The Space Station Nobody Wants

How NASA got the go-ahead for another museum piece


At the Johnson Space Center of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, amid the flat tidelands southeast of Houston, there is a powerful and melancholy sight: a full-size moon rocket, set on its side for public display. It is not a mockup or replica. It once was capable of launch, with five first-stage engines each 19 feet tall, with a cavernous second stage that would reach for orbit, and a third stage ready to carry a lunar expedition. Today owls nest within it.

And in the national Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., there is a similar monument to a vanished age. It is Skylab II, a duplicate of the space station that was home to nine astronauts during 1973 and 1974. This too is no mockup, but NASA could not find work enough for its space crews to justify launching this Skylab II and supporting it with astronaut-carrying flights. NASA donated it to the Smithsonian, and children now wander through it, gawking at equipment and facilities that were built at considerable expense but never knew the occupancy of a spacefarer.

And yet NASA, having already built one space station for the Air and Space Museum, is intent on doing so again—at a cost of billions of dollars. That the present space station project will be the next such monument becomes plausible when we look into how it came into being as a national effort. President Reagan approved this project based on his personal enthusiasm for space—and on very little else—at the beginning of 1984. That is recent enough for people to retain clear memories of how it happened. It also is long enough to see who was right and who was wrong, in the arguments that took place within the administration.

NASA has wanted a space station for a long time. In 1969, in the wake of the first Apollo moon landing, their planners set such a station as the next major goal. NASA's engineers soon determined that the project required low-cost transportation into space. Skylab relied on old Apollo rockets, the Saturn I-B, but at $120 million a flight these were too costly. The solution would be to develop a new launch vehicle, the space shuttle. NASA officials described the shuttle and station as a single, interrelated project.

This "shuttle/station" pitch was straightforward enough, but it nearly killed both. The problem, as with the Skylab station, was that NASA had no firm justification for either. Rep. Joseph Karth (D–Minn.), who had considerable clout over NASA and was usually an ardent supporter, moved in 1970 to chop the funds for both the shuttle and the space station. His motion failed by only one vote. As a result, NASA did an about-face. It "decoupled" the shuttle, giving it a separate budget designation and project staff. It buried the space-station plans and soon made the shuttle the centerpiece of U.S. space efforts.

Nine years later, with the shuttle secure, the space-station builders began to stir. The first move came from the Johnson Space Center in Houston. Its directors were very interested in large manned projects; that was what their people had been hired to work on, and it would take a steady flow of such projects to keep everyone busy. These Houston managers called their concept the Space Operations Center. It was the sort of thing that took your breath away.

Outlined against the blue of earth below in the artists' renderings, this SOC would serve as a base for anything the nation might do in space, up to and beyond the year 2000. Immense solar panels would span a vast width. Crew quarters would hold up to a dozen people living there for months at a time. A construction crane would assemble large antennas and satellites. There would also be fuel tanks and a hangar, to operate a spacecraft that would fly on rocket power to great distances, deploying satellites or bringing others back. All this would ride into the sky aboard the space shuttle, to be assembled in space module by module.

For a while, the NASA public-relations office in Houston convinced a lot of people that the Space Operations Center was the space station, even though NASA was nowhere near a final design. But the SOC would take 10 years to build and cost $8 billion, according to official estimates. It amounted to going the whole nine yards at once. It was inevitable, then, that others would come up with a rival design, seeking to advance at a more measured pace.

This was the Space Platform, put forward by NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. While the Houston center had built the manned spacecraft such as Apollo, Marshall had built the big rockets, under the leadership of Wernher von Braun. "Marshall is a bunch of tin-benders," one of the top NASA officials, Hans Mark, would say in a 1984 interview. "They like machines."

The Marshall Space Platform would not even be manned, at least at first. It would amount to little more than a set of solar panels, with plug-in sockets for instruments. Later on it might grow by making room for Spacelab, a temporary space station that would carry astronauts in flights aboard the shuttle. Mounting several Spacelab modules then would turn the platform into a true orbiting station.

This approach was bound to stir sniping. Costing only $750 million, less than a tenth the projected tab for the SOC, it would not do much for the Johnson Space Center and its contractors, who needed fat budgets. Criticism focused on the fact that it would not bring up astronauts until it was clear that they were needed. "I won't believe it's really a space station unless it's got a man on it," said Phil Culbertson, NASA's number-three man at the time. The emphasis, in short, was on putting people in space first and later looking for things they might usefully do.

