Nixon and Ford Years: 1969-1976

On 13 February 1969, President Richard M. Nixon formed a space task group (STG) to examine future US space activities. Its September 1969 report recommended several changes for the national space program, including comprehensive cost reduction. The STG stressed the need for practical applications and international cooperation in space.(153) The group recommended a reusable space system to provide low cost-per-pound to orbit. This system, with its envisioned 100-flight lifetime, developed into the National Space Transportation System (STS).(154) Regarding military programs, the group recommended that new programs be considered within the context of the threat, economic constraints, and national priorities. Such programs would only be authorized when shown to be more cost effective than other methods.(155)

In 1969 the Nixon administration approached the Soviets with the idea of mutual limitations on strategic nuclear arms. These Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) would last for eight years, produce three arms limitation treaties, and lay much of the groundwork for later arms negotiations. The Treaty on the Limitation of Anti-Ballistic Missile Systems limited systems to those meant to counter strategic ballistic missiles. This treaty was a product of the SALT I talks but was negotiated separately from the Interim Agreement (IA) on Strategic Nuclear Arms. Signed on 26 May 1972, the ABM Treaty entered into force for the US on 3 October 1972. Its provisions included limits on ABM systems to curb the strategic arms race and decrease the risk of nuclear war. Under the provisions of the treaty:

1. Each nation could have no more than 15 ABM launchers at test ranges for R&D purposes (Article IV).

2. Both parties agreed not to develop, test, or deploy ABM systems or components that are sea-based, space-based, or mobile land-based (Article V).

3. Neither nation could have rapid reload capability (Article V).

4. Both parties agreed not to give missiles, launchers, or radars--other than ABM missiles, ABM launchers, or ABM radars--the capability to counter strategic ballistic missiles and not to test them in an ABM mode (Article VI).

5. In the future there would be no deployment of early warning radars for strategic missile attack except for those along the periphery of the national territory and oriented outward (Article VI).

6. Both countries may use national technical means of verification to assure compliance as in the IA (Article XII).

7. The treaty, of unlimited duration, is subject to review every 5 years (Article XIV).

Under the 1974 Protocol, each nation could build and operate only one ABM system to protect the national capitol or one of its ICBM fields. This single ABM system could contain no more the 100 launchers and no more than 100 ABM interceptors.

Soviet Threat

By 1968 the Soviets' FOBS program settled into a two-flight-per-year pattern which indicated an operational status, although they only deployed FOBS in 18 silos.(156 ) Also that year, the Soviets began testing what appeared to be a co-orbital ASAT. Little attention was paid to these events because they occurred during the national election and at a time when Vietnam had all the headlines. Almost two years passed between the second and third ASAT tests. There was little public recognition of the hiatus or the resumption of testing.(157)

However in 1970, NSC requested DOD to take a look at the mysterious Soviet satellite program and its potential impacts. Consensus was that this program was a form of antisatellite system although no one was quite sure why the Soviets were building such a system, why they had chosen a co-orbital system (unlike the US Nike Zeus or Thor ASATs), or indeed, what the ASAT's target might be. DOD recommended US space systems and procedures be modified to reduce their vulnerability to the Soviet "killer satellite." As for whether the US should develop a similar capability as a response or deterrent, DOD felt that a US counter would not deter Soviet use of an ASAT because of greater US dependency on its space assets. In such a contest, the US would be hurt by an ASAT more than the Soviets would be.(158)

Antiballistic Missiles

The new administration thoroughly reviewed the ABM system the previous administration had reluctantly initiated. The size and disposition of the system was not a major point of concern, but the philosophy of its employment was. On 14 March 1969, Nixon announced that the US would replace Sentinel with the new Safeguard program. With the same strength and sites as Sentinel, Safeguard would cover the Strategic Air Command's ICBM fields to protect the US nuclear deterrent instead of major cities. Nixon said that the only true way to protect the US population was to prevent a nuclear war by keeping a viable deterrent. The first two of the six sites would be at Grand Forks, North Dakota, and Malmstrom AFB, Montana.(159)

