TAPE 1, SIDE 1
DR. MAUER: The subject of the discussion is Dr. Fletcher's first term as administrator of NASA [National Aeronautics and Space Administration]. A moment ago, you were saying that the second term as administrator has been more difficult than the first. As an historian, I'm struck by how difficult the first was.
DR. FLETCHER: Could say it the other way around. The first term seems like a piece of cake compared to the second term. That's a little different way of saying what you said.
MAUER: That's a comparative. When you came to NASA, you were confirmed by the [United States] Senate in March. It was by early May that you were--
FLETCHER: Yes, it was around May 12 or thereabouts that I came aboard, 1971.
MAUER: How did it strike you? There was a lot of ferment, looking at it from the outside in, as an historian.
FLETCHER: There was a lot of ferment, but let's look at the positive side first. We had three more missions to complete to the moon, and I'll get back to that in a minute. We were on the verge of a program called the "Grand Tour of the Planets." The planets line up once every 137 years or something like that, so that with gravity assist you can get all the planets with one vehicle. And then we had just a lot of scientific programs about to get under way, some of them already started. Plus the fact that we had to look at the next new manned space program, because we knew the Apollo was going to phase out, and I had the intuitive feeling that the president [Richard M. Nixon] wasn't going to let that one die, and that intuitive feeling turned out to be right.
So it wasn't all black. The only thing that looked black at that time was the fact that the budget was rapidly shrinking, and we had to come up with these programs pretty quickly, or we might be in deep trouble.
But other than the budget, I think things looked pretty good. I know from the outside they may have looked bad, but from where I sat they looked pretty good.
MAUER: Okay. When you actually started work as administrator, you needed to both move NASA in terms of dealing with OMB, [Office of Management and Budget] with the White House, in trying to find balances on the budget question, and also there was the question of what type of shuttle was the agency going to build.
FLETCHER: That's right.
MAUER: And those two in some ways separate worlds, I expect, had a great deal of influence on one another.
FLETCHER: Yes. The problem was that it was clear, after a lot of discussion with OMB, that we weren't going to get a huge increase in our budget from where it had been the previous year, and so the only question was, what level of a budget were we talking about? Most of the programs that we had visualized for the future required a significant increase in the budget. And after a lot of back and forth with OMB, it was pretty clear that we weren't going to get that fairly large increase in budget. So we had to devise a program for NASA that had a significant manned space element, and we began to focus on a type of shuttle that would fit that, but at the same time keep a reasonable balance between that program and the rest of NASA. We couldn't spend all our money on the space shuttle program. That's where a lot of gyrations were gone through, different kinds of shuttle configurations.
Then we had to make cost-effective analyses and all of that sort of thing, which I felt were kind of a waste of time, but nevertheless OMB insisted that the shuttle really be cost-effective, and they set the ground rules and we passed through that hoop all right, but in retrospect it was clear that a lot of that data was wrong. But we resolved the problem reasonably well. We struck a deal with OMB that we would go with this configuration, it would cost so much, and the overall funding profile would be, as I recall it, $3.2 billion in 1970 dollars.
MAUER: As I understand it, it was 1971.
FLETCHER: 1971 dollars. I'm sorry. 1971 dollars. Cap [Casper W.] Weinberger never bought that. He said it was 1972 dollars. And so there was a little discussion between 1971 and '72, but we're talking differences of five percent or so because the inflation wasn't bad at that time. Nevertheless, that's the deal we struck with OMB, finally.
Now there were a lot of gyrations in between the final outcome and the beginning, when we began to settle on what our budget level ought to be, but nevertheless we came out with a pretty good balance between science, aeronautics, and then we had applications at that time, too, and the manned space program, which consisted of, you remember, the tail-off of the Apollo, the Skylab which followed that, and then we added on top of everything else this Apollo-Soyuz, which was an extra. That was two and a half years from start to finish, that one. And it was a pretty good deal that we struck. It only lasted one year, but that's all right. The deal that we struck was a good one.
MAUER: What I would like to do is talk about some of the gyrations with you, please.
FLETCHER: Sure. During the first year or after that?
MAUER: Particularly in the first year.
FLETCHER: First year, Okay.
MAUER: When you were coming on board, NASA was completing its Phase B studies.
FLETCHER: For the shuttle?
MAUER: For the shuttle, yes.
FLETCHER: There were lots of Phase B studies going on.
MAUER: Two-stage fully reusable, simultaneous with the Phase B studies, two-stage fully reusable, and then what had come to be called ultimate Phase A studies looking at other approaches. One contractor in particular, Grumman, had come up with innovative ideas that were important along with the whole process of looking at ideas that goes on in NASA, pointing to alternatives that suggested some technological advantages, and technological advantages that suggested a lower cost vehicle.
And when you came on board, there had also been a redirection of the Phase B Shuttle Studies, or at least an important addition to them, where it was no longer just fully reusable. They were looking at the idea of external hydrogen tanks on the orbiter with dropped tanks over the wings. All the major contractors were looking at this idea. Phase B came to an end shortly after you took up your work as administrator, and NASA entered into an alternate Phase B, where these contractors were looking at a variety of different ideas. What were the circumstances in deciding to go to the alternate Phase B?
FLETCHER: Let me correct what may be a wrong impression on your part. When I came aboard, I really didn't have much to do with contractors. So there were a lot of contractor studies, and I had models all over my desk and pictures and so forth. I mostly dealt with two people: Dale Myers, who was in charge of manned space program at that time, and George Low. And then there was another fellow who was working with Dale at the time by the name of Charlie [Charles] Donlan. Charlie Donlan was a good systems person, and I really never knew for sure how much Charlie got by doing his own studies and how much he got from contractors, because I just never interfaced with the contractors very much. That's something that people may have a wrong impression about. I interfaced only with those three people.
And also Wernher von Braun. Wernher von Braun was doing the long-range planning, and trying to figure out how to fund some of these different configurations and still keep a funding profile that was consistent with what we understood OMB to favor. So Wernher von Braun was interested, too, and involved. So those four people. And we decided that the fully reusable--and there were several versions of that, but everything was recovered, the first stage and the second stage--would not fit that profile, no matter what we did, if we stretched it out or whatever.
MAUER: The budget profile.