For the moment, however, neither the SOC nor the Space Platform was in the cards. Jimmy Carter was still in the White House, and as one budget official later put it, "Carter didn't give a damn about space." Then Reagan was elected, and he did give a damn. As one of his key advisors explained, "The president is an optimist. He has an enormous faith in what mankind can do. What excites him about the space program is the sheer ingenuity, the evidence of man's creative ability and unlimited capabilities."

Early in 1981 Reagan named James Beggs to head NASA, with Hans Mark as his deputy. Both were aerospace executives, long associated with the space program. Reagan let them know that he wanted an upward swing in the space program, and he would trust them to determine the details. Beggs and Mark took little time in picking up the hint. In their confirmation hearings in the Senate they were asked what NASA's next big step would be. Beggs replied, "A space station."

First, though, they had to settle on what kind of station to push for. And within the powerful Office of Management and Budget, a key official was making it clear that he preferred the scaled-down Marshall approach. Jeff Struthers, a low-key, thoroughly self-effacing bureaucrat, dwelled amid the warrens of the New Executive Office Building. Few had ever heard of him, even within the space program. Yet he often was more powerful than Beggs and Mark, for he made the recommendations on NASA's budget that went up to David Stockman, who was in charge of the entire federal budget. And Struthers was dead-set against the SOC or any other type of large, costly space station.

Beggs's first tactic was to bring all the planning under one roof by setting up a Space Station Task Force at NASA headquarters in Washington. Its director, John Hodge, proceeded to hand out contracts to a number of large aerospace companies, telling them to go out and design a space station. The official line was that the eventual design would be more useful to more people if it came out of the aerospace firms. "We absolutely refused to draw a picture of a space station," said Robert "Captain" Freitag, one of the task force leaders.

This allowed NASA to avoid putting forth an official design that could become a target for potshots from Struthers. What was more, by bringing in the aerospace contractors, NASA was enlisting their political clout.

Several of the contractors' designs bore an amazing resemblance to the SOC. This was no coincidence, since everyone knew this was what Beggs and Mark really wanted. Struthers was not pleased. After a few months of this, according to insiders, he ordered NASA to stop feeding money to the contractors for their studies. But in the meantime, other players had taken their places in Washington.

Heading the White House science office was George "Jay" Keyworth, a protégé of Edward Teller, the "father of the H-bomb," who had a great deal of influence with Reagan. Under Teller's tutelage, Keyworth had risen to head all the physics work at Los Alamos National Laboratory. Then at age 42 he was tapped as Reagan's science adviser. He was youthful and ebullient; he loved to hold forth on the marvelous things science and technology could do. He also was rather informal; he liked people to call him Jay. Early on, Reagan told him to look into the Carter space policy and see about doing more.

Within the White House itself, Reagan had brought in an old and trusted friend, William "Judge" Clark, to fill the powerful post of national security advisor. Clark knew that one way to please Reagan was to support a strong space program. That, in turn, meant appointing a strong space advocate to the post of Director of Space Programs on the White House staff.

Clark's man for the job was an Air Force lieutenant colonel, Gilbert Rye. He was the sort of fellow who looked good in Air Force blue. Like Oliver North a few years later, Gil Rye was tall and lean, with a shock of curly black hair. He had worked with Gen. Alexander Haig at NATO headquarters in Europe, and Haig had remembered Rye when he became secretary of state. Rye had also spent three years at the Pentagon, helping to set up the Air Force Space Command, which brought all their space programs under a four-star general.

Also like North, Rye saw his mission as getting the program through, even if that meant working outside channels. The space station really had no constituency outside NASA. There was no particular interest in it within the Air Force, the Pentagon, even the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Yet Rye, a mere lieutenant colonel, soon was running full tilt in its support. He had the blessing of Judge Clark, which was enough to give him pretty much of a free hand.

Meanwhile, the space shuttle was going ahead, and Reagan was watching with interest. Soon he agreed to take part in a space extravaganza at California's Edwards Air Force Base, on July 4, 1982. The shuttle Columbia would land, and the president would greet the crew. Another orbiter, Challenger, would take off for Cape Canaveral atop the back of a 747, and Reagan would personally give the takeoff command to the pilot. And he would give a speech on the space program. NASA pulled out all the stops to get him to give a go-ahead for the space station.

