Podcast: John Logsdon on President Nixon, the Apollo Program and Space Policy
President Nixon with NASA Administrator James C. Fletcher discussing a proposed space shuttle vehicle on January 5, 1972 in San Clemente, CA. (NASA)
John Logsdon is professor emeritus and founding director of the Space Policy Institute at the Elliot School of International Affairs at The George Washington University.
What was President Nixon’s Space Policy Doctrine? Here to answer this and other questions Dr. John Logsdon, Professor Emeritus of Political Science and International Affairs, at the Elliot School of International Affairs at The George Washington University. He founded the school’s Space Policy Institute, and author of “John F. Kennedy and the Race to the Moon” and “After Apollo? Richard Nixon and the American Space Program.”
Jonathan Movroydis: You are listening to the “Nixon Now Podcast.” I’m Jonathan Movroydis. This is brought to you by the Nixon Foundation. We’re broadcasting from the Richard Nixon Presidential Library in Yorba Linda, California. You can follow us on Twitter at @nixonfoundation or at nixonfoundation.org. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the lunar landing. To commemorate this anniversary, the Nixon Library has a brand new special exhibition on display throughout the year. It’s called “Apollo 11: One Giant Leap for Mankind.”
What was President Nixon Space Policy Doctrine? Here to answer this and other questions is Dr. John Logsdon. He’s Professor Emeritus of Political Science and International Affairs at the George Washington University, Elliott School of International Affairs. He founded the school Space Policy Institute. He’s the author of “John F. Kennedy and the Race to the Moon” and “After Apollo? Richard Nixon and the American Space Program.” Dr. Logsdon, welcome.
John Logsdon: Glad to be with you.
Jonathan Movroydis: Just to start off, how did you come to make space policy, your field of study?
John Logsdon: Oh, it goes back a long way to a rather specific date, March the 1st, 1962. I was working in Manhattan and went to watch John Glenn parade through the city after his first orbital flight and became curious about what this space stuff was all about. I was old enough but didn’t pay much attention to the Sputnik in ‘57 or even to John Kennedy’s announcement, we were going to the moon, in ’61. But seeing John Glenn accompanied by Vice President Johnson somehow flipped a switch, and I went back to graduate school that Fall, in political science, and wrote every graduate paper, including my dissertation on space-related topics. The rest is literally history.
Jonathan Movroydis: Could you tell us a little bit about the origins of the Apollo program?
John Logsdon: Well, they’re converging paths to what became Apollo. NASA had set out already in 1959, a year after it was opened, its long-range plan, which called for missions to send humans to the moon after 1970. So NASA had selected the moon as its goal for human space flight very early on. The first program, of course, was Project Mercury. The program to follow that was a three-person spacecraft capable of long duration flights in Earth orbit and flights around the moon. That was announced in August of 1960 and called Apollo. At that point, it did not have a lunar landing as its goal.
This was all while President Dwight Eisenhower was in office. John Kennedy became president in January of 1961, not very interested in space as he became president. But then on April the 12th, ‘61, Soviet Union launched Yuri Gagarin, the first human in orbit. Kennedy found that the world reaction and the domestic reaction to the Gagarin flight was very positive for the Soviet Union and a propaganda loss for the United States and decided the United States should not or could not, by default, allow the Soviet Union to dominate this new area of activity. And he asked his advisors, “What do we do? How do we catch up?” He wrote in a memo on April the 20th, “Find me a space program which promises dramatic results in which we could win.” And the answer came back, “Go to the moon.”
Jonathan Movroydis: He gave that famous speech in 1962 at Rice University, President Kennedy did, about going to the moon. You touched on…about why it was important in terms of the Soviet threat, but broader in terms of national achievement and national policy, why was going to the moon so important?
John Logsdon: Well, first let me do something I do too frequently, which is to point out that President Kennedy announced the lunar landing goal in a speech to the joint session of Congress on May the 25th, 1961. The Houston speech in September of ‘62 spelled out in very eloquent terms his reasons for making that decision. But the decision to go to the moon was announced in ‘61, not ‘62. Why did Kennedy make that decision? Space had become a kind of surrogate measure of national vitality, national power, national competence.
