Astronauts, guns, and butter: Charles Schultze and paying for Apollo in a time of turmoil
by Dwayne A. Day
|“It would be better to abandon this goal now in the name of competing national priorities, than to give it up unwillingly a year from now because of technical problems.”|
In 1999, in honor of the 30th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing, radio station WAMU in Washington, DC aired a program about the role of Washington politics in the lunar landing. “Washington Goes to the Moon” was written and produced by Richard Paul and featured interviews with a number of key figures in the story, including Schultze, who died in 2016 at the age of 91. After the radio program aired Paul, the author of We Could Not Fail: The First African Americans in the Space Program, turned transcripts of the interviews over to NASA as historical documents. These transcripts include unaired portions of the interviews. Schultze’s interview, which has been lightly edited for understandability, illustrates the various considerations that Schultze, and President Johnson, faced in funding the very expensive Apollo program at a time when other programs were competing for money.
Richard Paul: Lay out for us all what you had to consider funding. There was the war on poverty, Vietnam… Well why don’t you say them all, so we remember? Start with the two I just said.
Charles Schultze: Well… at the time of the Vietnam War, there were all sorts of things that President Johnson wanted funded. First, his war on poverty program, which wasn’t really any one thing, but a whole batch of different small, new programs. Secondly, of course, the Vietnam War itself, and the on-going spending for the Defense Department. Thirdly, the rest of the budget, and that included in turn, a very important element, the space program.
In turn, within the space program, you had three big elements. One is the cost of the manned lunar landing program, which had been going on for a number of years since President Kennedy first got us going, which had peaked. The spending on it had actually peaked several years before the Vietnam War or a year before, somewhere around in there, and was turning down as all the big equipment had already been ordered and built. Then there was the beginnings of spending on manned space programs to follow. And that’s where a lot of the argument was. And then finally, there was a very important, large part of the program, smaller than the manned lunar program, but on all sorts of scientific and other unmanned space activities including at the time if I remember correctly, NASA had and probably still does, an important aircraft development program.
Paul: Off the top of your head, what were the relative costs of some of these things?
Schultze: If you look at say 1966, or the fiscal budget year which was I think the peak of the program, it was about a $6 billion program. Now in today’s purchasing power, my guess is—I haven’t looked it up—$30 billion. Maybe five times, maybe six times. But let’s stick with the early numbers. $6 billion. Of which, $4 billion—a little over—was for the landing on the Moon and that was the peak year. A small amount—only $14 million that year—to begin work on what-do-you-do-after-the-Moon? And the rest of that budget, in round numbers under $2 billion, for space science and applications and new technology and aircraft technology.
Paul: And how did that compare, say, with the spending on the war on poverty and the Vietnam War and the other big ticket items?
Schultze: Oh boy, I don’t remember. But I would guess that the total spending on the federal budget counting Social Security I’m guessing $120 billion—a hundred thirty, hundred forty—in that magnitude. So the space program was maybe three, four, five percent of the total budget.
Paul: I imagine that there was never a discussion about being able to afford all of it, right?
|“There was a big struggle with the Congress: ‘You want a tax increase? You’ve gotta cut spending.’ And there was a big fight. We agreed to cut some, and there was a big struggle over where to cut it, and that’s where the space program came in.”|
Schultze: Well, let’s see. At the time, the big political and economic question was whether or not the President would, should, could get the Congress to pass a tax increase to pay for the extra spending for the Vietnam War. Again, sometime around 1969 or ’70, that was the best guess, as far as I can remember, about the extra cost of carrying on the War in Vietnam was $20–25 billion dollars which is what… three to four times the space program? And in those days, again, you multiply by five and you’re dealing with a $100 billion extra increment. And that was the big issue. President Johnson had just been getting through the Congress in 1965 and ’66 his Great Society programs which included the beginnings of Medicare and Medicaid. These at the time were all very small, but they were growing. And he did not want to sacrifice those. And he was fairly sure, and he turned out to be right, that if he asked the Congress for a tax increase, they would say to him: Maybe, but we’re not gonna let you have guns and butter at the same time, you’re gonna have to give up at least some of your Great Society programs, and he didn’t wanna do that. So then there was a great struggle for the soul of Lyndon Johnson on what to do. What the economists wanted him to do was raise taxes, and what he didn’t want to do was to raise ’em (laughs).
