outward-bound manned exploration of our Solar System. That just wasn’t possible.” Kraft felt that even Bob Gilruth, his predecessor as head of the MSC, who feared another Apollo 13-type failure, would have supported the additional missions, had he known that low-Earth orbit would be the only domain for America’s astronauts for at least another half-century. Meanwhile, veteran flight director Gene Kranz, in his memoir, Failure Is Not An Option, expressed similar disgust. “It was as if Congress was ripping our heart out,” he wrote, “gutting the program we had fought so hard to build.”
The second part of this article will appear tomorrow.