It’s a little hard from the perspective of 60 years or almost 60 years later to realize how real the competition between the United States and the Soviet Union was for the allegiance or loyalty not only of the countries just becoming independent but of the countries of Europe, of Italy, France, had very active communist parties. So there was real competition for global political, economic, and military leadership. And doing things in space got to be a measure of that, or at least so Kennedy thought. And so, as I said, he decided the United States could not allow the Soviet Union to dominate. And if we were going to be in the space arena, we had better be first.
Jonathan Movroydis: What went into building the space program, especially NASA, into a vital organization?
John Logsdon: Well, Kennedy not only talked the talk, he walked the walk, to use a cliché. He backed up his commitment to going to the moon with human and financial resources that were war-like in scale, although peaceful in intent. The NASA budget the first year after his speech went up 89% over the preceding year, then next year 101%, NASA’s workforce doubled, the contractor workforce quadrupled. So this was a mobilization of national effort towards a very clearly defined goal. Kennedy said, “Send a man to the moon and return him safely to earth before this decade is out.” So you had a destination and you had a deadline.
Jonathan Movroydis: Could you take us through some of the important missions before Apollo 11? How many were there and what were the most important ones?
John Logsdon: Well, of course. When Kennedy made his speech, our sum total of human space flight experience was at 15 minutes suborbital flight by Alan Shepard. So there were the orbital flights of Mercury, the 10 flights of the two-person Gemini Program, which demonstrated that humans could survive as long in space as it needed to get to the moon and back, and we could do the rendezvous that were necessary for getting to the moon. And then Apollo, the first Apollo, was planned for February of 1967, but on January 27th of ‘67 on the launch pad, there was a fire that killed three astronauts, Gus Grissom, Roger Chaffee, and Ed White.
That set the program back as the capsule was redesigned. So the first human flight in Apollo was in October of 1968. That was Apollo 7. It had been preceded by some tests of the Saturn V. And then what I think is probably almost as important as Apollo 11 was the decision to send the first flight carrying a crew on top of the Saturn V moon rocket into orbit around the moon. That was Apollo 8. That happened when they went into lunar orbit on Christmas Eve, 1968, read from Genesis in the Bible, Bill Anders took the iconic Earthrise photo. And it was pretty clear that we were only months away from getting to the moon. Then Apollo nine tested the lunar lander in Earth orbit. Apollo 10 was a dress rehearsal in May of ‘69 and did everything except actually land. Got down to 40,000 feet above the lunar surface and then came 11 in July of ‘69.
Jonathan Movroydis: What was the national attitude like? Was there a national mood of excitement and anticipation that the moon landing would be inevitable?
John Logsdon: Well, certainly it wasn’t inevitable, it was [inaudible 00:09:55]. You have to go back and remember how bad the ‘60s were. We were bogged down in a seemingly endless conflict in SouthEast Asia, there were urban riots, our leaders, John Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King were assassinated, riots during the Democratic convention in Chicago in ‘68, so Apollo came and it’s one of the few positive things at that period of time. As it became clear we were going to make the attempt to land on the moon in mid 69, I think there was a great deal of public excitement. I was part of it. I traveled to Kennedy Space Center and was there the day of the launch
Jonathan Movroydis: In January 1969, Nixon is inaugurated president of the United States. He used a lot of illusion and its inaugural to the moon landing. Could you touch upon the idea of…you talked a little bit about the nation being divided. Could you touch upon the use of going to the moon as a message of national unity?
John Logsdon: Well, I think President Nixon, Nancy, took office in January of ‘69 exactly six months before Armstrong stepped on the moon, just as a sidebar, realized that the moon landing was going to be national accomplishment of the first order and very much wanted to use it to symbolize a number of the themes in his administration, including trying to bring the country together and restoring respect for the country around the world.
Jonathan Movroydis: You had mentioned that Nixon…and after Paul, you had mentioned Nixon wanted to portray himself as a peacemaker. You had talked about the idea of national unity and getting respect for the United States throughout the world. Could you talk about it a little bit more in terms of the Cold War at this period of time? Why was this national achievement so important?
John Logsdon: Well, I mean, we were still locked in a geopolitical competition with the Soviet Union. And one of the elements of Nixon’s strategy was to seek some form of detente with the Soviet Union. And so he reached out even before the moon landing. The Apollo 8 commander Frank Borman made a trip to the Soviet Union. He was the first U.S. astronaut to go to the Soviet Union in…I believe it was June or early July ‘69, carrying a message said that after the United States was successful in Apollo, we were interested in working with the Soviet Union on the next steps in space.