FLETCHER: The budget profile. Wernher came to that conclusion very early, and he said, "Look, unless you can change the ground rules, I don't think we can do this fully reusable vehicle." And about the same time there began to be the feeling from the technical folks, Dale Myers particularly, that that was going to be a tough program to implement. It was a little too advanced for what we felt we were capable of doing. Even though we'd done the Apollo, that seemed less complicated than this fully reusable shuttle. So those two came together at about the same time, and we decided that a partially reusable--and there were various versions of that for a while--is the right way to go.
The problem we had was that we couldn't show cost-effectiveness to OMB. They insisted on a ten percent discounted cash flow so we'd get our money back in savings over the expendable vehicles. And it was tough to get that ten percent, by the way. Ten percent was probably too strict a requirement, but that was already agreed to when I came.
And so we had a hard time meeting that criterion, and we couldn't fake it because we had some pretty good people working the problem. We had Aerospace Corporation looking at the payload model, and then we had a company called Mathematica, Inc., Oscar Morgenstern, looking at the economics. We simply couldn't find a fully reusable configuration that would fit the OMB criterion, until we began to think of payloads that could be reused, and at that time we had a lot of low-altitude payloads, and we also had the possibility of recovering synchronous orbit payloads. When we again looked at that we decided, yes, we could just barely make this ten percent criterion, and we could make it easily at, as I recall--now these numbers may be wrong--at fifty flights per year. That's what Aerospace Corporation was coming out with, a payload model, mission model, we called it. But if necessary, with the recovery of low-altitude payloads and some recovery of the high-altitude payloads, we could still make it at twenty-five flights per year. And that was the criterion: twenty-five flights per year, we would get our money back over a long enough period of time.
MAUER: That touches on a very controversial area, and that is the mission models. Everybody who's interested in the shuttle is aware that there's been real criticism that these figures were unrealistic.
FLETCHER: Well, they may have been, but they were for the time the best we could come up with. Aerospace Corporation was an unbiased party. In fact, they by and large didn't like manned space at all. They had just had the MOL program, the Manned Orbiting Laboratory program, cancelled, and by and large they were less than enthusiastic about ANY manned program. So they were an unbiased participant. Mathematica, Inc., I don't think had any bias one way or the other, although they were anxious to come up with any innovative approaches they could of economic analysis, and they did. They came up with this--oh, I've forgotten what they called it, "Extended Horizon" or some word like that, which was quite a good invention. But nevertheless, these are figures that we just used from them. We didn't make them up. So it was the best we had at the time. In retrospect you can say they were unrealistic, but I don't think at the time anybody could have said they were unrealistic.
MAUER: That's a question that OMB I'm sure was asking. What's the validity of these? So the fact that the mission model figures were coming from Aerospace was one of the significant answers that you were giving to OMB?
FLETCHER: Yes, that's one of the hurdles that we had to go through. By the way, I don't think it was a very good hurdle to go through, personally.
FLETCHER: I thought the shuttle had a lot of capability which no other vehicle had, and the fact that it only gave three percent return on investment rather than ten percent was not a significant issue. But nevertheless, that was the criterion they laid down, and so we had to struggle with that.
MAUER: What was your understanding of why they were so strict in pushing for the ten percent discount?
FLETCHER: Don't know. I think, quite frankly, it was because of the kinds of people that we had at OMB at that time. They were systems analysts left over from the Robert [S.] McNamara period, and I had been at PSAC [President's Science Advisory Committee] when all that was going on, and I didn't exactly accept all this kind of systems analysis then, and I don't know whether I fully accept it now.
MAUER: What's your criticism of it?
FLETCHER: Because you can make systems analysis prove anything you want, and they did. The worst case that I remember was the justification for the C-5A. It was called the CFX or something like that and became the C-5A. They were trying to prove that the C-5A was cost-effective, more so than the C-140, by showing that there was a three percent improvement based on systems analysis over the C-140, but the uncertainties were twenty percent. Alain Enthoven was the one that made that analysis, and in retrospect that was just a lot of hocus-pocus, because you can make a very precise analysis on a computer, but if the assumptions are wrong, the analysis can be way wrong. So I was very critical of the whole process of systems analysis, although I thought it was a good discipline to go through, still do, but I don't think you should pay too much attention to the results. So I was skeptical of that whole approach.
MAUER: Why is it a good discipline, but you should not pay any attention to the results?
FLETCHER: Because it gives you some idea of whether you're in the right ball park or not.
MAUER: It's a way of viewing rather than finding the answer.
FLETCHER: I think so, yes. It's not a precision technology at all.
MAUER: In your mind, it was the special, even unique capabilities of the shuttle that was the reason why you--
FLETCHER: Absolutely, and I said that repeatedly. I don't know whether all my testimonies, but I read through quite a few of them, just to check the record, after I came back the second time, and indeed I insisted that that was the main reason for going ahead with the shuttle. It had unique capabilities. It was different from any other capabilities that existed in the world. And it still does. It still has those unique capabilities.
MAUER: It's one thing to understand in your own mind what is most important, and it's another thing when you're having to go and sell a program to others.
FLETCHER: That's correct.
MAUER: Members of the White House.
FLETCHER: Quite right.
MAUER: What arguments were most successful when you were dealing with OMB and the White House?
FLETCHER: Different with the White House than with OMB. I never did win the argument with OMB. I lost. They kept being critical. They didn't like the mission model, even though it was done by an unbiased third party. They had their own mission model, and they talked to a lot of other contractors who thought it was wrong and so forth. So I don't think we ever did convince OMB.
But we did convince the president, and it was a simple argument. He wasn't going to let the manned space program die, and the space shuttle was the only thing on the horizon. We'd already cancelled, before I came aboard, the Saturn V production so we couldn't start that up again. And so we had a limited number of manned space flights remaining for the Saturn.
So it was either go for something like the shuttle, which had a lot of superior capabilities, and push the state of the art pretty hard, or just do stunts in space. I don't know what other things I could call it. Send people up and do a scientific experiment and then come down by parachute dropping in the ocean. That didn't seem very attractive. The shuttle really had the potential of being a very cost-effective transportation system, with all of these new capabilities, and so the president really didn't have much of a choice. It was either go for the shuttle or forget about manned space. It was a very simple choice, and he made the choice: "Hey, let's continue on with the space shuttle."
