How Jim Fulton Saved the Space Shuttle



Near a shaded street that winds through Mount Lebanon Cemetery in Pittsburg lay the grave of an Allegheny County native. More than a century ago, on March 1, 1903, James Grove Fulton was born in Allegheny County. Mr. Fulton distinguished himself as a fourteen-term member of the U.S. House of Representatives, winning his first election while still in the Naval Reserve, in 1944. A lawyer by training, Mr. Fulton came to be intrigued by science, and in particular manned spaceflight. While in Congress, he also served in the U.S. delegation to the United Nations from 1960 to 1969 as an advisor on space.

Across his nearly 30 years in the Congress, Jim Fulton was a member of the Republican minority, but still passed many laws and was a popular member of the Pennsylvania delegation. But among his many achievements is one you might not remember.

Because, you see, James Grove Fulton saved the Space Shuttle. And therein lies a story of politics and compromise.

It begins in the year after Richard Nixon became the 37th President of the United States. Nixon had ordered a massive study of the future of the U.S. space program. The document was completed in the fall of 1969 and called for a reinvigorated space effort, with manned space stations in Earth and lunar orbit, and the preparation for a manned landing on Mars. All of these advanced missions would be supported by a chemical Space Shuttle flying from Earth to orbit, and a nuclear Shuttle hauling payloads into cislunar space-and beyond.

The plan had nearly everything imaginable-except for one thing. Presidential support. In fact, it also lacked Presidential interest.

Nixon ignored the report until the spring of 1970. Then, he basically said it was no longer affordable to mount Apollo-style space spectaculars – and that human space flight had to fit within the boundaries of existing federal spending limits. And, above all, it must be focused on practical applications that could help people, first and foremost.

Translation? Forget the Moon and Mars, too. Start thinking closer to home.

NASA interpreted this to mean lowering the cost of access to space, and perhaps a manned space station in low orbit. If a logistics supply craft could be created to service such a facility, then research could be conducted that might eventually make it possible to attempt Mars missions-when the political climate shifted, as the agency surely hoped it would.

So Phase A and B study contracts were let for a space station, and a Phase A study for a reusable launch vehicle. At the same time, Congress itself sought to define the future of manned spaceflight as the Apollo landings, themselves curtailed, were winding down.

In the spring of 1970, the House of Representatives Manned Spaceflight Subcommittee sought to bolster the anemic administration request for NASA by a budget boost. It recommended to the full Committee on Science and Astronautics a whopping increase to the manned effort, nearly all for what members then called a "recoverable craft" and a space station. This set in motion a showdown with the full committee, and ultimately for the full House, on what character of manned effort would proceed. The focus was the mark-up for the FY71 NASA Authorization bill.

There, supporters of the reusable logistics vehicle outlined in Nixon's study were hoping to move the concept forward in a big way. If, on the other hand, the project failed to get support for the upcoming Fiscal Year, it would mean the future of manned flight after Apollo and Skylab would most likely end, with resources being shifted to unmanned robotic probes. If critics succeeded in stripping funding for the project (called by NASA a "Space Shuttle"), it would be increasingly difficult - if not impossible - to prevail later. And with the Nixon Administration still uncertain as to the importance it might place on a Shuttle, defeat would make it less likely that Nixon would embrace the idea as his own manned space goal.

Thus, much was riding on the 1971 NASA budget.

Rep. Joseph Karth (D-MN) was the third ranking member of the full committee. Rep. George Miller (D-CA.) was its chair. Rep. Olin E. ‘Tiger' Teague (D-TX) was chair of the Manned Flight Subcommittee. Rep. James Fulton was its ranking Republican. In the spring of 1970 Fulton was recovering from a heart attack and was often missing from early discussions about the shape of the budget, although he was also senior Republican on the full science committee. Many Democrats were grateful for Fulton's intense support for NASA programs, although he often succeeded in irritating some of them with endless questions and advocacy.

Fulton believed a Space Shuttle was crucial if manned flight beyond Apollo were to continue. Karth, by contrast, was a voracious critic of manned spaceflight, and in particular took a dim view of all of the talk about recoverable craft, space stations, and especially Mars missions.

Karth in particular was suspicious of NASA's claims for the cost of its programs. For projections of robotic missions, Karth once referred to such projections as "asinine". "NASA must consider members of Congress stupid idiots," he blasted.

Development of a Space Shuttle was unneeded, and the cost projections "totally unrealistic", Karth predicted. Teague's subcommittee had added $80 million directly for acceleration of Space Shuttle studies, and a total $300 million for advanced Shuttle prototypes, testing, and additional funding for manned space-related infrastructure. The debate began.

Karth told the full science committee that he would support funds for the remaining Apollo missions 16 and 17 but not for the Space Shuttle. He worried aloud that by pushing to start developmental work on the Shuttle before final designs or configurations were selected, Congress would be locked into the need for providing ever larger amounts as the Shuttle took shape.