Now, he had one other reason, which I don’t think I ever heard him express, but I think it was important. People don’t remember this but early on in the Vietnam War, Johnson was a little bit more on the side of the doves than the hawks. He was scared to death it would get out of control, that the hawks who wanted to bomb Hanoi back into the stone age, y’know, would take over. He knew he could wrap himself in the flag, and declare holy war and have an all-out war, World War Two-type bombing and all that. And he was afraid if he went for a tax increase to pay for the Vietnam War, the only way he could get it was to do that, and he did not want to do it.
So both because he didn’t want his Vietnam, I’m sorry, his Great Society programs cut and I think, although he never said it, that he was just afraid that making the big, patriotic war pitch for a tax increase would cost him control of the war, so he didn’t do it originally. By nineteen sixty… no early ’67, he decided to go propose a tax increase. Again, as he predicted, there was a big struggle with the Congress: “You want a tax increase? You’ve gotta cut spending.” And there was a big fight. We agreed to cut some, and there was a big struggle over where to cut it, and that’s where the space program came in.
Chalres Schultze. (credit: Brookings Institution)
Paul: Considering all that there was to fund, was the space program where you thought the money needed to go?
Schultze: Well, to give you some sense. I think we agreed on a cut of about $2.5 billion dollars in expenditures, of which, at the time I think I proposed we take something like $350 million… yeah something like that, maybe a little more, little less, out of the space program which was a little bigger than its proportional share of what you could cut, but not an awful lot bigger. Well, I was the Budget Director and there were an awful lot (laughs) very large parts of the budget I wouldn’t put as—quite as much money in as actually went in. I can’t recall the space program having more than its normal share of targets for cuts.
Personally, I was very skeptical about the worth of a manned space program, but that question had been decided with respect to the Moon landing. You could still make decisions on how fast you went, but that wasn’t really at issue. The question was how quickly do you fund it to make sure it got there during the decade? Secondly, how much did you put into future space programs, and there are very long lead times. During the time of the era of the Vietnam War, it was an important set of policy discussions, and I tended to be a skeptic. I don’t remember the specifics anymore, but I am sure trying to hold it down. I recall, for example, being a big opponent of a [NERVA] nuclear rocket that the space agency wanted to develop… big space, manned space program. I lost initially because the President said no let’s go ahead with it. But ultimately, somebody else won, because they cut it out. But in any event, it was that future of the manned space program that was important. On the other hand, I had always thought that there really weren’t a lot of benefits from that. It was a great show, but not too many benefits, principally well, not many benefits relative to the cost, because so much of the cost went just to life-support systems for the astronauts and not for science, where if you concentrated on unmanned stuff, you got a lot better science, or a lot more science for the money.
Paul: And where do you sense President Johnson’s sentiments lay on this? What was most important, feeding the poor, beating the communists in Vietnam, or getting to the Moon by 1969?
|“Personally, I was very skeptical about the worth of a manned space program, but that question had been decided with respect to the Moon landing. You could still make decisions on how fast you went, but that wasn’t really at issue. The question was how quickly do you fund it to make sure it got there during the decade?”|
Schultze: He’d love to have as much of his cake as he could have and eat it too. I mean, you can’t quite say that. He wanted a little bit of everything and he fought to get it. He was always a big booster of the space program. You must remember he came from Texas and an awful lot of the space facilities were in Texas. But he, I think, the best that my memory can serve, he did agree and we did take a cut out of the space program in the year 1967. Looking ahead to the budget for 1968 when we were trying to get the tax increase through the Congress. The spending cuts we had to give them included a cut in the space program and I don’t remember it explicitly, but kinda looking at the numbers, a cut did go through.
Paul: He wanted it all.
Schultze: Yeah. But I mean that’s… every president kind of wants it all. The question is, where do you put your priorities in the long run? Probably less than most Lyndon Johnson would sit down explicitly and say a year from now I’ve gotta take some pain, where am I going to take it? [Instead] he’d fight to the last minute to try and avoid it. And y’know, you never quite knew what was going to happen.
Paul: I get the sense that President Kennedy’s ghost sort of hovered over these decisions when it came to this idea of getting to the Moon before 1969. This was going to be his legacy, right?