MAUER: There was a lot of talk about employment in the aerospace industry in this period. In fact, this talk had been going on for some time before you became administrator. In the very end of 1970, NASA--George Low had been told that Skylab had been pulled out, and it was going to be cancelled, and it was out of the budget. Only when the employment figures had been looked at, that Skylab had been put back in. There was a big debate going on inside the White House at the end of 1971, and as I understand it, aerospace employment was another important question that was being discussed. What role did aerospace employment play?
FLETCHER: None, in my mind. I had heard this going by, but I didn't pay any attention to that. It seemed to me we had to come up with good programs that made sense, and it is true that during that time the United States Defense Department was cutting back at the same time that NASA was cutting back, and so there was a problem with aerospace employment. But I didn't get involved in that discussion. That was not part of my thinking, nor was it George Low's, in my opinion. I think George and I were trying to put together a program that made sense for the country, and aerospace employment was not a major consideration, if any. Now in the White House, that may be a different story.
MAUER: Are you familiar with what was going on in the White House on this?
FLETCHER: No, not very familiar with it. I was reasonably convinced that the president wasn't going to allow the manned space program to die out, not by talking with the president directly, but talking to George [P.] Shultz, who was really the director of OMB but didn't get involved in a lot of these discussions, and Peter Flanigan. Peter Flanigan was the White House special assistant who was in charge of independent agencies. The White House had to divide itself into three parts in those days: domestic policy, national security policy and then independent agencies. And Peter was concerned with independent agencies, and as also was, to a very limited extent, John Ehrlichman, who was domestic policy advisor. I was pretty well convinced that the president should not and would not let the manned space program die. That was because we'd landed some people on the moon, after all, and we were the leading nation in the world in manned space. We shouldn't just quit after the one-shot deal. I think that's what led him to say, hey, we've got to go ahead with the manned space program, but on a level that we can afford.
MAUER: What about national security? That we need a national presence in space, the question of international cooperation. The focus was building on getting Europeans involved, and indeed they built--the Space Lab--two major portions of the shuttle.
FLETCHER: That may have been a factor, but I think that was not a major factor in my thinking or, I think, the president's thinking. But of course I don't know what was in his mind completely, but that didn't play a major role.
MAUER: So your discussions with the president focussed primarily upon this question of, is it going to be manned space? Can we really afford it?
FLETCHER: Yes. Is there a manned space program that makes sense that we can really afford? And when we came up with the current version of the shuttle, he said, "That's right on." Especially since it did have the potential at least for reducing the transportation costs. By the way, it still does. The jury is still out on that, even though we had an accident and we had to slow down on the rate and so forth. It's still a very inexpensive way to go to space on an incremental basis.
Unfortunately, two things happened that were bad. One is that the fixed costs were a lot higher than we had estimated at the time, and then the other is that the number of flights per year was less. But on an incremental basis even now, there's about a five-to-one advantage of the shuttle over any expendable launch vehicle: that is, if we could just fly one more shuttle per year.
MAUER: Yes, in terms of the marginal costs.
FLETCHER: Marginal costs. It's still about a five-to-one advantage. But unfortunately, the fixed costs were so large that that washes out the marginal cost advantage. But nevertheless, at the time it had the potential of being a low-cost transportation system, plus all of these other capabilities. You could repair satellites in space. You could recover satellites. You could actually do experiments in space on the shuttle, in the space lab, and so on. It had a lot of brand new capabilities, by the way, which nobody in the world has yet to replicate. So it had these other qualities, but the president also liked the low cost aspect of it. I don't think there's any question about that.
MAUER: Space tug was to be a major part.
FLETCHER: Yes, it was.
MAUER: Indeed, Mathematica's work showed that where the shuttle was going to have a real advantage was with satellites.
FLETCHER: Synchronous satellites, yes.
MAUER: Well, synchronous satellites, but the total satellite operation is the way they'd like to talk about it. And the space tug was critical to the synchronous satellites.
MAUER: What happened?
FLETCHER: Couldn't fit it into the budget. We tried, but it just wouldn't fit the profile. It was still in the budget for the first year I was here, but then OMB reneged. George Shultz left as director of OMB, and Cap Weinberger took over, and he said, "I'm no longer bound by the commitments that George Shultz made"--although he was the one that made it--"and I'm going to cut your budget $500 million from what I committed last year."
That was a bad scene. That's when I came close--when you say black days, that was a really black two weeks. And at that time we had to restructure all of NASA in a very short time. We had to completely drop all of the communication satellite work that we were doing, just cancelled that out completely. We had to restructure a program called HEAO, High Energy Astronomic Observatory. We had to stretch the shuttle program out at least one year, and the schedule slipped. And we also dropped any consideration of the tug. This was in the very next year after the shuttle program started. That must have been the fiscal '73 budget. Of course, we settled on a little less than a $500 million cut, but it was a significant cut, which OMB just felt they had to do.
Remember, this was about December of '72. Elections were past, but inflation was in those days rampant, and we had wage- price freezes, and everybody was worried about "stagflation". Compared to what we had later, it was nothing, but nevertheless they brought in John Connally to be the secretary of the treasury, to handle this wage-price freeze. So all of these considerations, very much like our budget deficit situation now, convinced them that they had to make a cut and renege on their commitment to NASA. So the tug vanished along with a lot of other good programs.
MAUER: And Weinberger had the reputation for being a space buff.
FLETCHER: He was a space buff, but he was a hard-nosed budgeteer too, and that transcended his interest in space. See he'd been budget director in California and did a lot of the budget cutting for [Governor Ronald] Reagan in California, and he was known, before he came to Washington, as "Cap the Knife." He was heartless as far as that cut was concerned.
I told him, "Cap, I thought you were a space buff," and he said, "Yes, I am, but you fellows at NASA do so well with the money we give you that you can afford a cut more than anybody else."
Those were his words. That's the reward for putting in superior performance. That was the response. But fortunately, we did get things--oh, he wanted also to eliminate the Viking program, which was about a third of the way finished by that fateful year. But we managed to save the Viking program, even though we had to cut out some of the experiments, we saved that. In the process we had to "suspend" the HEAO program while it was being reconfigured, drop the communications satellite, drop the tug, and stretch out the shuttle, during that second year I was here. That was the low point in my first tour.
MAUER: What about 1974, when there was a great deal of talk about just doing away with NASA altogether?