Rep. Don Fuqua (D-FLA) shot back defending the Teague recommendations. "We're trying to get the best for our space dollar," Fuqua said. The nation needed the reusable capability that the Shuttle offered; and thereby should fund the Shuttle now. But others also objected to the increases.

Some said the $300 million added was too much. "This program is losing romance with the American people," said Rep. Thomas Downing (D-VA). But Teague backed his budget and the need for the Shuttle.

Teague called Nixon's budget for NASA and his indecision on the Shuttle as being "too little". At that time, the White House Bureau of the Budget was also battling NASA over funding to start the Shuttle project. Teague took a dim view of the B0B (predecessor to the Office of Management and Budget - OMB) role in restricting NASA. "I'll bet you this subcommittee of mine knows more about this program than the Bureau of the Budget does!," he told the full committee. The committee voted, and narrowly endorsed Teague's Shuttle increases.

But Karth's anti-Shuttle alternate budget became the official minority position, as the House Appropriations Committee moved the bill to the House floor for debate. Karth had three Democrats supporting his alternative, and three Republicans all from the committee. This bi-partisan split and the narrow passage of Teague's increases gave Shuttle critics hope that they could craft a coalition to kill the Shuttle on the House floor. But to defeat the Shuttle once and for all, Karth would need to rely upon conservative Republicans to an unusual degree.

Although Fulton had come to strongly believe in starting the Shuttle, his support for it might be meaningless. After his heart attack, his recovery made it unlikely that he would even be present for the vote on the floor - much less lobby other members for its passage.

With Fulton likely to be missing, the Republicans (in the minority) would manage their efforts through Rep. Charles Mosher (R-OH). Mosher was deeply troubled by the increases to federal spending. The $300 million proposed by Teague's subcommittee and adopted by the full science committee was too much for him to support. Mosher went to see Minority Leader Gerald R. Ford (R-MI). Ford had little love for the Shuttle idea as well, and was also concerned about the big increase. If Nixon wanted the Shuttle, why didn't he say so? And if Nixon would accept the increases, he should day that, too. Instead, the White House was still silent on what kind of space program it envisioned after Apollo.

Together, Ford and Mosher agreed to support cutting the Shuttle funds from the NASA bill when it got to the House floor. In essence, they would join forces with Karth, who was also planning a move of his own.

Mosher called together his supporters- Reps. Roudebush, Winn, Frey, and Price. Had Fulton been present, an anti-Shuttle coalition would have been much harder to assemble among the Republicans. But in his absence, Mosher thought the cuts would stand. The final debate began on April 23, 1970, less than two weeks after the crippled Apollo 13 had returned from the Moon.

Chairman Miller rose to defend his requests for NASA increases for the proposed Shuttle project. "The key to success for the nation's future space effort lies in the development of a low-cost recoverable and reusable space transportation system," Miller told the House. "The Space Shuttle will dramatically reduce the cost of putting people and cargo into space."

Mosher rose to attack the increases. He expressed dismay that manned spaceflight was getting so large a budget boost beyond the administration's request, and in light of the reductions being made to robotic space missions.

Karth now rose and proposed a substitute. He would fund the Shuttle at a study level only. His amendment would strip out $240 million of Teague's increases, and cut another $50 million from manned spaceflight and another $110 million from Nixon's NASA request. If it passed, there would be no manned space flight after Skylab.

Karth also suggested that in effect funding for the Shuttle in the 1971 Fiscal Year was the opening gambit in a NASA effort to override Nixon and get support for a manned Mars mission. "This mission to Mars will cost $50 to $100 billion before its over," Karth said. The Shuttle was but a down payment on the idea. Even the space station could only be justified by its role in planning more advanced manned missions. And he was against that, too.

Fuqua had heard enough. "I am puzzled by the statement that the Shuttle is in some way mixed up with the Mars landing," he said, looking in Karth's direction. Other Shuttle advocates rose to suggest that mentioning Mars were just an attempt to blunt the arguments for the Shuttle's abilities as a logistics vehicle. By attaching the Shuttle to Mars-and even to a space station- the project might be killed outright. Both Mars and the space station were highly unpopular topics in Congress in the spring of 1970.

These arguments continued, right up to the roll call. In 1970, there were no provisions for electronic voting. Members had to stand in lines, one for or one against. One line was to vote for the Karth amendment, killing Shuttle funding. The other was against – i.e. for the Shuttle

But the battle wasn't yet over. Several members continued to argue over the Shuttle's true purpose as they lined up to vote. Confusion broke out, with some members saying later they thought they were in line to vote to kill the Shuttle, not the Karth amendment. The chair called the total- a 53-53 tie. Under the rules, the proposed amendment failed.

But now, under the House rules, the Republicans could offer to recommit the bill. Mosher was ready to do so, but he had a compromise of his own. He would attach Karth's budget ceiling to the bill, effectively stripping the Shuttle, again, from the NASA FY71 budget. As the ranking Republican on the full committee present with Fulton gone, Mosher would have the last chance to stop Shuttle funding.