Schultze: I’m not sure. Getting to the Moon was in concrete. Getting to the Moon this decade was at least in soft concrete (laughs), hardening rapidly. I argued in 1968, though I don’t remember the details at all, to take some of the cuts that we were gonna take out of the manned lunar landing program. Apparently—this comes from an old memo, rather than from memory—apparently I thought there was some possibility it wouldn’t make the date anyway, so just slow it down a little. It’s gonna happen in any event. Getting to the Moon was in concrete. Getting to the Moon in this decade was a pretty high priority, but (laughs) not as high as getting there.
Paul: I imagine that the civil rights community was telling you its spending priorities. Talk about the impact of that, both the impact of their direct lobbying, and the impact of the riots in the cities on your decision-making process in the White House.
Schultze: Well, the original idea came not from the riots, but from the following kind of logic or illogic, if you will. President Kennedy had in 1962 or maybe early ’63—I don’t remember which—finally agreed to the program of a big tax cut which his economists had been pushing on him as something he really needed to do to get the economy going faster. That was agreed. It looked pretty good that was going to go through the Congress. Now this is before his assassination. Before he died, Walter Heller, in particular, one of his chief economists, had said: look, we’ve got the whole economy moving again and we’re going to get it moving again. Now we gotta look, particularly at the people who are being left behind: the poor. All of that came together in the last days of Kennedy. We’re gonna want to get started to do something. Nothing had been done yet. And Lyndon Johnson picked it up. Once he was convinced, this was probably a little bit before but my memory isn’t all that good on it, the full-blown civil rights push for the Civil Rights Act came along. But anyway, Lyndon Johnson with his background in the New Deal days and Texas had always been a big promoter of rural electrification and all the kind of the old-fashioned programs to help people who didn’t have much money, and he picked it up as his own. It had, it had a lot of parts to it, it wasn’t just one big thing. And he liked that because it meant more new legislation. And he counted new legislation like you’d count ducks that you’d shoot at a duck hunt. And he really was vigorous, and he thought of them as his children. They weren’t very big. They were just starting. In fact I kept telling him: Mr. President, worry about five years out. I mean these things are going to mount… But he was very insistent on trying to preserve as much of that as he could, and I remember fighting, trying to preserve those programs from the cuts.
Paul: About the riots and the Great Society?
|“I mean, the thing I vaguely remember was not so much that, but the kind of idiotic business: if we can send a man to the Moon, why can’t we teach people to read? Well, you know, there’s not really any connection. And it turns out sometimes it’s much more difficult to teach people to read than to send a man to the Moon.”|
Schultze: It was almost contemporaneous. My memory, which I didn’t sit down and check in terms of chronology, is that the kind of planning and initial thrust of the Great Society was in 1964, moving on in ’65, and the time of the riots was more into ’66, 7, 8. Now y’know, you’re getting so close that these things all did come together. One of the responses, not the only one, to the riots and everything. There were two different kinds of responses: one, shock. It gave some of the conservatives a big y’know lift I think on grounds that God, where is this country going? on the one hand. But on the other hand, it also led to pressure for more funding for programs to do something for people in the inner cities and the like. The net impact of it, I’m not sure, but it played on both sides. I guess more on the side of spending more money (laughs) than not.
Paul: Were the riots ever used as a justification to cut back on Apollo?
Schultze: Not that… I… no, no, I don’t see any. I don’t think so. I mean, the thing I vaguely remember was not so much that, but the kind of idiotic business: if we can send a man to the Moon, why can’t we teach people to read? Well, you know, there’s not really any connection. And it turns out sometimes it’s much more difficult to teach people to read than to send a man to the Moon. But I do remember that analogy being used where really the space program was supportive, than the other way around. But yeah, I’m sure there were people who were saying why send people to the Moon when we have all these other things to do?
Paul: Did you get pressure from liberals on Capitol Hill in that direction?
Schultze: Well not a lot, because a lot of the liberals were in states that had funding. I don’t get a sense of that thirty-some years ago. And I’m sure there might have been tinges of it around. And I may not have been above using it myself when we were trying to cut budgets, but I don’t remember that being a big thing. The Vietnam War, yes. Pentagon spending, yes. And maybe we were not going to cancel the manned lunar landing, that was obvious. The only question was the pace of it.
Paul: That memo of yours that we found, it suggests that despite the fact that the decision had already been made about getting to the Moon before 1969, there was still the feeling that this was a decision we could get out of. Your memo does suggest that. Let’s talk about the situation in August of 1967 where you recommended to the President that the Apollo program be put on hold. Why did you write the memo?