FLETCHER: I don't remember that. I don't remember that talk.
MAUER: I've seen some very interesting documents over at OMB about that. But that doesn't stand out in your mind?
MAUER: It's 1972.
FLETCHER: Yes, December of '72, when we were doing the '73 budget. The reason I remember it so well is because NASA had to be restructured while we still had two astronauts from Apollo, the last two astronauts on the moon, and we had to go back to Washington and settle a lot of this restructuring while they were still walking around on the moon. [Laughter] I thought we'd get a pat on the back for that, and instead we got our budget cut. I don't ever remember discussions about doing away with NASA, quite frankly. It may have been going on in the White House, but it never got to me.
MAUER: It never got to you?
MAUER: That very interesting, because I wasn't aware of it either. I was very surprised when I--
FLETCHER: I don't know. Who were the people that were thinking about that? Do you have any names?
MAUER: I have the documents. I've just gotten them and the names have not stuck with me.
FLETCHER: It never got through to me, and to the best of my knowledge, not to George Low either. Of course, President Nixon, as I recall--was gone.
MAUER: Because this is [Gerald R.] Ford. This is the beginning of the Ford Administration.
FLETCHER: Oh, gee. Ford was such a big supporter of space. It's hard to imagine. Maybe some of his--ah, was Roy Ash? Oh, yes, Roy. He never did talk about doing away with NASA, but he raised some very interesting questions with me. He wanted to do away with the entire aeronautics program. He couldn't understand why we were doing Aeronautics technology. We had a lot of discussions about that one. He may have asked, should we do away with NASA? But I sure don't remember it, if he did.
MAUER: It wasn't the same sort of threat. In 1972, that really was a very immediate threat.
FLETCHER: You bet, and a traumatic experience for me personally, because I couldn't imagine anybody reneging on an agreement we had made just one year previously. So that was difficult to swallow. When Ford came in, Roy Ash asked a lot of difficult questions, but they were all in a friendly mode, and I just don't remember discussing doing away with NASA. I can't imagine President Ford thinking that way, because he was a space buff too.
MAUER: Right off the bat, you had, beginning May 4, 1971, a luncheon conversation with Peter Flanigan and Edward David. And in a memo that you wrote to George Low--George Low as everybody in NASA was aware was a great record-keeper, and his papers are now at Rennsselaer.
FLETCHER: Good, I'm glad somebody kept records!
MAUER: For an historian, it's really wonderful. Ed David was telling you that he took a rather negative view towards the space shuttle. And that he was beginning to get cold feet about deciding to go ahead with the program. He was expressing that he wasn't convinced of the economic value of the Shuttle, particularly because, seeing a decrease in military usage.
FLETCHER: Yes. All that sounds right. I don't remember the details, but it sounds right.
MAUER: I'm sure you don't. It's a long time ago. What was Ed David's role in all of this?
FLETCHER: Well, Ed realized that the president really couldn't drop manned space completely. He was a skeptic on systems analysis too, by the way. He and I were on a panel for quite a few years, which I chaired most of the time, and we had to laugh at some of the systems analysis stuff that went on. So he was skeptical about our response to the OMB criteria. He was skeptical about the OMB criteria too. And so he said, "What can we do that keeps manned space alive and still doesn't cost too much?" He had his own ideas. My recollection--he invented a phrase, "Can we have an international jamboree in space?" That's close to what his words were. But based on the old idea of launching them with expendable vehicles--not Saturns but probably Titans were coming available then--and letting them drop in the ocean, but doing something with the Russians, the Europeans or whatever, and that was the least expensive thing, but in my opinion the least useful. It just didn't do anything except, as he called it, a jamboree, a circus, "a tour de force", and we just couldn't agree on that.
But nevertheless, I don't think it was a bitter controversy between Ed David and ourselves. But he did, on the basis of some of those earlier conversations, set up a special committee in PSAC to review the whole space shuttle.
MAUER: The Flax Committee.
FLETCHER: The Flax committee, right.
MAUER: What role did the Flax Committee--
FLETCHER: Well, I don't know whether I ever saw their final report. They raised a lot of questions, and again, it was about the mission model. I don't think the Flax Committee believed in systems analysis either. Like me, they were engineers mostly. But I don't remember what their conclusions were, except that they were not sure that the shuttle would do all of the things it was supposed to do.
MAUER: There was never a final report of that committee. They were badly divided. [Alexander] Flax wrote up his understanding of the general attitude and submitted it to David and the White House. Basically, at the point where they were looking at it, one of the prime foci of NASA was the Mark 1, Mark 2 phased approach, in which a lower tech initial phase and then the coming up to the full capability in the second phase, and the committee was very much against that.
But let me come back in time and kind of move forward, and then I'd like to talk with you more about this sort of debate. Another memorandum you wrote to Low was about a May 7 meeting that you had with Don Rice and other people at OMB, and you were a little bit surprised that Rice wasn't as negative as you had expected him to be. I don't expect you to remember that meeting, that's a long time ago, but rather I want to use that as a vehicle to get into, what was your relationship with Rice, or at least how was it trying to deal with him, and how did working with Rice change over the time, from early on in your experience as administrator, leading up to the critical meetings at the very end of 1971?
FLETCHER: I didn't notice much of a change, quite frankly. He was always pretty negative about the results from NASA's systems analysis. He didn't believe the payload model. I would guess, though, that towards the end of these discussions--by the way, he tried every way possible to come up with an alternative. He even invented his own shuttles. He had some aerospace people come up with their own versions of shuttles, and by the way, there are always aerospace people willing to do that. The arguments weren't bitter, but they were consistent. He was not in favor of going ahead with the shuttle that we had in mind.
But it may have been that towards the end of that period, say like November or so, he began to realize that Peter Flanigan, John Ehrlichman, the president, were beginning to sign up to something like the shuttle, and he may have been less violently opposed to the system that we were coming up with. That may have happened, because I began to notice optimism generally in the White House about going ahead, and he may have been part of that optimism. But he was privy to things that I didn't have because, you know, the White House group talked to each other and so forth, and I was never sure until December that the president really wanted to go ahead with the space shuttle. Nevertheless, other people in the White House apparently were convinced that we were on the right track, and that it was a question of dollars now and run-out and things of that sort that had to be dealt with. It could be that Don Rice was part of that, gradually giving it to that process.