The agency's officials lobbied directly with Reagan and with Ed Meese, his top counselor. They helped orchestrate a campaign that saw hundreds of letters and telegrams reach the White House, pleading for a space station. They talked to contacts in the media, virtually putting out news releases; White House staffers counted 17 newspaper and magazine articles predicting that Reagan would announce his approval. Beggs stated openly that "our next logical step is to establish a permanent manned presence in low-earth orbit." And to nail it down, he met with Gil Rye, who was helping to write Reagan's speech. Together they agreed on the words that would make it official: "We must look aggressively to the future by demonstrating the potential of the shuttle and establishing a permanent manned presence in space."

Keyworth and Struthers objected, arguing that this was no way to approve a space station. That would be a major policy decision, requiring review by a wide array of agencies and departments, with the ultimate decision to be made at a Cabinet meeting. The draft of Reagan's speech amounted to Rye's getting the president to approve the station by way of the back door.

Sources inside the budget office say that David Stockman agreed that the phrase "permanent manned presence in space" was dangerous and had to come out. But could they get it out? If they protested to national security advisor Clark, he'd probably back Rye. But Clark had a deputy, Robert McFarlane, who outranked Rye but was not such a space buff as Clark. He took out the offending phrase.

Meanwhile, Reagan was off to California aboard Air Force One, with Beggs and Rye in his entourage. Bands were playing at the shuttle landing site, flags were flying; half a million people were on hand. The NASA flight controllers had thoughtfully delayed the landing of Columbia for an extra orbit, so Reagan could get more sleep.

Hans Mark, Beggs's deputy, was back in Washington. When he learned what McFarlane had done, he lost no time in phoning Beggs: Reagan had to be persuaded at the last minute or all was lost. Aboard Air Force One, Reagan made the final decision himself. He would not give Beggs and Mark all they wanted, but he would overrule the objections of Keyworth and Stockman, at least to a degree. His speech thus made mention of establishing "a more permanent presence in space." NASA, he was saying, could count on him.

Now the question of the station was out in the open. A Cabinet-level group would look over the issue and make recommendations. Jay Keyworth had been working on these matters and set forth his views as to who should be in the group. Gil Rye had other ideas, and he had the ear of Judge Clark. Clark soon endorsed his recommendations: Keyworth and Stockman were to be excluded.

This was unheard of. The "Senior Interagency Group," or SIG, would likely be charting NASA's course into the next century. Since the glory days of Apollo in the mid-1960s, budget officials had been carving at the NASA budget with very sharp knives. But now two of the space station's strongest and most effective critics were defused, reduced in importance.

Then in late February 1983, Keyworth went up to Capitol Hill to appear before a House subcommittee. One of the congressmen asked whether the space station would advance science and technology. And in his candid way, Keyworth replied, "It would be an unfortunate step backwards." That, for Keyworth, was an unfortunate choice of words, raising questions about his loyalty to Reagan.

Keyworth was supposed to be the president's man, not the scientific community's man. But by publicly attacking the station, he was endorsing the views of the nation's space scientists, who wanted to use the space-station money for unmanned missions. As one aerospace industry executive said, "The opinion of the scientific community, that the station isn't useful, has been heard loudly and is of no consequence. They are arrogant; they want planetary missions for Carl Sagan's benefit. Also, most of them are Democrats."

To save the situation, Keyworth would have to do a turnabout. He would have to get out in front of this issue that interested Reagan so much. For this he turned for advice to his longtime mentor, Edward Teller, whose influence just then was at a peak. He had, after all, pulled together the ideas behind Reagan's "Star Wars" program of missile defense.

When he went to Teller for advice, Keyworth was like the young Luke Skywalker, seeking counsel from Obi Wan-Kenobe of the Jedi Knights. And Teller told him to go for the moon. The thing for Keyworth to do would be to advocate the space station as a stepping stone, a way station en route to a permanent settlement on the moon. There was no clear picture of why the moon might be interesting; but it fit in with Keyworth's enthusiasm for the future. And it would get him back into Reagan's good graces.