After the signing of the ABM Treaty, work proceeded on only the ABM site at Grand Forks AFB. The Grand Forks site reached completion in fall 1975. On 1 October 1975, the site became operational, but on 2 October, Congress ordered it closed. The reasons for closure are numerous. The cost of the one system was staggering.(160) The cost of the entire system (six sites) would have been almost $40 billion. The SALT I treaties had limited defensive systems, and the Soviet introduction of multiple independently targetable reentry vehicle warheads on their missiles could simply confuse and overwhelm any US ABM system just as McNamara said it would.(161) Therefore, the US limited all ABM activities to research until the Strategic Defense Initiative began in 1983.(162)

Military Space Systems

Even before the publishing of the Strategic Task Group report, new DOD leadership began implementing cost-cutting measures in line with the STG recommendations. On 10 June 1969, DOD cut the MOL program that had been carried over from the Kennedy and Johnson years.(163)

DOD stated that due to budget restrictions, it had the choice of drastically cutting several smaller projects or deleting one large R&D project.(164) MOL, like so many other programs, was a victim of the tight DOD budget and other problems.(165)

Antisatellites. While the Soviets were getting their ASAT system going, the US ASAT, Program 437, was falling on hard times. Back in 1962, the Starfish High Altitude Nuclear Test released sizable amounts of radiation into space. This radiation, trapped by the Earth's magnetic field, created artificial radiation belts 100 to 1,000 times stronger than background levels and damaged a number of satellites. The conclusion reached from this experience was that if Program 437 were ever used in anger, it would destroy friend and foe alike. Compounding this problem, the Soviets put up so many military satellites that there were too many potential ASAT targets. Also, there were major funding cuts in the program due to the Vietnam War. To make matters worse, the Air Force was simply running out of Thors. Therefore, in October 1970, DOD moved Program 437 to standby status as an economy measure. Thirty days were now needed to prepare for an interception, which totally destroyed the system's credibility as a weapon.(166)

On 19 August 1972, Hurricane Celeste delivered another major setback for Program 437 by destroying most facilities on Johnston Island. The facilities were repaired and back in service by September 1972, but because of undetected damage, the system went down again on 8 December and, after more repairs, returned to service on 29 March 1973. The satellite intercept mission for the Johnston Island facility ended with a program management directive for Program 437 (10 August 1974). NORAD notified the JCS of program termination on 6 March 1975.(167) On 1 April 1975, DOD terminated the program altogether.(168)

In August 1974, President Gerald R. Ford reassessed the Soviet ASAT threat and US capability to respond to it. The Soviets were pursuing an "adventurist policy" by deploy- ing an ASAT that could disrupt US communications and other systems. The 1975 Slichter Report pointed out tremendous vulnerabilities in US space systems while US dependence on these systems was growing. The apparent Soviet "blinding" of two US satellites in October and November 1975 and resumption of ASAT testing in February 1976 created considerable concern in the White House. In response, the president issued National Security Decision Memorandum (NSDM) 333 in the fall of 1976. It directed DOD and others to take steps to redress satellite vulnerability. Air Force Systems Command's Space Division set up a system program office to conduct studies in this area.(169)

In December 1976, another report, by the Buchsbaum Panel, echoed the concern over the growing US dependency on satellites for communications, intelligence, and warning functions and the glaring vulnerability of satellites and ground stations. The report insisted that immediate measures be taken to correct this situation. The Buchsbaum group and DOD agreed that a US ASAT could not function as a deterrent to Soviet use. However, they stated that a US ASAT could be used against Soviet intelligence systems and as a bargaining chip to induce the Soviets to enter ASAT arms control negotiations. Verification of a limit on ASAT weapons would be a difficult task since a very small number would have a significant impact. Also it would be very easy to hide a residual capability. Eventually, such an agreement would have to stop R&D as well as deployment and possibly seek to dismantle all ASAT-capable systems.(170)

President Ford was not impressed with the low priority DOD gave to the ASAT matter. DOD stated that the US should use restraint with regard to space weapons in the hope that the Soviets would reciprocate. President Ford did not agree and in light of the turn of events (the Buchsbaum Report and the Soviets' 27 December 1976 ASAT test) decided to redress this situation. On 18 January 1977, just two days before he left office, Ford signed NSDM 345 directing DOD to develop an operational ASAT capability while studying options for ASAT arms control. He left it up to his successor to carry out this directive.(171)

Missile Warning and Space Surveillance Network. Reacting to impending limits set by SALT on their land-based ICBMs, the Soviets expanded their nuclear missile submarine fleet dramatically. In response, DOD upgraded and enhanced the SLBM warning network. The Air Force installed eight mechanical, pulsed conical scan tracker radars, designated AN/FSS-7, at strategic points along the US coast. These radars were on-line by April 1972. Also in 1972, the Air Force's AN/FPS-85 space surveillance radar at Eglin AFB, Florida, received computer software changes to convert the system to the SLBM detection mission in addition to its spacetrack mission.