MAUER: What about Shultz? Also, in this period, early on, the question of could NASA become the nation's technology agency, not just a space agency but a technology agency.
FLETCHER: Gee, I don't remember when that occurred. Was it that early?
MAUER: There were discussions. It goes on. But towards the end of May in 1971, you met with Shultz, and there were other discussions that had been going on for some time, and you wrote a memorandum to Low: "The essence of the decision was that the president thinks very highly of the achievements which NASA has made. George himself"--meaning Shultz--"feels it would be a pity to lose any of this capability that has been built up over the last ten years. George sees a declining interest in space." And so goes on to talk about NASA perhaps becoming a technology agency. How does that fit into the negotiations over the shuttle, or does it?
FLETCHER: I don't know. I don't even remember the discussions occurring that early. But I do agree with the statement. George did feel that NASA had a strong technical capability, and it should not be lost. Cap did too, by the way. It was not just George. But George, I had known before I came to Washington, so I had more frank discussions with him. I don't remember until later discussions of broadening the charter of NASA to include other than space and aeronautics. If it occurred that early, I'm surprised. But yes, I think that George did want to keep the technical capability alive, and by the way, he still does feel strongly that technology is an important element of economic progress. If you were to ask him today I think he would strongly support the space program.
TAPE 1, SIDE 2
MAUER: Would you please identify yourself?
JIM McCULLOUGH: I'm James W. McCullough. I'm the director of media relations. My question was, to understand the last question, and whether to become a technology agency meant to become an agency that delves more into technology, in addition to its mission to explore space with men and otherwise or was otherwise was it a question of becoming a technology agency and abandon or cut back substantially on manned space exploration?
FLETCHER: I think I answered that it was only the first one that ever was a consideration, in my mind at least. Nobody ever said, "Why don't you do technology instead of"--manned space was the question, not space, just manned space, because that was the expensive part. And my recollection is that those discussions didn't come that early, in terms of broadening the mission of NASA, including manned space and other things, but rather that the technology that was done by NASA should be preserved and preserved by viable programs, one of which was a good manned space program.
MAUER: Okay. Let's move forward in time. And thank you for the question, it makes them focus.
McCullough: We fight it all the time, like today.
MAUER: In summer of 1971, NASA'd moved on into the ultimate Phase A, were looking at various concepts. There was a particular focus upon moving away from fully reusable, but wanting to retain fully recoverable, take out the hydrogen tanks perhaps, and then finally, take out both the hydrogen and the oxygen tanks from the orbiter, reducing orbiter size, which would influence a booster size, even if it was going to be a reusable booster, and looking at a great many different possible alternatives. But there was real interest in trying to retain a fly-back reusable booster, smaller now because of the expendable hydrogen-oxygen tanks. But in July of 1971, got a letter from OMB stressing that the problem of overall investment cost was really the focus, that it wasn't just a question of peak year funding. The Mark I, Mark II approach dealt with the problem of peak year funding, keeping down the cost any one year, and strongly urged that further analysis was desired for expendable systems, partially expendable systems, the stage one and a half concept, estimated payload savings, realistic mission models, and alternative performance characteristics. Here is the language of systems analysis in good part I think. Would you agree with that, sir?
FLETCHER: That was the kind of talk that came from OMB. I don't know whether it's systems analysis, but I think it's partially political. Hey, we want to keep the total costs down, in addition to being cost effective. So yes, that was, the budgeteers, examiners talk, yes.
MAUER: What's driving the changes? Perhaps Dale Myers is much better to ask about that than you. How much of it is OMB putting pressure from the outside? How much of it is what's going on inside NASA, the the work on the technology itself, the type of data that's coming from the Mathematica studies?
FLETCHER: I'd say probably three-fourths coming from OMB, and the need to keep costs down, and one-fourth from our own technical concerns about the fully reusable system. Something like that. Mostly from OMB. We had to fit a funding profile. They were anxious to keep it as low as possible. They also were anxious to keep the total costs down, the investment costs, as you pointed out. And all of these things had a lot to do with the configuration that we came up with.
MAUER: But you are not dealing so much with the technical side of things, are you? Your primary focus is working out the political and budget side.
FLETCHER: Me personally?
MAUER: Yes, you personally.
FLETCHER: Yes, that's correct. Dale Myers really worried about the technical side. He was in charge of that aspect of things. And to some extent, George Low, because George had come from that part of the world. In fact, there was another person involved who hasn't been mentioned so far, and that's Dick [Richard C.] McCurdy, who was chief executive officer of Shell, but he retired at age sixty and came to work for us, and I think his wisdom in having dealt with technical problems in the oil business influenced what we did too. He had I think, a very high IQ. He was one of Terman's geniuses. And so he understood the technical aspects of it too, but he also understood the business and economic aspects, and he thought systems analysis was baloney, as we did. They don't do that in the oil business either.
So all of us were involved in trying to make sense out of a combination of the technical work that was going on, the feeling of OMB--and we know that came from the president--about costs, trying to reduce costs generally in government, but also the need for keeping a viable agency called NASA, and also a need for a useful manned space program. All of these things were all mixed in together. To try to say so much of our decision was one, versus that much for another, is hard to isolate, but there was a lot of pressure coming from OMB on the budget, on the funding profile.
MAUER: Did you have any preferred configuration? Was there any particular design of the shuttle that you felt, gee, if we didn't have budget considerations, this is the way the agency should go?
FLETCHER: Not really. I didn't have any preconceived notion when I came in. I had not been involved very much with the manned space program. My experience had all been with the unmanned program, rockets, and I just listened to what came along and said, no that's no good. Let's go back and try another one.
MAUER: Well, what I heard from one person I talked to is that you tended to push people a lot as to why did the shuttle have to be manned at all?
FLETCHER: Yes, I did. I wanted to look at all possible excursions.
MAUER: Why was that? Why did you put a lot of emphasis on pushing your subordinates?
FLETCHER: That's the way I'm built. I always ask questions which I know they're going to object to, to see what kind of reaction I'll get. I was pretty sure we had to have a manned space program, but I wanted them to explain why a man had to be there.
McCULLOUGH: Jim's getting ready for a press conference. [Laughter.]
FLETCHER: Well, it's just the way I try to understand things, is by pressing people pretty hard on things they don't like to answer, and when I don't get good answers, I press again, and that's just my style.
MAUER: So that's a question of leadership style.
FLETCHER: I guess so. It's not a very good leadership style because it makes people mad, but it gets answers. I would say management style, more than leadership style.
MAUER: Okay. What's your style as a negotiator in this time period that we're talking about? You're trying to get as much money for NASA as you can.
FLETCHER: Not really. No, I accepted the funding profile. I knew the president was in trouble, with the wage-and-price freeze and all these other things going on, so I just accepted that, and I know that people at NASA didn't like me accepting that, and I said, "Hey, we've got to do it." So my interest was in making a useful program for the country out of what was available to us. I did feel very strongly that a manned space component had to be a part of that.
MAUER: But there were a number of possible alternatives.
FLETCHER: Most of them weren't any good. This "jamboree in the sky" didn't look like a good idea. The configurations that OMB came up with didn't look very viable and not only that, not supportable, because they were done in a hurry. And so the best of all the options that I had in front of me, we picked.
We presented two options to George Shultz, a large option and a small option. I think the small option was a forty-five foot long and twelve foot in diameter, versus sixty feet long and fifteen in diameter.
I just thought we ought to give him some options, but I didn't realize there would be hardly any difference in cost between the two, when we started out. There was only maybe a ten percent difference in the cost, so it was easy for George to pick the bigger option. We didn't influence him. He picked it. He just said, "Hey, you get the most for your money with the big payload bay." And that's the way we went.
MAUER: Bill Anders was an important source of information for you in this period.
FLETCHER: Later, during this crisis period one year later, he was much more important. He had just come aboard and he really wasn't close to what the president was thinking but nevertheless he was a good catalyst. He was in the White House and kept his ear to the ground. But he wasn't as valuable during that period, in my recollection, as he was a year later, when he was extremely valuable. He said, "You fellows really got problems." That's why we came back from Houston while Jack Schmitt and Gene Cernan were still on the moon and tried to work the problem.
MAUER: George Low recorded what he called his personal notes. He kept dictating what was going on, his understanding of what was going on. And it appears to be end of the summer of 1971 that he and you and von Braun reached a point where you really didn't see how NASA was going to do anything more than the so-called glider, the small payload bay vehicle that didn't have engines in the orbiter itself.
FLETCHER: No, I don't remember that. I remember Wernher's thinking that, but I don't remember a consensus being reached on that, as the only thing that could be done in the funding profile. Now that's just my recollection. Maybe there's a memo in George's notes.
MAUER: It's not a memo. That was just something that he recorded as his understanding. But that's not your memory now?
FLETCHER: No. I remember Wernher being very pessimistic about being able to do anything other than that.
MAUER: And Low records that he was, and he thought that you felt the same way, and certainly Ed David apparently was very pessimistic.
FLETCHER: Yes, he was.
MAUER: But that's not your memory.
FLETCHER: My memory could be faulty, but that's not my recollection.
MAUER: No, all I'm asking for is what your memory is now. You had a meeting with Ed David on August 24, 1971, and the ostensible reason for the meeting was about the possibility of a $2.2 billion constant budget through the seventies, and you wanted to get a feeling of how much we could trust OMB and others with regard to holding the line at this figure, if it came to a "bare bones" budget of this magnitude. And what David indicated was that there were going to be some real problems with OMB, that OMB was going to have difficulty holding to any agreement that it made, just because of the very tight budgetary environment.
FLETCHER: That's entirely possible. I don't remember it, but it's certainly possible.
MAUER: I'm trying to get the environment of these negotiations. I don't expect you to remember these meetings, obviously, but it's the information. This suggests some real concern about the problems of being able to work out an effective agreement. Your memory now is more positive, and I'm not saying that your memory is right or wrong, you know, which you're not saying. You're just saying, that's how it strikes you now.
FLETCHER: My recollection is, the argument was about whether it was '71 dollars or '72 dollars, but it was 3.2 in my mind, and there was no argument about it.
MAUER: That's after the January 3, 1972 meeting, in which the funding decision was made, and you have a handshake.
FLETCHER: Okay. Yes, that's right. That's right. But before that time, we could have had discussions like the one that you mentioned with Ed David.
MAUER: But that doesn't stand out in your memory.
FLETCHER: No, but it's entirely possible. I don't disagree with it.
MAUER: Can you give me a little bit more than an hour, or do we need to cut it off at an hour, sir?
FLETCHER: Well, I don't know how far you want to go in this.
MAUER: I just want to go up to the December 29, 1971 meeting and the January 3, I have a few more questions, along on the line...
FLETCHER: Okay, let's keep going then.
MAUER: If that's okay. Thank you, sir. You weren't really focussed on the technical side of things. Your concern was how to work out the agreement. And I've spoken with Dale Myers--
FLETCHER: My concern was how to come up with a viable program for NASA, and not an agreement. The agreement followed that.
MAUER: Excuse me, clearly I did not state myself well. I certainly don't mean to put words in your mouth. There is a model of the space shuttle sitting on a bookcase here in the office, and that design in which the SSME's and the SRB's light on the pad before the shuttle is launched, came to be called the parallel burn configuration. In the middle of September, this approach was only a small part of the design effort of the various contractors.
MAUER: And yet by the beginning of November, this parallel burn approach, whether it be with liquid or solid boosters, was really being pointed to: this is the approach that works technically and has the funding profile that will fit into the budget conan straints, both in terms of total cost and peak year funding. As an administrator worrying about putting together a total program, how do these technical questions rise from below and become a part of the way that then you go and talk to people in at OMB and in the White House?
FLETCHER: Well, again, I can't give you the details, but basically we were looking at all kinds of configurations, series configurations, parallel. There were some problems with the parallel because they were worried about the aerodynamic loads during launch on that kind of a weird configuration. By the way, we are still having problems with loads today: every time the winds up above are wrong we are in trouble, nevertheless, when the designers were satisfied that the loads were all right and could be dealt with, then that became the favored approach, because it was the most straightforward and therefore probably the most dependable cost-wise, and I think it just gradually happened. I don't remember any definite day that a decision was made: this is the only approach. We just began to spend more time thinking about this configuration than any others, and refining it, and that finally became the configuration of choice.
