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American Space Policy

When the foundation of the infant American space program was first considered in the mid 1950s, President Eisenhower initially wanted control of all programs in the hands of the military. However, the chairman of the President’s Science Advisory Committee, James R. Killian, and then Vice President Richard Nixon, strongly recommended the establishment of a separate, and open civilian space agency. With the legislative help of Senator Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson, the National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958 was passed, and NASA officially opened its doors for business on 1 October 1958. Hence, all American space activities were divided into civilian and military programs. Since early American space policy was driven by military requirements, by the end of the Eisenhower Administration, these space activities were further split into civilian, military, and reconnaissance missions. Early in the Kennedy Presidency, his administration codified the Eisenhower organizations with the civilian program controlled by NASA, the majority of the military missions managed by the USAF, and the reconnaissance program in the hands of the newly established National Reconnaissance Office (NRO). Air Force Undersecretary Joseph Charyk was named as the first Director of the NRO. When President Nixon took office in 1969, he kept intact the same national space setup, and all subsequent Presidents in the 1970s (Ford and Carter), also maintained this organizational status-quo.

Two major space policy decisions came during the Nixon Presidency (1969-1974) . These were the go-ahead to begin development of the Space Transportation System (STS), or the Space Shuttle as it was commonly referred to, and the initiation for the flight of the first U.S./U.S.S.R cooperative manned space flight, which became know as the Apollo Soyuz Test Project (ASTP). The eminent NASA space historian, Eugene M. Emme, once observed that "No President was ever to be in office when major space missions happened as a result of his initiative or decision." President Eisenhower began the American space program, including the manned Project Mercury, but it was President Kennedy who was to bask in its glory of astronauts Shepard and Glenn. Presidents Kennedy and Johnson initiated and enthusiastically supported the race to the moon with the Apollo Project, but it was President Nixon who was to meet the Apollo 11 astronauts on the U.S.S. Kearsarge in July 1969. It was President Nixon who came closest to seeing the fruits of his space decision-making with the ASTP. The formulation of the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project began as one of President Nixon’s global diplomacy initiatives starting in 1972 when he and Soviet Premier Alexi Kosygin signed a mutual agreement. ASTP flew in 1975 which Nixon would have seen during his second term in office, but for the blunder of Watergate.

It would be President Ford (1974-1977) who would see the first historic space handshake between Tom Stafford and Alexi Leonov and the other astronauts of Apollo 18 and cosmonaut of Soyuz 19 of Apollo-Soyuz. No major space decisions occurred during President Ford’s period in office. He supported the continued funding of the development of STS, and if fact, was present when the first Shuttle, Enterprise, made its public debut. He also dedicated in 1976 the most visited museum in the Washington, D.C., the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum.

Although President Carter (1977-1981) initiated no major space starts, he did make a launch vehicle decision that would drastically affect the military in the mid-1980s. His Secretary of the Air Force, Dr. Hans Mark, ordered that all military spacecraft were to be launched from the Space Shuttle once it became operational. He curtailed and discouraged the manufacture of expendable launch vehicles, such as the Titan, Atlas, and Delta family of rockets. That poor decision would haunt the military when the Challenger exploded in 1986, along with several Titan launch vehicles failures. This caused a major launch vehicle stand-down for almost two years, and no major military satellites were orbited during this time period. Also because of this, the French launch vehicle Ariane made significant inroads into the commercial launch vehicle business.



Primary Author: Nicholas M. Short, Sr. email:

Collaborators: Code 935 NASA GSFC, GST, USAF Academy
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