The Grand Forks AFB, North Dakota, Safeguard ABM site closed in February 1976. However, in January 1977, the Air Force took over the perimeter acquisition radar located at Concrete, North Dakota, for use in the Missile Warning and Spacetrack Network and renamed the AN/FPQ-16 (phased array radar) the Perimeter Acquisition Radar Characterization System (PARCS). With modifications, the system operated again as an SLBM/ICBM detection site watching the polar regions and Hudson Bay. Operated by the 10th Missile Warning Squadron, PARCS provided space surveillance data as a tertiary mission.(172)

National Aeronautics and Space Administration

While DOD canceled many military space programs and scrutinized space policy, NASA's manned space program rode high as the decade neared its close. In December 1968, Apollo 8 performed the first manned flight to the vicinity of the Moon, and Apollos 9 and 10 conducted tests in Earth and lunar orbit in early 1969. Then Apollo 11 provided the first manned landing on the Moon on 19 July 1969. Astronaut Neil Armstrong became the first man to set foot on the Moon. The Moon crew deployed a large number of scientific experiments and collected several pounds of rocks.(173) Apollo 15

Although the enthusiasm for the space program was high and NASA would land on the Moon five more times in the next two years, the first Moon landing was the high water. There would soon be drastic NASA budget reductions.

Apollo X. The MOL cancellation early in the Nixon presidency left only NASA's Apollo X program to carry on space station development. By late 1972, NASA was completing this station, now called Skylab. Skylab used the first and second stages of a Saturn V rocket to get into orbit. The station had 11,700 cubic feet of space for the crew, a length, with Apollo spacecraft attached, of 118.5 feet, and a weight of 168,100 pounds or 84 tons (Skylab only).(174) Skylab tested long-term weightlessness and the ability of humans to adapt to it, and conducted experiments in solar physics, astronomical observation (unencumbered by the Earth's atmosphere), and space manufacturing. Crews also conducted experiments and observations related to Earth resources studies, and they conducted space medicine research.(175)

NASA launched Skylab 1, unmanned, on 14 May 1973. It suffered serious damage during launch when the meteoroid shield tore away, one solar panel ripped off, and the other jammed shut. This damage resulted in the loss of electrical power and caused severe overheating because of the loss of the reflective shielding. NASA launched three manned missions to dock with Skylab on 25 May, 28 July, and 16 November 1973. Skylab's orbit decayed and it reentered in 1979.(176)

Apollo/Soyuz Test Program. Limited US and USSR cooperation in space occurred during the 1960s. The cooperation consisted of information exchange between the space agencies. With improved relations in the 1970s, the possibility for greater cooperation grew. Talks on the subject of astronaut/cosmonaut safety and use of common docking technology began as early as 1969, but specific joint working groups were not formed until October 1970. At the Moscow Summit in May 1972, the US and Soviet Union signed the five year Agreement on Cooperation in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space for Peaceful Purposes, the SALT IA, and the ABM treaties. The agreement scheduled a joint US/USSR space flight in 1975. This agreement was the beginning of the Apollo/Soyuz Test Program (ASTP), which developed rescue systems for saving astronauts and cosmonauts in emergencies in space (like Apollo 13 and Soyuz 11). Joint task groups designed and built a compatible docking module with the Soviet-style docking apparatus on one end and American type on the other. Both nations launched vehicles on 15 July 1975. On 18 July, Apollo 18 docked with the Soviet Soyuz 19 spacecraft. The two spacecraft remained docked until 21 July and carried out joint scientific and medical experiments. Although the joint flight was a success and added measurably to the US and Soviet relationship, it remains the only joint US/USSR spaceflight venture to date.(177) ASTP was the last US space flight for almost six years.