But, suddenly, word was flashed to Ford: An ambulance had pulled up to the House chamber, and out came James Fulton. He had known what Mosher was up to all along, and now his aides had tipped him off that Karth's anti-Shuttle move had been narrowly defeated-and was going to prevail if the Republicans joined the liberal Democrats in backing Mosher's budget cut. A visibly weakened Fulton now came onto the House floor.

Silence fell on the chamber, as both Mosher and Fulton turned to Ford. Ford had agreed to support Mosher's cuts, but Fulton was the ranking senior Republican on the full committee.

Fulton huddled with of all people Teague. After a time, he rose and addressed the chair. Fulton had a compromise of his own to suggest. He would move to recommit the NASA bill, but with a $30 million cut to spaceflight operations, not the Shuttle. It would show his fellow Republicans he, too, was concerned about federal spending. But it would allow the full Shuttle funding to proceed.

Which would prevail?

Ford now huddled with chairman Miller. They then announced that Fulton's amendment would be the one introduced-and that Miller now embraced it and not his original bill. A voice vote was quickly called, before the ailing Fulton was forced from the floor. It passed easily, given that seniority was everything to Republicans. And word now spread that Nixon, while still undecided on the Shuttle, would not object to the extra NASA funds.

The House then voted for the entire NASA bill, passing it by the surprisingly close 229-105. Karth and Mosher both wound up voting against the NASA budget after all. In the end, it was Fulton's seniority, not direct support for the Space Shuttle that had saved the day.

The Shuttle survived, but would face additional tests in 1971. In the end, a political coalition would be formed by Teague that pushed the Shuttle through in 1971. Among those would be abandonment of a fully reusable booster, and deferral of the space station that the Shuttle was supposed to service.

The lesson of the 1970 House battle for the Shuttle was that a new coalition would be needed early in the new year. On January 28, 1971-some 15 years to the day before the Challenger accident- Teague would assemble every major space lobbyist in Washington in what would be called "the Shuttle dinner". There strategy was started for the Shuttle's defense in the year ahead.

But the man who saved the Space Shuttle was missing from much of that debate. On October 6, 1971 18 months after the penultimate floor battle over the "recoverable craft" that Fulton dreamed of, the man from Pennsylvania died.

Why did they all care so much? The Shuttle, many if not most of its earliest supporters believed, would induce permanence into NASA's manned space program. Out of its lower costs and greater logistics, many more users of space could be fashioned. Not just NASA, but the military, civil, and commercial space users would benefit.

It would lay down a logistics framework for future manned flight, where Apollo had left little to build upon not related to lunar exploration. But the compromises that would be needed to secure its future would come, eventually, with a heavy price.

In the more than three decades that have passed since the spring of 1970, the Space Shuttle era that has transpired was far different than what its Congressional proponents expected. It was not the cheap access to space that they sought, nor was it the progenitor of a new era of commercial space. In the end, it failed most of the tests originally set for its operations.

But what it did achieve that Tiger Teague, Jim Fulton, Don Fuqua and their colleagues had hoped for was a first generation effort at reusability. At the heart of their support for the Space Shuttle concept was a belief that manned spaceflight, to survive in the climate of the 1970s, had to expand beyond NASA to other users, and open up space to new opportunities for exploitation.

While most, but not all, supported Apollo in its time, those who came to support the Space Shuttle, like Fulton as well as eventually Karth and even Pastore in the Senate did so because they felt the Shuttle would be used by more than just NASA, and that within its huge payload bay could be established footholds in new research that would offer humanity the first real and direct benefits from space. Reusability when added to what they all called in their time a "recoverable craft" would bring medical and scientific experiments on a scale that space capsules could never sustain.

While Teague and Fuqua would see many benefits to their home states of Texas and Florida from Space Shuttle flights, Fulton of Pennsylvania and Pastore of Rhode Island never saw much in the way of Shuttle related jobs or direct benefits. But they and many others in the 88th Congress had vision and a sense of national purpose. One can only hope that those who come after them may find, in the post-Columbia era, something akin to the same sense of stewardship.

In all of the state of Pennsylvania there are no monuments to the Space Shuttle, or to NASA, or to manned spaceflight. Except, in one sense, maybe just one. In Mount Lebanon Cemetery, that marks the resting place of the man who saved the Space Shuttle.

Author's note:

Quotations in this article were obtained from a draft of Rep. Ken Hechler's memoirs published as a House Committee Print in 1980 and later, in edited form, as a volume in the AAS History Series. The preprint draft was obtained from Jim Wilson, former staff director for Teague's Manned Spaceflight Subcommittee from 1963 to 1978. Many thanks, Jim, for your hours of explaining this history to me back in 1990, 1991 and 1992. May your labors finally bear fruit.

Copyright 2003 by Frank Sietzen, Jr. All Rights Reserved. The views expressed here are the author's own and are not to be associated with any other person or organization. Reprinted with permission exclusively on

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