It did not, however, get him back into NASA's. Since he had described the station as "an unfortunate step backwards," NASA suspected that Keyworth was out to get Reagan to go for the moon because that would make the station controversial. In particular, Walter Mondale, the likely Democratic nominee in 1984, might well rally opposition to a lunar goal. In the early '70s Mondale had taken the lead in the Senate in attacking the space shuttle as a boondoggle. And if the station thus became controversial and Congress killed it, Keyworth would see his wishes carried out without responsibility being in his own hands.

Now it was high summer of 1983, and the various Cabinet departments and agencies were choosing up sides, deciding whether or not they'd support the space station. For NASA, the news was mostly bad. In addition to NASA itself, the station had support from the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, which saw it promoting the peaceful use of outer space. Also the Commerce Department backed it, out of an interest in space manufacturing and commercialization. And that was it. Everyone else on the Senior Interagency Group, and several who weren't, were against it.

The Defense Department was against it. In their view, all the military's needs in space could be met with unmanned satellites. What was more, if they got involved in the station they'd have to help pay for it. The Joint Chiefs of Staff also came out against it. So did William Casey, director of the CIA. The Space Science Board, representing the nation's scientists, weighed in with a "No, thanks." Even the State Department lined up against the space station.

But the loudest blasts came, as expected, from the budget office. Jeff Struthers was not granting interviews, but his predecessor shared his views and was willing to talk. This was Doug Pewitt, now on Keyworth's staff. "There's no real customer for the station, other than the people who want to build it," Pewitt insisted in a 1983 interview. "NASA is looking for something to do, instead of having something to do. The idea of a space station is driven principally by NASA's requirements to feed their client institutions, aerospace companies and the like."

Pewitt predicted that NASA would end up spending $30 billion. The $8 billion projected by the agency "is the buy-in cost," he said. "It's not what NASA really wants, which is a manned space platform with a crew of some size. I think you can say with absolute certainty that were it not for Ronald Reagan's personal interest in space, the station would not be receiving the attention it is today. If it weren't for this, NASA would get a big layoff, and they know it."

To top off the bad news for NASA, Judge Clark was just then leaving the White House to replace the controversial Interior Secretary James Watt. Clark had been NASA's good friend in the White House and had allowed Gil Rye to do pretty much as he wished. When Clark left, as Pewitt put it, "I am sure there was rending of clothes and gnashing of teeth within NASA. Their great white hope was dashed."

Amid all this, Reagan remained unruffled. Early in August he hosted a White House meeting with a dozen company executives, including several from the big aerospace firms. They told him that a space station would be the most important project. Reagan replied, "I want a space station, too. I have wanted one for a long time." Some of these executives came away declaring that Reagan was more openly enthusiastic about space than any other president they had ever met with.

By now, Keyworth had regained Reagan's confidence to the point of being able to play a major role in developing a presidential speech. This would be given on October 19, to honor NASA on its 25th anniversary. "We're not just concerned about the next logical step in space," Reagan declared. "We're planning an entire road, a 'High Road' if you will."

By now the SIG, the Cabinet-level review group, had finished its work. At a December 1 meeting, Beggs presented NASA's space-station plans. Rye was there to detail the choices of the SIG. As he later described the meeting, "It was easy talking with Reagan about something he's enthused about, and he's enthused about space. He asked a lot of questions."

Colonel Rye proceeded to put forth the options. The first was to build no space station. It was clear that if this was the policy, NASA would eventually go out of business. It would be split up into chunks, with the shuttle's operations going to the Air Force, space science to the National Science Foundation, and aeronautical research to the Department of Commerce. But no one there really wanted to do that.

The second option was to build some sort of space station, the exact type to be decided later. The third was to adopt a major drive into space as a national goal, aiming at a return to the moon or sending astronauts to Mars. The real choice was between these last two options. Keyworth argued in favor of the third. Beggs, however, was strongly opposed to going farther than the space station, fearing opposition from the Democrats that could kill the station altogether. Reagan thus made no decision; he avoided choosing between the two views.

Later in December 1983, Reagan hosted another Cabinet meeting. NASA had asked for $200 million to make a start on the station, and several participants in that meeting were opposed. Stockman declared that the deficit could never be cut if the government were to continue to fund such exotic projects. Then William French Smith, the attorney general and a close friend of Reagan's, came to the rescue: "I suspect the comptroller to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella made the same pitch when Christopher Columbus came to court." Amid general laughter, Reagan quickly made up his mind. He directed that $175 million for the station be placed in the budget, over the objections of Stockman. "I do not wish to be remembered only for El Salvador," said the president.

