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COUNTDOWN TO DISASTER : Challenger's Last Flight : 3. ORIGINS : 'Man's Epic Voyage . . . the U.S. Shall Lead'

February 09, 1986

The first Wednesday of 1972 dawned uncommonly cold in Southern California. At San Clemente, a chill wind came up over the cliff from the Pacific, sweeping across Richard M. Nixon's putting greens and stirring the shrubs and rose bushes around the Western White House. At mid-morning, three men from Washington, who had come outside without coats, hurried along the walkways threading through the cluster of one-story buildings to the President's office.

One carried a white plastic model of America's future in space. It looked neither like an ordinary flying machine nor a space vehicle. It was an awkward assembly, designed to shed two-thirds of its structure during launch and put something that looked approximately like a delta-winged airplane in orbit.

This chilly morning marked a new day for the American space program.

Already, as Nixon lieutenant John D. Ehrlichman escorted NASA Administrator James Fletcher and Deputy Administrator George Low into Nixon's blue-carpeted office, the basic decision on the outlines of the nation's new space venture already had been made. It was a compromise shaped by the confluence of scientific, political and economic forces.

But now the venture needed formal presidential blessing and the two officials of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration had come to receive it. The meeting lasted barely a half hour.

Copies of a presidential statement already were stacked in the lower-level ballroom of the nearby San Clemente Inn, waiting for Fletcher and Low to brief reporters.

The President would not personally announce the go-ahead for the shuttle program--he had another meeting with Henry A. Kissinger to review the situation in Vietnam: American troops were being steadily withdrawn from the south while U.S. bombers pounded targets in the north.

If Vietnam was a painful wound on the national conscience, the space program was the opposite, a source of pride, a shining example of the nation's technological talent.

Thirty months earlier, America had kept John F. Kennedy's promise and landed on the moon before the end of the '60s. Apollo spacecraft had been back again and again, but as 1972 dawned, only two more lunar missions were planned.

For Nixon, the decision of what to do next had presented something of a dilemma. The space program still bore a heavy Kennedy mark and Nixon wished to establish his own. Flushed with the success of the Apollo program, the space agency had proposed a commitment for a manned expedition to Mars.

But with the war, Nixon had too many budget problems to take on anything as ambitious as that, and besides it would seem an echo of Kennedy's dramatic challenge to land men on the moon.

The space shuttle was a compromise, a utilitarian instrument that Congress would buy, even in hard times. It had the promise of making space operations more or less routine.

White House ghostwriters searched for the right words to announce it. They settled on a sentence from Oliver Wendell Holmes: "We must sail sometimes with the wind and sometimes against it, but we must sail, and not drift, nor lie at anchor."

"So with man's epic voyage into space," the presidential statement said, "a voyage the United States of America has led and still shall lead."

"I have decided," Nixon's statement said, "that the United States should proceed at once with the development of an entirely new type of space transportation system.

"A space vehicle that can shuttle repeatedly from Earth to orbit and back," the statement added, ". . . will revolutionize transportation into near space by routinizing it. It will take the astronomical costs out of astronautics."

And, the presidential statement said, it "will make the ride safer and less demanding for the passengers, so that men and women with work to do in space can 'commute' aloft. . . ."

In the ballroom at the San Clemente Inn, as the NASA officials expanded on the President's remarks with a scattering of scientific and technical details, they pointed toward the plastic model they had shown Nixon a few hours earlier. But, as space historians later noted, the model displayed that day in San Clemente was of a soon-to-be discarded shuttle design. The mix-up was a little-noticed symbol of the flux the program faced at the beginning.

One former White House official recalled last week that the decision nearly 15 years ago "took into account several factors--scientific, economic and political. It was a compromise among them."

A Duke University space historian, Alex Roland, described the "war of wills" that raged prior to the decision and said the result was "a shuttle that no one wanted--except perhaps the Air Force." Writing in last November's Discovery magazine, Roland added:

"Congress, OMB (Office of Management and Budget), the Air Force and NASA had all pulled in different directions: Congress toward cost recovery, OMB toward low development costs, the Air Force toward operational capabilities, and NASA toward a future of manned spaceflight.

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