Schultze: No. I don’t agree with that. Just slow it down. I mean, I was I think I was talking about cutting a couple hundred million dollars out of a three- to four-billion-dollar program. Well, that’s not putting it on hold, but it may delay it past the end of the decade. It is obviously a whole part of a parcel of conversations and memos about where do we find 2.5 billion dollars, which again is like finding $12 or $13 billion now, which isn’t huge, but the budget was much smaller in those days. It was simply part and parcel of a whole batch of memos that must have gone to the President about, you know, you cut the Commerce Department, the Labor Department, you may even cut back on some of the—if not the poverty programs—something that maybe was close to ’em. Water resource projects, farm programs, the whole range of things. And this was just part of it. I don’t think this was something special about reconsidering the space program. It was just how do you get 2.5 billion dollars? Where can you get the money doing the least—quote—harm?—unquote. Maybe in a few cases, even [do] some good.
Paul: So in this memo laying out how to cut NASA, you said there were two alternatives.
Schultze: Where the big money was, was the space program. You could A, go after some of the follow-on programs and that, I think, I’m not sure, but I think that is in fact where a big chunk did come. Secondly, you could slow down the pace of the Moon program by a modest amount, but that might make it slip past the end of the decade, although at the time I think I made some comment, “It might happen anyway.” And thirdly, you could take it out of all the scientific and kind of unmanned part of the space program, and my preference was, since I thought the payoff there was higher, my preference was to preserve those programs as much as possible and not take as much out of those.
|The funny thing is, on the one hand, they made the lunar landing in the decade, and number two, spending funding in the year after that memo was even lower than I had wanted to cut it to.|
To be honest with you, I do not remember the menu of options that was given to the President, what he finally decided. My guess is, looking at the final numbers, it was a little bit of everything. It’s very hard to tell from the budget numbers what happened, because budget spending in fact slowed down more than I had recommended in my memo because of slippages in the program. You don’t get the rockets built that fast, and so it’s a little hard to tell just from the record without doing a lot of work exactly what kind of decisions the President made, as opposed to what natural developments were causing.
Paul: Now, in the memo you expressed the opinion “we may fail” to get to the Moon, whether we fund Apollo or not. And you said, “It would be better to abandon this goal now in the name of competing national priorities, than to give it up unwillingly a year from now because of technical problems.” Do you remember what you might have been thinking that brought you to that conclusion?
Schultze: No. None whatsoever. None whatsoever. You’d had the fire, if I remember, and that slowed things down. That might have been part of it. But no, I do not remember. The funny thing is, on the one hand, they made the lunar landing in the decade, and number two, spending funding in the year after that memo was even lower than I had wanted to cut it to.
So all of that happened, and we still got to the Moon in the decade. So you can see how good a forecaster I was.
Paul: We all tend to look at the Apollo 11 landing as a fait accompli. But if the President had listened to you on this, it wouldn’t have happened.
Schultze: I doubt it. They may have been—who knows?—if we hadn’t gotten there in ’69, we would have gotten there in ’70. If we hadn’t gotten there in ’70, we would have gotten there in ’71. As I say, in fact, whatever was goin’ on, the program was delayed enough so that the spending was even less than I had recommended in fact. So, it’s a little hard to tell what would have happened. You’re dealing, again with a couple hundred million out of a 3.5-billion-dollar budget. So it wasn’t life or death.
Paul: Tell me again that story you told me about the night you watched Apollo 11 land on the Moon.
Schultze: Well either then, or shortly thereafter, it ran through my head well, maybe I’d been wrong in the sense that it’s not gonna give us much scientific knowledge, you get some rocks back from the Moon. But you do it on a per capita basis, and as an entertainment tax it’s a great entertainment. You get not only the Moon landing itself, but you got all those initial, you know, the first shot around the Earth, Glenn, all of that business. And then you get—I don’t remember how many—four or five moon landings and eh, as an entertainment tax, per capita, it wasn’t bad. I think I re-did the numbers just recently, since you and I first talked, and it gets to be a pretty high bill (laughs) if you do it in today’s prices. But, in any event, looked at as entertainment, it sure did have its entertainment value.
“Washington Goes to the Moon“ was sponsored in part by the National Science Foundation, NASA, WAMU FM, WABE FM, and the Morehouse School of Medicine. You can listen to parts 1 and 2 for free here.
Note: we are temporarily moderating all comments submitted to deal with a surge in spam.