The only question was, how big was it going to be, and George Shultz answered that, and then the question was, solid versus liquid boosters. The idea of recovering the boosters came from left field, kind of, because on the Titan they had been recovering these solid fuel boosters by accident. The Titan had similar boosters, and they were pretty much intact, and so that information began to filter into the studies, and we said, wow, we can really recover these solid rocket motors intact just by fishing them out of the water. Then we began to say, well, gee, what about the water clogging up the holes? And things of that sort. But it evolved slowly, not suddenly, as a configuration of choice. But probably you're right, about November it began to be the only one that made sense.
MAUER: Okay. Do you remember a December 11, 1971 meeting in which you and Low went to meet with Rice, Flanigan, David to discuss the space shuttle, and Rice indicated that President Nixon had approved go-ahead for the shuttle but only for a small ten-by- thirty foot glider-type vehicle?
FLETCHER: Who was there?
MAUER: You and Low, Rice, Flanigan, and David. Rice was telling you, "Yes, the president is very favorable, but only for a small one." Do you remember that meeting?
FLETCHER: Just vaguely, yes, I seem to remember something like that.
MAUER: Too long ago.
FLETCHER: It's too long ago. I do remember Rice coming in with a configuration I didn't like, and that was probably it.
MAUER: Rice claimed that the president was behind that small configuration, but it turns out that he wasn't, that the president really hadn't been looking at a specific shuttle size. Do you remember that aspect of it?
FLETCHER: No. You have information I don't have. I don't really know what the president was thinking during all this period, except that I had the gut feeling the president wanted a viable manned space program, and the shuttle was beginning to look like the only viable program that fit the funding profile. But everybody else was trying to come up with a simpler, cheaper vehicle, and I just said, "No." Unless it really did something useful and different, I didn't want to go along with it, and that's one that I definitely didn't want to go along with. I think that may have come out of the Flax Committee. Is that possible? That glider configuration?
MAUER: Well, no. The glider's been something that had been looked at for quite some time. NASA had looked at this. Apparently, according to George Low's notes, Rice had gotten Rockwell, of all companies, to do studies.
FLETCHER: Oh, those are the studies that I was talking about. You can always get aerospace companies to make studies of anything you want, and it will always come out in favor of the guy that asked for the study.
MAUER: Were there any other companies other than Rockwell involved in those studies? Are you aware?
FLETCHER: Yes, I think there probably were, Martin Marietta for example because they had the big Gemini program, and I don't know where that came from, but they had somebody do that study. It was a large Titan with a bigger payload on it than the early Gemini programs had. And that was another one that OMB came up with. There were just quite a few people, and I think different companies did different studies. That's just my impression. I don't remember the details.
FLETCHER: They were all just less useful than the shuttle. They were cheaper but less useful.
MAUER: There are some very interesting documents about, they didn't cost that much less, but they had much higher operations costs, and you could do far less.
FLETCHER: That last one was my main concern: they could do far less.
MAUER: That was your primary concern.
MAUER: George Low seemed to have quite a bit of concern over the cost questions. I've seen things that he'd written going back long before you became administrator, that he felt that cost was going to be one of the key points that NASA would be able to use to justify its program. Do you have any clear memories about George Low?
FLETCHER: I'm not sure of the nature of the question. Are you talking about the development costs or the costs per flight.
MAUER: Both. That he saw it as the ratio between development costs and operations costs, whereas early on, particularly before you became administrator, NASA was particularly focussing on operations costs, the lowest operations costs.
FLETCHER: That was to satisfy this OMB criterion of ten percent return on investment, so to speak, and you had to balance the development costs versus the operational costs. I think George thought of that, apparently, as a key element in the decision- making process. That's because OMB was putting the screws on us.
But I wasn't buying that. I'd had a lot of experience with systems analysis, and I thought there was a lot of artificiality in that. I thought the main point was that we needed a machine that could do more things than any machine that we'd had so far. That should be the main justification for the shuttle. We should always go through that systems analysis, which is what you just said, namely, balancing the operational costs versus the development costs, but that shouldn't be the only criterion for the program.
MAUER: It's the end of September of '71. Ed David and Russ Drew were talking about the Mathematica studies as being an unfortunate thing, with their focus upon the costs.
FLETCHER: I agree.
MAUER: Why do you agree? And why did Mathematica reports play such a central role?
FLETCHER: Well, again, it's the requirement that OMB imposed on us to do a systems analysis study on something that's really highly sophisticated technically. It just didn't make sense to Ed David or any technical person, but nevertheless that's the background that Don Rice came from, and so it's a hoop that we had to go through, and I guess George Low took it more seriously than I did. I didn't feel that was an important criterion, and neither did Ed David and a lot of other people.
MAUER: A number of people including Caspar Weinberger, believed that Rice really opposed the shuttle, period. Did you ever have such an understanding yourself?
FLETCHER: Yes. I got that impression, that he was opposed to the shuttle, period.
MAUER: Because of the systems analysis? Were there other reasons?
FLETCHER: I think he didn't like manned space, basically. I don't know. I just have that impression.
MAUER: But you never really had any specific conversations with him about it?
FLETCHER: I'm not sure I did. But remember, there was a difference between the early discussions and later discussions. When he found out the president wasn't going to abandon manned space, he may have changed a little bit, and I don't remember which period of time I had that feeling, but part of the period when we were having discussions, I had the feeling that he was opposed to the shuttle, period.
McCULLOUGH: Like Richard Darman says today, "Ask any money you want for the space program, and you'll get it from me,". The implication being, the guys that will cut you are up there.
FLETCHER: Yes. Well, whatever's the case, I had that impression. But when he saw that the president really wanted a manned space program, was when he began to come up with these ideas from industry that were competing ideas, with the space shuttle, glider and "Big Gemini" and so on.
MAUER: There are two critical meetings out of which the decision for the space shuttle comes from. You went in on December 19, 1971 with George Low into a big meeting in which you were expecting to get Shultz and Weinberger to give their okay and send it up to the president, and which wanted a fourteen-by-forty-foot--
FLETCHER: Was that what it was? Okay.
MAUER: Fourteen-by-forty-five foot. NASA really believed that the fifteen-by-sixty foot was the way to go, but the need for the decision was so strong that the fourteen-by-forty-one foot was the smallest. Only the decision didn't come out of that. Rice argued very strongly that further studies were needed, and over the New Year's weekend--
FLETCHER: Who was in that meeting?