NASA had triumphed at the political game. The question now was what they could make of it.

Four years later, it is possible to answer that question.

In 1984, in the wake of Reagan's approval, NASA stated that the space station would be ready by 1992 and would cost $8 billion. Today the cost is estimated at close to $30 billion—approaching Pewitt's estimate—and is still climbing. The date for start of construction is unlikely to be earlier than the mid-1990s. As for the date of completion, few will hazard a guess.

The space shuttle, mainstay of the program, had been planned to fly 25 times a year. Ten to eleven of these flights would support the construction and use of the station. Following the Challenger disaster in January 1986, no one believes that more than five flights a year could ever be devoted to the space station.

The Air Force, which had supported the shuttle and had spent $3 billion to build a launch base in California, was edging away from this support even before the Challenger accident. Over strong opposition from NASA, the Air Force had decided to build 10 unmanned expendable rockets, as an alternative to the shuttle. After the accident they went even further, moth-balling this space base and declaring an even stronger commitment to expendables.

The firm of Johnson & Johnson, which had been backing a major space-processing effort that aimed at producing pharmaceuticals in orbit, canceled its support. This too happened before Challenger.

James Beggs and Hans Mark have both left NASA. Reagan himself is due to leave the White House in January 1989.

In September 1987 the National Academy of Sciences released a report projecting the total cost of the station at $29.9 billion in 1988 dollars—a sum greater than the combined endowments of Harvard, Yale, Stanford, Princeton, and the University of Texas. And without expensive changes to the shuttle, concluded the report, it would be only "marginally adequate" for carrying space station components to orbit.

With the NAS report as ammunition, Sen. William Proxmire (D–Wisc.) urged the Senate to defund the space station. The Reagan administration had requested $767 million for this year to allow NASA to award the major contracts and fund the first year of work. The House went along, but the Senate, influenced by Proxmire, voted only $559 million. As budget-cutting negotiations proceeded in November, sources said that NASA Administrator James Fletcher threatened to cancel the project rather than accept a cut. On December 1, with funding still up in the air, NASA coyly awarded major new space-station contracts.

Early in the Reagan administration one Republican senator, criticizing the president's views on nuclear issues, declared that to be a conservative does not mean supporting everything radioactive. Much the same comment can be made about NASA: to be enthusiastic about advancing into space does not mean an uncritical acceptance of the agenda of NASA and its corporate clients.

While lack of general support for a space station has been a compelling reason to oppose it from the start, today there is an additional and powerful reason: it can only continue to divert attention from the real challenge, which is to make sure that we can get into space when we want to. Once, not so long ago, we had that ability. Through the 1960s and '70s we were launching dozens of spacecraft. But then NASA put all its eggs in the shuttle basket, phasing out existing rockets. NASA thus set itself up for the Challenger disaster, which wiped out the ability of this space transportation monopoly to launch satellites.

To go forward with the space station is to ignore the Challenger. But the failure of the shuttle must be faced. What we once had and profligately wasted—a solid, reliable capability to reach orbit using unmanned rockets—must be reclaimed and rebuilt before any space station is even feasible. Fortunately, NASA's monopoly on U.S. space transportation is broken. The development of unmanned vehicles is burgeoning, and private firms are jumping into the launch business.

Once reliable launch services are in place, we should avoid yoking a space program to a grand project or a master plan. Rather, we should see what demands arise for space flight within the world at large. Perhaps it will be for large numbers of small or modest-size spacecraft, readily launched and readily replaced, each on its most appropriate orbit. That would be the very opposite of NASA's space station, which in typical government-planning style seeks to force potential users into a common mold.

Advocates of the space station cannot have it both ways. On the one hand they invoke Christopher Columbus, speaking of exploration and new discoveries. On the other hand they insist that they already know how to work in space, that potential users must fit the common mold of their station. This one-size-fits-all mentality is what led to exclusive dependence on the shuttle. It sets NASA up for a new disaster. Unfortunately, NASA and its enthusiasts in government seem not to have learned a lesson.

T.A. Heppenheimer is an author and an associate fellow of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics.