At the same time, the U.S. had developed new priorities - for example, prosecuting the war in Indochina. This was reflected in changes in NASA's budget and workforce. The space agency's budget peaked in 1967 at nearly $6 billion, or about 0.9% of Gross National Product (GNP) - the largest fraction of GNP NASA ever attained. By the time of the triumphant first Apollo moon landing on July 20, 1969, NASA's budget had been pared to $4 billion. In 1965, the NASA and NASA contractor workforce totaled 420,000 people across the United States; by the end of Fiscal Year 1969, this had slumped to 220,000, triggering an “aerospace depression.” States like California and Florida, where space contractors were concentrated, bore the brunt of the cuts. With this background in mind, NASA’s report to the STG began with the following prescient words:
At the moment of its greatest triumph, the space program of the United States faces a crucial situation. Decisions made this year will affect the course of space activity for decades to come. . .NASA argued that the Nixon Administration had before it a unique opportunity for greatness. Nixon could, if he so chose, become the President known for launching America to the planets.
This Administration has a unique opportunity to determine the long-term future of the Nation's space progress. We recommend that the United States adopt as a continuing goal the exploration of the solar system. . .To focus our developments and integrate our programs, we recommend that the United States prepare for manned planetary expeditions in the 1980s.In an effort to stem its critics, who increasingly asserted that NASA's programs and goals were irrelevant to America's many pressing problems, the NASA report devoted considerable attention to Earth-centered benefits of spaceflight - for example, the potential public health benefits of medical experiments performed aboard Earth-orbiting space stations - and claimed that "the national civilian space effort has contributed $35 billion in goods and services to the U.S. economy." At the time, a large Earth-orbiting space station was NASA’s top priority as an immediate post-Apollo goal. Recognizing that the Soviet space threat no longer carried the weight that it had a decade earlier, and knowing the Nixon Administration’s own geopolitical preferences, NASA proposed spaceflight as a vehicle for international cooperation, not competition.
The report then asserted that NASA should receive sufficient resources in the 1970s to build on the capabilities it developed in the 1960s, a period during which
the American space program progressed from the 31-pound Explorer 1 in earth orbit to Apollo spacecraft weighing 50 tons sent out to the moon; [and] from manned flights of a few thousand miles and 15-minute duration to the 500,000 mile round-trip 8-day [Apollo 11] mission which landed men on the moon and returned them safely to earth.Continued manned lunar exploration after Apollo would, the report explained, "expand man's domain to include the moon." Large space stations and a space transportation system comprising reusable vehicles - a winged shuttle for delivering crews and supplies to the Earth-orbiting station, a nuclear-propulsion cislunar shuttle for transportation between Earth orbit and a lunar-orbiting space station, and a chemical-propulsion space tug that would do double-duty as a moon lander - would support the post-Apollo lunar program. This “integrated program” would lay the groundwork for the first manned Mars landing in the 1980s.
This vision, often identified with rocketry pioneer Wernher von Braun, director of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, is probably better ascribed to George Mueller, who became NASA’s Associate Administrator for Manned Space Flight in November 1963, NASA’s new Administrator, Thomas O. Paine, an STG member and chief author of NASA's report to the STG, and U.S. Vice-President and STG chair Spiro Agnew. More politically savvy and technically conservative STG participants – for example, U.S. Air Force Secretary Robert Seamans, a former NASA Deputy Administrator - did their best to rein in the breathless enthusiasm of Washington neophytes Paine and Agnew. Seamans, Office of Management and Budget chief Robert Mayo, and others understood that neither President Nixon nor the Congress would support a new Apollo-scale space program, let alone one several times larger and more costly.
NASA’s report proposed four possible "program rates" based on available funding. The “maximum rate” (that is, fully funded) program would begin in 1975, immediately following the last Apollo moon missions and the Skylab Program, with the launch on a two-stage Saturn V of the Earth-orbiting station and the maiden flight of the winged Earth-to-orbit shuttle. The following year, NASA would use Saturn Vs to launch a space station to lunar orbit and would debut the space tug/lunar lander. The year 1978 would see introduction of the nuclear cislunar shuttle and a lunar surface base established using space tug landers. By 1980, a 50-man Space Base would orbit the Earth. The next year, NASA would launch the first in a series of three-year Mars expeditions. The Space Base, meanwhile, would expand by 1985 - just one decade after program start - to support a crew of 100.
NASA’s Program I was only a little less ambitious than the maximum rate. It would start a year later, in 1976, with the Earth-orbiting space station and Earth-to-orbit space shuttle. The lunar-orbiting station and space tug/lunar lander would be postponed two years to 1978. The nuclear cislunar shuttle would, however, also debut in 1978, the same year as in the maximum rate program. The year 1980 would see both the lunar surface base and the 50-man Space Base brought into service. The first Mars expedition would be bumped to 1983, but the 100-man Space Base would be in place by 1985, as in the maximum rate plan.
Program II, the pacing option Agnew favored, would get off to a delayed start, with the Earth-orbiting space station and Earth-to-orbit shuttle both coming on line in 1977. The lunar-orbiting station, space tug/lunar lander, and nuclear cislunar shuttle would begin operations simultaneously in 1981, with the lunar surface base following two years later. The following year (1984), 50 men would orbit Earth in a Space Base. Men would walk on Mars for the first time in 1986, and the Space Base population would reach 100 in 1989.
NASA’s Program III, tacked on almost as an afterthought, was hardly an attempt at conservatism: it was identical to Program II, except that it set no date for the first Mars expedition. The Nixon Administration paid lip service to elements of Program III, declaring that the decisions it was making about NASA's future would make possible a manned Mars voyage before the end of the 20th century. At the same time, however, Nixon continued to cut NASA's budget until it touched bottom at about $3 billion in Fiscal Year 1971. This spelled the end for the technologies and hardware NASA had identified as necessary for humans on Mars, including nuclear propulsion, the Saturn V, and the large Earth-orbiting station. Mueller saw the handwriting on the wall and left his NASA post in December 1969; Paine resigned close to the first anniversary of NASA's report to the STG.
For his part, Mueller's departure did not signify that he had abandoned support for an integrated NASA program including space stations, a moonbase, and Mars expeditions. Almost as a parting shot, he published "An Integrated Space Program for the Next Generation," the cover article in the January 1970 issue of Astronautics & Aeronautics.
Significantly, the cover illustration for Mueller's article depicted a two-stage fully-reusable Space Shuttle (top image above). The Shuttle had already begun its rise from a mere utilitarian logistics spacecraft in Mueller and Paine's plan to the multipurpose centerpiece of Nixon's post-Apollo space program. On January 5 of the election year 1972, Nixon and new NASA Administrator James Fletcher unveiled a partially reusable Space Shuttle design in California, a state crucial for Nixon's reelection bid. They announced that the Shuttle would be assembled there, creating tens of thousands of aerospace jobs.