MAUER: Shultz, Weinberger, Flanigan, David, Rice and Rose.
FLETCHER: My impression was that Shultz decided right then that he favored the larger configuration, because the difference in cost wasn't enough to make it worthwhile.
MAUER: But why the further studies, and then why the meeting on January 3?
FLETCHER: Well, January 3 I think was when we met with the president.
MAUER: It was the 5th that you met with the president.
FLETCHER: Oh. Okay.
MAUER: You met with Shultz, Weinberger, Flanigan, David, Rice and McGregor on January 3rd, and that is when the formal go-ahead was given, in that January 3rd meeting.
FLETCHER: I think it was given in the earlier meeting. That's my impression. But Don didn't give up. He kept wanting to work the problem some more. But that's my impression. My memory's not that good, but I do remember the first meeting with Shultz, is that he saw the two configurations--and by the way, it was obvious to me, so that's probably the correct impression--that once we had made the cost figures for both of them, it was clear that you had to take the big one because the little one didn't save you much money. There's a reason for that, by the way, which we won't have time to go into. In retrospect we could see it.
So I think George simply said, hey we'd better go with the big one. Now he may have said, "It's my opinion that we go with the big one, but let's go back and study it some more." He may have done something like that. But my impression was that he was pretty well convinced that we had to go with the large configuration at that December 29th meeting. And the January 3rd meeting, which I don't remember too well, was a perfunctory meeting saying the president has agreed, better get out there for the announcement.
MAUER: So, okay, maybe this is where my misunderstanding--this is an area there in trying to read documents and not having talked with somebody myself who had been at the meeting--the December 29th is when George Shultz said, okay, as far as I'm concerned we should go with it, and the January 3rd meeting is when George Shultz says the president has okayed it.
FLETCHER: That's my impression, but there may have been some studies that Don wanted to do at the last minute to maybe turn it around.
MAUER: But as best you can remember now, you weren't too worried about those studies.
FLETCHER: No, I wasn't. I was only worried about whether the president would sign up to what George Shultz had agreed to.
MAUER: I've heard from several people that were very close to you about a call that was made to Oscar Morgenstern by George Shultz. Do you remember anything about that now? That that played a role in George Shultz's thinking?
FLETCHER: It may have. Vaguely it rings a bell, but just vaguely. But that's because George had a high regard for Oscar. They were both economists and George had known him from University of Chicago days, and Oscar was a very well-known economist, and so I would be surprised if George didn't do that. I have a vague recollection that he may have done that, but just very vague. But he didn't tell me about it.
MAUER: He didn't tell you about it?
MAUER: Okay. The final point is the decision to go with the solids.
FLETCHER: Yes, we left that one open. We hadn't resolved that by the time we went to the president.
MAUER: Well, also there's the question of the administrator's discounts, the ten percent, which was supposed to be 5.5 if it was going to be with liquid boosters, and the question of 1971 and 1972 dollars, and your clear memory was 1971 dollars and Weinberger and Shultz's memories--
FLETCHER: Weinberger's was 1972 dollars, so there was a five percent or so difference between the two.
MAUER: And ultimately it was?
FLETCHER: Neither one. Neither one worked out. The following year, the deal was off.
MAUER: Okay. Well, is there anything that you can remember now after such a long time that I haven't asked about, that you think should be mentioned?
FLETCHER: No. There was the question of fifty payloads a year, which was a serious question. I think that Aerospace Corporation may have been a little optimistic there, and we suspected they were. The [United States] Air Force was beginning to say, "Wait a minute, I'm not sure that we're going to fly that many missions. It may be more of a wish list." And then there were the communication satellite people saying they're not sure our estimates were right for them. That's when we had to make the other study which said twenty-five would still be cost-effective, and by the way, that number persisted clear into the Beggs administration, so to speak. That was a serious question, and we all had some doubts about the fifty per year, but nevertheless, we took what was given us. That we've pretty well covered.
The "infinite horizon" is the expression I was trying to think of, that Oscar's people, Oscar Morgenstern's people came up with, and that had to do with the fact that you looked at this thing as if it were going on forever, but then even though another version would come along, your technology could be applied to the new version. And that was an important economic invention of Morgenstern, Mathematica Inc. I should say.
Any other players? I think not. John Ehrlichman was in one of those meetings, and you haven't mentioned that, but maybe he came in late or something. I think it was the January 3rd meeting, probably. But by and large, it was pretty well set a couple of days before the final announcement, which was out on the West Coast. But gut feeling wise, we had the impression that the president wanted something like the shuttle in early December, and the only question was what should the cost be and so on and so forth. But Don Rice really didn't give up until pretty close to the decision day. But he signed up to it and went along with it once the decision was made.
MAUER: The fourteen-by-forty five foot--when you got in--
FLETCHER: I remember talking about forty-five. I think fourteen is right because twelve is too skinny, but either one of them would have been all right with us.
FLETCHER: Because it fit most of our payloads. There was just one payload that wouldn't fit in the fourteen-by-forty-five. It was a Defense Department payload. But it fit most of our needs. But it seemed stupid, because the differential in price was like ten percent or so, and it didn't seem like it was worth making such a small vehicle to save ten percent.
MAUER: Did you think that, you went in with the fourteen-by-forty-five, but how much did you think that you'd end up with the fifteen-by-sixty that really preferred?
FLETCHER: I don't know. I would guess, fifty-fifty. Fifty percent chance they'd pick the smaller version. If I had known George Shultz the way I do now, I would have said it was a sure thing, but I didn't know him that well, but he's the kind of a guy that makes a decision right now based on what's in front of him and doesn't waffle, but at that time I didn't know that. So going into it I thought there was a fifty percent chance they'd go for a ten percent saving. [Laughter.]
MAUER: Why did you feel like you had to do that when you felt so strongly that--
FLETCHER: Well, I always feel that you ought to give the boss some options, and when we started, we didn't know that the difference in price wouldn't be that much, that it would be so small. We thought there might be a bigger difference in price. Nevertheless, it came out only ten percent difference, so those were the options, and I wouldn't sit still for the other options, for Big G or the glider or anything of that sort, because they didn't have the full capabilities that we needed.
MAUER: Well, thank you so very much for giving me your time.
Rev. 09/06/96, JAB