The Dawn of the Space Shuttle

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    President Richard M. Nixon and Dr. James C. Fletcher, NASA Administrator, discuss the proposed Space Shuttle vehicle in San Clemente, California, on January 5, 1972.

    Endowed with the stunning success of the Apollo program, yet faced with the exorbitant costs of NASA, President Nixon considered a space policy shift in the second year of his presidency. On March 7, 1970, President Nixon made public his intention to redirect the NASA vision. He released a statement (link) that divulged his administration’s approach to continuing space exploration and research efforts at a more manageable cost to the nation.

    We must think of [space activities] as part of a continuing process… and not as a series of separate leaps, each requiring a massive concentration of energy. Space expenditures must take their proper place within a rigorous system of national priorities. … What we do in space from here on in must become a normal and regular part of our national life and must therefore be planned in conjunction with all of the other undertakings which are important to us.

    President Nixon was not necessarily paring down the efforts of the nation’s space program, but rather attempting to instill a withstanding national paradigm. It was his hope that space exploration would become a component of national priorities, in line with the nation’s many domestic programs and as a result a staple of American government. It would compete, along with other national programs, for the government’s limited resources.

    President Nixon’s aim to reprioritize this “massive concentration” of energy given to NASA began when he created the Space Task Group to study the future possibilities of the space program in February of 1969. After several months of examination, the Space Task Group sent the Nixon administration their recommendations in October.

    One of the principle recommendations forwarded by the Space Task Group included developing “low-cost, flexible, long-lived, highly reliable, operational space systems with a high degree of commonality and reusability.” In other words, NASA should be tasked with constructing something along the lines of a reusable shuttle.

    The unveiling of the space shuttle program became reality at the beginning of President Nixon’s iconic year of 1972. On January 5, RN met with Dr. James C. Fletcher, NASA Administrator, to discuss the proposed space shuttle vehicle.

    Shortly after the meeting, the President issued a statement announcing the commencement of the Shuttle Program, closing the book on the Apollo program and opening another for the future of space exploration.

    This new program will give more people more access to the liberating perspectives of space, even as it extends our ability to cope with physical challenges of Earth and broadens our opportunities for international cooperation in low-cost, multi-purpose space missions.

    On December 19, 1972, Apollo 17 reentered Earth’s atmosphere, marking an end to the prestigious and largely successful Apollo program. President Nixon shared a message with the American people about the future of the space program assuring that “the making of space history would continue,” albeit at a more steady and economically viable pace.

    President Nixon described the possibilities the space shuttle would bring:

    Economy in space will be further served by the Space Shuttle, which is presently under development. It will enable us to ferry space research hardware into orbit without requiring the full expenditure of a launch vehicle as is necessary today. It will permit us to place that hardware in space accurately, and to service or retrieve it when necessary instead of simply writing it off in the event it malfunctions or fails. In addition, the Shuttle will provide such routine access to space that for the first time personnel other than trained astronauts will be able to participate and contribute in space as will nations once excluded for economic reasons.

    The Space Shuttle program, retired in 2011, continued for 39 years–the longest yet program launched by NASA. It produced 135 total flights and countless cutting-edge research missions. It is safe to say that space travel and exploration as we know it today was a result of President Nixon’s decision to economize the American space program in 1972.

      Nixon: Congressman Bush to be U.S. Representative to United Nations

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        Congressman Bush, President Nixon, and Ambassador Yost at President’s Announcement Dec. 11, 1970

        At noon on December 11, 1970, President Nixon announced at the White House that Congressman George H.W. Bush would receive his nomination to succeed Charles Yost as the US Ambassador to the United Nations. Congressman Bush, who was then fresh off an unsuccessful bid for the Senate, caught the President’s eye during his two terms in the House as a result of his hard work, personal sacrifices, and his superb business and international experience.

        President Nixon was confident that Bush would be a perfect fit in his cabinet and would represent a clear extension of his foreign policy initiatives, particularly in peacekeeping and the environment.

        “His distinguished service in the House, his years of experience before that in activities in private enterprise, which took him abroad to many countries, and, most important, his enormous interest in the United Nations, his support of the United Nations and its objectives, not only its peacekeeping objectives, but also its objectives in the field of the environment and all of the others that will be so exciting in the next decade–these are the qualities that led us to the conclusion that he was the best man who could now go to this very important post.”

        (See President Nixon’s full December 11th 1970 address here)

        Bush’s first major UN vote as USUN Representative was the China representation vote, which was to transfer China’s UN representation to the People’s Republic of China from Taiwan. Although the outcome of the vote was against the position of the United States, Ambassador Bush was as dedicated as his President to improving relations with Mainland China.