Jonathan Movroydis: Was there any sorta contingency? What if it had gone all wrong? I mean, what if the moon landing hadn’t happened as it, you know, as it didn’t happen on Apollo 13. Was there a contingency of what might happen sort of…?
John Logsdon: Well, sure. Again, the same person, Frank Borman, still with us today, Apollo 8 commander, was detailed by NASA to the White House to help President Nixon prepare for all the events surrounding Apollo 11 and the landing. And at some point he asked, “Have you figured out what to say to the widows? You know, kind of implying that this was an extremely risky undertaking and that success was far from assured. And Nixon’s speechwriter, William Sapphire wrote a speech that was prepared for Nixon in the event of a tragedy and, in particular, if they couldn’t get off the moon and were stuck on the moon. I believe you have that speech in your Apollo 11 exhibit at the Nixon Museum right now.
Jonathan Movroydis: President Nixon greatly admired astronaut Frank Borman. Could you talk about their relationship a little bit?
John Logsdon: Well, in doing the “After Apollo” book, one of the people I talked to was John Ehrlichman. And Ehrlichman said that Nixon admired all the astronauts, he viewed them almost as the sons he had never had. But Borman among them was the straight shooter, the cold warrior. His personality seemed to mesh very well with President Nixon. I talked to Borman in doing a book and he said they were never social friends, but on a professional level, they got along extremely well. And it was Borman that became kind of a source of trusted advice to the president on that and how to deal with the various elements of celebrating Apollo 11.
Jonathan Movroydis: And what were the elements in terms of celebrating it?
John Logsdon: There are funny stories here. The president intended to go down and have dinner with the Apollo 11 crew a day or two before the launch. And the chief medical officer, Chuck Berry, said, “Oh, you know, he’s gonna be carrying a lot of germs. Maybe that’s not a great idea. And there was such a hullabaloo in the media that the president decided to cancel the trip and indeed not attend the launch. Rather, he decided to attend the landing and welcomed the crew back from the moon as they came back to the Pacific Ocean on July the 24th. And so he flew out to the aircraft carrier Hornet, even though NASA said they’re gonna go directly into isolation, all you can do is talk to them while they’re in their isolation trailer, you’re not gonna be able to shake their hands or have any direct interaction.
But he was determined to be there and to mark the occasion of the return from the first trip to the moon. He built a global trip around that journey to the Hornet. And he kept going, and the most outstanding element of that trip was his visit to Romania where he made the first steps to his trip to China in 1972, I guess. But anyway, opening up the relationship with China, through the intermediary of the Romanian dictator.
Jonathan Movroydis: So, in a sense, Nixon tethered some of his space policy to his foreign policy.
John Logsdon: Well, I mean, after all, Apollo was an exercise in foreign policy. That’s why it was started and that’s why it was completed. It was to send a message of American power, of American technological competence, of kind of national spirit, not only to our citizens but to the rest of the world. So it was a foreign policy activity in the first place and Nixon recognized that and decided to kind of leverage it to advance his foreign policy goals.
Jonathan Movroydis: You had mentioned in “After Apollo” that, in his discussions with Borman, Nixon talked about possibly internationalizing the space program by using scientists and other personnel from other countries to get them up to speed in their ventures to outer space. Could you touch upon this a little bit?
John Logsdon: Well, Nixon called international involvement in the U.S. space program his pet idea. And he was very interested in the possibility of flying non-U.S. astronauts on later Apollo missions. He was told that there was a long queue of Americans waiting for flight assignments and that if he dropped down a German in the middle of that, it would not be appreciated. But he pushed very hard to open the post-Apollo space program to international participation, which did happen with the Canadians and the Europeans contributing to the space shuttle program. And he also was in favor of U.S.-Soviet cooperation that turned into the Apollo-Soyuz mission carried out in 1975. So, I think with no exaggeration, one can say that that President Nixon was one of the pioneers of international participation in the U.S. human space flight program.
Jonathan Movroydis: Yeah. Could you tell us a little bit about the Apollo-Soyuz mission, what that entailed?
John Logsdon: I’m trying to think where to start with that. There was a movie in 1970 or ‘71 called “Marooned,” that showed an astronaut stranded in space and rescued by a Soviet cosmonaut. And it kinda sparked the idea of rescue missions and of learning how a U.S. spacecraft and a Soviet spacecraft could, in fact, rendezvous and dock. The White House asked NASA to investigate the feasibility of that idea. That was done in ‘70 and ‘71. And just before Nixon traveled to Moscow for the May, 1972, U.S.-Soviet summit, a decision was finally made to make one of the summit agreements, an agreement to do this joint docking mission, which actually took place in ‘75.
Jonathan Movroydis: You devote a chapter of your book to the Nixon space policy doctrine. Could you tell us generally what that entailed?
John Logsdon: Well, it’s a phrase that I coined. Whatever his engagement with the space program, President Nixon never made a space policy speech. What he did was commission, as he came into office, a study of what should happen after Apollo that was chaired by vice president Agnew. And that study was captured by the visionaries in NASA and recommended that after going to the moon, we should go to Mars and build up all the capabilities required for an ambitious Mars mission in the 1980s.
President Nixon judged that the country did not want to do that, that there was no public support for the kind of high level of spending that had made Apollo possible and ultimately issued a response to this space task group report in a statement that came out in March of 1970, which he said space has to take its place as one of the normal things that the country does, not as something special in a great expression of energy and money, but it has to compete with all the other things we wanna do in terms of priority, in terms of funding. And I think that has been the case since 1970. That the space program went from the 5% of the budget that it was at the peak of Apollo, by the time Richard Nixon left the White House, it was down close to 1% of the federal budget and it stayed at that level or lower ever since. So I think what I’ve called the Nixon space doctrine really defined the U.S. space program from 1970 till today.
Jonathan Movroydis: Do you think that was a result of Cold War priorities where spending would go in terms of…and conformity with a policy of detente with the Soviet Union or did that reflect more domestic political considerations, policy considerations?
John Logsdon: I think it was more of domestic policy in the sense that President Nixon gave very high priority to reducing the size of the federal budget and therefore not spending a lot of money on discretionary things, and the space program is a discretionary thing unless it was fully justified. And in his judgment, there was no compelling reason to keep the space program at a very high spending level.
Jonathan Movroydis: You had mentioned that he wanted to purpose some of the space exploration for domestic purposes of… Could you tell us what that might’ve entailed or did entail?
John Logsdon: Well, one of the things most important to any politician is getting reelected. And as President Nixon came up for reelection in 1972, he recognized that the space program could be a very useful producer of jobs in states that were critical to his reelection and in particular California where he was behind in the polls to Senator Muskie in late 1971. And so one of the elements in his decision to approve as a follow on to Apollo, the space shuttle program, was the employment impact that it would have nationally, but particularly in southern California. There’s nothing particularly nefarious about that. That’s the way things operate.
Jonathan Movroydis: NASA launched the shuttle program beginning in the Nixon administration. Could you give us a background on the origins and development of the shuttle program?
John Logsdon: Sure. As people in NASA thought about what they would like to do after Apollo, their first priority was to create a permanent outpost in Earth orbit as a space station. And the one that they settled on was a 12-person space station, hopefully, launched by a Saturn V moon rocket. They recognized the economics of operating the space station required some form of lowering the cost of sending supplies and rotating crews, something to lower the cost of space transportation, something to go back and forth to the station, something to shuttle. And so in ‘69 and ‘70, NASA studied a fully reusable aircraft type landing on a runway vehicle called the space shuttle.
The Nixon Administration decided in 1970 that they would not support a space station. And now all that was left of NASA’s post-Apollo plans was this space shuttle concept and NASA reinvented it as a launch vehicle for everything, not only for the NASA program but for the military program. And so it was designed to meet the requirements for launching intelligence satellites and other military programs. It had to be cost-effective. The OMB insisted that the economics showed that it was less expensive than just throwing a launch vehicle away every time you used it. And so there was a kind of optimistic economic analysis underpinning the decision. And ultimately, the administration, for a combination of factors, keeping humans flying, keeping NASA occupied, NASA engineers, producing good jobs for scientists and engineers across the country, providing a military capability that seems very promising, all of those added up to a case for approving the shuttle. And so the approval was announced January the 5th, 1972 at the Western White House.
Jonathan Movroydis: Our guest today is Dr. John Logsdon, Professor Emeritus of Political Science and International Affairs at the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University. Our topic was Richard Nixon and the space program. Dr. Logsdon, thank you so much for your time.
John Logsdon: Pleasure.
Jonathan Movroydis: Please check back for future podcasts at nixonfoundation.org or on your favorite podcast app. This is Jonathan Movroydis in Yorba Linda.