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        President Nixon with Ambassador Bush (left) and Secretary of State William Rogers

        Bush would continue to carry on Nixon’s China initiatives after the letter’s resignation, serving as the Chief of the U.S. Liaison Office to the PRC from 1974-1975. He would also oversee contentious political battles over China’s trade status with the U.S. during his own Presidential Administration nearly 20 years later. Bush also worked closely with the newly appointed Secretary General Kurt Waldheim who would go on to serve in that capacity for 10 years.

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        After Ambassador Bush’s Swearing in Ceremony on Feb. 26, 1971. Justice Potter Stewart performed the ceremony while future First Lady Barbara Bush held the family bible.

          On This Day: William Rehnquist and Lewis Powell Confirmed as Associate Justices of the Supreme Court

            L-R, unidentified family members, Lewis Powell, President Nixon, William Rehnquist

            President Nixon presents Lewis Powell (shown on the left of RN) and William Rehnquist (on right of RN) framed gifts recognizing their confirmation as Supreme Court Justices. (December 22, 1971)

            On December 10 1971, following intense scrutiny by the legislative and executive branches of the Federal Government, the Senate confirmed President Nixon’s nominations of William Rehnquist and Lewis Powell as Associate Justices of the Supreme Court, thus completing the President’s unprecedented duty of filling four vacant Supreme Court seats during a single presidency.

            On September 17, the retirement of two Supreme Court Justices, Hugo Black and John M. Harlan was announced. The selection of the next two Justices caused some political stir. The American Bar Association, captured by an ideologically liberal leaning bloc, put forth possible candidates aimed at countering potential Nixon nominations. However, President Nixon came up with Lewis Powell, a 64 year-old Georgia Democrat and former president of the ABA, and the much younger 47 year-old Assistant Attorney General William Rehnquist as likely nominees. Both nominees were both relatively conservative in that they followed the same lines of President Nixon’s constitutional philosophy, but there was no credible opposition to them nor were their resumes exceptionable. The Senate confirmed Powell by a margin of 89-1 and Rehnquist by a margin of 68-26. Both went on to serve as distinguished Supreme Court Justices.

            Below are President Nixon’s biographies of both candidates when he announced their nomination on October 21 of the same year:

            LEWIS F. POWELL, JR.

            Everything that Lewis F. Powell has undertaken he has accomplished with distinction and honor, both as a lawyer and as a citizen. Excellence has marked his career since his days as a student at Washington and Lee, where he was Phi Beta Kappa and first in his class at law school. He has practiced law in Richmond since 1931, except for 4 years of distinguished service during World War II.

            In his unique legal career he has received virtually every honor the legal profession can bestow upon him. He has been president of the American College of Trial Lawyers, president of the American Bar Foundation, president of the American Bar Association. In that latter role he provided leadership in the provision of legal services for the needy and for the revision of the standards for administration of criminal justice.

            Lewis Powell is from Virginia. But like another great Virginian, Chief Justice Marshall, Lewis Powell is recognized by his legal colleagues throughout the Nation as being a man who represents not just Virginia and the South–he is first and foremost a very great American.


            William Rehnquist has been outstanding in every intellectual endeavor he has undertaken. He was graduated from Stanford University Phi Beta Kappa, 1948. He graduated first in his class from the Stanford University Law School in 1952. And then he was awarded one of the highest honors a law graduate can achieve: He was chosen as law clerk for Mr. Justice Robert Jackson, one of the most outstanding members of the Supreme Court in the past half-century.

            In this position, he acted as legal assistant to the Justice, and his duties included legal research of the highest order.

            Upon leaving the Court, Mr. Rehnquist engaged in the general practice of law for 16 years in Phoenix, Arizona, until 1969, when I appointed him Assistant Attorney General, office of Legal Counsel.

            Now, that is a very technical name. Let me tell you what it means. The Legal Counsel has a very special function in the Department of Justice, serving as the chief interpreter, for the whole Government, of the Constitution and the statutes of the United States. He is, in effect, the President’s lawyer’s lawyer.

            I was a member of a major New York law firm, a senior partner. I have had the opportunity both in Government and in private practice to know the top lawyers in this country, and, as a matter of fact, some of the top lawyers in the world, and I would rate William Rehnquist as having one of the finest legal minds in this whole Nation today.

            He has discharged his responsibility in his capacity as the President’s lawyer’s lawyer with such great distinction that, among the thousands of able lawyers who serve in the Federal Government, he rates at the very top as a constitutional lawyer and as a legal scholar.

            Lewis Powell. William Rehnquist. Those are names you will remember, because they will add distinction and excellence in the highest degree to the Supreme Court of the United States.

            President Nixon poses with newly confirmed Supreme Court Justice William Rehnquist and his family, as his daughter displays his certificate of commission to the Court

            President Nixon poses with the Rehnquist family. The appointment of William Rehnquist became one of RN’s longest lasting legacies, as the Supreme Court Justice served until his death in 2005. 

            Former Associate Deputy Attorney General Wallace Johnson discusses President Nixon’s selection of William Rehnquist and Lewis Powell below:

              12.9.60 – National Football Foundation Hall of Fame Dinner

                RN Hall of Fame

                President Nixon receives the National Football Foundation’s Gold Medal Award and speaks of his love for the game of football on its 100th anniversary. (December 9, 1969)

                On the 100th anniversary of American football, President Nixon was awarded the National Football Foundation’s Gold Medal, the highest individual award bestowed by the Foundation in recognition of outstanding Americans who have contributed significantly to the sport of college football and country. Though President Nixon was neither a standout or starter on his college football team of Whittier, there was no greater fan than Richard Nixon.

                I can only say that as far as this award is concerned, that it is certainly a small step for the National Football Foundation and a small step for football, but it is a giant leap for a man who never even made the team at Whittier.

                To President Nixon, football meant far more than entertainment–he credits his time playing high school and college football as a time that instilled in him a “competitive spirit and determination to come back after you have been knocked down or after you lose.” His coach in college at Whittier, Wallace Newman, particularly made a strong impression on the future Commander-in-Chief. More than anything the “Chief,”–as players referred to him–a proud American Indian, taught RN that character above all else is what truly matters.

                “He was a perfectly remarkable man and a great leader,” recalled the President in front of a dinner audience at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York City. “I learned more from him about life really than I did about football, but a little about football.”

                Football, above all else, shaped RN’s character, especially his political resiliency.

                RN recognized the great players, coaches and teams that stretched his memory–Bud Wilkinson, Ernie Nevers, the great college football programs of Ohio State, Notre Dame, Southern California, among others–and shared his fondest memories of pivotal games. He also recognized the great passion that football bred among all types of people, most notably so whom who thought were the three great presidents of the 20th century. Woodrow Wilson, the tremendous scholar; Theodore Roosevelt, the extrovert, writer, explorer; and Dwight Eisenhower, the great general–they all had one thing in common, and that was the love of football.

                What does this mean, this common interest in football of Presidents, of leaders, of people generally? It means a competitive spirit. It means, also, to me, the ability and the determination to be able to lose and then come back and try again, to sit on the bench and then come back• It means basically the character, the drive, the pride, the teamwork, the feeling of being in a cause bigger than yourself.

                RN’s handwritten notes for his remarks can be viewed below:

                  45 Years Ago: Nixon Appoints Youth Liaison

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                    President Nixon with Stephen Hess in the Oval Office

                    December 5, 1969: “Once each decade, since the days of Theodore Roosevelt, the President of the United States calls together a large and representative body of his fellow citizens to assess the present circumstances and future prospects of the Nation’s Children and Youth.”

                    45 years ago today, President Richard Nixon delivered his long anticipated announcement of who he would appoint as chairman of the White House Conference on Children and Youth (WHCCY). By the time Nixon took office in 1969, the youth of the nation had been at loggerheads with the government in particular for some time concerning the some of the policies of Nixon’s predecessors, mainly Vietnam. The new Chairman of the WHCCY would have the challenging task of repairing the worn relationship between the new Administration and America’s young people while ensuring that America’s children could grow up in a healthy and productive social environment. The WHCCY would have to deal with issues including: “family planning, pornography, health services, school curricula, sex education, family structure, drug abuse, moral standards, governance of higher education, and the responsiveness of government.”

                    The role of Chairman, Nixon announced, would belong to Stephen Hess, a well proven and longtime White House staffer and aide who had been with RN since his Vice Presidential days in the Eisenhower Administration.

                    “I have asked Mr. Hess to listen well to the voices of young America—in the universities, on the farms, the assembly lines, the street corners. I have known Steve Hess a long time, and I know him to be a good listener.”

                    Mr. Hess is now a senior fellow emeritus in the Governance Studies program at the Brookings Institution. He studies media, the U.S. presidency, political dynasties and the U.S. government.

                    On January 9th, the Richard Nixon Foundation will host a wreath laying ceremony in honor of President Nixon’s 102nd birthday. Mr. Hess will be the featured speaker and will discuss his new book, The Professor and the President: Daniel Patrick Moynihan in the Nixon White House. Hess brings the unique perspective of working for both President Nixon and his top urban affairs advisor Daniel Patrick Moynihan to tell how the two men put partisan politics aside to bring reform to the federal government.

                    President Nixon’s birthday on January 9th is also a free admission day at the Nixon Library.

                    (See Nixon’s full December 5, 1969 announcement here)


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